Valerian led his squad forward. Due to their two consecutive victories, their morale was currently high. Squad Two had actually become the favourites to win the whole thing. Valerian hoped to ride this wave of confidence and favour to the end by proving the betting odds right.
The plan Vorm had discussed with his before he came to Strapping’s had four phases. Phase I: Pass the first exam without revealing his strengths. This phase could be considered to have been very successful. Phase II: Pass the second in the same manner. That failed but it was necessary, for the sake of the next two phases. Phase III: Leverage his position as team leader to find members that would compose a great squad. Phase IV. This was where things got interesting. Vorm had assured him that the centre would pit the squads against each other. When that happened, all he had to do was become the overall winner.
From then on, it was simple rinse and repeat of Phase IV. Each time he succeeded, he would be ranked as the number one elite with the full benefits of that position, He and his squad would be showered with resources after every victory partly to motivate them and partly to drive the others to try harder. If he did so long enough he would be given an actual rank. He would no longer be just, Elite Cadet Valerian Steelborn but an actual Private in the Batharian Royal Army.
Every cadet would receive this rank eventually, if not in the course of their schooling then when they finally graduated, however, there was still a race. Being promoted early went on your record, made you more impressive and even, put you on the fast track to an officer’s position. Strapping’s training only lasted for three years and at the end of each year, the most elite cadets got a promotion. The end of year one saw the rise of the first privates, the second the Corporals and the third, so long as they made it into the Lord tier by then, Sergeants.
Three years to become a Sergeant in the army. Who wouldn’t want that? This was an ironclad appointment. Strapping’s was one of the best military training centres in the country. Their graduates were surely worth those positions because they had earned them. It wouldn’t end there. So long as they continued to produce good results they would remain on that fast lane, being considered for promotions before anyone else. It had only taken Vorm two decades to reach his current rank. Soon, he’d be a general in one of the most elite military organisations in the world.
Valerian wanted that. That was why he was not going to let anything stand in his way.
Squad Two marched on the walls of the redoubt that Squad Three had been given. They’d chosen not to wait. They were going to hit them ASAP and seize the momentum of this battle. Clearcrest was a threat. Having caught a glimpse of just what lay beneath her demure appearance, Valerian knew he had to be cautious. That girl had had it out for him since the elite were formally introduced. Surprisingly, she had backed off lately but that was probably because she only jumped on his case with the assumption that he was the weak link in the first place. Even so, they had to keep an eye out for her tricks.
“Valerian”, Alenwaa said, drawing his attention. “The fort is empty.”
Valerian glowered. They had to keep an eye out for things like that.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Positive!” came his answer. “I’m not sure what’s in there but they definitely aren’t. They’ve set up some sort of decoy pulse. It failed to pass my scrutiny. There were too many differences between the signals I was getting and the signals we have on record. I think they know we can track them just not the how.”
Valerian nodded. “Any idea where they went?”
Alenwaa grinned. “They are also using some sort of artefact to obscure scrying techniques.”
Seeing the smug look on his face, Valerian waited for him to continue.
“I’ve seen the type before. They have a way of causing scrying probes to gloss over the field they create, making the protected blend in with the environment. It would have sufficed if we using general scans but we aren’t. Using what we have here I can search for a specific essence signature within one hundred kilometres, and follow it to its current position”, Alenwaa told him. “Which one should I search for?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I doubt Clearcrest would trust anyone but herself with the use of such a tool”, Valerian told him.
“Clearcrest it is!” Alenwaa said with a grin.
By this point, the rest of the squad had gathered around them, eager to see what was happening. That was probably the only thing that saved Alenwaa’s life.
Berengar shifted to let John take a look at the panel of light Alenwaa was using for his techniques. In the midst of his movement, something slammed into his left pauldron, pulping his shoulder. Affected by this obstacle, the shot intended to kill Alenwaa ended up grazing the side of his head instead. It peeled away the skin and left s groove in his skull before destroying his scrying panel.
“Who?” Drusilla screamed.
However, their hunter was not done. The element of surprise gone, he began firing rapidly, targeting certain key members of the group. He went for Petilia, Cybele, Tamara and then, Valerian. Thankfully, the people in Valerian’s squad had hair thin response triggers. They might have fallen into a bad position due to their overconfidence but they also had an instructor with whom long range ambush attacks were staple. Shields sprang up everywhere. The strange projectiles actually made it through one shield but there were many others to reinforce it.
“Damn!” Tamara screamed. “He’s trying to pin us down!”
“Not for long”, Drusilla screamed back. She slammed her fists together, activating a defensive skill that caused her skin to become the colour of dark steel. Once that was done, she leapt out to draw their attacker’s fire.
Valerian spared a glance in her direction only for his sharp eyes to spot something in the tree line behind her.
“Incoming!” he warned. “Clearcrest and her goons coming from the East. Dru! Get back in here!”
She barely made it back in time. If they weren’t pinned down before, they sure were now. Spells of different colours struck at their shields like fireworks. It had to be noted that their shields weren’t perfectly melded together. That was Alen’s job. He was their warder and he was good at his job. Valerian always left him in charge of their defences, only helping when he needed time to recover his essence or to concentrate on other spells. Clearcrest had certainly chosen her first target wisely.
“How’s Alen doing?” he asked Raphael.
“It’s slow. He’s got brain trauma for sure. It’s swelling up quickly. not to mention he’s losing a lot of blood. I’ll need time to stabilise him.”
“Berengar!” Valerian yelled at the stubborn tellurian at his side. “Lie down! Let Petilia help!”
The brash youth was an ugly sight. There was a giant hole in his left shoulder. Only a few strips of flesh connected his left arm to his torso. The bones were just gone. Blood poured out of it like crazy despite all of Petilia’s efforts to staunch it.
“I’ll be fine!” Berengar snapped angrily at his leader though the effect was somewhat ruined by how pale his face was. He knew he couldn’t step back now. To do so would mean becoming a burden. He was a Tiabire, a knight born. This wouldn’t hold him back. Not when his friends needed him. He clutched his lance even tighter, pushing past the pain.
Valerian stared at the armoured youth as if measuring his conviction. He could guess what was going through the youth’s because he could actually see himself in Berengar’s shoes. He knew he would never back down in such a situation.
“Fine!” he ground out. Then, turning to Petilia he said, “Give him something for the pain. Then, amputate and cauterize the wound. When you’re done, we will strike back.”
“But…” Petilia protested, clearly unwilling. What kind of healer would she be if she went around cutting off limbs or sent them into battle in such states?
“This is an illusion!” Valerian reminded her. “That arm will remain attached in the real world. Besides, which is worth more, the arm or his life? Or are you confident you can regenerate it before they break down our shields? Can you even heal something that bad?”
Petilia’s lip quivered but she said nothing.
“Don’t worry. You can keep the arm. We can’t discard it anyway. We would need a higher tiered healer to look it over if this was real. There are people who can heal that you know”, Valerian assured her.
Petilia said nothing. She was a healer. She knew. Such wounds were not easily healed especially now that she was supposed to burn the area. Even if the arm was reattached there’d definitely be some loss of motion. Still, she allowed herself to be placated. Valerian was right. This was just an illusion anyway.
The healer dealt with, Valerian shared a glance with Berengar. This girl was a little too innocent their eyes said. Making a point to look straight at the terrible wound, Valerian allowed his eyes to harden. ‘I’ll get you his head!’ they seemed to promise. Berengar nodded, somehow understanding even without hearing the words.
Marcella Clearcrest stared worriedly at the motley assembly of shield spells between her and her opponents. Reynard might have been the squad leader that Valerian was wary of but he was definitely the one she fretted about the most.
Marcella read people. She always could. That was what let her strategies work so well.
‘Know yourself and know your enemy and you need not fear the result of a thousand battles’, the old book said.
She failed to do so in the beginning and so earned for herself a terrifying enemy. She knew her mistake quite well. The Steelborn had been so plain during the first exam that she erroneously thought his place in the elite had been due to his dual force nature and not his skill. Plus, he did not come from any notable family, clan or school. To her, he was comical.
All that confidence and arrogance with no proper backing or previous schooling. He was bound to fall sooner or later. Thus, when she began working towards her goal, she resolved to quickly to take out the weak ones before moving on to what she thought of as the real threats. It backfired.
Even now, she remembered the chilly look he shot at her when he caught onto her scheme during the team selection. Surprised by the venom in his eyes, she began to take him more seriously. Since she knew too little about him, she sent probes his way to find out more. He dealt with all of them adroitly, as if expecting them. Then, he had that fight with Gigne. At first, Marcella had been amazed at the skill, ferocity and power he had shown. Then, she came to her senses.
This was someone she had already provoked. Someone she knew nothing about. Someone whose eyes promised retribution every time they looked at her. Nevertheless, over the course of their stay in Strapping’s, she had learnt a lot about the nonchalant Steelborn. The fact that she quit being so obvious in her ploys didn’t mean that she quit trying to pry into their weaknesses.
Valerian didn’t read people, he read situations. His ability to recognise and plan whiles taking into consideration where things lay was inconceivable. It hadn’t taken him more than ten minutes to come up with a plan to take out Gigne’s squad at a time everyone though his own done for. The way he manoeuvred Reynard was much of the same. When he reacted, it was like getting struck by lightning.
That was why she had hoped to get Squad Two done in in the first volley. Now, that didn’t look like it would be the case but that was okay, she had planned for that scenario too.
“Ready?” Valerian asked his squad.
There were tense nods all around. Alenwaa was still unconscious but he had been stabilised. Raphael remained at his side, continuing to work on him. A one-armed Berengar stood in an awkward stance, lance at the ready. Meanwhile, Brandt was panting slightly as she helped hold up their shields. Valerian shook his head at this. The girl’s spells were fearsome but her stamina was just too lacking. That was the only reason why she wasn’t a mainstay member. They’d need a lot if they were going to come out of this successfully.
Valerian blamed himself. He had been taking this too easily. His resolution at the end of the Zebre came back to him. Somehow, he had slipped back into that tame mode. This was battle and somehow he still treated it like a practice spar. The right thing to do would be to crush their enemies outright but instead, they’d taken this approach constantly leaving openings that could be exploited. The whole thing was a mockup. At least, it had been so to Valerian until he saw two of the people under his protection nearly get killed right beside him.
He knew it was an illusion. He had told Petilia as much and yet those terse moments when the sound of that shot rang through the air, when the blood splattered and the screaming started, he really had felt genuine fear and guilt that his lax approach had gotten his friends killed. What use was he? What use was all his power? He was supposed to be their leader and yet he let them down. If this was real and not an illusion then…? Was he even taking his job seriously? For a brief instant, Valerian was lost in himself, his mind travelling to another time.
The man cried, yelling and begging but the young boy stooped over him didn’t even blink. His head was twisted to the side and the small immaculate hand of his attacker drew a dagger across his throat. Valerian finished his task. This was one group of traffickers that would not be conducting business anymore. He scanned area, taking in the bodies that littered it. They may have been simple mortals but they put up a good fight. One even managed to break through his shield spell.
“The hunt was good Grandmother”, Valerian said, nodding at a job well done.
The old lady gave him a strange look. “We might have a problem”, she told him.
“What problem? Did one of them escape?” Valerian asked.
“No!” his grandmother assured him. “Not that kind of problem. You kill too easily!’
Perplexed, Valerian raised an eyebrow, “That’s a problem?”
“For a hunter, yes”, his grandmother told him. “Why are we here Valerian?”
“To do our duty. We hunt those who hunt us and we hunt those who prey on those we protect”, Valerian recited. The Hunters’ Code and the ancient litany had been burned into his mind for three years. His grandmother knew this. Why did she ask?
“You say the words but you do not live them!” She revealed. “The killing is just an act but it is an act committed for a purpose, one you seem to be forgetting.
“These flesh peddlers have done much wrong to the people in our fief. That is why we are here. To fulfil our duty to them by hunting those who prey on them. It is a noble duty to which we are called Valerian!” Clara told her grandson. “We feed the people. We protect our people. We guard our territory. We safeguard the land. We cull the evil within and without.
“You did none of that today. Truth be told, I don’t’ think you have for a while now. You didn’t come out to hunt Valerian, you came out to kill and just to kill! There was no purpose behind your deeds, just Slaughter!”
“I…” Valerian began, unsure of how to defend himself. Something told him that she was right but at the same time, he was confused. Hunting and killing. Weren’t they the same thing?
“I originally started bringing you on these hunts partly so you could confront the evils of the world and learn to recognise them and also so you could familiarise yourself with some of the unsavoury though necessary parts of our sacred duties. Now I feel that if I’m not careful I might set you on a wrong and devilish path. One where life and death hold no meaning and where duty and honour are forgotten”, his grandmother sighed.
“Come, we will go home. You shall no longer be tempered in this fashion. From this day forth, you shall neither kill nor hunt until you realise why and when we do either!”
Sensing that his actions really might have crossed some line, Valerian asked, “When then do we hunt, Grandmother?”
The old lady looked at him and said in a solemn tone. “We are hunters! Hunters come from and live for their people. We are their vanguard and their defence. We do not act unless for them. We hunt to provide for them and we kill to protect them. Understand this and you might become a credit to our order.
“I see…” Valerian said, deep in thought.
When Clara saw him pondering on her words she felt a bit better. If he could actually take something from this then the lesson would not be wasted.
“Come Valerian!” she beckoned. “The night clouds will not cover Delrein forever. We best return home before the light lays bare our efforts.”
‘We hunt to provide for our people and we kill to protect them!’ he said to himself.
Valerian had long since gained enlightenment on what these words meant. A hunter’s people were his dependents. They could be family, friends, colleagues or the tribe itself. Looking at his squad, Valerian was forced to admit, they hd wormed their way into his heart. He was their leader and they, his people.
A strange surge passed through Valerian when he thought on this. The pact had been dissolved long ago. Technically, there really was no reason why he should hold back but he guessed that he had been under it so long that he was not sure whether to let his talons out and bear his fangs. However, things had changed. He would hunt now and he already knew his prey.
‘Any not me or mine.’
His battle intent billowed out settling onto his squad members. It was more intense and powerful than it had been when he last used it. Somehow, his deliberations had led to a breakthrough. It was understandable. His shackles had fallen completely and his recognition of his squadmates as his people had fed into it. That was good. More weapons for the coming fight.
Squad two watched as Valerian’s aura grew slightly unfamiliar. It became predatory and dangerous. The more perceptive among them, the healers and Pugio especially, could not help but draw loud gasps at the palpable danger he posed. His facial expression changed as well. A savage grin revealed itself as a Valerian that no one had seen a long time came into play.
“On my signal…” he called out to his squad. His essence began to build on itself rising to a shocking extreme and he prepared his spells.
“NOW!” he screamed.
Their shields fell away allowing Valerian to unleash death and destruction upon their foes.
How many of you have been wondering what Grandma was teaching Valerian? Well… here’s a taste. What exactly was/is she grooming him to be? The next chapter, 53: Curse Witch, is a bit more simple really. It’s pure battle. I kind of like it but man was it a pain to write.
Sigh! I complained about the last chapter but this one is probably bigger.