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Chapter Forty-nine: The Skirmish
Of all the squad leaders, Reynard was the one Valerian was most wary of. Gigne was easily understood. He was another face in a long line of military officers. He wanted to live up to that legacy and prove himself at the same time. Clearcrest was much of the same only she was not as forthright. She skulked around the edges looking for openings and flaws she could exploit but in the end, their goals were the same. They wished to get out their parents’ shadows despite the fact that they relied upon, embodied and were constantly surrounded by it. Their only difference was in their methods. Gigne was not a sneak.
Reynard, on the other hand, was just wrong. He didn’t fit into the standard Strapping’s character cut-outs Valerian had in his head. There were the military brats who were here for family honour, content to follow the paths of their parents like Gigne and Tiabire. The ambitious people who wanted to make names for themselves like himself and Drusilla. Those trying to escape their pasts like Morwoko and Clarent. And finally, a bunch of second, third and fourth sons from noble houses who saw the military as the only proper path for them now that it was clear they would not be inheriting diddly-squat from their fathers.
Reynard did not fit into any of these narratives. For one thing, he was much too rich. Valerian had considered himself spoiled before, but that changed when he met Reynard. There were those who swore that Reynard oozed gold out his pores. Best he could tell, Reynard had come to Strapping’s to have fun. He never seemed to take anything seriously and his purse strings, as well as his tongue, were incredibly loose. Many considered him a braggart, a fool and a popinjay but Valerian knew better.
He had seen the cold intelligence that lurked within those eyes. He had even been subjected to their scrutiny and even caught glimpses of the power that lay hidden in those fancy robes. He was not sure what game Reynard was playing but that was only because he played it close to his vest. Valerian just knew, though, that whatever Reynard was planning, it was something very long-term indeed. Not having an inkling of what this plan or Reynard’s motives, in general, was made him uneasy.
Valerian tried his best to put his feelings aside. He had a battle ahead of him. He trusted his instincts and had headed their warning. There was no need to dwell. He had to remain focused.
“Everyone!” he called to his squad. “Get into the basic formation and prepare for transport.”
Grim-faced, they did as he asked, clutching onto their talismans and waiting for the transfer into the illusionary world. They didn’t have to wait long. The setting this time was vastly different from their last visit. There was no hill and of course no fort. There was just a long, wide valley at the end of which stood the opposing squad. Valerian scanned it briefly. There was absolutely no cover in the field. There was nothing to hide behind. No trees and no grassy knolls. The grass was overgrown but it barely reached mid-shin.
Valerian went over the instructions the Major had given.
“Not every battle is fought from a weaker or stronger position. In fact, it is impossible to always seize the advantage in terms of positioning. That is why so many battles occur on plains. There, only strength of arms and number matter. It’s your turn to do so”, the man had said.
“Squad leaders!” he yelled at them. “You are to have a true meeting on the field of battle. You are to do all you can to win. The last squad standing wins!”
Valerian wasted no time. “Alen!” he called out. “Quick, take a position up in front. I’ll join you soon. Cybele, send some harriers at them to prod them into action. Brandt! Get ready! The rest of you, you know your positions. We are taking this together. Remember, remain within sight of your partners. No splintering the Squad without my express order!”
“Except for you”, he told Tamara. “Mark your target. If he moves, you stay on him. Are these orders clear?”
“Yes, sir!” they yelled.
“Then we march!”
Alenwaa was a warder. That meant he was certifiably good with defensive spells. As proof of this, a great barrier curved in front and slightly over the squad, moving forwards as they did. Valerian who had the largest essence reserves in their midst helped share the energy costs but the actual shaping and maintenance of the spell, that was all Alenwaa. Under the protection of this aegis, Squad Two confidently made their way towards their opponents. Unfortunately, Squad Four did not intend to let them go unchallenged.
Four of them held large tower shields up front protecting their arcanists as they rained spells that caused their ward to shimmer and ripple as it worked to shield them. Valerian ignored the bright flashes in front of him, his gaze looking past their attackers at their commander. Reynard was holed at the back of his squad, two others at his side. Looking at Reynard’s confident and daring smirk, Valerian gave the order his squad was waiting for.
“Cybele!” he yelled. “Are you two ready?”
Ready and waiting”, she answered.
“Then fire!” he ordered.
What could only be described as a lance was launched from behind him. It screeched and tore its way through the air, whipping up a squall behind it. This was Cybele’s new skill, [The Wind God’s Lance] and she had been itching to use it. It was the most powerful single target spell she knew and she had spent quite some time to master it before this battle. After seeing it in action, Valerian had decided on it for their opener and that’s exactly what it did.
The faces of Squad Four paled immediately as they strove to defend against it. The burly giant that had been standing next to Reynard quickly made his move. Rushing forward, he loosed the great shield over his back bringing it up to block the assault. Valerian smile when he saw this madness. The lance was headed straight for their leader and rather than dodge they chose to block.
“Brandt?” he yelled questioningly. ‘She better not miss this chance.’
“Sorry!” she apologised before finally launching her attack.
Lightning fell from the sky, smiting the burly shield holder where he stood. The lightning bolt was twice as big as Cybele’s wind lance and even more savage and powerful. Too busy trying to block the aforementioned wind lance, the burly knight was killed immediately. The entire thing happened in the span of seconds, too fast for anyone to react.
Unfortunately for Squad Four, their troubles were just starting. The smell of ozone filled the air as the rage of the heavens sought an outlet. More and more lightning began to fall till there was suddenly a lightning storm upon them. These bolts were not as powerful but they covered a large area and were completely unpredictable. Watching it made one think he was looking at the wrath of the heavens. Sadly, Valerian’s squad had no time to sit back and watch their handiwork. This was their opening.
“Quick! Onrush Battle formation” their leader commanded. “Charge!”
Reynard’s smirk was gone now. Forced into action, he reached for the sky, casting furiously. Soon the sky above him seemed to roil as he created a large wind barrier to stop the rain of lightning. Singlehandedly holding back the storm, he yelled at his squad, “Stop them!”
Having a spy on your team naturally meant having someone who could spy for you and spy was what Valerian had Pugio do. That was how they’d recorded the essence signatures of every cadet in their Platoon and how they’d prepared themselves for each battle so far. The sum of his findings had been left in the dossier Valerian left to the judges after their last battle. Still, they had been thrown for a loop when Pugio’s initial report on Squad Four came in. That report was one more reason why Valerian was so wary of Reynard.
Each squad was unique. On paper, Gigne had the best squad. Each member was ranked favourably in their platoon and they were organised in a clear and militarised hierarchy. They obeyed and carried out orders effectively and swiftly and were basically, every commander’s wet dream in a package. Individually, they weren’t the best but the sheer skill and commitment in their ranks made them contenders and of course, they had two of the most powerful elite; Gigne and Reign.
Squad Two was very different. On paper, they were the most balanced squad. They had two healers, a warder stroke benedictor, an array master, and a great selection of arcanists and tellurians.
Squad three and four were where things got funny. Clearcrest was a piece of work but it was Squad Four that had taken the cake in terms of weirdest members and team structure. With them, everything revolved around their elite. It had been strange to wrap their heads around but basically, besides Reynard, there were four acknowledged elite members of the squad. To an onlooker in the know, Reynard and these four elite were the entire squad. That’s because the rest of the squad were cannon fodder.
Somehow, Reynard had set his squad up so he was waited upon by these four ‘elite’ and they, in turn, were supported by the remaining members. Right now, they had taken out one of these elite and at least one of the supporters and if their luck held out, they’d do in another before Squad Four had a chance to react properly. At least, that was the hope. Regrettably, Reynard was there precisely to disabuse them of that hope.
A strange aura suddenly made itself known to all on the battlefield. Due to his experience facing battle intents, Valerian recognised it for what it was. Even so, he couldn’t help but be astounded by it.
Reynard’s martial intent was unlike any Valerian had felt. Vorm’s fighting intent had given the promise of death. It forced on his opponents a feeling of futility. Anyone caught in it would feel like no matter what he did, he would still lose and when that happened, he’d die. Richard’s had felt like a giant. You couldn’t help but feel puny and small in front of him. You had this certainty that you were going to be stepped on or swatted like a fly.
Contrasting them, Gigne’s had been incredibly tyrannical but not as developed. You got a sense of danger and a similar though lesser version of the crushing, suppressive weight but at best, what you got was feeling of danger and the sense that he was going to tear you limb from limb when he got his hands on you. Reynard’s, on the other hand, was completely different. It made no move to suppress you. Instead, it magnified him.
Right before your eyes, Reynard changed into this incredible figure. He became a chosen son of heaven, someone you’d never match. Even looking at him, you knew he was always going to win. He’d definitely succeed. There was no point in fighting it. He was the best. He was the most powerful. Someone who would surpass everyone. His aura matched this strange intent. It grew stronger, his essence more potent. Whereas before he strained himself to stop Laura’s lightning storm now, he held it back with ease, sneering at them as if laughing at the thought that something of that calibre could give him pause.
The most shocking thing, however, was the effect it had on his own men. Battle intent was something that had to be trained and focused. However, it was your will, after all, it did what you wanted so long as you knew how to get it to do that. Vorm could single out a single person within an army of a thousand men or make it affect every fourth person in it if he had a mind to. Still, it could not change its own nature. That was what made what happened next so unbelievable.
Reynard’s battle intent washed over his squad and they underwent a strange change. They were not suppressed by it. Reynard’s squad began to resonate with his intent instead. Their auras began to match his and like tuning forks, they began to put out the same frequency. Actually, it wasn’t that they were producing the same intent but that somehow the intent was affecting them and using their own aura to reinforce and propagate itself.
Soon Valerian’s squad faced not just one but multiple opponents who had transformed into legendary figures. Each one of them, the elite especially, seemed heroic, unsurpassable and their essence grew to match. Valerian and his squad watched as they laughed, all their haste and panic disappearing. Watching them come towards you, you got the feeling that they were right to be so cocksure. They wouldn’t need much effort to accomplish whatever it was they wanted to do.
Valerian brought him squad to a halt as he examined this strange new phenomenon. In his mind, he tried to recall everything his uncle Vorm had said on self-invigorating intents. However, what he found was lacking. For everything, there existed an opposite, an antithesis. He understood this quite well. Most battle intents suppressed the targets of their creators. It was reasonable to believe that there were some that did the opposite. This wasn’t an impression forced upon you but one that was wrapped around the user. It didn’t suppress its targets but uplifted them so they could share in the user’s glory.
Valerian suddenly felt like he understood Reynard a lot better. Battle intents were formed from the will of their creators. It was a warrior imagining himself at his strongest and manifesting that will as a force to suppress his enemies. Having sampled Reynard’s, Valerian could tell that for all his bluster, arrogance and seeming aloofness, Reynard was a lot like him. The aura of his battle intent? It was how he wanted to be seen, as someone who would definitely succeed no matter what. His ambition was to be someone who would rise to the heavens. He wanted to prove himself better than everyone else.
With a start, Valerian saw just how similar they really were. He might not go about it the same way but their ambitions were incredibly similar even if their motivations were probably as different as he suspected. The realisation was like the dawn, shedding light on a part of Valerian that he had never noticed. He had never taken note of how entitled he was and just how central his ambitions had become.
A new aura began to waft of him, slowly it wrapped itself around his squad members constantly growing and getting stronger. Valerian himself was lost in his mind as he reconciled his epiphany with other aspects of himself. By this time, his new aura had spread to cover his entire squad and was pushing outwards, contending with Reynard’s. The flamboyant youth had a quick change of expression when he caught on to what was happening. Valerian was comprehending his own battle intent. As proof of this, his aura continued to change. It stopped feeling like Valerian and became something more.
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