The arrow came out of nowhere and blazed right past Leon’s leg, barely missing him and another Snow Lion by a hair. The strategy Leon had decided on was to run away if attacked, but one arrow hardly qualified as something they needed to run away from. That being said, as none of the Snow Lions had any ranged weapons of their own, they all immediately sought cover behind trees while trying to see who was shooting at them.
Once the initial panic from being attacked wore off, Leon poked his head out from around the tree he had ducked behind. He knew the arrow had come from roughly ahead of him and to his right, so that’s where he focused his gaze. Yet, even with his finely tuned senses, he didn’t see a thing.
Slowly, Leon stepped out from around the tree, ready to dart back behind it at any moment. He waited for over a minute for another arrow, but when none came he motioned for the others to stay put and watch while he gripped his sword a little tighter and ventured out into the forest. He didn’t go far, staying well within sight of the others, but far enough for him to investigate the surroundings.
And he found nothing.
‘Whoever just attacked us is very good,’ Leon thought as he examined the seemingly undisturbed underbrush. ‘Even if I were to try something like this, I would be quite hard pressed to leave so silently…’
He was confident that had he more time to investigate he’d surely find the trail of the mysterious attacker, but returning to camp was the higher priority.
“Let’s go,” he said to the other Snow Lions after running back to them.
“Is that archer gone?” one of them asked.
“… Let’s go,” Leon repeated, the long pause he took beforehand telling the others all they needed to know.
Leon led the group off into the forest, keeping an ear open for anyone who might be following. He didn’t hear anything, but he didn’t dare let down his guard.
“What happens if we can’t shake whoever’s screwing with us?” asked a Snow Lion named Janus. He hadn’t spoken throughout this whole event, which surprised Leon that he was choosing to speak up now.
“We’ll head back to the tower, then wait for night to fall and sneak back to the camp,” answered Leon. It wasn’t an ideal solution—they would miss out on hours of training, and the rest of the unit likely wouldn’t get dinner on time if they actually had to wait that long for the group to return—but keeping the location of their camp secret was far more important.
Janus frowned at Leon’s answer. “The others will surely send reinforcements if we don’t show up…”
“Castor won’t be in any hurry to do so. We thought something like this might happen, so we decided on only sending someone out to check up on any missing party if they hadn’t returned by nightfall, then play it by ear from there.”
“So if they head to the tower at the same time we leave, then won’t they miss us?”
Leon smiled at Janus’ slightly panicked question, but he didn’t answer. He only nodded off into the forest, indicating that he wasn’t going to get into too many specifics while they were being stalked. But seeing the confident smile on Leon’s normally stoic face did relieve some of the tension the other Snow Lions were feeling. On the inside, though, Leon did regret not telling them about that particular protocol before this happened.
And then another arrow hurtled past Leon’s face, with only an inch or two to spare.
Leon threw himself back while the others turned in the direction the arrow came from to face the enemy archer. Unfortunately, just like last time, they didn’t see hide nor hair from the unknown archer.
“Shit,” Leon muttered as he got to his feet and moved behind a large tree. “They don’t have that many people. They can’t, otherwise I’m sure I’d hear them at least. So here’s a change of plan, I’ll find whoever’s attacking us while you all scatter and escape. We’ll meet up at the place we trained at five days ago, got it?”
The other Snow Lions paled a little but nodded to Leon in acknowledgment. Janus was the only one to protest.
“But you don’t know how many you might face! Or even if they’ll even bother coming out of hiding to fight you!”
“They’ll fight,” Leon said, “They wouldn’t have tracked us this far if they didn’t want something. Just me on my own? They’ll come out to at least talk…”
“And if they don’t?” Janus looked at Leon with a hint of worry on his face.
“Then they don’t,” Leon answered, shrugging noncommittally. “And I’ll meet up with you at the aforementioned point.”
The others nodded at Leon, then took off into the forest. Janus hesitated, but then did as Leon told him to in the end.
Leon smiled as the others vanished into the forest. Having everyone split up wasn’t the best plan if he really thought about it, but he wanted to take care of the mystery archer without having to worry about the rest of the group.
‘They’ll be fine, I’m sure,’ Leon told himself, suppressing his misgivings.
He pushed himself to his feet and rushed in the rough direction the last arrow had come from. As before, he didn’t see the archer, but that didn’t stop him from looking around. He dug deep and used every tracking trick he knew about, and after several minutes, he managed to find a promising trail.
Leon smiled in anticipation of a good fight, then took off in pursuit of the archer. The trail wound around and doubled back several times, but Leon kept following, determined as he was not to let the archer escape. The longer he followed, though, the more unease he started to feel; the archer could clearly move worryingly fast without making enough noise for him to notice.
In fact, the trail was long enough that Leon slowed down and moved with significantly more caution. He had begun to suspect that the trail was leading him into a trap.
He stopped completely when the trail led down into a sparsely vegetated valley surrounded on three sides by large forested hills. Leon and the Snow Lions had trained in that very same cul-de-sac only a week prior, so he knew well enough that once he went in he’d be at the mercy of anyone on those hills. The slopes of the hills near the entrance were relatively gradual, so had he not been there before he probably would’ve walked straight into a terrible position without realizing until it was too late.
Leon’s smile faded away, to be replaced with a deep frown. He peeled off the trail, moving in a wide circle around the hills surrounding the cul-de-sac. The tallest of the hills surrounding it was on the opposite side, and that’s where he wanted to be.
It had been over an hour since Leon’s group had left the Snow Lions’ tower, and Leon had only just started getting back into the groove of hunting his prey. He’d managed to do some hunting before the Snow Lions had moved into the western gorge, but since then he hadn’t done much to keep sharp. But following that trail had been like flipping a switch; Leon fell back into old habits and moved through the forest like a ghost, making no noise and leaving no trail anyone else in the Academy could follow.
It wasn’t long before he had circled around the entire hill cluster and began ascending the target hill. The short journey had given him some time to think about who might be interested in ambushing him. His first thought had been the most obvious, the Deathbringers. Gaius had no shortage of reasons to seek his revenge on Leon, but such an indirect plan didn’t strike Leon as being his style.
Leon’s second thought was Tiberias. He definitely got the idea that Tiberias hated him, and that it was probably due to his relationship with Elise. Leon didn’t know enough about Tiberias to confidently say it was him, though.
After those two came the Steel Century. There wasn’t much to back Leon up on that possibility, but he knew Alcander wanted to duel him and the tower closest to the hill cluster belonged to his unit.
Leon looked forward to confronting who had prepared this for him, assuming he wasn’t simply being paranoid. That thought had occurred to him as well, that maybe the archer had only passed through the valley and that he’d made the detour for nothing. Leon truly hoped that wasn’t what was happening, as he’d have undoubtedly lost too much time going around the hills to catch the archer if it was.
It was because of that final possibility that Leon felt relief when the top of the hill came within view and he saw a young man hiding behind a boulder, watching the clearing at the center of the hill cluster like a hawk.
Leon smiled and silently crept up on the man from behind. The man was too engrossed in his vigil to notice Leon until he had pounced like a lion on its prey. It was over in less than a heartbeat; the man lay stunned at Leon’s feet and there had hardly been a sound. Taking the opportunity to get a good look at the man, Leon pushed him over onto his back. He immediately recognized the guy as being one of the third-tier nobles who led the Steel Century!
Leon rolled the unconscious noble out of sight with a frown. He’d watched both Marcus and Alcander fight multiple times during the first month of the training cycle and knew they were both extremely capable warriors. Leon’s frown grew deeper when he took the noble’s place behind the boulder and cast his gaze down into the valley. Marcus was waiting there, sitting on a wooden stool out in the open with a bow slung over his shoulder. He was alone, but from Leon’s vantage point he could see at least two other people, though they were hiding as well and he couldn’t get a good look at their faces.
He guessed one of them would be Alcander—he saw one of them had a long pole on their back, not unlike the haft of Alcander’s greatax—and the other was the last third-tier noble leading their unit. What gave him pause, though was that both of them were on the same hill, which would leave one hill undefended had Leon not already made a move. He figured there might be others on that last hill that he couldn’t see.
Despite the horrible position it would put him in, Leon made the decision to head down there and see what Marcus wanted.
‘They’ve gone to so much trouble to invite me here that not speaking with Marcus would be rude!’ he thought, holding his training sword in a vice-grip and smiling at the thought of the fight he was sure would come, despite his enormous disadvantage. If things went poorly, he could always retreat back into the forest where he was confident he could escape with little trouble.
Leon’s smile grew wider and he started moving.
As he approached, Leon saw Marcus proudly grin. Leon had fallen back off the hill and circled back around the hill cluster, so Marcus thought that Leon had completely fallen for the trap.
‘Hmm, he’s a little later than I expected…’ he thought.
“Leon!” Marcus said, pointedly not calling Leon a barbarian. “I didn’t expect you to appear alone. Having more of your unit with you would have been much safer, no? Or are you just that confident in your abilities?”
“Had the others retreat,” Leon muttered.
“Really? That’s certainly… unorthodox…”
Leon didn’t answer, instead choosing to slowly walk in a circle around the still sitting Marcus. He allowed his eyes to wander around the hills, though he made sure not to let them linger on where he knew Alcander and the other noble were waiting to not show them that he knew where they were.
“Cautious, aren’t you?” said Marcus with a light laugh. “Don’t worry, I only invited you here to talk, I mean you no harm.”
“Odd way to invite a man if you don’t want violence…” muttered Leon as he glanced at Marcus’ bow.
Marcus put on a bashful face and went a little red from embarrassment. “Ah, well… I’ve been told that I have something of a flair for the dramatic…”
A moment of silence followed, during which Leon stopped circling Marcus and stood to face the noble with his back to the largest hill. If anything happened that he couldn’t handle, he’d immediately sprint up the hill and through the hole he’d punched in Marcus’ perimeter.
“I’m here. What do you want?” Leon bluntly asked.
“There are actually a couple things I had hoped to bring up with you if you would indulge me,” answered Marcus, his smile growing wider when he thought that Leon had unwittingly placed himself directly in the center of the danger zone. “I’m quite curious as to where the Snow Lions have been these past few months, as I’m sure many others are. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to where you all have been?”
Leon’s answer was swift and came without hesitation. “No.”
“Really? Why not?” asked Marcus as he put on a hurt expression.
“Why would I?”
“… To make a friend?” responded Marcus. Leon rolled his eyes at the weak justification, but Marcus just laughed it off. “It doesn’t matter what you think, you’ll tell us the location eventually. Which brings me to my second point! My friend has witnessed your skills from afar and has consequently been inspired to test himself against you! I would appreciate it if you could indulge him…”
Marcus continued to jovially smile at Leon, but he raised his fist into the air in a signal to those waiting in the trees to show themselves. As Leon expected, Alcander emerged with a smile of great anticipation, as did the last third-tier mage of the Steel Century.
What he didn’t expect was for Valeria to appear from the trees on the opposite hill, her cold blue eyes staring down at him and her glaive at the ready. And he was surprised again when Asiya also popped out from the trees, guarding the path that Leon had taken into the valley.
Asiya happily jumped into the air, giving Leon an exaggerated wave while shouting, “Hi there!” Leon waved back, though not nearly in such a bubbly manner, then nodded to Valeria to acknowledge her as well. She nodded back and faintly smiled, to try and make it clear that she wasn’t there out of malice.
“So is it Alcander or Valeria who wanted to fight?” Leon asked, despite being fairly sure he already knew the answer.
“… It was Alcander,” responded Marcus, who was getting concerned that his last third-tier noble wasn’t showing himself.
‘I’m going to kick his ass later if he fell asleep waiting for the ambush again.’
“And if I lose, then I have to tell you where my unit is hiding?” Leon guessed.
“That’s right,” said Marcus, who turned his attention back to Leon, though his eyes kept glancing back to the hill behind the Snow Lion.
“Well,” began Leon, “I’m not going to tell you, no matter what happens. And I won’t agree to anything that could possibly end with me telling you what you want to know.”
“Are you sure? You haven’t even heard what we’re willing to wager-“
“I don’t care what you offer, it’s not happening.”
“So you won’t fight him?”
“I’m perfectly willing to fight him; in fact, I’d quite like to, but I’m not going to put the Snow Lions or their banners at any risk.”
Marcus frowned at Leon, then gestured again to the other four third-tier mages. “I guess we’ll have to think of something else to entice you with. For the time being, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me back to my tower-“
“Fuck you, not happening,” interrupted Leon, causing Marcus’ frown to deepen.
“Well that was extremely rude…” Marcus said in response. “You’re outnumbered, you don’t really have much of a choice. I don’t want things to get out of hand, so why don’t-“
“Aren’t you curious as to why your last guy hasn’t emerged yet?” Leon interrupted again. Marcus looked at him blankly for a split second, before Leon’s slight smile clued him into what had happened. But, before he could move, Leon was already lunging forward and drawing his sword.
Marcus barely managed to raise his arm to block, but he was knocked flat on his back and his right arm was stunned into paralysis. He hadn’t expected Leon to attack him with so many other third-tier mages around and had been caught completely off-guard.
Leon didn’t waste any more time and immediately turned around and sprinted for the largest hill. Alcander, Valeria, and Asiya all moved to engage him, but they were caught just as off-guard as Marcus and Leon managed to make it up and over the hill before anyone could stop him. Alcander and Valeria pursued Leon into the forest while Asiya stopped to examine the noble Leon had knocked out earlier. The last third-tier trainee from the Steel Century had gone to check up on the flabbergasted Marcus.
“Why would he do that? He was supposed to surrender or fight here!” Marcus shouted indignantly, angered more at Leon not doing what he predicted than his temporarily paralyzed arm. But the anger soon passed, and the thrill of the hunt set in as he and Asiya took off after Alcander and Valeria, leaving the last third-tier noble behind to take care of his stunned comrade.
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