Leon sprinted through the forest with Alcander and Valeria hot on his heels.
“HAHA! THIS IS GREAT! NO GOOD MEAL COMES WITHOUT AN APPETIZER AND NO GOOD FIGHT COMES WITHOUT SOME BUILD UP!” bellowed Alcander. He’d been yelling himself hoarse ever since he realized that Marcus and Asiya weren’t behind him and Valeria, so he had taken it upon himself to almost let the entire Academy know where they were. He didn’t even pay that much attention to what he said, the point was to make sure Marcus could follow even if they had left his sight.
But, even though Alcander made it easy for Marcus to follow him, his own pursuit was hardly going well.
Out in the forest, Leon was nearly unmatched. Almost his entire life had been spent in the Forest of Black and White, a place with far more dangers and significantly rougher terrain than in the Knight Academy. The lead he had in the beginning had only grown wider in the minutes since the chase had started.
‘How is this guy so fast?’ Alcander asked himself, noticing how easily Leon navigated the broken ground. He avoided every tree root, weed, and errant stone in his path as if he had run along this route a hundred times before.
Looking to his right, he saw that Valeria clearly didn’t share in his mounting frustration. A rare smile had graced her lips as she relished the chase. She had never ever done something like chasing someone down through a forest after failing to ambush them before, and she was having a lot of fun.
‘That girl’s a damn monster…´ Alcander thought appreciatively as she pulled ahead of him. He had trained himself and built his body for pure, raw strength, but that had left him comparatively slow in long distance running. He was able to keep up for a few minutes, but as fatigue set in and his mana reserves ran low, he found himself falling back.
Valeria had no such problem, though. Her training had been far more balanced, so she didn’t have the same speed disadvantage as Alcander. Even as she fell behind and lost sight of their quarry, she kept on him. Leon didn’t once leave her line of sight.
“Don’t lose him!” shouted Alcander to Valeria in between roars for Marcus’ benefit.
“I won’t,” replied Valeria, “though it seems you won’t be getting the first bout.”
“Grrrah! Fine! Just keep him in sight!”
With those words, Alcander slowed down to meet up with Marcus and Asiya, letting Valeria handle the chase.
However, even though Valeria was much faster than Alcander, she couldn’t close that growing distance between her and Leon. The actual distance wasn’t that great—if it were a fixed distance, then Valeria could cover it in less than a second at full tilt—but Leon’s ability to move in a dense forest was better than hers.
After another few minutes, Leon started running up a steep hill. This made him lose speed, which allowed Valeria to close in on him a little. But, as Leon made it to the top of the hill, he spared the time to flash a cheeky grin back at her before he vanished behind the crest of the hill.
It only took Valeria a moment to reach that same point, but when she saw the other side of the hill, she froze; Leon had completely vanished! Her eyes took in every detail in front of her, not missing a single thing. She didn’t see a single sign of Leon passing through. She started moving down the hill, hoping to catch a glimpse of his fleeing form, or at least the beginning of a trail, but there was nothing to see.
She was absolutely dumbfounded—which was mixed with a little anger and frustration—as to what had happened, as were the others when they caught up a minute or two later.
“Aargh! You said you wouldn’t lose him!” complained Alcander. His tone was light enough to make it clear that he was more frustrated with Leon than Valeria, but he was still incredibly disappointed. And yet, also quietly impressed.
“How could that guy just disappear like that?” Asiya wondered aloud. “Ooooh! Maybe he had some kind of invisibility spell or enchantment or something like that?! That would be sooo cool!”
“It’s possible, but I doubt that,” said Marcus, massaging his right arm as it regained feeling. He had been wearing his gambeson under his clothes, which meant his arm had only been paralyzed for a few minutes. “Such spells or enchanted items would sell for tens of millions of silver, so far outside of the price range of a Valeman that it would be ludicrous to assume he would have one… However, I think I might have something.”
The other three quickly moved closer to Marcus, who was busy examining the ground near the top of the hill.
“He didn’t vanish, he just changed directions. In the split second that Lady Valeria lost sight of him, he darted to the right.”
Valeria’s eyes widened in realization; she had concentrated her investigation to her front, rather than widening it to include the space to her immediate right and left!
“Did he leave a trail that you can follow?” she asked anxiously.
“He did,” answered Marcus, bringing a smile to the faces of the entire party.
He led them in pursuit of Leon at a fast pace—though it was quite a bit slower than when they were directly chasing him earlier. Every now and then he’d have to stop and examine the ground or a bush, but still confidently led them onward.
“This trail is going west, towards the mountains,” said Asiya. She had stellar navigational skills and had noticed that the forest ahead of them had started to thin out. “Perhaps the Snow Lions’ camp is in the west, rather than somewhere in the forest as we had assumed?”
“Maybe…” muttered Marcus with a furrowed brow.
“Something wrong?” asked Alcander, noticing the unease that had started to creep into Marcus’ voice.
“It’s… probably nothing, but the trail seems odd…”
“… Could you be a little more specific as to it’s oddity?” asked Valeria after a long pause from Marcus.
“Well, every time I see a sign of Leon’s passage, it leads us in a certain direction. But, there’s only ever that one sign, and when we go far enough that I would need another clue, bam! There’s another one just waiting for me. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it just seems oddly convenient.”
“Not getting cold feet, are you” asked Alcander in a teasing tone.
“Hardly. I just don’t want to lead us into a trap.”
“He’s one guy! How much of a trap could he spring on such short notice?”
“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out…”
The group followed the trail right up to one of the doorsteps of the western mountains, a small footpath on the northern edge of the Academy’s training grounds.
“Well, shit…” muttered Alcander as he looked up at the two imposing mountains that flanked the mouth of the footpath. His doubts about what Leon could do to them started to evaporate in that moment; the greatest danger to Leon fighting all of them at once was that one person could tie him down while the other three would attack his exposed flanks. The footpath, however, was far too narrow for such flanking action.
They would have to be fools to not acknowledge Leon’s fighting skill. They all knew that he was an equal at the very least to any of them, so combat against him in such a confined space would be far from easy, especially if he were to spring an ambush of his own.
However, little did they know that they were far behind Leon, who had run off back into the forest as soon as he finished making the trail. Leon was far too skilled in forest hunting tactics to unknowingly leave such an obvious trail. Once he reached the footpath, he doubled back and ran as fast as he could to the rendezvous point where the other few Snow Lions from his group had met up at after leaving him.
“Leon!” shouted Janus as soon as he saw the other man approach. “What happened with that archer?”
“The archer was bait to lure me into an ambush by the Steel Century and Crimson Tigresses,” Leon answered. “But I got away, so let’s get back to camp as soon as we can.”
“Right! I’m sure Castor will want to know what happened!”
The group took off back to the gorge, led by Leon who was extraordinarily alert for anyone who might be following them.
When they arrived and after Leon made a few final checks behind them to ensure they weren’t followed, they were greeted by the sight of both Castor and Alphonsus preparing the rest of the Snow Lions for battle.
“There you guys are!” Castor exclaimed once they appeared outside of the wooden fortifications the Snow Lions had started to build. Since Leon and Castor had both decided to stay in the gorge—and Alphonsus didn’t object—plans had been drawn up for a number of walls and small towers to protect the caves. The fortifications were only half-built by the time Leon and his group had returned and weren’t expected to be finished for another month or two.
Leon and the half-dozen second-tier trainees hurried over to explain the situation to Castor and Alphonsus.
“Ancestors damn them! What reason could they possibly have to ally against us!” shouted Alphonsus indignantly.
“They have two reasons, and they’re both hanging in the caves,” Leon responded. “More importantly, there are four third-tier mages about to enter the maze up north…”
Castor smiled at Leon’s insinuation, and immediately called for four of his best archers while Alphonsus called for four of his own. Leon didn’t have such a wealth of followers, but he called up Henry, Obellius, and Hostilius. Henry was still only a first-tier mage, but all three were the best archers he had gotten to know since enrolling in the Academy.
“Let’s do this! Those bastards provoked us, what’s coming is their own fault!” shouted an eager Henry.
“Indeed. This is a just and righteous action we must take, to defend our comrades and repel these cowardly invaders!” said Obellius.
Hostilius didn’t say a word, merely glaring at Obellius for a moment after the other man had said his piece.
“We’re wasting time standing around, they won’t stay in the maze forever!” said an impatient Leon.
“You’re right! Let’s get a move on!” ordered Castor, spurring the ad hoc archer unit onward.
“This damned place,” muttered Alcander as the group of four reached another intersection. They had followed Leon’s trail into the footpaths and had walked deeper into the western mountains, but they quickly found that it led into a maze-like web of deep and narrow crevices and small valleys. If it wasn’t for Marcus—who had learned how to navigate in such terrain in his family’s holdings in the hilly and mountainous Eastern Territories—they would’ve gotten lost as soon as they made their first few turns.
Marcus had lost Leon’s trail, but the four nobles refused to give up without at least trying to find it again, and so had dove right in. All four regretted that decision, as there didn’t seem to be an end to the rocky crags and cliffs that surrounded and almost seemed to press down onto them.
‘Did he want to bring us here? Was it his intention to lose us in this place?’ Marcus wondered. If it was Leon’s plan for them to get lost in the maze, then he had to admit he was both impressed and disappointed. Impressed at Leon’s simple but effective plan, but disappointed in being unable to actually fight him.
“We should leave…” Valeria said quietly. Her gut told her that something was wrong, and that continuing to wander around in the maze would be a terrible idea.
“But this place is so cooool!” protested Asiya, her face beaming in joy at finding such an exotic place to explore.
“This place is also probably where the Snow Lions have been hiding for these past few months. I’m sure they would know the layout far better than we do. Continuing onward would be asking to walk into an ambush,” responded Valeria, causing Asiya to briefly put on a cute frown before her naturally sunny disposition shone back through.
“Let’s press on,” said Marcus. “I have a feeling we’re about to find what we’re looking for…”
“You’re not wrong,” came a voice from above them, “but you really should have listened to the lady!”
The four immediately looked up, searching for the source of that voice, and saw Castor, Alphonsus, Leon, and eleven other Snow Lions staring back at them from the top of the crevice they were walking through. The cliff walls were low enough for third-tier mages like them to jump to the top of, only about fifteen feet high, but the Snow Lions didn’t give them the opportunity. As soon as they made eye contact, the Snow Lions loosed their prepared arrows.
Alcander shouted as he raised his axe to try and defend, but he was a large man and the four arrows aimed at him all found their mark, knocking him out.
Marcus tried to dodge, but both of his legs and one of his arms were hit and disabled, which his gambeson armor couldn’t prevent.
Asiya and Valeria dodged as well, but an arrow grazed Asiya’s arm and paralyzed it. Valeria was the only one of the group who wasn’t hit. After taking a moment to take in her situation, she made the decision to take the fight to the Snow Lions. She leaped into the air and landed nimbly on the top of the cliff.
And there she was faced with Leon, Alphonsus, and Castor. Leon stood in front of her grinning in triumph, while Alphonsus raised his sword and glared from behind her.
“Draw!” shouted Castor from the other side of the crevice, ordering the rest of the Snow Lions to prepare more arrows to fire down on Marcus and Asiya. Then, he turned to Valeria. “If you fight, you won’t win. However, if you leave, we won’t follow you…”
Valeria looked at how badly she was outnumbered and surrounded, glanced back down at the other three, then reluctantly lowered her glaive.
“… We’ll go…” she reluctantly murmured, acknowledging that they had lost. Neither Marcus nor Asiya argued with her decision. Marcus actually thought the Snow Lions were being incredibly merciful for not simply knocking them all out and dropping them at the doors of their respective towers.
Valeria made to rejoin her group, but just as she was about to jump back down, she turned to Leon and said, “I’m looking forward to our next proper duel.” Then, she gave him a minute smile and jumped.
“I’m looking forward to it as well,” responded Leon with a much bigger smile.
The four promptly retreated, with Valeria carrying Alcander and Asiya carrying Marcus. They cut amusing figures as the two young ladies carried two much bigger men with seemingly little effort. Marcus was still conscious, so he was able to direct them back to the exit.
‘Next time, we won’t lose,’ he thought. ‘Next time, we will seize those banners. When this cycle comes to an end, it will be the Steel Century who stands on top!’
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