The training field allotted for use by Platoon Nine was no simple thing. It had a large paved yard for formation drills, a range with many targets set up for target practice and several raised platforms for duels and combat practice. The range was unique in that every target was either man or beast shaped whilst each fighting platform had a rack of assorted weapons beside it. The entire field covered at least a square kilometre.
They were taken through marching drills first. Basic things like marching in step, staying in formation, keeping rank and file seamlessly, squad and unit deployments, etc. These didn’t take long to learn. They were all the cream crop amongst cultivators. Nearly everyone had the routines down after a couple of tries. The rest was just practice which was something they had been assured they’d get a lot of. The first hour of every session for the foreseeable future would contain that. At least, until their instructors were sure it had become muscle memory.
That was another thing. This was being taught by all the four squad instructors together and supervised by a field master who turned out to be none other than their Chief Instructor, Major Emerson. They were told that on the field, they were not cadets or squads. They were a platoon. As such, whilst squad mates were typically placed closer together, you were likely to have someone from a different squad next to you in either rank or file and certain manoeuvres might call you to work together with him or her.
Valerian thought it alright. He understood the import of what they were being taught. This precision and ability to hold and work together might save their lives on the battlefield. It was also required for other tasks. Officers had to trust that they could move their troops efficiently if they were to employ winning strategies or command them properly on the battlefield. Teamwork across squads or better still, the ability to work with people other than your own troops towards an end was a crucial skill not just in the military.
Still, Valerian and many like him found their eyes being drawn towards the fighting platforms. Admittedly, no one went for military training to learn to march. They were here to fight and to learn to do so in the best possible ways. Thankfully, the once never-ending calls, directions and manoeuvres came to a close and they were marched towards the fighting platforms.
“I expect the majority of your combat training to be done here.”, the Chief Instructor was saying. “Your squad instructors will handle team training and aid in your individual training but personal improvement doesn’t come from mere training. It is only by confronting enemies in battle that you can consolidate and learn to make use of your power.
“The purpose of this…” he said, gesturing towards the five platforms. “…is for exactly that. Here you can challenge each other, even your elite. You can settle disputes and learn from others. More importantly, here you can try your hands at applying what you’ve learned in a live situation. In addition to these fighting daises is the Battle Tower.”
Everyone turned to look at the mysterious tower next to them. It was five storeys tall and made of what seemed to be pale bricks making it stand out from the mostly nondescript stone that seemed to dominate Strapping’s aesthetics.
“The Battle Tower will not provide you with flesh and blood opponents but it will give you something similar. In its rooms, you’ll face all kind of foes. You can fight as you wish in there without worry or concern until the forces within kill you and send you out”, he told them.
“You see, the Battle Tower is home to an illusory world. Once inside, you’ll be sucked into it. Everything you experience in it would be as real as reality can be but once you die within it, the world will eject your consciousness, returning you to this one”, he explained.
“As with all the advanced facilities, all cadets will be allowed to visit the Battle Tower once! Afterwards, you’ll require merits, commendations or special permissions to train in there. You can gain these by putting forth exemplary performances on this training field and most easily by achieving the challenges listed on the notice board. I wish you luck.”
Despite being given the all clear and a one time chance to visit the Battle Tower, no one moved. They remained around the platforms watching each other. The cadets were strange in that sense but it was also to be expected. They had been through much during their stay. They were tested mercilessly and then ranked and assigned to groups. However, the one thing many had actually come for, they hadn’t gotten.
They came to fight and to learn to make a career doing so. Ironically, that was the one thing that had not been tested thus far. Sure, strength, speed, endurance, control and all those other things tested affected fighting prowess but they had no say on skill or sheer battle might. Valerian’s teammate Berengar would swear to the Heavens when bragging about his personal battle strength. That notwithstanding, his scores in the exams were merely average among those who did pass.
The time to test and prove their battle prowess had come!
No one, not even those who would surely not participate would leave at this time. Not when they could stay and watch. There were sure to be people challenging each other like mad today. They would provide an incredible sight.
Valerian knew that someone would definitely come after him. The Elite were allowed a visit to any of the advanced training facilities once a month. Those ranked fifth and above could do so twice. That meant Valerian could visit the battle tower twice a month without competing with the rest over merit points. That was already more than reason enough to talk little of gaining command of a squad and the benefits that gave.
He stood in front of the mob crowding the platforms like the rest of the squad leaders. They watched each other cautiously waiting to see who make the first move. Berengar came up to Valerian and whispered something into his ear: a request for permission to challenge someone he’d been longhouse mates with. Valerian gave it to him and stood back to watch as he walked right up to Clearcrest’s squad and tossed a gauntlet in front of one its members, calling him by name.
Berengar Tiabire was a simple person. He stood two metres tall something he’d been proud of until he came to Strapping’s and met other giants. For example, his squad leader, the dual force array master, while lankier was just as tall and as for the Hammerfist… Once, he’d thought it impossible to have neck muscles that corded but he had been proven wrong. Berengar went everywhere dressed in gleaming full plate armour, a style he shared with his squad leader to his approval.
Born of nobility, Berengar was raised to be a knight. His goal was to join one of the army’s prestigious dragoon corps. Coming to Strapping’s was his start. Making it this far was his big break. He’d lucked through the first exam by joining a team that was later absorbed by Reynard’s own. He’d been so happy. If he could get on good terms with someone like Reynard, Reign, Clearcrest or Gigne, his military career will be even more secure.
Unfortunately, he found that he was beyond mediocre without his horse. It didn’t matter how he petitioned the examiners, they refused. His horse was not a bonded animal. Not only had he had to send it home, he was not allowed to take any mount into the exam. He, a dragoon, was without a mount and half his strength. Eventually, when he was sidelined within his own group, he found himself unsurprised. He saw it coming.
He was of minimal use to the others. Of course, they’d sideline him. Things took a worse turn when his longhouse bunkmate, someone he’d begun to think of as a friend, was discovered to be a spy. It completely ruined whatever chances he had with Reynard’s team. His goals had never seemed so far away than they did then. Due to the time he’d dedicated to Reynard’s group, he’d made no ties to any of the other big names. Without them, his chances of making his name in Strapping’s like he’d dreamt were slim.
Then, he was picked out by the dark horse, Valerian Steelborn, the dual force user. Berengar did not dare refuse. Being assigned to the squad of the second-ranked elite wasn’t what he’d hoped. Well, it was but not in the way he had wanted. Valerian was not someone who could compare to the likes of Gigne or Reynard. He was good but not that good. Or so he thought.
That was before. Before the other youth had installed a set of arrays probably worth a quarter of his inheritance in his room and before the team exercises. Now, he wasn’t quite sure what to think of his squad leader. He did know that his path to his dream wasn’t as derailed as he’d thought. He still had a good shot and he planned to start by beating the shit out of the ‘friend’ that had used and sold him out.
Leaping onto a nearby dias, he cried, “Get up Vole! You coward!”
He put on his frog-mouth helm and summoned his trusted lance. It was time for battle.
Berengar’s challenge sparked up a blaze. All of a sudden, people were challenging each other and leaping onto platforms. There were only five of them and if you stood away a bit you could keep them all in your sight. Soon, cheering, jeering and the sounds of battle resounded in the air. Most of the battles did not last long. You could tell an opponent’s apparent level but not his fighting prowess. It meant that many challengers and defenders were quickly overwhelmed. They’d simply lucked into terrible opponents one way or the other.
Additionally, the weapons racks were not there for show. The instructors, acting in this capacity as referees, forced them to make them use of the ones on the rack instead of their own where possible. These weapons inflicted illusionary wounds. They were a great and practical tool but they basically wasted essence. All forces conducted through them or techniques performed using them came out as illusions. You could stab someone in the heart with the greatest skill out there and do nothing. It was a safety measure. One intended to prevent cadets from killing or maiming each other.
Berengar had been told off at the start of his duel and made to pick a lance from the rack. His opponent would have too if he was not an arcanist. As it turned out they had foci that did the same and he was made to use one despite his cries that it was heavy, unsuited to him and caused too much of a drain on his reserves. Berengar then had the illusionary weapons laid aside on the grounds that theirs was an honour duel, not a challenge.
Speaking off, their fight was drawing to a close with Berengar winning. That wasn’t a surprise. His opponent was a coward who spent half the battle trying to keep away. With a battle cry and a lance tip that left flames in its wake, Berengar finally defeated his opponent. The victory couldn’t have come sooner.
“Elite Steelborn, I challenge you!” yelled a leather armoured fellow making sure to get the attention of everyone in the area.
Valerian ignored him at first, looking past him at his squad leader. Clearcrest was going to be trouble, that much was certain. He wondered if she honestly thought no one could see through her games. All the same, if he didn’t find a way to deal with her, he’d come to regret it sooner or later. He frowned at his challenger. As the first squad leader to be challenged, he couldn’t refuse.
Striding towards the dais Berengar was vacating, he snatched a spear from a rack. “Hurry up Fallenwood”, he said dismissively.