Valerian and the surviving members of his squad were pulled out of the illusory realm into raucous cheering. Many in the stands were even on their feet as they clapped their hands for the victors. Sparing a glance to his sides Valerian saw their ‘dead’ squadmates cheering as well. They looked slightly drained but happy and well. It was the same on Gigne’s side minus the cheering. A few of them actually glared at him and Valerian chuckled at first until he saw why. Gigne was laid up next to them, two healers at his side. He… did not look good at all. Worried, Valerian felt like going over but a loud voice boomed.
“Elite Steelborn!” came the Major’s voice.
Valerian did not respond. He only looked at the man and led his remaining squad members towards the judges’ platform.
“Squad Two reporting in after a successful mission, sir!” he announced with a salute.
“That’s good news, Squad Leader”, he was told.
“Congratulations on your success and on winning that battle”, he was told by the smiling chief instructor. You may lead your men to rest. You fought well!”
“Thank you, sir!” he acknowledged with a salute. But, before leaving he removed something from his spatial ring. A small and mysterious wooden box. Everyone stared at it. In fact, the Chief Instructor’s left eyebrow raised questioningly.
“The mission objective, sir!” Valerian supplied.
The left eyebrow fell only the right one to rise. The man realised that Valerian was referring to the information his squad had supposedly obtained. The only problem was that there was no information. That had only been part of the setup. Something to help with the setting. Despite this, he said nothing, nodding instead as Valerian laid it on the judges’ table and left with his men.
Major Atakoma stood up, following them. “I’m off to check something, I’ll be back”, he shot back to his colleagues.
“Well done, squad!” their instructor yelled with a wide grin.
The members of Squad Two looked to him wearily. Many of them had expended lots of their essence and strength but their spirits visibly perked up at this.
“You’ve done me proud!” the man continued.
Here, doubt appeared on their faces. The man never gave two compliments at the same time. Not unless…
“You wasted half my teachings, three-fourths of my time, did not stick to your plan and yet, somehow, you still won. You should be happy, you were clearly at your best today”, he said in that happy tone and grin.
Unfortunately, after months under his care, Squad Two was quite used to their teacher. They knew not to trust any emotions he displayed as real or even indicators of what he actually felt. His words though. Those were often real. As such, ignoring his kindly face, grin and happy voice, they knew he probably wasn’t too happy with their performance. Many of them actually had their faces burn with embarrassment as they listen to his reprimand.
“Pugio. Breakblade. Bohn. Laurent. Step out! You performed satisfactorily.”
Looking uncomfortable, the five mentioned left the group to stand to the side.
“You two… ” Walters said fixing his gaze on Pugio and Bohn in turn, “You were excellent! I’ll get you your rewards later.”
“As for the rest of you… I cannot even… I’m not sure what to do with you”, he said with an expression of despair. “Can I give you back?”
Muttering to as if to himself, he continued, “Maybe if I beg harder enough, Major Emerson will actually give me competent cadets next time around. Cadets not so stupid or stiff. Hey, maybe I can convince him to give me a set that won’t disgrace me whenever they go into battle.”
“Or do you disagree?” he asked as he turned back to glare at them.
“I mean, Stonemason, our resident archer decided that breaking away to climb a tree was the smart thing to do in the middle of a fight. That the fact that she got shot in the back is not the most ironic thing to happen in your battle should speak to the quality of your performance.”
Valerian turned to stare at the blushing girl. ‘Was that really how she died’, he wondered to himself.
‘Tiabire ignored the call to fall back and got caught on the wrong side of the defence line!” Walter’s continued, determined to list their faults one by one.
“Venator froze in the middle of battle and got stepped on by ghost Steelborn and Brandt was useless. “The scryers were practically useless but Morwoko was the worst.”
“You are second-in-command”, he told the fidgeting boy. “I’m not sure you know this but there is a certain level of decision making and initiative you need to be responsible for. If you really need Steelborn to hold your hand all the time, I think the squad will be better off if I swap you with Bohn.”
“And you!” he said to Valerian. “Don’t get me started on you!”
“Withholding vital information. Nearly getting done in by an attack you knew was coming and had prepared for. Injuring your own squadmates with you phantasm and list of bad calls longer than my scarf”, he counted. “Are you sure you had a plan back there?” he asked.
Valerian said nothing. He was aware that he was the one most at fault. His phantasm had wreaked havoc on their plans and defences. It had even killed Drusilla by accident. They had nearly lost the battle not because they hadn’t prepared enough or that they were weaker than their opponents but because of him. Gigne had grasped a weakness he had kept secret and leveraged that in a way that had nearly cost not him but his entire squad.
“What do you have to say for yourself!” the Captain asked.
“I am sorry!” he said to everyone’s surprise.
The practice during their instructor’s tongue lashings was to take it silently and work on the faults he raised. Walters had made it abundantly clear that he was not interested in listening to apologies, excuses or platitudes. However, Valerian wasn’t apologising to him. He was apologising to them.
“I was wrong”, he said to them. “I did not intentionally hide it and I never considered it an issue for anyone other than myself. Honestly, I did not even consider it a weakness let alone something that could be exploited. Again, I was wrong” he admitted in a very serious tone.
“I really stepped in it this time and to make things worse the muck got tossed on you guys. I not only cost nearly cost us the match but I also got many of us hurt. All I can say is sorry, to Drusilla especially. I regret that my mistakes are so costly and that it took this happening for me to see. It will not happen again.”
“I see”, Captain Walters said in a strange tone. “Well, what do you guys think?”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it”, James told him.
“Yeah!” someone agreed.
“You did end up fixing it so…” Tamara said.
“Yeah!” someone said.
“It all turned out well so…” Petilia’s soft voice tried to tell him.
“Tilia is right. We won in the end, didn’t we?” Pugio added.
Even Drusilla came over to clasp a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean to. I’m kind of jealous, actually. A metal attributed phantasm.”
“Me too!” Alenwaa revealed. “You know that makes it resistant to lightning, right? A phantasm that’s resistant to lightning. You have no idea how lucky you are.”
“Yeah!” a voice added.
“Hey, Hammerfist! Say something other than yeah”, their instructor cut in.
“Uhm…” the boy mumbled.
“Wow, so eloquent”, the Captain said in a tone of gushing adoration.
The group couldn’t stop itself from bursting into laughter, leaving the red-faced tellurian even more embarrassed. However, it broke the tense atmosphere that had been present prior to this and for that even John was thankful.
Valerian looked around at his assembled squad. They all crowded in to show their support and let him know it was all right. It filled him with warmth. He knew he was lucky to have them.
“Steelborn!” Captain Walters said all of a sudden. “If you’re done with your sopping, you may leave. There’s a someone waiting for you in the visitor’s hall.”
Wondering who this could be, Valerian left his squadmates to his instructor’s untender words and went into the hall where Squad Two received visitors to their barracks. His visitor was seated calmly looking like Valerian was the one actually the one visiting him.
“Hello, Cadet Steelborn”, Major Atakoma said to him. “I had a feeling that you might need some help with today’s events.”
“Come. Sit. There’s a lot we must discuss.”
“Emerson!” one of the judges called. He was the Chief Instructor of the Seventh Platoon. “It appears that your batch actually does deserve their reputation. They are definitely better than mine were when they first started, that’s for sure!”
“Don’t inflate his ego, Farmier!” the one from the Eighth Platoon told him. “He has more than he needs from that crystal set of his as is.”
“You’re still sore about that?” Major Emerson asked him.
The other simply huffed.
“Hey, what did the Steelborn kid leave in the box?” Major Farmier asked.
Major Emerson scanned it with his spiritual sense, examining the box and its contents. “It’s a jade slip”, he told the others.
“I know that”, Major Famier told him, proving that he’d scanned it as well. “What’s on it?”
Major Emerson reached over and opened the wooden box, retrieving the jade slip inside it. Sending some of his spiritual sense into it, he perused its contents. When he was done, he tossed it over to Farmier without saying a word. The curious judge read through the contents of the slip and passed it over to another judge who had shown interest in it.
“You got some very good seeds this time Emerson!” Major Farmier said with a sigh.
The unusual reactions he had the others had upon reading it made the others curious as well and soon all of the judges on the platform had read the material on the slip. Once they had, they had to agree.
Valerian’s mission had supposedly sent him into enemy territory to retrieve vital information that could be used against them. He and his squad had then tried to bring this information back to Headquarters but due to the vital nature of the intelligence they had obtained, an enemy squad was sent to destroy them and retrieve whatever they had. This was just a scenario. It was meant to outline No one had given Valerian anything and yet he brought something back. However, there wasn’t a single judge who would say that it wasn’t vital information on the enemy.
The jade slip contained critical details on each member of the other three squads. It had their names, histories, known facts and techniques. It even held more frightening things as their sleeping arrangements in their barracks, their perceived standing in their squads, recordings of their essence signature and some blackmail-worthy material. Vital intelligence that could be used in future battles indeed.