Thanks to my generous supporters on Patreon this will be the 3rd of 3 bonus chapters released today!
The Snow Lions’ camp had been built into the face of the cliff. The primary defensive feature that the leaders of the three units could see were two layers of concentric palisades, each with four watchtowers. Looking farther up the cliff face, they could see a few caves with fortified platforms jutting out, providing enough space for two or three archers per platform to rain down arrow fire on any attackers.
“Hold fast,” whispered Marcus. “Stay back!”
“What?! That’s their camp! Let’s go get them!” said Alcander.
“I agree, this is what we came for,” added Actaeon.
“I’m with Marcus on this one,” said Gaius. “That flare has already alerted the Snow Lions. You can see them in their towers already. We can’t just blindly try and take those walls, we need a plan.”
Gaius’ statement shocked most of the others; they had assumed he would be blinded by rage and immediately sprint for the palisade as soon as he saw it. Instead, he was advocating caution.
“Your opinion?” Marcus asked Valeria.
“… Fall back,” Valeria replied.
With the leaders of all three units in agreement, no one else said a word. The allied units fell back. However, the forest in the gorge wasn’t nearly so thick as the central forest of the training grounds, and the units were perfectly visible to the Snow Lions who manned the towers and archer platforms. Even after they fell back from the gorge, the Snow Lions had hidden scouts that kept them in sight the entire time.
During their search over the previous week, the three allied units had moved their tents out of their camps and into the mountains, to save time on their search. With the Snow Lions’ camp found, the third-tier trainees had the new allied camp moved almost to the Snow Lions’ doorstep. Since they no longer held the element of surprise, they wanted to put some pressure on the Snow Lions while they planned their assault.
“They have some serious fortifications,” said an impressed Marcus in the command tent of the allied camp.
“Yeah, one set of walls wouldn’t be too much to handle, we could just jump over them. With nine third-tier mages suddenly in the center of their camp, the Snow Lions would be effectively finished,” added Alcander. “With that second palisade layer, though, we can’t just jump in, otherwise we’d be caught between both layers and immediately shot by every archer in range.”
“We do have more trainees than they do, but to launch a frontal attack would lead to massive casualties,” added Gaius while he stared at the crudely drawn map in the center of the small wooden table they were gathered around. “Those archer platforms on the cliff will also be very hard to deal with; we can’t just assault them, and they’re too high up for effective counter-fire. Any attack we launch will be in range of those platforms long before their towers on the ground will be in range of our own bows.”
“We’re going to have to launch a night attack,” said Valeria, “but we’re also going to need to watch out for those flare mines they have. If even one of those were to go off, we’d be screwed. They’d know we were coming and have plenty of time to man their towers.”
“Why don’t we just try a frontal assault?” suggested Actaeon. “We don’t exactly know for sure that it would fail. A shield wall could cover us from the arrow fire and get us right to the walls.”
“Perhaps…” muttered Marcus, closing his eyes in thought.
Before anything else could be said, the nine third-tier mages in the tent heard a shout from outside, “WE’RE UNDER ATTACK!”
Instantly, everyone drew their weapons and hurried outside. There hadn’t been much noise before, but the shout had been like a shot in the arm for the resting trainees. Several hundred trainees were running around trying to locate the source of the attack and to find their leaders.
“Hey! What’s going on?!” demanded Gaius from a passing Deathbringer.
“Arrow fire from the north-western pass!” the young first-tier mage responded.
In order to make camp, the allied units had followed the river that ran through the gorge to what seemed like a good defensive position: a valley that only had two entrances, a narrow pass to the north-west, and another pass to the south-east. The north-western pass led right back to the Snow Lions’ gorge.
The third-tier trainees wasted no more time and sprinted for the pass in question, only pausing to order their second-tier subordinates to get the rest of the trainees to meet them there. They had left their shields and bows behind in their individual tents, but they still had their armor and primary weapons, so they didn’t stop again on their way to reinforce the pass.
When they arrived, they found an ad-hoc shield wall made up of individuals from all three units blocking the pass. About twenty feet behind them lay five unconscious trainees and more than a dozen arrows on the ground. There were three more trainees that had only been partially stunned taking cover behind a few short trees.
As soon as the third-tier trainees showed up, another volley of arrows rained down on the shield wall. The nine leaders ran forward, most of them picking up discarded shields on the way; Alcander and Valeria were the only two that didn’t as their weapons—the glaive and greatax—were most effective when wielded with two hands.
The third-tier nobles hurriedly joined their trainees in the shield wall. The rain of arrows ended after only three volleys. Marcus stared forward into the darkness of the evening mountains. There were enough trees and bushes in the pass that even when he channeled magic into his eyes to see in the dark, there still wasn’t anything of note to see. The enemies, Snow Lions in all likelihood, had hidden in more than just darkness.
‘There can’t be that many of them, maybe twenty or thirty,’ Marcus thought after having experienced the volley. However, he hesitated to make his guess out loud, as he could only estimate the number of archers they might be facing. Instead, he glanced to his right and left to check on the shield wall. While he did so, he locked eyes with Valeria. She made a ‘move forward’ gesture at him, and he shook his head. It wasn’t quite time to start moving.
About five minutes later, when the shield wall had swollen in size with dozens more trainees who had assembled at the pass, Marcus shouted, “Let’s move forward!” and the shield wall began to slowly move forward. They had to move carefully and very slowly in order to maintain their formation’s cohesion in the broken and rocky ground.
The other eight third-tier trainees willingly deferred to Marcus as he was the only one of them to have any experience on a real battlefield, even if that experience was only in fighting the stone giants in the east. Plus, he was a son of House Aeneas, a noble family renowned for their skill in the various arts of war.
As the shield wall moved forward, another volley of arrows forced it to stop in its tracks. However, this volley was the last, and the shield wall pushed into the trees of the mountain pass without another incident. But, this absence of attack only put the trainees in the shield wall on edge. Their eyes darted to every little leaf and shadow that moved, certain that arrows would come falling down upon them at any time.
“They’re out there, I know it…” muttered Marcus. He pushed the formation forward, though he remained wary of any potential ambushes. But it wasn’t an ambush that his enemy had planned…
“They’re moving. The camp is almost entirely deserted save for a few stragglers,” said Charles as he returned to Leon. “Alphonsus and the archers managed to draw them away.”
“Good. Then let’s make this quick,” Leon responded. He, Charles, and the other eight trainees in Leon’s squad began to climb the cliff in front of them. It was only about thirty feet high, something which wasn’t clear when they looked back down from the top. The short evergreen trees were densely packed and blocked the view of the ground. From anywhere else along the cliff, the ground was much farther down, up to several hundred feet.
Once they had reached the top, they quickly moved along the ridge for about thirty seconds before finding themselves at the edge of another cliff, looking down upon the allied units’ new camp. Leon quickly located the two largest tents, one of which undoubtedly housed the allies’ supplies.
Leon’s squad silently climbed down the twenty-foot-tall rock face and infiltrated the camp. The allies had left about twenty-five trainees behind to guard the camp while they chased the archers who had already fallen back to the Snow Lions’ caves. These guards were concentrating on the mountain passes, though, which gave Leon’s squad almost completely unfettered access to the entirety of the camp. In fact, none of them ever noticed Leon’s squad within their midst, even though the second-tier trainees left behind to command the guards were competent enough to make sure to watch both passes.
So, without any interruptions, Leon’s squad checked out the two largest tents. The first they checked wound up being the command tent, with nothing in it save for a few chairs, a table, and a crudely drawn map of the part of the gorge that the Snow Lions had fortified. There wasn’t anything to be gained from taking it—or anything else in the tent—so the squad quickly moved on.
They found what they were looking for in the second tent: the allies’ supplies of food and spare arrows. Even with the aid of magic, there was no way for the squad of ten to take everything, so they loaded themselves up with as many of the arrows as they could reasonably carry and fight with, then Leon started throwing scrolls of spell paper at what was left. As soon as the scrolls unfurled, they began to burn white, disintegrating everything within a radius of six feet with magical fire.
This particular spell had been taught to Leon by Xaphan, and after both rigorous testing and the assurances of the demon, Leon had determined that the fire conjured by the spells wouldn’t spread, a determination that was proven when even the tent remained untouched despite everything within quickly becoming ash.
With a quick hand gesture, Leon signaled his squad to leave. They departed the same way they had arrived, by climbing a cliff face, then scaling down the other side. It was then easy enough to return to the caves through one of many hidden entrances that the Snow Lions had fortified.
“Well that was a pain in the ass,” Actaeon complained as he sat down in a chair in the allies’ command tent. Marcus had pushed the shield wall to scour almost the entirety of the pass, only to find nothing. In the end, the allies were forced to return to their camp having failed to find any of the Snow Lions who had attacked their camp.
“That pass was narrow enough that they could’ve fought us if they had really wanted to. To not do so was cowardly beyond words,” said one of the Steel Century’s third-tier nobles.
“You’re wrong,” Marcus immediately snapped back. “This wasn’t a cowardly act. It just seems that a direct confrontation wasn’t their goal…”
At that moment, a second-tier Deathbringer arrived at the command tent with a panicked expression. He quickly whispered a message to Gaius, then stood off to the side. Gaius’ eyes widened in panic of his own, then he ran out of the tent while yelling, “They burned our supplies!”
The rest of the leaders hurriedly followed him to the piles of ash that had been their food and arrows only an hour before. Since the tent was still intact, it likely would’ve taken until the next day for them to notice if it hadn’t been about time for dinner.
“All our food…” muttered Linus in disbelief.
“So this was their goal,” murmured Marcus. “Well played, Snow Lions, well played.”
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