Chapter 96 - Safety Measures

The Master stared hollow-eyed at Leon, lost in the past.  He genuinely regretted killing the Storm King back then.  He had fallen into something of a rut after the battles with the Thunderbird Clan, and it took him a while to figure out why; those two battles had been the last time he felt alive.  Ever since, he had been overcome with boredom more often than not, with hardly anything to break the monotony he so despised yet had grown accustomed to.

“Here’s the thing,” the Master suddenly said, startling the Disciple.  “I don’t want that boy killed.  Let him grow strong.  I love making new friends, but I love having strong rivals even more.  I can’t wait to see which he’ll be…”

“And if he starts worshipping that demon within him?” asked the Disciple with a big frown appearing on his face.

“Then he worships the demon within him,” answered the Master quite matter-of-factly.  It didn’t matter to him if Leon was a demon worshipper.  All he cared about was that he had the potential to shake up the status quo, and maybe, just maybe, grow strong enough to give him as exhilarating a fight as the Storm King had.

The Master just hoped Leon didn’t get himself killed before then.

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The mood in the Snow Lions’ camp was beyond jubilant; they had managed to secure not only their own banner, they’d even gotten the Deathbringers’ banner!  And since no one knew where they had gone after leaving their tower, there was next to no danger of retaliation.

If they weren’t as tired as they were, they would have undoubtedly started partying.  Instead, they split off into their own small friend groups to excitedly chat about what to do over the weekend.

Leon’s group, consisting of the man himself plus Charles, Matthew, Bohemond, Alain, and Henry all collapsed onto a number of chairs carved into the side of the cave.  The cave systems the Snow Lions had moved into were quite extensive, as they found out in the days following their move.  They had been specifically designed to house an entire training unit and so had several lounges complete with stone furniture.  These caves weren’t nearly as comfortable as their tower, but they were perfectly adequate for resting after a late-night raid on a rival unit.

“Haha!  And did you see the faces of those oh so high and mighty third-tier nut-lickers when they came outside?!  Priceless!” Henry shouted in glee.

“Yeah!  They normally consider themselves invincible among the lower tiers, but that attitude didn’t prove arrow-proof!” added a smiling Bohemond.

“Ahhh, damned satisfying evening the score,” muttered a sleepy Charles.  “But what’s going to be even more satisfying is getting back into the city tomorrow!”

“Damn skippy, my friend!  I think I might go insane if I stay in these caves another week without a break!  Any of you got plans?” asked Henry.

“Food,” responded Alain.  “All the food.  I’m getting all the food and putting it in my face.”

Matthew raised an eyebrow, looking quite interested.  “That is the best idea anyone has ever had.  You know, there’s this place I know run by a guy from the Samar Kingdom, serves the best kebabs in the city.  I’ve been craving some lately, want to go with me?”

“Sure, but that certainly isn’t going to be my only stop for the day.  I said all the food, and I meant it!”

“Anyone else want in?” Matthew asked, looking around at the other four.

“Sure!” said Bohemond instantly, making it clear just how eager he was to get some food that Leon didn’t have to carry back to the caves.

“I’ll go too, but I’m reserving my afternoon for finding some ladies,” replied Henry.

“I’m out.  Spending time with Jeanne,” said Charles, to the disappointment of the other three.

“*Fwooh-Ksh!*,” said Henry, miming the snapping of a whip.

“Whatever, man.  I get to spend time with my girl, while you’ve got to impress some random woman on the street with your winning personality.  Good luck,” responded Charles, his words dripping with sarcasm.

“Got room for one more for the food thing?” asked Leon, shocking the others into momentary silence; Leon asking to go with was perhaps the most unexpected thing he could’ve said.

“Really?” Matthew asked upon recovery.

“… Yeah.  I like food, and Alain’s plan of finding and eating as much of it as possible sounds great…” Leon said.

“Well the more the merrier!” shouted Alain, throwing his arm around Leon and laughing.

With their plans set, they didn’t say too much more.  They, like most of the other tired Snow Lions, simply sat back to savor their victory and the reclamation of their banner.

After about fifteen minutes, the Instructors arrived.  All the Snow Lions were called to gather around them in the largest cavern.

“That was damn fine work, everyone!  Get those banners over here so we all can see!” shouted the Senior Instructor.  Normally, he was of an exceptionally stern and sober disposition, but once Aemilius and Castor brought both banners out, he allowed himself to crack a rare smile.

The two Snow Lions raised the banners high, and the rest of the unit couldn’t help but puff out their chests in pride.  A few of them even cheered.  They quieted down quickly when the Senior Instructor indicated that he had something to say, though.

“Now, as I told you previously, the restrictions I placed upon the unit preventing you lot from heading into the city can only be enforced for units that don’t have banners!  You have seized yours back, so those restrictions are now lifted!  After breakfast tomorrow, the three of us will hand out the stipends, including the money that has backed up over the past month, then you will all be released!”

With that said, the Instructors didn’t stick around and departed, leaving the Snow Lions standing in stunned silence in the cavern.  The surprise was understandable for them, as the Instructors had told them that they would be receiving a much larger amount of money than they were expecting.

That silence didn’t last long, and the Snow Lions broke back into their usual groups.  Most didn’t stay awake to talk for very long, heading for their tents less than half an hour after the Instructors left.  They wanted to be fresh and well-rested for the following day.

Leon’s group wasn’t an exception to this, with most of them going to bed without staying up to train.  Given how their night had gone thus far, none of them felt any pressing need for the extra combat training.  Charles did meditate for half an hour before falling asleep, though.

Leon intended to do the same, feeling that nothing would cap the night off like some good restful meditation, but Castor seemed to have other plans.  He approached Leon and said, “Hey, do you mind if we talk a little?”

Leon frowned, but said, “I suppose it’s fine…”

“Good.  Head to our meeting chambers, I’m going to get Alphonsus to join us.  We need to make some plans in case the Deathbringers attack us in the streets again.”

“I guess.  Not much we can do to stop them save for attacking them as they leave their tower in the morning, though.”

“… Hopefully, that won’t be necessary.”

Leon certainly had more to say about that, but he ended up holding his tongue and silently walking to the meeting chamber while Castor went to find Alphonsus.  He found his target relaxing with a pair of his second-tier followers, not quite tired enough for sleep.

“Hey, let’s talk a bit,” Castor said, interrupting the conversation.

Alphonsus momentarily frowned at the annoyance before his face turned back into a lazy smile.  “Yeah, I figure we have some things to talk about.”

The two third-tier nobles walked to the meeting room in awkward silence.  They were friends, born to a pair of southern noble houses whose lands bordered each other, yet neither was able to find any words to say to the other.  Things between them had become awkward ever since Castor supported Leon’s idea to move out of the tower and into the caves.  Alphonsus had argued vehemently against the idea as he was loath to leave the comforts of the tower behind, but in the end, his unwillingness to give up the finer things lost to Castor’s and Leon’s desire to move the Snow Lions to a safer location while giving them much harder training conditions.

“So,” began Castor once he and Alphonsus entered the meeting room, “there’s no doubt in my mind that the Deathbringers will be planning some kind of retaliation.”

Alphonsus raised an eyebrow in confusion.  “Oh?  I thought…”

“What?” asked Castor after a moment of silence.

“Nothing…”

“Come on, my friend, out with it!”

“… It’s just that, I thought this talk was about the unit moving back into the tower…”

Castor looked at Alphonsus in confusion, not quite sure he’d heard his friend correctly.  “We… It was never the plan for us to leave these caves, Al.  They give us a tremendous advantage since none of the other units know where we are and they’re quite defensible even if they somehow manage to find out.”

“I guess…” muttered Alphonsus.  His shoulders slumped down a little and the happy light in his eyes vanished.  He didn’t say another word for the rest of the meeting.

“Back to the matter at hand,” continued Castor after Alphonsus made it clear through his body language that he wasn’t going to press the issue, “we ought to prepare some kind of counter-strategy.”

“Well, there isn’t much we can actually do to prevent the Deathbringers from retaliation, though it probably won’t be tomorrow,” said Leon.  The possibility of the Deathbringer’s Senior Instructor invoking the same policy that his counterpart in the Snow Lions had that deprived the Snow Lions of their weekend privileges only crossed Leon’s mind long enough for him to dismiss it; their own Senior Instructor had indicated that such an invocation was rare and thought to be cruel enough that the Legate had considered banning it.

“What makes you say that?” asked Castor with genuine curiosity.  Ever since he and Leon had fought almost back-to-back when the Deathbringers attacked their tower, he had developed a great respect for the other man, and he started putting a greater and greater deal of stock in what Leon had to say.

“There isn’t much time for them to coordinate assaults on our guys again, especially with the morale blow of losing their banner and needing to wait for their unconscious people to wake up.  Maybe they’ll seek retribution next week, but I think tomorrow ought to be fairly safe.”

“I still think we should come up with a few rules for our unit to follow.  For instance, those who were ambushed in the city back then were only attacked when they were in relatively low-traffic areas.  If our people stay in more crowded locations, we can hopefully avoid those kinds of attacks.”

“If you really want to avoid anything happening, we could always do what I mentioned earlier and just ambush the Deathbringers on their way out of their tower…” Leon said with a vicious smile.

“No.  Let’s not get too personal here.  If they make moves against us off Academy grounds, then that’s another story, but for now, let’s wait and see how they handle losing their banner.”

“So if they do attack us in the city…” Leon began.

“Then we’ll hit them back Sunday morning,” responded Castor without hesitation.

“Good,” Leon said, the smile he was wearing growing slightly wider.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d say he actually wants them to attack us tomorrow!’ thought Castor, seeing Leon’s look of anticipation.

“Additionally,” Castor continued out loud, “we ought to make sure the rest of the unit travels in groups of three or more.  Safety in numbers.”

“Makes sense,” Leon agreed.

“And come to think of it, are we allowed to carry our training weapons outside of the Academy?”

“We can ask the Senior Instructor tomorrow.  Moving on, we should also move as an entire unit back to the tower…” Leon paused for a moment to fetch a detailed map of the training grounds.  “… and we ought to decide on a good route.  If I were in the Deathbringers, I would have someone watching our tower just in case anyone returned.  If the returning group was small enough then they would be open for an ambush, while if it wasn’t, simply following the direction they came from could give a clue as to where the camp was.  Thus, we need to figure out an approach direction beforehand, then proceed on to the city from there.”

“That’s an excellent point.  We can also have our trainees meet back up in the tower when their business is done in the city, then we can return to the camp together.”

“Exactly what I was thinking.”

Leon and Castor spoke for a few more minutes to hammer out the remaining details.  They were so into their discussion that they didn’t even notice Alphonsus roll his eyes and leave until after the meeting had come to an end.

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Chapter 97 - Introspection

Chapter 95 - A King's Demand II