“Every cadet should try to get on a team of his choosing, with the leader he wishes!” he advised the assembled cadets. “If you are selected by a leader for a squad you do not want, you may refuse to join. However, remember that is the cadets who do not get assigned teams that will be sent to the reserves. Is this clear?”
“If you are selected by a leader for a squad you do not want, you may refuse to join. However, remember that is the cadets who do not get assigned teams that will be sent to the reserves”, he warned. “Is this clear?”
“YES, SIR!” they yelled in response.
“We’ll begin with Gigne”, he announced. Turning to the bushy-haired tellurian he said, “Elite Gigne, you may begin your selection.”
The first ranked elite gave their chief instructor a salute before looking out at the assembled cadets. “Squad One, report!” he commanded.
Immediately, action could be seen among their ranks. What was surprising that three of the other elite; Dreamwell, Riverside and Reign, left their positions to stand in front of him. Soon, a total of eleven cultivators were gathered in front of him in a tidy 2X5 formation. Reign, however, stood in front of the group, facing Gigne directly.
“Squad One, reporting Squad leader”, he declared with a quick salute. “Should we take roll?”
“No need”, their leader said curtly. Marching to stand directly in front of the Chief Examiner in a similar manner, he gave the same salute and informed him. “Squad One is assembled, sir!”
Valerian felt like his jaw was going to drop. Judging from the looks of the other elite, the instructors and the rest of the cadets, they were just as surprised.
“Good work Squad Leader!” the man said with a look of approval.
“Steelborn! It’s your turn”, he barked.
Valerian found himself barely remembering to salute and acknowledge his orders. He was still trying to get his mind around the fact that Gigne somehow had a complete squad. The team he had during the exams only numbered eight. When had he had the time to recruit the others? Marching slowly, to stand in front of assembled cadets. he breathed out deeply and borrowing from the instructor’s book, he yelled.
“Morwoko. Hammerfist. Breakblade. Pugio. Report!”
Slowly, they came forward. Jame and John even tried saluting. Pugio snickered. Alenwaa merely looked uncooperative. Valerian felt like hiding his face in embarrassment but he persevered.
“Any cadets who wish to be assigned to Squad Two should fall out and line up!” he declared.
To his surprise, a few did so immediately. They came forward and line up, all eight of them. Valerian watched them carefully searching his memories for anything he could remember about them. Soon, he had picked four out of the lineup to join his team of five. The last one he picked, however, said something as he walked up.
“Excuse me, do you think you could pick up my friends too? We’ve been together for a long time and we really work best as a team.”
Valerian considered it. “Which ones are they?”
“These are them”, the youth answered pointing out three of the people remaining in the lineup.
Valerian looked at him carefully and said nothing, at first. He spun around to glance at the girl he knew to be Marcella Clearcrest. He found her watching him. Caught, she smiled back demurely.
“Fall back in line, Cadet Fallenwood!” he commanded, keeping his eyes on Clearcrest.
“Wait, I…” The youth tried to protest.
“Fall back in line!” he commanded more sternly.
The youth realised something was wrong and muttered a quick apology, heading to join Alenwaa and the others who were watching from the side.
“Did you not hear me, cadet? Valerian asked. His voice cold and dangerous. The youth instantly stopped, confused.
“I said, Fall. Back. In. Line!” Valerian repeated, jabbing his thumb back at the assembled and unassigned cadets.
“Why?” he asked stubbornly.
By this point, everyone was focused on the commotion taking place and wondering what was going on. The Chief Instructor even decided to intervene.
“Are you attempting to disobey orders, cadet? he asked.
“No, sir!” Fallenwood hastily replied.
“Then FALL BACK IN LINE, CADET!” yelled the Chief Instructor.
The disgruntled youth ran back to join the assembly in fear.
“Thank you, Major!” Valerian acknowledged.
“Paryire. Thimble. Striker. Follow Fallenwood!” Valerian commanded next.
Awkwardly, the three cultivators Fallenwood had recommended left the lineup to join him back in the assembly columns. Valerian didn’t stop there. He turned back to the three he had already picked, his eyes so sharp they glowed gold for a split second. In his head, he reviewed every single thing he knew about them.
“Amis”, he breathed out. “Fall back in line.”
The cultivator in question looked unwilling but did so anyway with a bitter expression. Valerian found himself sorry to see him go. Amis was a promising cultivator and he had been happy to see him volunteer. However, his ties to Clearcrest made him a liability.
He looked back at the remaining figures in his lineup. He was going to have to rethink how he went about this. The plan was to use his displayed skill and fame to recruit skilled cultivators for his squad. However, he found that it wasn’t so easy. It appeared that just as he had developed bonds with Pugio and his housemates, the other cadets had done same. Also, his face was much too new to them. Unlike the others, he hadn’t established himself as firmly which made them reluctant to entrust themselves to him.
“You can try these guys”, a small voice whispered in his left ear.
Valerian instantly recognised it as Pugio’s but a quick check revealed Pugio to be engaged in conversation with James and John.
“Don’t worry, it’s me”, the voice reassured him. “Nice trick huh?”
It was. Valerian knew of voice transmissions, either by talisman or by essence but nothing that allowed you to speak to someone without actually speaking to them. Knowing who he was talking to and seeing his actions to remain covert, Valerian could guess that it was meant to be undetectable as well.
“Pick these guys”, Pugio said to him, listing a few names.
Valerian closed his eyes for a second. He was truly at loss as to what to do but he was also hesitant to trust. He swirled some essence in his hand, crushing it in his fist and growling loudly in frustration. Hidden in the action was a quickly formed symbol. One that disappeared as soon as it appeared. It was a heretical symbol. One that originated from an ancient dark cult he’d read about in his grandfather’s study. What it represented was a simple question. A question asked about life but one that also suited his situation. Why?
Understanding what was being asked, Pugio gave an answer and this time, Valerian could practically hear how pleased and amused he was in his voice. “The very fact that you know that symbol and can connect it to me just reinforces something I already know”, it said. “You’ll be a great lord.”
Valerian turned away from the assembled cadets to look at the other team leaders.
“Them?” Pugio questioned. “They’re terrible. The lion only wants swords. Just as well. They’re the only things he can wield. The fox is so plush and arrogant, he’ll probably end up sitting on me. He wants cushions and jewels. Any weapon would be wasted in his hands. The girl…she’s completely uninteresting.”
Valerian raised an eyebrow.
“She’s somewhat competent, I suppose. Unfortunately, she has neither flair or pull. Her talent for command is more common than you’d think and there’s more to using a dagger than stabbing. You understand that but she won’t”, Pugio explained.
“I am done justifying myself to you!” he proclaimed. “You either embrace what I bring you or you refuse me. Rest assured, I will not join any of the others but you should know what you’ll be losing.”
Valerian listened but no more messages came. His mind racing, he pondered his choices.
“Elite Steelborn!” the Chief Instructor called. “Get on with it.”
His choice made, Valerian called up Pugio’s list of ‘interesting’ people. Reviewing it and cross-checking the names with what information he had, he called out a name.
“Tiabire, Bohn! Step forward!”
Halfway through his story on fighting blade-tailed scorpions back home, James noticed a strange smile creep onto Pugio’s face. After a moment, he continued with his story. But in his mind, he made this observation, ‘There’s something off with this guy.’
Valerian picked cultivator after cultivator. Only one thus far refused to join his squad. Valerian let him rejoin his fellows without comment. The only other incident involved a cultivator called Klaus Morgen. Right after he asked him to join, someone interrupted him.
“Steelborn”, came the unfamiliar voice. “Leave Klaus for me.”
Valerian turned to regard the speaker. Reynard stared back at him. Both kept their faces non-committal. Valerian turned back to the cadet in question. There was an unspoken question in his eyes this time. ‘Do you want to join my squad or his?’ Klaus hesitated. His eyes kept flicking from Valerian to Reynard and back. So, Valerian made a decision.
“You may step back, Cadet Klaus!” he said to him.
There was no need to offend Reynard over for someone so indecisive. In his stead, he picked out a female cultivator. Once his squad was full, he stepped back. Soon, everyone had chosen. Just as Valerian suspected, Clearcrest picked Fallenwood and his cohorts for her team. He tried hard not let his anger show when he thought about what she had tried to pull on him.
Next, they were to be assigned Squad Instructors and then marched to their respective squad barracks. Valerian wondered who would be assigned to his squad.
“Hello, Squad Two! I am Captain Gerald Walters and I will be your instructor. Feel free to address me as sir, Instructor Walters, Captain Walters or Oh Lord of Greatness”, came the mocking voice of a certain scarf wearing, armoured, former senior examiner.
The barracks Platoon Nine’s second squad was assigned was impressive. It was practically a small manor. Built of stone, it had two storeys and twelve bedrooms, a large common area, three workshops, and a communal kitchen. All the rooms were fully but simply furnished. There was also an enclosed practice field in place of a backyard.
“None of the Lords back home have anything like this!” someone exclaimed.
“Settle down!” Walters directed his squad. “This will be your home for the next three years. It will be up to you to get it into shape and add whatever touches you need”, he added. One of the more eager cadets ripped a sheet of the dining table forcing him to take in a lung-full of dust.
Holding back a sneeze with pure willpower till it passed, he continued. “You are to clean the common areas together. When you are done, pick a room. Clean it and settle in. Personal meals can be cooked here as well as anything you need but going to the Dining Hall at general meals times remains compulsory.”
“Team exercises and training will be held in our training yard but all other lessons and training exercises will be held on the designated training field for all other cadets” he added. “Speaking of, here are your class schedules. Make sure you report to each lesson on time!”
“We’ve been given the entirety of next week to settle in and get to know each other. It’s also the time for orientation and registration. All that starts tomorrow so rest up. If you need me I’ll be in my quarters” he said, referring to the small two bedroom house to the side of the barracks.
Captain Walters left his new students behind. He was displeased. He wasn’t the person best suited to this job nor was he the only person or even the one with the most experience with the Shadowed Daggers. The Major in charge of Platoon Five had nearly gotten married to one for Heaven’s sake. Sadly, he was the one who had been assigned to watch the damned boy and his team. They hadn’t drawn lots or anything. He was assigned the task because he was the lowest ranked of all the instructors who could fulfil the role.
Honestly, it made him question his decision to join the military but then again, he’d joined so that he could order people around. He sighed. It did nothing to change how angry he felt at the hand he had been dealt. He had so many things he wanted to do and now he was being shackled with these children. Oh, who was he kidding? He felt nothing! He never could.
Loud laughter rang through the house as he walked out. It rang in the halls, sounding completely genuine but somehow feeling fake to all who heard it at the same time. Strangely, the laugh sounded more hollow than the stone rooms it echoed in.
‘At least they’re interesting’, he consoled himself.