Chapter 93 - Banner Raid

After eleven days of hard training, the Snow Lions were ready.  It had been almost a month of living out in the caves, and though they had no intentions of leaving the gorge and returning to their tower anytime soon, they still wanted their weekends in the capital back.

And they wanted revenge on the Deathbringers.  Revenge motivated some of the Snow Lions even more than the prospect of spending time in the city.  Henry and Charles were not among those people, as they were far more interested in the capital than in revenge.  Leon had watched with some concern as they, and several others to a lesser extent, started going stir-crazy after having been cooped up in those caves for so long.

“It’s fuckin’ time.  Let’s do this.  Break those damned Deathbringers.  Bring fuckin’ death to them, then find some ladies in the capital,” muttered a frustrated Henry.

His words fell into the ears of an agreeable Charles.  “Absolutely.  Get our fuckin’ banner back, then get back to the city.  Haven’t seen Jeanne in almost a month.  Think I might kill any Deathbringers in my way…”

“Don’t go too overboard,” said Leon.  “I want this done quickly and quietly.  Emphasis on quietly.  All we need to do is stun any Deathbringers on the first floor, grab both banners, then leave.  Easy as that.”

“Assuming the banners are even still there,” Hostilius cynically whispered a dozen or so feet away.

“Yes, assuming the banners are still there.  I’m guessing they are.  Not like they’ve been given any reason to move the banners so far,” responded Leon, making Hostilius look away with a frown.

“Let’s get this done.  I’m sick of being stuck in this damned gorge,” complained Henry.  And he was in luck because not even five minutes later, Leon was joined at the front of the trainees by Castor and Alphonsus, both of whom looked absolutely ready and willing to seize back their banner.

“ARE YOU ALL READY?!” shouted Castor to the assembled unit.

“Fuck yes!”

“Yeah!”

“We’re going to gut those bastards!”

Encouraged by the shouts of support from the first-tier trainees, Castor kept going.

“THOSE DEATHBRINGERS HUMILIATED US AND STOLE OUR BANNER!  LET’S GO DO THE SAME TO THEM!”  He didn’t intend to keep it short, but he did anyway—mostly because he could tell that despite his words working up the first-tier trainees, not only were Leon and Alphonsus silently staring at the back of his head but the response from the second-tier trainees was significantly more subdued.  He cut himself off just as he got going with a faintly embarrassed “FOLLOW ME!” and turned around to lead the Snow Lions out of the gorge.

The three Instructors stoically watched from the top of the gorge.  They wouldn’t interfere in the coming battle, but they would stick to the Snow Lions like a shadow and watch.

The second-tier trainees quickly dispersed among the first-tier trainees, wrangling them into something that resembled a marching formation.  They moved through the forest in two columns, with the second-tier trainees making sure they were kept staggered from each other.  The second-tier trainees also made damn sure to keep everyone quiet, to ensure they remained undetected as they approached their target.

The Snow Lions had set off just after the sun set and the Deathbringers’ tower was only a few miles away.  Consequently, they arrived much earlier than they had planned, so the third-tier trainees had them stop and wait about a quarter mile into the forest.  Leon took his squad and moved forward far enough to see the door to the tower, but he advanced no further, sticking to the shadows of the forest.

After several more hours of the Snow Lions almost obsessively checking and re-checking their weapons and armor to pass the time, the final light in the tower’s windows went out and Leon sent Alain back to report to Castor.

As soon as he received the message, Castor got everyone on their feet and moving.  They rapidly approached the Deathbringers’ tower, but Castor held them up at the tree line.  The Snow Lions were still well concealed there, only a couple hundred feet from the tower; plenty close enough for the entire unit to sprint there in less than a minute.

Leon had already set out.  He and his entire squad were huddled around the door, testing to see if they could open it.  To his pleasant surprise, Leon found that he could push it open with no problems; the Deathbringers had neglected to lock their front door.

This didn’t surprise Leon.  The Snow Lions had been missing for weeks and none of the other units had started to fight in earnest, so the Deathbringers had probably felt there was no need to lock the doors.  Plus, the locks on the front door of the towers were deliberately terrible.  The Knight Academy administrators wanted those locks to slow down potential attackers rather than keep them out entirely.  Had the door been properly secured, Leon still could’ve opened it, but he would’ve had to do so in a way that would alert the entire tower.

The locks on the bedrooms were the real deal though.  Since the bedrooms were where the trainees would store their personal items, they were required to have robust locks.

Leon waved to Castor from the open door and silently led his squad inside to secure the entrance hallway.  Castor and rest of the Snow Lions emerged from the tree line and sprinted as quietly as they could to the open door.

From there, the squads proceeded without talking.  They had practiced this half a dozen times in their own tower over the past week and a half, so they were all well aware of exactly what they had to do.  It had been correctly assumed that the Deathbringers would feel secure enough to leave their bedrooms unlocked, and four squads split up into eight teams to seize the first floor of the tower.

Ideally, the Snow Lions wouldn’t have to go further than that.  They could just leave the rest of the tower sleeping in blissful ignorance after stealing the banners, but both Leon and Castor felt that it was necessary to stun the already-sleeping Deathbringers on the first floor to keep them from waking up during their raid.

There were a few Deathbringers who were still awake when the Snow Lions’ raid began.  There were only two or three on the first floor, though.  One rather diligent Deathbringer was silently meditating on his bed when the door to his bedroom opened.

The Deathbringer opened his eyes in surprise; everyone who slept in his room was already in bed, there shouldn’t be anyone else who needed to open the door.  What he found were five Snow Lions spilling into his bedroom.  His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to shout, but the first Snow Lion who entered was the second-tier Hostilius who reacted far quicker than the Deathbringer did.  Hostilius lunged forward with his already-drawn blade and stabbed the Deathbringer in the center of the torso, directly under the sternum.

The Deathbringer fell back into his bed, silent and unconscious.  His body did make a little noise as it hit the mattress, but the rest of Hostilius’ team had already used their own training blades to ensure that the other Deathbringers wouldn’t stir.

Similar scenes were playing out in the seven other bedrooms on the first floor of the tower, and half of the Deathbringers’ first-tier trainees were stunned into unconsciousness less than five minutes after Leon opened the door.

Leon himself led his squad into the first-tier common room alongside the other six squads.  Upon seeing the room devoid of other life and both banners in the shrine, most of the Snow Lions couldn’t help but smile.  A few of them even had to stifle their own cries of excitement.

The second-tier mages wrangled the first-tier trainees together to get into their planned positions.  Two squads of their best archers—one led by Obellius—faced the stairs and knelt, nocking an arrow at the same time.  Anyone who appeared at the foot of the stairs would be in for a bad time.  Three more squads were right behind them with swords drawn, ready to push past and engage anyone who might hypothetically get past the arrow barrage, with both Leon and Alphonsus keeping an eye on one of the two stairways.

Castor, meanwhile, went to work getting the banners out of the shrine.  Aemilius, being the standard-bearer for the Snow Lions, had the most experience with this so he helped—or rather, he did most of the work.  However, after having trouble extracting the Snow Lions’ banner from its shrine during their own assault, Linus had taken the time to learn exactly how to operate the contraptions that held it in place.  He’d gotten so good at it that despite the Snow Lions having no trouble extracting their own barely secured banner from the bottom of the shrine, the Deathbringers’ banner proved much trickier.

It took a little elbow grease, but Aemilius and Castor started opening the locks in the shrine’s dome, loosening the banner.  Like the locks on the front doors, these were only meant to slow down an attacker rather than keep them out completely.  However, just as the two Snow Lions undid the sixth out of twelve locks, every magic lantern in the tower turned on as bright as they were capable of and the shrine itself sent a high-pitched whistle through the entire tower.

“Shit,” muttered Leon.  His sentiment was shared among the other Snow Lions, all of whom knew that they had tripped some kind of alarm.

“We need to hurry it up, we’re down to minutes here,” said Castor.  He was absolutely correct, the alarm sound from the shrine had died down after five seconds, but it—combined with the sudden extremely bright lights—had woken the entire tower.  After only fifteen seconds, the third-tier Snow Lions could hear some of the Deathbringers start getting up to investigate what had just happened.

“Castor?” Leon whispered.

“Just a few more…” answered Castor.

“… from downstairs…”  The Snow Lions could hear the Deathbringers from the second floor walking to the stairs.  It hadn’t been enough time for them to don their armor, but they were almost certainly armed with their training weapons.

About ten seconds later, the first awake Deathbringer stepped out from the stairs and was immediately stunned by an arrow to the chest, courtesy of Obellius.

“Good shot,” Leon said.

“Thanks,” Obellius said back.  They weren’t too bothered with whispering anymore, since as soon as the arrow found it’s mark, one of the Deathbringers further up the stairs paled and reeled back in surprise.  As soon as he scurried past the turn in the stairs, he started shouting about the tower being under attack by the Snow Lions.

Fortunately, that was also the moment that the Deathbringers’ banner finally came loose.

“Got it!” shouted Castor, grabbing the banner while Aemilius secured their own banner on his back.  “We’re leaving!”

Immediately, Leon and Alphonsus ran forward to block anyone from coming down the stairs while the rest of the Snow Lions ran past them back into the entrance hall.

Less than a minute later, two second-tier Deathbringers appeared at the top of each stairway and made eye contact with Leon and Alphonsus.  Leon smiled and raised his training sword in an obvious challenge while Alphonsus simply glared up at the Deathbringers.

“Come on!” shouted Castor from the entrance hall.  The rest of the squads had already made their way out, so Leon and Alphonsus were the only two Snow Lions left in the tower.  They responded without delay, but Leon was a little disappointed he didn’t get the fight he had been looking forward to.

Seeing the two third-tier mages run, the second-tier Deathbringers hurtled down the stairs in pursuit.  However, as soon as they turned around and ran into the entrance hall, they were faced with a Snow Lion archer squad, which let their nocked arrows fly.  All ten arrows found their targets, knocking the four Deathbringers unconscious instantly.  The Snow Lions then made a break for the tree line.

“Hold on!” shouted Leon as soon as they made it.

“What are you doing?!” shouted both Castor and Alphonsus.

“Showing them exactly who did this,” Leon said, smiling at Alphonsus.  “Have everyone get out their bows and form a firing line.  We can spare one or two salvos.”

Alphonsus couldn’t help but smile and look to Castor with expectation.

“… Sure, why not…” Castor said, hesitating a little at the change of plan.

“Haha!  Yes!” shouted Leon.  It was fortunate that the four unconscious Deathbringers in the entrance hall gave the rest of them pause because it took another minute or so for the Snow Lions’ second-tier trainees to get the unit into position and ready at the tree line.

In fact, Gaius, Linus, and Actaeon had all ran into the entrance hall just as the last Snow Lion was getting into position.  They were a little confused, but after coming all the way downstairs and seeing the empty shrine, they knew exactly what had happened.

And they quickly came face-to-face with those who had stolen the banners when they emerged from the tower and saw a calm and serious Castor, a cheekily grinning Leon, and a smug Alphonsus looking back at them from the tree line.

“Loose!” shouted Castor as soon as the three third-tier Deathbringers were seen.  At his shout, one hundred bows loosed their arrows at their unarmored opponents.  Linus and Actaeon both suffered direct hits and fell unconscious before they could do much more than take a few panicked steps back towards the tower.

Gaius, however, had thrown himself back into a couple of the second-tier trainees still in the doorway, avoiding all but one arrow that struck him in the shin.  Five additional second-tier Deathbringers were also caught in that hail of arrows, though only one was knocked out.

The Deathbringers hurriedly pulled back into their tower to get their armor, but it was almost ten minutes before anyone stuck their head out the door and by then, the Snow Lions were long gone.  A few Deathbringers had watched them leave from the windows, but that wouldn’t do them much good as the Snow Lions ran back to their tower before running back to their camp in the mountains.  They didn’t want to give any Deathbringers clues about where they had set up camp by showing the direction it was in, after all.

The Snow Lions made it all the way back to their caves in the gorge without incident and barely able to contain their excitement, as the Deathbringers most willing to follow them were either unconscious or—as was the case with Gaius—had a limb stunned by the Snow Lions’ arrows.  Even the normally stoic and professional Instructors were affected by this celebratory atmosphere and had to wait a few minutes for their faces to stop proudly smiling and drop back into their usual stern and serious expressions so they could join their trainees.

Unbeknownst to anyone, these three men were not the only ones watching the Snow Lions; a pair of figures were standing on top of the opposite cliff.  Had they been normal men, the Instructors wouldn’t have had any trouble seeing them, despite the darkness of near-midnight.  However, these were not normal men.  They were the two who resided in the immense stone tower in the center of Aeterna, and they were watching Leon with great intensity.

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The next two chapters are going to be a little different in that they're a 2 part flashback.  This is because as I was writing this chapter, it become abundantly clear to me that it would be a long time before we get through this arc at the rate I've been going (from Chapter 55 when Leon arrived in the capital until now, only about 2-3 months have passed in universe, out of a year-long training cycle!) So, I took the next 2 chapters to re-plan while also writing an event that I'd been wanting to for a while.  As for the schedule going forward, I'm currently on track to get through the remaining months of the Knight Academy by chapter 125, or maybe even earlier.  The length of the next few arcs will be more in line with the previous arcs, I promise ;)

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Chapter 94 - A King's Demand I

Chapter 92 - Planning an Attack