For the next few days, the members of Squad Two wracked their brains trying to think of something, anything that would help them in the battle to come. Every plan or idea brought forth was hotly debated before either being accepted or discarded. The main problem was that They were planning out how to defend a place without knowing anything about the place they were going to be defending.
They would have asked their instructor but all instructors had been forbidden to interfere. This was something they were to experience and fight through on their own.
Once more, Valerian wondered whether Strapping’s education system was some madman’s experiment. They seemed to favour innovation and adaptation and never actually trained them for fixed objectives or roles. Sure, they’d studied manoeuvres and strategies and even had battles in the fight rings and Battle Tower but was that really enough to prepare them for this? James and few of the others seemed to think so.
It made Valerian wonder if his problem simply wasn’t him being used to his grandfather’s systematic progress with regards to teaching and learning. The Strapping’s model was very different. It supposedly provided you with everything you need to know but it was more of a guideline and the bulk of the training was left to you. Somehow, they expected you to take what was given, make it suit your needs and grow with that. For his part, Valerian considered military more akin to raising attack dogs than gardening but hey, if they thought watering and coming by once in a while to check for weeds was the way to go, who was he to argue differently.
It was only two days to the battle that they were taken to the site they were supposed to defend. A place that was nothing like they thought it would be. First of all, they did not leave Strapping’s. Instead, they went closer to its heart. They were taken to a small stadium and marched onto the centrefield. There, a platform had been created for them. Confused, they wondered what was going on. Was the platform a pickup site? Was someone now going to come here and take them to their site? Was it going to transform, somehow, into their fort?
None of these held the answer. With a mocking smile on his face, Captain Walters revealed to them that they had arrived at their battlefield or rather, the entrance to it. Before anyone could voice questions as to whether they were going underground he shared tokens among them. The tokens were very familiar. In fact, they were nearly identical to the ones used to access and leave the illusory realm of the battle tower.
Valerian was forced to admit that the illusory world was the perfect battlefield. It had or could have every conceivable thing. It could be set up any way its controllers wished and more importantly: no one could die here! It was clear now that the Chief Instructor really had meant war when he said it. They were going to kill each other and they would do it until one side was proclaimed the winner. Valerian was unsure how he felt about that.
Using the tokens, they appeared in a preset illusory realm with the site they were to defend looming over them. It was just like Valerian feared. Any fanciful notions of holding a fort and battling it with their opponents in some glorious manner fled his mind. The thing in front of him could only be called a fortification under the loosest definition of the word.
Valerian came from Cragsveil, DaleGuard even. He knew what fortifications were. His viscounty was littered with them with the three major ones being known by practically everyone on this side of the Grand Boundary. He had hoped that they would be given a dilapidated fort or even a small fortified manor. They didn’t need it to be in good condition or even have most of its defences. They just needed something they could hole in effectively and if possible make some attacks of their own.
What they had been given was a small, hastily built redoubt. It wasn’t a permanent post or even a small fort. No. A redoubt was merely an enclosed wall structure that soldiers could retreat to, recoup and resupply whilst they held off their foes. Either that or, a staging point to discourage attacks on or act as a forward station for a much larger, proper fortification.
The redoubt they were given was made of earth. It looked like someone had gotten an earth attributed arcanist to raise a few dirt walls on a hilltop so as to form a somewhat recognisable blocklike shape. In fact, Valerian was certain that that was exactly what they did. Running his hand over a wall, he watched the dirt stick to his fingers. He wanted to cuss. It was indeed dirt. Their walls weren’t made of stone or brick or even hard packed clay but common, top of the earth, soil. There was no way that they would survive or outlast any real threat here. Evidently, as much as the Chief Instructor had called it a siege, he didn’t intend for this to last long.
Mustering up some motivation, he called on his squad. Quickly, they set themselves to work. They only had two days before Squad One came knocking at their door.
Strapping’s was agitated. The atmosphere in the centre could be likened to that of a child promised some great treat come morning and so lay awake in his room writing for cock’s crow and the break of dawn. Everyone was looking forward to the battle to come. The freshmen assessments were akin to a festive period for the people here. They only came round once a year but everyone looked forward to them.
Students, visiting alumni, instructors, they all gathered at in a massive stadium where there were seats aplenty and most important a large scale scrying spell set in the centre of the stadium’s bowl and ensorceled to show scenes of the soon-to-be-battlefield. The stadium was orderly and though there was some clamour it all came from loud laughter and bawdy boasts as people met and either reminisced about battle past or speculated about the one to come. A few even were trying to set up wagers.
There was also a sense of nostalgia to it. Nearly everyone at the centre was either a current student or an alumnus and watching others being assessed always brought to mind their own. Additionally, the freshmen assessment was when people began to pull ahead of the curve. It was a proving ground where one’s true mettle was revealed to all. It was quite common for the ranks of the elite to change after an assessment.
There was, however, one other group of people watching the assessments. They weren’t there to be entertained, to recall their youth or to evaluate students or future rivals. They were there to learn. These people were the members of Squads Three and Four. The reserve cadets were also there but they would not be competing. As much as they felt cheated and envious, they could relax. The other two groups could not. They would be ones fighting next and eventually, they would be called upon to battle the same squads about to fight now.
As such, they had their eyes peeled. They couldn’t allow anything to slip by them. It could very well mean the difference between victory or defeat when their turn came.
Soon, the attack squad came, catching the attention of the assembled spectators. Gigne knew how to make an entrance. His squad marched into the centre field with the sort of discipline and confidence that could only be matched by professional soldiers. They were met with approval by many in the crowd. There was still an hour to the start but both teams were here and ready.
Seeing no reason not to begin, Chief Emerson stood up and walked to his podium.
“Everyone”, he yelled. “We begin the first round of Platoon Nine’s assessments with a siege battle between Squads One and Two. Will the Squad Leaders step forward?”
Valerian and Gigne marched to the front of their squad to stand before the man.
“Your scenario is as follows”, the man began. “Squad Two”, he said to Valerian. “Yours is an elite squad sent to scout into enemy territory. You did so with aplomb and even manage to obtain some key intelligence that could prove useful in future battles against them. However, something went wrong and you were discovered before you could return to base.”
“Squad One”, he called out to Gigne. “Yours is the elite squad sent to hunt and eliminate them. You succeeded in the first, tracking them down and even crossing your country’s borders into theirs to cut them off from their destination. There is no way they can get away without first going through you. You set up an ambush to accomplish your task but your ploy was discovered. Rather than battle it out or attempt any suicidal escapes, they have retreated and chosen to turtle up making it difficult for you to get at them.”
“The intel they’ve stolen is critical”, he stressed. “No one can know of it. You must eliminate them and retrieve it. However, you are in enemy lands and you know reinforcements will be there soon. You have three days to break through their defences, eliminate Squad Two and retrieve the secrets in their possession.”
“Steelborn”, he said turning to Valerian. “You have gained great merit in your recent mission. Sneaking behind enemy lines to obtain their future battle plans and deployment, and supply details is no mean feat. Luck is not on your side I fear. You are days out from base and whilst you avoided a fatal ambush, your foes are knocking on your door. Thankfully, you got a beacon out and will be sent aid in a matter of days. Your only task now is to hold out long enough for them to reach you.”
“Remember!” he warned. “You cannot lose the intel you’ve obtained!”
“Squad leaders, are your objectives clear?” he asked them both.
“Like ice, sir!”
“Then, this briefing is over! Get out there, cadets”, he barked at them. “Good Luck and may the gods make your swords swift!”
Valerian and Gigne saluted. Marching back to their squads, they sat down and activated their tokens. The world blurred around them before clearing to reveal a scene completely different from the one they had just left.
The walls of the redoubt were covered in hard, crystal clear ice. The ice layer was nearly twenty centimetres thick and in addition to being incredibly cold glimmered here and there with glyphs. Some were there to reinforce the structure. Others there to ensure the ice did not melt. The rest, however, were surprises Valerian and his squad had cooked up for their opponents. He swept his gaze around till he was satisfied that everything was as they had left it.
“Get into positions!” he ordered.
There was a brief hustle and everyone rushed to their places. Valerian remained in the middle of the redoubt, right in front of the small hut. At his sides were Alenwaa and Petilia. Each had a wide panel of light in front of them, scrying spells that they were using to monitor their surroundings. Behind Valerian were Drusilla and Raphael, waiting for further orders. The rest of the squad was spread out waiting for their cues.
“Now”, Valerian mumbled. “We wait.”