Thanks to my generous supporters on Patreon, this will be the 1st of 3 bonus chapters released today!
The Crimson Tigresses didn’t waste any time on the morning of the third day. The entire unit woke up before the sun rose and left their camp just as dawn broke.
But that speed didn’t mean that their departure went unnoticed; Valeria distinctly heard at least half a dozen scout teams from other units keeping an eye on their camp. She guessed that there were at least three more, to make one team from each of the other units, but she couldn’t detect them. Regardless, she hurried her unit out into the forest. Even if the other units knew that they had left their camp, she still believed they’d be safer by staying on the move rather than stuck in a camp where they’d be easily surrounded and be forced to endure attacks from all of the other units throughout the entire day.
Many of the scouts watching their camp made an attempt to follow the Crimson Tigresses into the forest, but they were quickly dispatched with well-placed arrow fire or the quick feet and quicker swords of second-tier trainees sent by Valeria. And so, the Tigresses quickly vanished into the forest.
The ladies ran for several miles until Valeria and Asiya were sure that they weren’t being followed, then they stopped for a short rest. They were less than half a mile from the Blood Eagles, something that was by design. Valeria gave her unit several minutes to rest, then set out again. By the time the Blood Eagles left their camp and started making their way to the Crimson Tigresses’ camp, the Tigresses themselves had already gotten into a strong position along the Eagles’ most likely route.
Before they had traveled even a quarter mile from their camp, the Blood Eagles were hit with two volleys of training arrows, followed immediately after with Valeria and Asiya leading a dozen second-tier Crimson Tigresses out from the thick underbrush of the forest to crash into the Eagles’ formation. The first two volleys of arrows and the Tigresses’ surprise attack cut the Blood Eagles in half in less than fifteen seconds as well as cost them three of their four third-tier mages and more than three-quarters of their second-tier mages. In the face of the determined and well-prepared Crimson Tigresses, the remainder of the Blood Eagles fell in short order.
But that wasn’t to say that the Crimson Tigresses didn’t take casualties; in fact, their losses amounted to a dozen trainees, more than a fifth of their entire unit. It was still a great victory, exchanging over one hundred Blood Eagles for twelve of her own, but Valeria knew that that pace couldn’t be sustained. It would take the Blood Eagles a day or so to recover, as the Crimson Tigresses had elected to wipe them out completely rather than do the more common and honorable thing, which was to leave a few of their enemies standing to tend to their casualties and help them recover sooner.
But, this ‘dishonorable’ act bought the Tigresses some breathing room. The other units wouldn’t come poking around the Blood Eagles’ territory for a while, and by the time they would, the Tigresses would be fully recovered. For the time being, Valeria led her unit to take over the now empty Blood Eagle camp, leaving the Eagles themselves lying in the dirt.
There was no concern for their safety, as the Eagles’ Instructors and other knights of the Academy lurking out in the forest wouldn’t let the unconscious unit out of their sight. The same was true for all the other units in the Academy, whether conscious or not.
After a few hours passed, the casualties the Crimson Tigresses had taken recovered, and the unit left the Eagles’ camp.
The other units were still searching for the ladies, but after so much time passed they fell back on their training. Instead of having entire units blindly wandering the forest, they posted up in easily defended places and sent out scouts to scour the surrounding forest. Their scouts wouldn’t venture far, and when they had searched about a quarter mile from the rest of the unit, they would return. The unit would then move to another location and send out more scouts.
Valeria and Asiya had spoken about how to approach this problem. They were all too aware that with their numbers, they couldn’t attack any of the other units when they were in their defensible positions, so they decided on something that most of the other units would think crazy: they split the Crimson Tigresses in half and left in opposite directions.
But even though they had done such a baffling thing, they had no intention of running or hiding.
After their defeat the previous day, the Silver Legionaries were out for blood. They were the first unit to arrive at the Crimson Tigresses’ camp that morning, and they were the most fervent in their pursuit of the Tigresses. The other units understood the Legionaries’ passion—especially the Obsidian Cataphracts—as they had managed to hold on to their banner throughout the entire training cycle only to lose it two days into the FTX.
The Silver Legionaries swept through the forest with vigor, not stopping to rest or eat lunch. They had to alternate squads on scouting duty because those they usually had to do that job were exhausted and in no shape to continue. But the other trainees in the unit weren’t exactly fresh either, given how hungry and tired they were. And this left them open to making mistakes.
In particular, one two-man team had the singularly terrible luck to be the first team spotted by Valeria’s group of Tigresses. They weren’t paying the slightest bit of attention, staring at the ground twenty feet in front of them rather than surveying the forest as they were supposed to be doing. Consequently, they were shot down with training arrows before they could even register they were under attack.
And Valeria’s three squads didn’t stop there. It had taken them an hour to find another unit, and they weren’t about to let them off with only two knocked out trainees. They advanced silently, pausing only to eliminate two more scouts who were just as inattentive as the previous Legionary team was. After several hundred feet, they approached the edge of the clearing where the Silver Legionaries had stopped.
The Tigresses didn’t get too close, sticking to the shadows of the forest. Their caution was warranted, as the Legionaries in the center of the clearing weren’t so lax as their scouts, the second-tier mages in the unit made sure of that. The unit was arranged so the first-tier trainees were facing outwards in all directions, with the second-tier trainees just behind them and the four third-tier trainees in the very center, waiting for any signal from the scouts.
“Where are they…” mumbled one of the first-tier Legionaries. “Those damn scouts are taking too long, the sooner they get back here the sooner we can leave…”
“Shut your mouth!” shouted a second-tier noble from behind the first-tier commoner, but before the commoner could respond with a frustrated complaint, an arrow fired by Valeria flew right past less than an inch from his face and hit one of the third-tier trainees in the back. Thirty-two more arrows followed an instant later, raining down upon the center of the Legionaries’ formation.
The cry of “SHIELDS UP!” came from second-tier Legionaries around the formation, but it was too late for the two third-tier and half dozen second-tier Legionaries who had already been knocked unconscious by the volley. The Legionaries raised their shields and waited for the next volley.
They held that position for almost a minute while straining their eyes and ears to try and locate their enemy. It was only when that minute was over that they realized no follow-up volley was coming.
“Push out! Find who did this!” shouted the only third-tier Legionary who hadn’t been hit. The second-tier trainees immediately took charge of their squads and scattered into the trees, moving out a couple hundred feet. None of them found the slightest trace of the Tigresses who had been there only a minute or two before.
But, even though they weren’t found didn’t mean the Tigresses were gone.
After ten minutes, the Legionaries returned to the clearing to tend to their wounded, but one squad failed to return. Picking up on the obvious danger, the rest of the Legionaries cautiously went to look for the missing squad and quickly found it. The ten-man squad was unconscious alongside the four scouts the Tigresses had taken out before.
The Legionaries rushed forward to investigate, but as soon as they arrived at the side of their fallen comrades, arrows fell upon them again. And this time, the Tigresses who fired them targeted the main body of the Legionaries rather than the leaders. Twenty-three Legionaries fell to the Tigresses’ arrows.
Again, Valeria’s group melted back into the forest without taking a second shot, and the Legionaries were too busy trying to protect themselves to immediately follow. And this made them vulnerable to continued harassment by the Crimson Tigresses’ merciless arrow fire. Before long, the Legionaries had been whittled down to nothing, with the final handful falling to Valeria’s glaive or to the blades of her second-tier trainees.
All one hundred and five Silver Legionaries had fallen to only thirty-three Crimson Tigresses, and the Tigresses hadn’t taken a single casualty.
Three miles to the north-east, Asiya’ group met with similar success. It took her a little longer as she only had twenty-four Tigresses with her, but she still led them with the same tactics to victory over the Warriors of the Naga.
The Crimson Tigresses regrouped on a hill about a quarter mile from their camp. Valeria and Asiya told each other of their victories, and the ladies made their way back to the camp ecstatic from defeating three full-strength units over the course of the day. Asiya and Valeria were a little apprehensive about spending the night in their camp rather than hidden in the forest somewhere, but they decided that it was better to sleep in a place with fortifications rather than one without.
Besides, they were confident enough from the day’s events that they actually rather hoped someone would attack during the night, if only to liven things up.
But then, just as they were about to enter visual range of their camp, the Tigresses noticed a small fire burning in the forest. Out of curiosity, Valeria took her squad to investigate. To her extreme surprise, she discovered Leon sitting there, appearing as if he didn’t have a single care in the world, slowly turning a fat rabbit on a spit over the fire.
The sun was setting and the forest had already grown very dark; despite this, Valeria had no trouble seeing and, as far as she could tell, Leon was completely alone. Still, she sensed a trap, and she signaled for Asiya to come and join her. They silently crept up on Leon, who didn’t bat an eye once they had completely surrounded him and walked out into the firelight.
“What are you doing here?!” demanded Valeria in disbelief, her incredulousness only growing when she saw that Leon wasn’t even wearing armor.
“Waiting,” Leon answered in a matter-of-fact tone, as if what he was doing should’ve been obvious.
“For what?” asked Asiya. For all her cheerfulness, she wasn’t a person who was quick to trust, especially not with such a suspicious scene; her hand had come to rest upon the hilt of her sword, ready to draw at a moment’s notice. All around her, the Crimson Tigresses were doing the same, as well as raising their shields and casting their eyes outward just in case an unseen foe struck at them from the depths of the forest.
“I’m waiting for you,” Leon responded, only looking up at Asiya and Valeria once he had.
“What are you playing at?!” asked Valeria as she assumed an aggressive position and raised her glaive threateningly.
“I’m playing at being a decoy,” said Leon completely honestly. His words had barely entered their ears before a storm of arrows fell upon the Tigresses; they had been looking in the wrong direction, the Snow Lions weren’t around them, they were above them, hidden in the dense canopies of the trees.
Over one hundred arrows were fired at the Tigresses, then another hundred mere seconds later, which was followed by another hundred. Six volleys in total were fired before it came to an end, and all the Tigresses save for Valeria, Asiya, and three second-tier trainees had been stunned. Those five only made it through by virtue of their own stellar reflexes in raising their shields or dodging the arrow fire.
Dozens of Snow Lions scampered down from the trees to surround the remaining Tigresses, but Valeria didn’t care. She knew they had already lost to the Snow Lion ambush, so she struck out with her glaive and slashed Leon across the chest. He fell back off the log he had been sitting on, as unconscious as the majority of the Tigresses.
Seeing this, Castor and Alphonsus only smiled. They slowly walked forward and, after several minutes of searching, found all three banners the Tigresses had.
“We’ll be taking these,” Castor said, handing the banners off to Aemilius.
Valeria only glared at him, and Asiya’s face held none of its usual cheer. Two second-tier Snow Lions walked forward to pick up Leon, but they hesitated when it seemed like Valeria was going to try and stop them, as she tightened the grip on her glaive and took a step toward them. However, as she looked around at the numerous Snow Lions staring back at her, then down to the trainees in her unit lying on the ground, she loosened her grip and let the Snow Lions take Leon. They had stopped attacking her so she could take care of her trainees, so she decided to show them the same respect. This wasn’t an actual battlefield, after all, so she could take a defeat gracefully.
Once the Snow Lions grabbed Leon, they disappeared, off to their own camp in the gorge. As she watched them vanish into the darkness, a terrifyingly resolute look appeared on Valeria’s face, and she thought, ‘We’re going to get those banners back! We will find where you hide yourselves, and we will retrieve what’s ours!’
Then, she smiled. The day had gone almost too well for her, and she felt the rush of a new challenge: finding and defeating the Snow Lions, then taking all nine banners they now held.
Thank you to my Sixth-tier patrons:
I Dewa Bagus