Valerian woke up early the next morning. With nary a word, he took out a faintly humanoid object from his spatial ring. His eyes seemed to look through its cloth covering. With a smile, Valerian pulled the sheet off, unveiling his cloudsteel armour. Quickly, he drew an array and had it descend on his armour, cleaning and polishing it from head to toe.
Attracted by the flashing lights, the others watched as he out on the armour. Valerian found that he was fast getting used to being stared at. Choosing to ignore the eyes, he fastened each piece on slowly and securely. The grey armour he had been wearing since leaving home was tossed unceremoniously into his spatial ring. It wasn’t a bad set. It was…serviceable. Valerian just found that after gaining the cloudsteel set everything else was just underwhelming.
With, the cloudsteel suit, every piece he put on noticeably added to his power and the complete set made him feel he could actually summon a cloud at his feet and float away. He felt so light, strong and in touch with his essence. No other set in his possession could offer him as much power and protection. However, he’d been forced to keep it hidden during the exams. Today would be the first time he put it on since leaving home. He’d need it.
Today, he went to war.
“John!” he called. “You probably have a set like your father’s right?”
The muscle-bound youth rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.
“Wear it!” Valerian told him. “You’ll need it.”
“You guys as well!” he said to James and Alenwaa.
‘You don’t need to tell us!’ Alenwaa wanted to yell back. He knew exactly what today was. In his heart, he knew that he stood no chance at one of the spots he wanted and he couldn’t help but have his mood brought down by it. Perhaps, if he hadn’t wasted his essence on those disappointments. Maybe, if he had only recovered faster? Yesterday’s performance was far from his best but due to the complications he had suffered, he wasn’t able to put that out.
He counted himself lucky. There had actually been many cultivators in situations like his. They, however, had suffered injuries to their cultivation bases and even dropped in level. That was probably why the examiners had examined their cultivations level again despite it being a requirement for applying in the first place.
One by one, the four remaining cultivators of longhouse four dressed up in their best gear and together, headed for the assembly field. they were not the only ones. The leaders of some of the teams covertly informed their members. Together, they marched to the assembly field in flamboyant robes and pristine armours. Weapons of many kinds were put on display, many with incredible auras. Those not in the know stared around in confusion and disbelief, not understanding what was going on.
The examiners were the same. The senior examiner wore a blood red scarf to go with his dark chitinous armour. Behind him hung a musket with a weird long barrel and at his hip were a pair of daggers. He was not the only one. Wilson, the array master from the day before wore a bright blue jacket over a pair of dark leather jerkins. His array master’s plaque hung out for everyone to see and those who watched closely could see strange glyphs lining his jacket.
In addition to them were a number of others dressed equally impressively. Nevertheless, they were all outshone by one of their own, the man who had claimed their senior examiner’s place standing at the front. All of the others stood a few feet behind him, giving him more than enough space to himself. He had a short beard and long hair drawn into a ponytail. Truthfully, the man looked quite ordinary but his aura and gear were not and they were all that held their attention.
Whoever he was, he wasn’t bothering to hide his power. Waves of pressure wafted from him to weigh on his audience. Valerian estimated that he was at least a high-level Tellurian King for his presence did not lose out to Vorm’s. In fact, it seemed greater. He attributed this to the shield partly in front of him. It was made of crystal, carved in a simple tower design but the undulations it gave off.
‘…imperial artefact’, someone whispered.
Valerian believed him. He’d never come across anything like it. Whether it was true or not, the man had placed the massive thing such that it stood partly in front of him and partly to his side. Its height allowed him to rest his right arm on it comfortably from an upright position. This made sure he was not completely obscured allowing his armour and its crystal accents to be seen. It wasn’t just the recruits who were trying to make an impression the teachers were too, Valerian realised.
The man smiled down at them, reigning in his aura a little bit before speaking.
“Welcome to Marshall Strapping’s Elite Military Training Centre! I am Major Jioh Emerson and I am to be Chief Instructor for your year group.”
“Congratulations, you’ve made it, you are now officially recruits and cadets of our fine institution with the designation Platoon Nine. The trials were hard and yet here you stand. It is a testament to your skill and strength. You’ve no doubt heard that Strapping’s only takes the best. We don’t! We produce it! By passing the tests given you, you’ve proven yourselves worthy of training with us. We will make you the best, fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest cultivators in all of Bathar even if we have to crush you and mould you with our hands. Do you understand?”
“YES, SIR!” The new cadets yelled. Their chests were burning with excitement.
“Excellent!” The man exclaimed with a nod. “Strapping’s rewards initiative, hard work and skill. To succeed here, you must have all three qualities. You all passed the tests, proving yourselves both capable and possessing the qualities we require but among you were ten who proved exceptional. That among the best, they are the elite. When I call out your names you’ll come up to the front of this podium that your achievement be recognised.”
Excited muttering could be heard from the recruits.
“Quiet!” Came the voice of the cultivator who had been in charge of the second exam. He took a single step forward, glaring at them over his red scarf. All trace of his previous demeanour was gone.
“You are officially military cadets now. Act like it!” he told them.
“Thank you, Walters”, the Chief Instructor said to him.
“Now, the names and ranks are as follows”, the man began. “In tenth place, Dreamwell, Irene.” A tall, robed girl left their ranks to go stand up front amidst quiet applause.
“In ninth place, Riverside, Henry”, Instructor Emerson added. This time, a young man in armour went up.
“Morwoko, Alenwaa, eighth place!” Alenwaa smiled and leaving Valerian’s side, he went up front accompanied by the clapping.
Next was an armoured girl who hadn’t stopped staring at the chief instructor’s shield since they came onto the field. Valerian remembered her from the second exam. Her own crystal accented armour caught the light when the man called her up front with the words, “Kugvaka, Olivia in seventh place.”
“Reign, Quasar, sixth place!”, the man called afterwards. In response, a young man with a slight build walked forward. He was carrying the most oversized bow Valerian had ever seen and had full quivers strapped to either side of his waist.
“In fifth place, Georg!” The Chief Instructor called out. Two cultivators stepped out. One of them, an arcanist in a large overcoat turned to glare at the other. He stopped, frozen like a mouse looking in the eyes of a cobra.
The Chief Instructor chuckled. “Would the Ma’rtarrena come forward!” he commanded. Embarrassed, the second cultivator stepped backwards. The now identified fifth rank stared icily at him for a second longer before going up to take his place.
“Reynard, Caius in fourth place!”
There was no question as to this person’s identity. Every one of the recruits knew who he was. An arcanist in resplendent robes went up in a huff. His polished circlet, jewelled staff and many rings somehow caught more light than the crystal armour of the tellurian three places down. He was annoyed. Everyone could tell but he made no protests.
By now, Valerian’s heart was beating in his chest. Caius Reynard was recognised as one of the top three team leaders. In the second exam, he made use of every single tean orb offered passed with flying colours and yet, he was only fourth place. It made him question his own place and rank. He had been sure he made it into the top ranks but now, he wasn’t so sure.
“Clearcrest, Marcella in third place!” The Chief Instructor announced.
Without a fuss, a female arcanist in tight leathers took the third spot.
“Steelborn, Valerian in second place!” came the voice from on top of the podium.
Valerian set free a breath he did not know he had been holding captive. Barely able to keep his smile in, he made his way up, catching Alenwaa’s eyes with his own. Mentally, he calculated. He was second and most of the top team leaders had already called up. That left only one person as first place.
Sure enough, the next words from the Chief Instructor were, “Gigne, Leonidas IV in first place!”
Together, the entire field looked to the proclaimed number one. Previously, he had worn loose threads and leathers but now, he was clad in actual armour. It was dark with a running lion and sunburst motif to go with its gold filigree. The sleeveless tabard that came with it was a soft red and bore his famous family crest in gold. He wore no helmet, allowing his plentiful bushy hair to fall down to his shoulders in large curls and frame his face in a proper lion’s mane. Valerian had to admit he looked impressive.
Slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, the dark skinned tellurian came up to take his place, his eyes scanning those who had come before him.
“Cadets! These are the best of your platoon”, The Chief Instructor said to them. “The ten most elite among you. Admire them, hate them, do what you like but I’ll let you in on a secret. I too was once a cadet here. In my time here, both as student and instructor, I can tell you something. Every year we call ten cultivators to the forefront and bestow them the rank of elite but never have the rankings been the same for the years that follow.”
“That’s right!” he followed. “I estimate that at least half of these ‘elite’ will lose their ranks by the end of this year. So admire and envy them all you want but remember to target their ranks. You are all capable of being elite. You’re just going to have to work for it”, he told the gathered cadets.
“That goes for you too!” he told the ten rank holders. “You’re targets now. However you did it, you’ve claimed your seats and ranks. Soon, you’ll have to defend and prove yourselves worthy of them not just from them mind you”, he said waving at the cadets in front of them. “But also from your colleagues.”
Valerian pretended not to care as some of the other rank holders begun to appraise each other even more obviously than they were doing before.
The Chief Instructor watched this by-play with a smile. “I’ll give you some incentive”, he announced. “Now that you are cadets of this centre, you will be granted access to our facilities and allocated some resources to aid in your day to day cultivation. This includes allotments of time in specialised training rooms and cultivation areas as well as access to libraries and shops”, he informed them.
“However, the elite will be granted access to training grounds more suited to their ‘talents'”, he added, stressing the last part. “The resources given you, being graded, will also vary. Ordinary cadets will be given twelve essence stones a month. Ten of them will be unattributed and the remaining two will be of your attribute. You’ll also be given some basic supplements and recovery medicines. The bottom two elite will have a twenty percent increment in resources.”
“The next two elite will get a further increment of twenty percent. The fourth will build on this, obtaining a sixty percent total increase from the base. From that point on, there’s only a ten percent additional increase. However, it’s no longer increased every two ranks but with each one. So the fifth will gain an additional seventy percent, the fourth, eighty and so on. The ratio of unattributed to attributed stones will also change. They will be given an equal number of both. For the top three, the attributed stones will actually make up two-thirds of their provisions. The grade of their medicines will also up.”
If the others weren’t envious before, they surely were now. Quick calculations were made. The instructor had just told them that Gigne would be getting twenty-five essence whilst they got twelve and that his medicines and supplements would be of a higher grade. Dozens of sharp eyes bore into the newly christened elite. Valerian looked back at them and smiled predatorily. He was looking forward to that part. Phase V. It would be fun.
The Chief Instructor laughed and exclaimed, “Good!” “That feeling and focus you have right now? Don’t let go of it. Strapping’s rewards initiative, hard work, skill and excellence. Prove yourselves and you’ll have nothing to worry about. I must say I’m looking forward to seeing your growth”, he admitted.
“Before that, there remains one final procedure; the assignment of teams, leaders and instructors”, he revealed. “I’m told that this platoon has caught on to and learnt the basic tenets of Strapping’s team focused principles. That’s good! Teams are important. Battles are not won by individuals but by people. Wars aren’t fought by persons but armies.”
“One thing though”, he began. “Teams in Strapping’s follow the imperial standard. That means twelve people to each squad. There are fifty-three of you. It’s enough for four squads. Those who are not assigned a squad will be put into the reserves. You’ll still attend the classes and general training sessions but be excluded from team exercises.”
“Now, every team requires a leader!” he informed them. “Gigne. Steelborn. Clearcrest. Reynard. Step forward!” he commanded. They did so immediately. All of them had serious looks on their faces.
“Cadet Platoon Nine” he called out. “These are your squad leaders. Leaders, this is your platoon. Divvy them up! Select your squadmates and report!”