The opponent was locked in place. Spiked chains and glazings of ice held it down and restricted its movement. Even half frozen, the horde leader tried to break free of the chains that held it, causing the spikes on them to dig further into its flesh. The ice might have been trapping it but its cold did little to slow the daemon down. Valerian wondered if the frost even went deeper than its thick blubbery skin. It didn’t matter. They had worked hard to get it into this position. This was the time to strike!
“Berengar! NOW!” Valerian screamed.
The boy in question leapt off the floating platform that supported him, diving straight down with his lance thrust ahead of him. The tip of the lance burst into flames even as he twisted himself into a spin. Swiftly, he became a corkscrew of fire as he propelled himself down at their trapped foe. Valerian could see the daemon looking up, eyes widening with unwillingness and fear. It wailed and struggled mightily but he and Bohn continued to do their best to hold it in place.
Looking like a meteor and leaving shining trails of fiery qi in his wake, Berengar speared through the daemon, nailing it through the head and the spine. He didn’t just pierce it. He crushed it. The force of his technique cracked and cratered the earth. The members of his squad were forced to shield their eyes from the dust and debris that he inadvertently blew up. However, that was not the end of it.
A deafening explosion rang out as Berengar’s lance let loose it’s true attack. The impact was so great it tripled the size of the already wide crater and completely destroyed all the spells holding it in place. The force of it shredded the daemon’s body, buffeting everyone with a powerful shockwave and created a ten-metre wide blaze that rose nearly six metres high.
Valerian felt a mental twinge as the chains were broken and he was certain Tamara had felt something similar. Theirs were sustained spells. Further fortified and directly controlled with mental links lest the troll break free. The ache that accompanied them breaking was something he’d already experienced during the course of the battle. It was sure to give him a headache later.
“Yes!” they cheered. That troll will not be getting up again.
With their final adversary dead, they gathered around and took stock of their injuries and supplies.
“Alen, great work today”, Valerian said, complimenting him. “The way you used those ward spells was incredible. On the other hand, Drusilla, you do not need to get so close before you launch that skill. If you absolutely must close in remember to signal so we can cover you or distract the opponent. The ogre would have had your head if not for Alen’s intervention.”
She waved it off, but Valerian knew she had taken note. Failure was as embarrassing for her as it was for him. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they were metal attributed.
“Berengar! Your closer was over the top! I like that!” he told the grinning tellurian.
Berengar took the praise in stride. He’d scored the final hit this time and it was magnificently done. That was already enough. Pulling his treasured lance from the broken earth he rubbed his throbbing shoulder hoping that he hadn’t torn anything in that daring manoeuvre. Seeing his actions, Petilia rushed over to take look at it.
“We spent a long time setting that up for you”, Valerian was saying.. “Had you wasted that chance we would have had you eat your spear!” he said jokingly.
“Okay, the rest of you. Cybele, I know today didn’t seem like a good day but your work was invaluable. I don’t think we’d have gotten as many opening as we did without you. Even so, remind me when we get back so that we can speak to the Captain about getting you a skill that can fix the gap.”
Cybele nodded, her hand tightening on her bow’s grip. In most battles, she was a great help. Her skill with the bow served to pin down enemies and thin out crowds. Not so this time. They’d just finished fighting a four-armed troll and his pack of crystal wolves. Throughout the battle, she’d merely been a nuisance to their opponents. Her wind arrows did little to the crystal wolves and the troll simply regenerated from what little damage she inflicted on it. Even so, she persevered raining arrows onto their enemies partly out of frustration and to draw their attention in inopportune moments for them, allowing her teammates to capitalise on the openings that came up.
“Tamara, your skill at immobilizing enemies keeps getting better and better”, Valerian told her. “We would not have had this battle so easy without it.”
It was true. Without her control abilities to keep the troll at bay, they would not have been able to focus on and destroy the wolves.
“However, I’ll take your previous requests into consideration. Next time, you’ll go back to the frontlines”, he finished.
Tamara grinned in triumph.
Valerian now turned a worried glance to John. The burly youth was currently draped over a boulder whilst Raphael healed his legs. The crystal wolves were very cruel and Valerian grudgingly admitted, efficient. Their crystalline nature made for an incredible defence. One that John had been especially suited to combating. His style which relied on huge explosive impacts shattered the wolves with each good hit.
The wolves were smart though. After the two of their number were destroyed, they focused on the threat and countered it the way wolves were wont to. They hobbled him. Twice! Three if you counted the bite that was now being healed. Thank the spirits they had two healers on hand to help. The squad quickly learnt not allow the wolves to surround them. Even so, three people were bitten in the course of the battle.
John, being at the centre of the assault got the worst of it. The dastardly animals went for the ankles and the back of the thighs seeking to limit and slow their movements. The troll was also there, ever ready to jump in and deal a finishing blow.
“How are you doing?” Valerian asked John.
“I’m okay!” he said shakily only to groan softly when Raphael extracted a crystal shard that had lodged itself in his flesh.
Valerian gave him a small pat on the shoulder. Raphael glanced at him and flashed a small sign. He was nearly done. Everyone’s eyes were on the healing being conducted as much as they had gotten used to injuries in the course of their training wounds like this still unnerved them. They looked at John with pity.
Valerian was, for his part, grateful. Having two healers was a blessing. It would seem redundant to others but he’d come to appreciate having more than one person on hand to see to or administer health care. Raphael could even fight, He wasn’t someone Valerian would consider putting on the frontlines but the mere fact that he could contribute and hold his own was indispensable.
Once John was healed and his squad ready, Valerian raised the token and sent a pulse of qi into it pulling them out the illusory realm. The world around them faded away leaving them sitting cross-legged in a small stone room. Training in the battle tower was very effective. You didn’t just train or develop your skills, you got to use them in ‘real’ situations.
It used the most comprehensive and detailed illusion Valerian had ever seen. Somehow, it drew both on the subconscious of its users and on certain established principles to create worlds that were not only accurate but also provided all the stimuli a person would experience in reality. There were even some who believed that the tower token was actually a focus that sent their minds or spiritual selves into another realm to do battle instead of an illusion. It was just that good.
“How are the legs?” he asked John as he stood up.
“They are alright”, the other answered. “They don’t feel any different from before the session.
“That’s good news”, Valerian said with a relieved smile. “Remember, if anything feels off, report to the sick bay immediately or inform either me or the Captain.”
Great as it was, the Battle Tower was not without its negative effects as they’d discovered in the months they’d spent at Strappings. Whilst nothing the illusory ream affected the true body, there were times that people who were injured or killed in it returned with mental injuries or nightmares. It was never anything serious and didn’t appear to affect those with strong wills but a few people had suffered nightmares for days after dying inside. Others, who had received grievous injuries like loss of limbs, came out with phantom pains or difficulty working the limbs they lost.
As the stories and rumours spread, many grew scared of using the tower. To calm things down, the instructors explained to them the intricacies surrounding the tower and some of its effects. They were told that sometimes, the mind has trouble believing that it is not actually injured. This only happens in cases where severe injury is coupled with a weak or disordered mental state.
‘That is why we advise that you disconnect before death whenever possible’, Captain Walters had told them.
There are safety mechanisms and enchantments in place but they can only stop the illusion from damaging your minds and through that the body. They were also informed that their minds would often grow used to the process making the adverse effects a rare happenstance. Still, they were warned.
‘If your minds still hold on to whatever version of events it experienced then you need to seek help and perhaps even desist from using the battle tower’, Captain Walters said in a serious tone.That was why they spent so much time healing John inside the illusory realm before leaving. It was generally believed that, if one experienced recovery in the illusion, the trauma of the wounds would not plague them when they returned. No one in Valerian’s group had suffered adversely from using the battle tower thus far but they did not plan to take any chances.
“Okay, Squad!” Valerian said, demanding their attention. “I would prefer we meet with Captain Walters to give a briefing and obtain an evaluation for this session but it’s nearly lunch time so I suggest we get to that first.”
This drew some pleased smile and murmurs for his squad.
“Do remember that there is supposed to be a general assembly after that so turn up promptly”, he reminded them. “I have a feeling that it will be very important. Let’s make a good impression.”
Platoon Nine met on the drill grounds, lined up in neat columns and rows. They had been recruits for months now. Everyone knew where he was to go and how he or she was to discharge his duties. They merely waited for orders or information from whichever senior officer was coming to meet them.
They didn’t have to wait long. The Chief Instructor: Major Emerson his assistant: Major Atakoma and the squad instructors marched up the platform watching them like hawks. Everyone was surprised to see Major Takoma in their number. He never attended general assemblies! Whatever they were here for, it was big.
“Platoon Nine!” the Chief Instructor yelled. “You have been with us for five months now. It is high time you proved to us that you’ve learned something in your stay here. I’d rather not think you’ve only been eating, sleeping and wasting the precious time and energy of your instructors. As such, we’re going to conduct an assessment in the next few weeks!” he announced.
The recruits were shaken. An assessment? What exactly were they going to assess? Was that why the Military Affairs teacher was here?
Panic set in. There were many who had never taken notes in Major Atakoma’s class. Thinking back to the terror of their entrance exams, dread began to pool in their collective gut. However, they were much more disciplined now than they had been prior to becoming students so they kept their thoughts to themselves and their mouths shut.
“This assessment will not be like your entrance exam”, Major Emerson said, having some inkling as to what they were thinking. “Then, we tested your base attributes to see if you were fit to join our ranks. Now, we’re going to test your skills.”
“You have spent every day since you enrolled here being trained in combat, strategy, survival skills, cultivation, military practice and discipline”, he began. “The time has come to prove that it stuck with you. You will do so in the only fitting way.”
“WAR!” he yelled.
The loud shout was like a cannon blast. It rang in their ears and caused the eyes of some of those in front to water from its sheer force.
“Each squad should prepare itself. Your assessment will be a series of battles simulating some of the most basic battles. For the purpose of this exercise, you are now armies and your squad leaders, your commanders”, he elaborated.
“I would remind you that this is a military institution. You came here to study the art of war. You’ve been learning how to fight; in tandem as well as individually. You have had lessons on military order and battle strategy. So long as you took your lessons seriously and trained, you will do well. It might be a battle but you do not have to win to pass. You would be evaluated based on performance”, he added to their relief.
“However, no one man is an army, remember that. This is not a test of personal skill but of military force”, he warned. “Also, we might grade based on performance but remember that battle is a winner takes all affair. The winners will no doubt be justly rewarded.”
“Now, Squad Leaders step forward!” he called out of the blue.
Already at the forefront of his column Valerian did as told. Out the corner of his eyes, he could see the others do so as well. The top four elite in the Platoon.
“You will be drawing lots to determine the sorts of battle your squads will be engaged in”, he suddenly revealed. “Understand that battle is inevitable. Each squad will face off against each of the others by the time this assessment is done. The only difference is that the kind of battle would change each time.”
“The first round of battles will be between Squads One and Two and between Squads Three and Four” he announced. “The second will have the winners of the first round off followed by the losers doing same. The third and final round would have the squads who’ve yet to face each other meet in battle”, he revealed to the assembled cadets.
“As with everything, victory is its own reward. I need not have to explain what a full three wins will do for your assessments. Even so, here at Strapping’s, we understand the appeal of physical rewards”, he said with a wry smile. Ears perked, the cadets listened intently to what he said.
“Whichever squad has the most wins will receive ten times their allotment of cultivation resources for the next month! Not only that, the most excellent cadets will be given a chance to challenge the elite for their positions!” Major Emerson said with a smile.
The cadets of Platoon Nine had to fight back their gasps. The cultivation resources given to them were already generous. Ten times that was simply incredible. As for the chance to become one of the elite… Sharp eyes suddenly began to pierce the backs of the cultivators and squad leaders in front. The past five months had shown them the worth of the title and the benefits it came with. Of course, they wanted it! Unfortunately, none of them would put their titles on the line making it impossible to obtain them during the battles on the fighting dais.
The weaker ones also made sure to avoid confrontations with others further reducing any possible chances. This was a chance for them to cast of their current cloaks for the mantle of the elite. Many began to make resolutions to themselves. ‘No matter what. I have to obtain one of those chances’, they swore.
Elite Gigne! Elite Steelborn! Come forward!” The Chief Instructor commanded. They did as he asked.
“This assessment will feature two kinds of battle”, he informed them. “The skirmish and the siege. The skirmish should explain itself. The siege is a little different. In such battles, we’ll first determine which role either squad will play; the defender or the attacker. The intent is to have you experience all of them so do not worry about which you will receive just when you will receive them. Now, given that your squads will be the first to battle, you get to choose!”
Pulling out a gold sovereign he said to them. “Heads will be skirmish and tails will be siege.”
“Elite Gigne!” he called out. “As the first ranked elite, you get to choose. What will it be?”
Gigne did not hesitate, “Heads!”
The Chief Instructor nodded slowly in acknowledge and then flipped the coin. Catching it, he did not place it on his foreman but rather held his hand out to the two squad leaders bringing it right in front of their faces before opening his palm to reveal that the outcome was tails.
“It appears that the first battle: that of Squads One and Two will be a siege”, he announced to the assembled cadets.
Turning to Valerian he said, “Since Elite Gigne chose earlier you may do so this time. Heads for attack and tails for defence.”
Valerian nodded in understanding. When the coin was tossed, he followed his instincts and said, “Tails!”
In his head, Gigne had lost in the first outcome. It had turned up tails instead of the heads he predicted. Gigne losing meant that he, Valerian, won. Tails was his and having won once with it, he might as well continue with it. Besides, everyone knew that the side with the greatest advantage in a siege was the defending side. Ignoring the nervousness in his gut, he watched as Major Emerson stretched his hand out to them. he opened it slowly but when he did, it was to reveal tails. Valerian smiled in victory.
“Very well”, the Major acknowledged, then he announced to the gathered people. “It appears that the first battle will be a siege battle between squads One and Two with Squad Two as the defending side! The battle will be held in one week. The precise venue, time conditions will be communicated to you later.”
“Good luck to both squads!” he added. “Prepare well that victory might be yours!”
“Elite Clearcrest! Elite Reynard!” he called. “Step forward!”