It had been a long ten months, but it was finally time for the trainees to undergo the Field Training Exercise, their two-month-long struggle to see which unit could amass the most banners.
None of the units that had already seized a banner were required to return their spoils, so Marcus’ Steel Century started out in the lead with three banners, followed by the Crimson Tigresses and the Snow Lions, who each had two banners. The Black Vipers, Silver Legionaries, and Obsidian Cataphracts had each managed to hold on to their unit banners but had failed to seize any more, leaving them with one banner apiece. The Deathbringers, Blood Eagles, Phantom Bulls, and the Warriors of the Naga were the final four units, and they didn’t have a single banner between them.
The FTX itself technically began after breakfast on the first Monday after the trainees returned from their week-long break, but the trainees weren’t allowed to stay in their towers during those two months, so in practice, the actual fighting usually took a few days to begin. Most of the units needed those days to pour over maps and select the best place to set up camp. And they couldn’t ask their Instructors for help, as even though their Instructors would accompany them to the field, their job was to watch and evaluate the units’ tactics and strategy rather than to continue teaching. The Instructors would always be there to monitor the trainees, but since they couldn’t interfere in any operation unless the trainees were cheating or breaking laws, they were effectively not there at all.
The most popular places to set up camp in previous training cycles were close to the rivers in the forest, where there was plenty of water; the Academy would only be sending shipments of food to them, so water was critical. Those units whose trainees had knowledge of enchanting could be a little more flexible and set up in places with higher elevation, using water runes to fill their water needs.
The Steel Century was one such unit. When they left their tower, they knew exactly where they were going to set up camp, and it wasn’t next to a river. Instead, Marcus had selected a large hill near the foot of the western mountains, in the south of the Knight Academy’s training grounds and at least half a mile from any natural source of water.
“Stay vigilant! If any of you see anything suspicious out in the forest, like someone following us for instance, then speak up!” shouted Marcus just as the Steel Century left their tower. As Marcus and the other three third-tier trainees in the Steel Century got the unit moving, two squads separated from the marching formation and melted away into the forest. Before setting out, Marcus had ordered them to separate into teams of two and try to spy on the other units. Marcus wanted to know where they were setting up their camps as soon as possible.
He didn’t have much expectation regarding the Snow Lions, but he was confident that he could learn the locations of at least half of the other units’ camps with those spies.
In the marching formation, Marcus and Alcander both took point, with their three banner carriers just behind them. The other two third-tier trainees were respectively in the middle and back of the formation, though the unit was small enough that Marcus didn’t feel it strictly necessary to do so. Still, he decided to be cautious and spread them out.
The Steel Century marched in near silence. They were carrying a lot of gear; they were all fully armed and armored, their shields on their arms, and bows over their shoulders. The first-tier and most of the second-tier trainees also had huge packs on their backs, full of food, tools, and various other materials they would be constructing their camp from. All in all, it was heavy, even for mages, heavy enough that no one wanted to talk much.
As the Steel Century moved further into the forest, Alcander watched Marcus slowly grow more nervous. At first, Marcus kept an eye on the ground in front of him, to ensure he kept stable footing, but more and more frequently he kept looking around until it looked like his head was on a swivel.
Alcander himself looked around into the forest and saw nothing of note. No one was out there, as far as he could tell. So, eventually, he just watched Marcus stare intently out into the trees, his eyes darting to anything that made even the slightest noise. And given the thickness of the forest they were walking through, almost everything made some kind of noise. After a few minutes of watching and desperately trying to stifle his chuckles—which only made him want to chuckle even more—Alcander lost control and started laughing at how nervous Marcus seemed to be.
“What is wrong with you?!” demanded an angry Marcus.
“What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you, you’re turning your head around so much you look like you’re about to break your neck!” Alcander said, his laughing fit quickly dying down once he let it out.
Marcus grit his teeth to keep from shouting and answered, “There’s someone out there, watching us. I can feel their eyes on me… It’s the same feeling I got back home when I went with my Father’s knights to repel a raid by stone giants right before we were ambushed…”
His tone was deadly serious, and it gave Alcander pause. The latter took another careful look around, but he didn’t see anything. As soon as he told this to Marcus, though, Marcus called the formation to a halt.
“I have to know, I have to see who’s out there,” he muttered.
“Hey, who cares if we’re being followed?” said Alcander. “We’re not trying to hide, anyway. And it’s not like any other unit knows where we are going, so I doubt we have to worry about any ambushes. It would be impossible for anyone to get ready to attack without our knowledge…”
“No, I’m finding whoever it is who’s following us, and I’m going to get them to stop one way or another,” responded Marcus with a mad glint in his eye. He immediately went about reorganizing the Steel Century. Everyone was made to drop their packs in the center of a defensive circle formation made up of four squads—about forty people—who locked their shields together and faced outwards.
“Push out into the forest,” Marcus told the other four squads, “scout out the area, see if we’re being followed. If you do see anyone, don’t engage! Return immediately! We don’t want you guys running into an ambush when you’re separated, especially since we’re already short two squads…”
Each of the four squad leaders nodded and split up into four directions, pushing out into the forest. They had been trained to stay within eyesight of the group they were scouting for, which wasn’t that far within the underbrush of the forest, barely more than two hundred feet. After going out as far as they were able to without losing sight of the defensive formation, the four squads slowly walked clockwise until they had completed their survey of the surroundings.
“Well?! Did you find anything?!” Marcus asked the squad leaders upon their return while he desperately tried to hold himself back from manically grabbing their shoulders.
None of them found what Marcus sent them to find, which did nothing to calm him down. And he was right to be so vigilant, the trainees of the Steel Century were being watched. The squads only looked outward as they did their scouting; had they only looked up, some of them might have seen a pair of Snow Lions hiding up in the trees who had been following the Steel Century since they had left their tower.
These two Snow Lions were Leon and Obellius. Castor, Leon, and Alphonsus had sent out scouts to follow the other nine units, just as Marcus had, but since they had spent the previous week getting set up back in their caves, they had a lot more time to get their scouts into position. The Snow Lions sent to spy on the other units were all of the second-tier, and they were also split into groups of two. Leon insisted on spying on the Steel Century himself, though, as he considered this group that not only had the most banners but also organized an ambush targeting him to the be the biggest threat in the FTX.
Leon and Obellius had masterfully navigated the thick forest completely unseen while keeping the Steel Century within either sight or hearing range. Unfortunately, for all their skills in evading detection, Marcus’ own third-tier senses were incredibly sharp; he had subconsciously picked up on Obellius’ second-tier magical aura consistently enough to instinctively know he was being followed.
But, as soon as Marcus called his unit to a halt, Leon and Obellius had, as quickly and quietly as they could, scrambled up the leafiest tree they could find within eyeshot. Thus, the Steel Century’s scouts missed them.
Marcus was frustrated at the scouts’ lack of results, but he couldn’t keep his unit sitting there forever, so he suppressed his seeming paranoia and had his unit pick up their gear and press on, reaching the hill they would encamp upon only half an hour later. Leon and Obellius stayed for a while longer until they had both become reasonably certain that the camp the Steel Century was setting up was the real thing rather than a ruse devised by Marcus.
It was only after they had left that Marcus was able to calm down and properly direct his unit in building their fortified camp. The camp was only a spiked wooden palisade and four watchtowers at the corners, with nothing but tents in the interior, but the Steel Century would still need to make several trips back to their tower to fetch the rest of the materials. Under normal circumstances, the palisade would be either carried with the unit on carts or built from local materials, but the Knight Academy neither wanted to give them carts nor allow them to cut down the trees in the forest. Trees could still be cut down if absolutely necessary, but the watching Instructors would step in and stop the trainees if they went too far overboard. This left the trainees little other option than ferrying the provided materials to their chosen campsite.
“They’re setting up here,” Leon said to Castor and Alphonsus while gesturing to a map. The three were back in the Snow Lions’ caves, with Leon and the other scouts marking where the other nine units had established themselves.
“Hmm, that’s not a bad position. They’ll probably have most of their defenses set up by the end of the day, making a frontal assault suicidal at best…” muttered Castor.
“Then we shouldn’t attack them head-on. Wait for them to leave their camp, then ambush them,” Leon said.
“Ambushes are hardly honorable,” muttered Alphonsus.
“We’ll hardly win if we stick to ‘honorable’ measures,” responded Leon. “Honor will handicap us and put our trainees in unnecessary danger. Honor is shit for that very reason. I’d rather stick to safer if more ‘dishonorable’ means.”
Leon’s statement caused Alphonsus to frown a little, but he didn’t respond. He hadn’t been seriously trying to argue against ambushing the Steel Century, but surprise attacks didn’t sit well with his ideas of how a knight should conduct himself.
“I agree with Leon on this,” said Castor. “Marcus is a dangerous enemy to have, I think. Better to not have to face an enemy unit in open battle—especially one that has one more third-tier mage than we do—any more than is necessary.”
Alphonsus’ lips tightened in mild displeasure, but he nodded anyway.
“Good. Any suggestions for who we should target first? I know we agreed on the Black Vipers last week, but looking at this map, I’d prefer the Silver Legionaries or Obsidian Cataphracts, personally…” Castor continued, his eyes turning back to the map.
“Either works for me,” said Leon.
“How about the Obsidian Cataphracts?” suggested Alphonsus. “The Silver Legionaries have posted up on a small hill on the north side of this river here, but the Obsidian Cataphracts are in a much less defensible location.”
Castor smiled. “The Cataphracts it is, then…”
In the main tent of the Steel Century camp surrounded by two dozen other tents, the wooden fence, and the four watchtowers that each had a pair of trainees, Marcus, Alcander, and the other two third-tier mages in the unit had gathered.
“So we are in agreement, then? No one else has anything to say?” asked Marcus. The four had been doing the same thing as the Snow Lions: debating which unit to target first.
Marcus’ question was met with silence.
“Then it’s settled. Inform the second-tier trainees, we’re attacking the Obsidian Cataphracts tonight. We have to move fast before they finish building their camp…”
So remember those two chapters when Marcus tried to ambush Leon? The FTX is basically going to be a lot more of that, only with all of the prominent units participating ;)
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