Chapter Forty-one: Survival Training
Reynard ended up commissioning five rooms at 2 gold sovereigns each, an unimaginable sum. Valerian hadn’t thought that he’d be earning such a bulk sum for his first commission. He ended up giving his new client a discount to bring the price down to 100 sovereigns. Thus, Valerian was hard at work for the next few days, installing the necessary arrays in the Selected rooms at Squad Four’s barracks.
Many were confused about the decision. Why do this? Why take this commission? Why trade away their advantage? He had guaranteed his squad an edge with the special rooms he had crafted and now he was giving that same edge to his competitors? That just didn’t make sense. Was he that greedy or in need of gold?
In a bid to explain himself, Valerian told his squadmates this, “It is not the rooms that’ll make us better than them. While they are a great help, they are only an aid to cultivation. They cannot make our fists hit harder or our stamina last longer. They cannot guide us in our strikes or advance our skills. Those are the things we will rely on to win not the rooms. Besides, we each have one, they’ll have to share theirs, three to a room, except Reynard, of course.”
“Also, take a look at our current position. We are currently at odds with Gigne’s squad and being targetted by Clearcrest’s. Reynard’s group is the only party being neutral at the moment but who knows if that will change. Do you not think a few rooms are worth preventing the possibility of them ganging up on us?” he questioned them.
This was enough to mollify them a bit. He could see that they were not too satisfied with his explanation but they did appear to grasp the need of making Reynard more favourable towards them instead of the other groups. There was one other thing Valerian could have employed but even he knew it wouldn’t go over too well.
Simple. They had no right telling him what he could or could not do. He was the leader, not the other way around. Besides, it was skill and his craftsmanship and therefore his to use or distribute as he saw fit. The fact that they had benefited from it did not mean that they could demand it of him or prevent others from doing so as well. Suffice it to say that though Valerian held such sentiments in his heart, he was not stupid enough to voice them publicly. Not when he was finally making headway with them.
The sun rose joyfully, bringing with it; light and warmth. It shone over the barracks of Squad Two, illuminating the features of the drowsy cadets who had assembled in their training yard. A few of them were bright and alert but they had had a late night the day before and so many of them were struggling to shake the tiredness off and the wool from between their ears.
“Good morning Cadets!” Walters said with a smile.
“Morning Sir!” came their responses.
“I mentioned a few days ago that we’ll be conducting a special exercise soon. That soon is today. Head back in and pack a kit!” he commanded. “You have ten minutes before we’re to set off”, he added.
“What sort of exercise will be undertaking, sir?” Valerian asked.
Walters gave a happy smile, something the team had come to associate with their own misfortune. “It’s a wilderness training exercise!”
A few groans could be heard from his cadets. They were not groaning because of what they were going to face. They didn’t even know what it was going to entail. They groaned because of the enthusiasm in their captain’s voice as he told them. Whatever it was, it was not going to be fun.
In less than the ten minutes, they were given, they were packed and assembled on their training grounds much to their instructor’s approval. Once they were all there, they were carted away in a shuttle. It was a flying artefact. ‘A tool’, Major Atakoma’s voice rang in their heads. The shuttle was shaped like a giant sledge. Made of dark brown wood and inlaid with imbued materials, it was large enough for all of them to fit on comfortably.
To himself, Valerian remarked that it looked a bit like a moccasin that was lacking a back portion. Whatever it looked like, it was fast. Valerian could barely make out the landscape as they whizzed by. It only took a few seconds before they were at the borders of Strappings. They halted for a bit, waiting in mid-air whilst the captain spoke to the people manning the guard station to get clearance to leave. The experience reminded Valerian of the times he left DaleGuard with his grandmother. Anyone flying in or out was monitored there too. It was an added layer of security. Perhaps, such protocols were standard at all military bases.
Then, they were off again, whizzing through the air so fast Drusilla, who was revealed to be afraid of heights, shrieked and clutched her knees from her position on the floor. Valerian glanced towards her, wondering how such a tough girl could be reduced to whimpers by this. Valerian exulted in it. It was one of the hardest parts of his peng instincts to suppress. The feel of the wind rushing past him. Being able to float so high and look down on the world. The sheer freedom that came from the multitude of directions and choices being in the air gave him to choose from.
In his human form, it was merely a whisper from afar that he couldn’t quite make out but the moment he transformed, it roared in his ears. When fully transformed, his body went so far as to refuse to touch the ground. The sky was his! At that thought, Valerian looked up, gazing at the clouds and the clear, beckoning blue. After a while, he felt his conscious mind slipping as thoughts of flying through it and his ancestral memories slowly rose to the fore.
A hand clasped Valerian’s shoulder, shaking it and him from his daydreams. Looking to his side, Valerian stared into the curious eyes of Pugio. Ignoring the questions the other’s eyes posed, he looked to the front of the shuttle. They had slowed down. Wherever they were going, they were nearly there. A quick glance back skyward showed that he’d been out of it for at least an hour. After rubbing his eyes for a bit, he watched as their instructor chose a small glade and land the shuttle right in its centre.
Turning around to face them, the man said to them with a smile, “This place will do.” His face became a bit more serious. “Squad Two, gather round!”
They did as he said.
“The objective this time is simple”, he informed them. “Survive!”
Gasps could be heard.
“Don’t look at me like that!” he said. “You didn’t really think that a military training centre raised its recruits in hutches like rabbits, did you?”
“Besides, it’s not that bad”, he assured them. “This entire area is Beastland. Do you know what that means?”
They nodded with worried expressions. It was just like Captain Walters to reassure and scare them at the same time. Beastland. That meant that the area was a haven for daemons. No. It would be better to call it a land dominated and ruled by daemons. Then members of squad two began to look around at the shrubs and trees around them warily. Who knew what lurked in the verdant greenery?
“One of the reasons Strapping’s is located here is to keep an eye on the area.We prevent the daemons here from terrorising the kingdom. Now, we have an accord with most of the major horde leaders. In addition, the land around the centre itself is devoid of daemons…mostly”, he added with a smirk. “The place we are now is at the borders of the beastland proper. There will be few if any daemons in the vicinity and any that you’ll encounter would be incredibly weak. Things change though, the further into the beastland you go. As such, I wouldn’t recommend doing that.”
Staring at their faces, Walters was proud to note that whilst they were definitely apprehensive, none of his students appeared scared out of their wits. That might change though. “I called this a training exercise earlier but it’s more of a test”, he added. “What we’re testing is your survival skills and your capabilities in the wilderness and your adaptability.
“You are to spend a week out here. During this period, you will live off the land and whatever you packed into your kits. Your objective, like I said, is to survive. Do what you must but remember that you must do so as a team. Your performance will be assessed at the end of the week so do your best. In the meantime, do you see that old tree daemon?” he said pointing at an ancient and gigantic baobab tree.
“That’s a daemon?” Tiabire exclaimed.
The shock was understandable. The tree had to be at least eight hundred metres tall and nearly five hundred wide. It practically towered over everything in the area and was visible from miles away. Valerian didn’t know baobabs grew that big. He wondered for a moment how he hadn’t seen it on the way only to remember that he spent nearly the entire journey daydreaming.
“Yes”, Captain Walters answered, delighting in their expressions. “That’s Old Toanaba! Don’t worry, he is harmless, been sleeping for centuries. He acts as sentinel and marker for Strapping’s borders. Going past him will put you in school territory which is useful if you need to get back. However, doing so during this exercise will give you an automatic fail. Also, see that mountain peak?” he asked.
They nodded quietly, staring at the misty mountain in the distance.
“It is the home of a rather large daemon horde”, their instructor informed them. “The closer you are to it, the deeper into the Beastland you’re going. You should know what that entails”, he told them.
“Steelborn, come forward!” he called.
Valerian gingerly walked up to the captain, his eyes straying to the Identified tree daemon. Sleeping for centuries? He couldn’t imagine how long it had taken for the daemon to grow that big or how much power it probably held. The thing was bigger than most hills.
“Should you run into trouble you cannot handle or feel yourselves not up to the test, you may use this talisman to call for help”, he said, forcing it into his hand. “It will send a priority message and beacon to myself and any member of staff within a certain range so we can come to your aid. Please remember to use it as soon as you feel the situation is dire!”
Squad Two watched as the shuttle rose into the air and left without them. Their instructor’s last words played in Valerian’s ears. The man had been uncommonly solemn at the end. It was disconcerting. Clearly, this exam was not going to be easy.
“What do we do?” Petilia asked worriedly.
That was the question on everyone’s lips. She was just the first to say it out loud. Valerian sighed. Things would be so much simpler if they had been given a map of the area, some more objectives to guide them or even a criteria for what they were to do, things to look out for or better still some training for this. However, it seemed the Strapping’s way. No. The Strapping’s way was to toss their recruits into the deep end of things to see how they fared first. Only afterwards would they be taken through better ways of accomplishing whatever it was they were to do.
Having read the journals in the archives, Valerian understood what it was they were trying to do. Even so, it chafed his sensibilities. They wished to preserve individuality and innovation whilst making it clear to the recruits that there was no one way to go about things. For them, adaptability was more important than following some established protocol. Instructors were charged with looking out for their students’ interests and developing them instead of training or forcing them into set roles.
Valerian had decided to reserve judgement on their education model for the time being. Chances were he didn’t understand it well enough.
“How many of you have wilderness skills or training?” he asked his squad.
Drusilla, Tiabire, John and James and Bohn raised their hands. Valerian found himself glancing at Pugio in surprise.
“Don’t look at me”, the dark-haired boy exclaimed sheepishly. “I was trained for urban reconnaissance.”
“What do your skills cover?” he asked those who raised their hands. He had to work with what he had.
Tiabire answered first. “Back home, I’d often go boar or deer hunting with my father”, he offered.
“Okay, then I can put you on scout duty. We need someone to find out exactly where we are and what our area is like”, he added for the benefit of the others.
“Uhmmm!” Tiabire intoned, shifting the lance at his back uncomfortably.
A thought struck Valerian. “Your hunting”, he began. “It wouldn’t happen to have been sport, would it? You didn’t have trackers and dogs to chase down your prey for you, did you?”
The look on the tall boy’s face said it all. Valerian sighed. “At least tell me you spent a few nights in the woods and know how to set up a tent”, he pleaded.
“That’s what the servants are for, isn’t it?” Tiabire defended.
Valerian caught something out the corner of his eye. Bohn was nodding. “Not you too”, Valerian sighed. The girl had the decency to blush though where it was in embarrassment Valerian couldn’t tell.
Turning to the other three, he asked, “Tell me you can scout or something?”
They nodded, leading Valerian to sigh again, this time in relief.
“Okay! Here’s what we’re going to do” he told them. “The three things we need to survive out here are shelter, water and food in that order. Now, thankfully, we have two water attributed mages here so the second shouldn’t be a problem but I’d still prefer it if we found a place with access to water.
“Firmina, Morwoko, you’re with me”, Valerian said clearly, giving directions. “I’ll show you some long ranged scouting techniques and set perimeter alarms and basic protections once we find shelter.”
“Venator, James, Tiabire, Brandt, you guys are in charge of getting us food. Hunt and gather what you can. I’d rather we not dip into our provisions so soon. Remember, we don’t know whats out there to stay together and remain alert! Keep your eyes out for anything and everything!”
“Hammerfist, Laurent, Pugio, remain on standby. You’ll be in charge of setting up camp.”
“How many of you brought tents?” he asked.
Valerian was dismayed to see only Drusilla and James put up their hands. Adding theirs to his would make three. That was nowhere near enough. With luck, they’d find a safe enough spot to build a lean-to.
“Okay, Venator”, he said, calling Drusilla. “Wait for us to clear the area and then take your team out. Remember, keep your communication talismans at your side and remain within a radius of five kilometres from my position.”
She nodded, whipping out a mock salute before stalking off with her hunting party.
The irony of having lots of nobles who knew little about the outdoors in his squad was not lost on Valerian. What was more surprising was the city-dwelling commoners namely; Pugio, Laurent and Firmina. He wasn’t sure why but Valerian had always thought of commoners as hardy folk. Sparing a glance at Laurent’s lost looking visage, he saw that they were just like everyone else.
Valerian thought back to all those hunting trips he took with his grandmother and Avery. The old lady had trained him well. Hopefully, it would be enough to see them through this. This was going to be difficult. Thankfully, Alenwaa had already raised a pane of light. On it, you could see everything within his sensory range. The boy was an incredible scryer. Calling Petilia to his side, Valerian stood next to him and begun pointing out everything they needed to take note off and why.