Thanks to my generous supporters on Patreon, this will be the 2nd of 3 bonus chapters released today!
The Crimson Tigresses recovered from the Snow Lions’ ambush quickly; they were already pursuing the latter a mere two hours after the Lions had seized their banners. They didn’t get very far before being forced to turn around and return to their own camp due to lack of clues to follow, though.
“That sucked,” said Asiya as she slid into a chair in the tent she shared with Valeria.
“We didn’t exactly come out ahead, did we…” Valeria muttered. “It was a good day, though, all things considered. We lost the banners in the end, but we defeated three other units!”
“That’s worthy of celebration, I guess, but it hardly feels good without the banners we worked so hard to hold on to…” Asiya responded dejectedly, her usual cheerfulness dampened by the loss the Tigresses had just suffered.
“It will feel better when we find the Snow Lions and pay them back for this ambush,” Valeria said with a smile. “We didn’t find anything after helping our trainees to wake up, but tomorrow morning we start our search in earnest. We’re going to find them, and when we do, all nine of their banners will be ours!”
Valeria spoke with such uncharacteristic passion that Asiya couldn’t help but wonder if Valeria felt any sadness at the defeat at all; she had rarely seen her silver-haired friend so intense about anything since their childhood. And Asiya couldn’t help but be affected by the fighting spirit that lit up Valeria’s eyes. Her heart started to race in anticipation and her fatigue melted away as the two spoke further about their plans for the morning and how exactly they would go about their search.
“Still nothing?” Marcus asked.
“Not a single trace,” answered the Steel Century scout reporting to him.
“That rules out this area,” Alcander whispered, indicating a small valley in the south of the western mountains.
“This will take forever at our current pace,” complained one of the Century’s other two third-tier mages once the scout finished his report and left.
“We’re not exactly burdened with an abundance of options. If we want to find the Snow Lions, we’re going to have to manually search. They’ve spent months out here, they know the terrain far better than we do,” said Marcus. “But that doesn’t matter. We’ll find them, even if we have to spend the entire FTX exploring the mountains.”
“We could just fight another unit,” said the last third-tier trainee. “If I recall correctly, the Black Vipers and Crimson Tigresses still have banners we could seize…”
“And what? Let the Snow Lions get away with attacking us?! Tuck our tails between our legs and slink away from that challenge like whipped dogs?!” Alcander asked, barely able to contain his fury at the suggestion of attacking other units.
The third-tier noble who made the suggestion wilted before Alcander’s gaze like a dry flower and didn’t say another word.
“I agree with Alcander,” Marcus said, to the surprise of no one, “we can’t just ignore the six banners that the Snow Lions have! Whoever defeats the Snow Lions will win the FTX! It’s that simple. And we will win, I assure you.”
“Well, it’s not like beating the Snow Lions will instantly grant us victory, we’d have to hold on to the banners we seize, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Alcander as he turned his gaze back to the map. He stared so intently at the paper that it almost seemed like he expected it to spring to life, take him by the hand, and lead him to where the Snow Lions were hiding. That obviously didn’t happen, but he did select a few places for the scouts to search the following day.
Both the Crimson Tigresses and the Steel Century were in for a surprise on the morning of the fourth day: they ran into each other just outside of the western mountains. The best place to enter the mountains was at the very center of the border between the mountains and the forest. The hills there were steep but allowed for better access than the tall cliffs to the north and south.
The Century arrived there first since their camp was closer to the hills. The Tigresses, however, left earlier than they had, leading to them emerging from the tree line behind the Century mere minutes after the latter had.
“TURN AROUND! GET IN FORMATION!” bellowed Marcus as soon as he saw the Tigresses. The Century had been about to disband into scouting groups and spread out into the mountains, but they quickly formed back up and got into a shield wall to face the Tigresses, who responded in kind.
For several minutes, the two formations stared at each other and didn’t make a single move. The Century held a complete tactical advantage, being on higher elevation and possessing greater numbers, so the Tigresses didn’t attack. However, Marcus didn’t want to fight, he wanted his people to venture out into the mountains to find the Snow Lions, not tied down with fighting and the subsequent recovery. A battle here would cost a ton of valuable time.
After those few minutes, Marcus shouted “HOLD POSITION!” to the Century, then slowly walked out from the formation. He made a show of returning his sword to its sheath and slinging his shield onto his back so that the Tigresses knew he wasn’t attacking them. Seeing what he was doing, Valeria did the same, leaving her formation and meeting Marcus halfway between their formations to talk.
There was another moment of silence as the two waited for the other to speak, but Valeria was a quiet person to begin with, so it was Marcus who broke the silence.
“… We’re not looking for a fight. We don’t have any banners, and… you don’t appear to, either…” Marcus’ sentence trailed off at the end, as it took him a moment to notice that the Tigresses didn’t have the three banners he thought they had with them. He narrowed his eyes and stared at Valeria.
“We don’t have our banners, either. They were taken by the Snow Lions. We’re going to find them,” she said, her face remaining stony and impassive.
“Well… that just so happens to be exactly what we’re doing…” Marcus responded.
The two stared at each other in silence for a moment before they decided to, if not work together, then at least to stay out of each other’s way. As a sign of good faith, Marcus had the Steel Century leave first, actually turning their backs to the Crimson Tigresses as they ventured out into the mountains. And his good faith was well-placed, as Valeria honored their agreement and let them leave—though it wasn’t as if she had much reason to attack them in the first place.
The two units spent the entire day spread out among the mountains, with small teams occasionally running into each other. Everyone was civil, though, and none of the teams came to blows. When the sun started to set, everyone returned to the foothills where they had entered the mountains.
Once there, Marcus, Alcander, and the other two third-tier nobles in the Century held a meeting with Valeria and Asiya. Neither side had found any traces of the Snow Lions, and the idea had been raised among the lower-tiered trainees about possibly teaming up to find the Lions. That possibility was exactly what the third-tier nobles convened to discuss.
“We’re not getting very far alone, are we?” asked Alcander.
“No, but that doesn’t mean we have to join forces, does it?” rebutted Asiya.
“It would make things a hell of a lot easier, though,” Marcus countered.
“It might,” Valeria mused, “and it would be nice to have some backup when attacking the Snow Lions in their own territory. They undoubtedly know these mountains better than we do…”
“But we don’t need them,” Asiya said with a slight frown.
“No we don’t,” Valeria conceded, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t all work together to make this easier on ourselves.”
“If their actions thus far have shown anything, it’s that they won’t go down without a fight,” added Marcus. “We’re going to need all the people to join us in this fight as we can.”
“… What are you getting at?” asked Valeria suspiciously.
“Only that even the two of our units together might not be enough to successfully assault the Snow Lions if they’ve fortified their positions enough. The more allies we have, the better.”
“Do you have any other units in mind?” Alcander inquired.
“Then perhaps you should ask them; we haven’t agreed to anything, after all,” said Asiya with an impish grin.
“Then what would you need to get this alliance off the ground?” Marcus asked.
“Our own banner back. That much is non-negotiable,” said Valeria.
“Then we would make the same demand, they have our banner too,” responded Alcander.
“They also have quite a few others, and if we beat them, we’d have to find a way to split the other seven banners two ways,” Asiya reminded the group.
“We’ll take care of that when the time comes,” said Marcus. “Although, having another unit with us would make that particular issue easier to deal with as well, as we’d only have to split the nine total banners into equal thirds…”
“We still have to actually seize the banners, though,” Alcander said.
“Right. So, then, can we do this? As long as we get our unit’s banners back and an equal share of the rest, we can work together?” Marcus asked the group. Valeria nodded silently, and Asiya deferred to her. Alcander and the other two Century nobles nodded their heads as well.
“Wonderful! Let’s meet back here tomorrow morning and plan out our next move!” Marcus said enthusiastically.
The units left for their respective camps, then returned the following morning. Again, the Tigresses arrived just after the Century, and when Valeria saw who was waiting for them, she hesitated for a long few minutes before taking a deep breath and leading her unit out to meet the Century.
The cause for her hesitation was the presence of another unit: the Deathbringers.
“What are they doing here?” Asiya wondered out loud with a faintly disgusted tone as she stared at the Deathbringers.
“Don’t know, but I would appreciate an explanation,” Valeria said, glaring at Marcus as he approached with a genial smile. When he arrived before the two ladies, Marcus didn’t even wait for them to ask before he launched into his explanation.
“I invited Gaius’ unit into our little ‘alliance’, of sorts, and I’m happy to say that he accepted! The Deathbringers will join our search for the Snow Lions, and our assault on their camp when we find it!” Marcus said eagerly.
“And you didn’t ask us first?” Asiya asked, her icy voice sending a chill down Marcus’ spine despite her bright and sunny expression.
“… I figured you’d be fine with it, I mean it always seems to me that you—or Valeria, at least—are on good terms with Gaius. Plus, this means that we won’t have to fight each other over a spare banner until we return to our own camps!”
Valeria frowned. She wasn’t too happy to see Gaius’ unit, but he’d been leaving her alone for the past several months, so she wasn’t as repulsed by the thought of working with his unit as she thought she would’ve been. In fact, only a few minutes later, Gaius joined the three of them to hash out a plan, and he was nothing but polite and cordial with her. He didn’t try to get too close, he didn’t stick around when the plan was decided on, he didn’t stare, and most importantly, he didn’t try to talk to her more than was necessary.
In the end, the three-unit alliance went forward without any objections, but Valeria made it abundantly clear to Marcus that any more invitations without her knowledge would end with the Crimson Tigresses leaving and going their own way.
As the three units pooled their resources, they debated the most likely locations for the Snow Lions to be hiding, and it was decided that they would focus their efforts on the northern parts of the mountains. When Leon and the other Snow Lions counter-ambushed the Century and Tigresses’ attempt to capture him, he and his unit showcased a great knowledge of the stone maze on the northern edge of the Academy’s training grounds. The third-tier nobles in the alliance felt that this came from a familiarity with the terrain that only living near the maze would provide.
And they were right; it took only a week of searching to find the gorge that the Snow Lions had encamped in. The alliance scouts discovered this was well before the Snow Lions’ camp had even entered view, as one scout triggered a hidden enchantment and a bright red flare was fired up into the sky, where it made an incredibly loud popping sound. The entire gorge heard that flare, and it was bright enough that it guided all the rest of the three-unit alliance’s trainees to it.
It wasn’t long before the walls of the Snow Lions’ camp came into view.
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