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    A Test of Strength

    Nestor Azarov
    Nestor Azarov

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    A Test of Strength Empty A Test of Strength

    Post by Nestor Azarov 16th January 2021, 8:12 am


    A Test of Strength DYMsGVu

    It was already midday, the afternoon sun standing at its zenith in the sky, though, of course, this fact made little difference. The boiling-hot summer days had long passed in the north of Fiore, as had the mild days of fall, the land covered in a blanket of frigid white. Snow seemed to coat every surface, and the icy temperatures one encountered here, near the mountains that formed the natural border between Fiore and its neighboring states Seven and Bosco, were low enough to cause significant snowfall that made the mountainous and rocky terrain rather hard to traverse. The earth was frozen solid, and the thick layer of ice and snow upon it would make travel by foot borderline impossible, if not entirely inconceivable. The howling wind carrying thick snow that seemed to be present at a nigh constant was enough to freeze one to the bone. There seemed to be little in the way of civilization present, not even a road that could be followed, or at least, if there was one, it was thoroughly obstructed by the environmental conditions.

    Still, the roar of an engine was swallowed by the whistling of the snowstorm, headlights piercing through the white mist and grey, dim light all around that made it hard to see beyond a set distance, a broad, military-style armored vehicle pushing through the terrain with apparent ease. It was as if the thing had been built for off-road situations such as the one the group inside found themselves in at current, and they were grateful that they had such a tool at their disposal. The inside was not just shielding them from the storm outside, but it was also a formidable mode of transportation. Further still, the interior was heated and provided the men inside with a comfortable warmth, a circumstance that appeared like a godsent when one observed the weather and environmental conditions around them. The men, of course, all belonged to the same group, the organization that had originally sent them here in the first place: The Rune Knights of Fiore.

    Naturally, they had been sent on this mission with a clear purpose, and indeed, without an explicit order, the leader of the Rune Knights inside the vehicle that had been assigned to them wouldn't have ventured to this place, to begin with. It was simply too hostile of an environment, too remote a location, all in all, too bothersome a mission to pursue, but ... orders were orders. The squad was to venture to this remote village and, in place of the deployment of a full Rune Knight garrison, supply the local villagers with weapons and train them in their use. Shen had also been instructed to train any person holding magical potential in the village. The reason for this was, of course, twofold, the first one being that this village was so remote that it was hard to reach, and thus hard to supply. The second was the frequency with which this remote village had become the target of attacks recently, the local wildlife and monsters seemingly growing bold in their search for food. Many lives had been lost, which was why intervention had become necessary, and the Rune Knights, as an organization, would, naturally, do something about the problem. It made the young man think, though.

    Shen Kadokawa had come far as a Rune Knight. The young man was astonished himself by just how much progress he had made in a timespan that he perceived as relatively short. Before, he would've never have thought that he would be able to get so far, not only as a member of the Rune Knights but as a mage in general. After all, he was now Staff Sergeant Kadokawa, a rank that was assigned to officers, and while he was nowhere near as strong as a number of individuals that came to mind, his magical potential had grown along with his rank, as well, both of these facts granting him a boost to his overall confidence. Shen, for the first time in his life, was certain that he could feel at least somewhat satisfied with himself. Despite all of this, though, he had to admit that the job he had picked out for himself was hard. He had become a Rune Knight on a whim, but the organization had practically guided him to where he was now, effectively at a much better place in life.

    That wasn't all, of course. Not only was Shen at a point he had previously only been able to dream of, but he had also found comrades he trusted, comrades that supported him. People he could call friends. These people were by his side, of course, Shen's eyes wandering to the man at the steering wheel of the vehicle. The man was wearing the same uniform as himself, and though he was taller than himself still, he was of the same build as Shen. His blonde hair was short, and the pair of glasses on his nose appeared to reflect the color of his blue eyes, making them seem like they were glowing. Still, the man's eyes were firmly fixed ahead. The man's name was Jona Bradley, a Sergeant in the Rune Knights under Shen's command. Shen's gaze wandered to the other side, the man that lazily lounged on the other passenger seat not noticing the short-lived attention of his superior. His legs were resting on the dashboard, his hands behind his head and his eyes closed. The carefree man snoozing his time away was called Caleb Sherman, he also being a subordinate of Shen, though he was a Corporal, so lower in rank than both Sergeant Bradley and Shen. Sherman's hair was brown and trimmed short into a military-style cut, and though he was shorter than both the Sergeant and the Staff Sergeant, he was a lot bulkier, his muscular frame and hard features making him appear like a perfect candidate for a Rune Knight. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Sherman was lazy, rude, and always acted like he was pissed off, starkly contrasting Bradley's calm, disciplined, and intelligent nature. The two, however, understood each other without a word.

    Bradley and Sherman had been friends since childhood, joining the Rune Knights together and eventually ending up under Shen's command. They were of similar age to the Staff Sergeant, and despite all of their quirks, or rather, Shen would say because of them, the three had quickly grown into a formidable team, becoming friends after only a short while of working with each other, despite the fact that the normally rigid structure of a military organization such as the Rune Knights would frown upon such personal relationships between officer and soldier. Still, it was undeniable that there was a sense of comradery among the troops, and if one was inclined to see things in a way that was a little more laissez-faire, it was easy to get along with others. Such a thing had been especially hard for Shen in the past, but it seemed that among the ranks of Fiore's military, none of the hurdles that had held him back previously were present. They were all soldiers, and they all served the same common goal and shared the same mindset.

    "What'cha staring at me for, chief? Don't tell me you're starting to get lonely out here?". Sherman's eyes had opened, returning the look that Shen had given him with his hazelnut-hued eyes, a cheeky grin on his bearded face. Shen scoffed, though the gesture was performed in an obviously humorous way. "As if. Even if I was, I wouldn't be looking at you, meathead". Sherman raised an eyebrow, his mouth twisting into an exaggerated "Oh? Is that so?". He lazily raised an arm, pointing at the driver of the vehicle. "So ya talking about the fair maiden over there, in that case?". Shen turned his head to Bradley, who had not taken his eyes off the path ahead but had responded with the usual calm voice that spoke in a nonchalant tone. "Charming, really, but I think I must decline. I'm not interested in men like t-". Shen's exclamation, which was preceded by a heavy sigh, could cut him off before he could finish, the young Staff Sergeant pinching the bridge of his nose with the thumb and index finger of his right hand. "I don't want to get with either of you two idiots, so knock that idea out of your heads!". Bradley chuckled quietly, while Sherman began to giggle to himself. Exchanges like these were common among the small group of Rune Knights, jokes at one another's expense, much to Shen's annoyance, becoming everyone's favorite, Shen included. He'd gone along with their teasing, integrating into their back-and-forth banter quickly, and now it had almost become a form of conversation between them. When no one else was around, that was. Talk of such nature would not only be unprofessional, it was also in disregard of the rather strict etiquette that was expected of a Rune Knight.

    Not that any of the three cared about that in an unofficial setting, of course. Shen was not the kind of man to punish a subordinate for casual behavior, based solely on the fact that he, of course, was prone to this behavior himself. It was much less taxing on one's mind if one could be easy-going, naturally, and he hated having to act like a proper superior, or in other words, an officer of an actual army. He still hadn't quite gotten the hang of it, which was also why he hadn't quite taken command of a full squad yet, limiting his command to only the Sergeant and the Corporal. He knew that if he commanded more Rune Knights, Privates, perhaps some more Corporals and Sergeants, as well, he would have to keep the formal act up a lot more, and for longer periods of time. His head hurt just thinking about it, though his thoughts were interrupted before he could commit himself fully to the imaginary scenario that had started to take shape in his head. "Why are we the ones heading here, anyway? Couldn't they have sent someone else? Privates would've done the job just fine, dont'cha think?", Sherman asked in a grumbly tone. Shen suppressed the urge to sigh once more. "You know they need to send at least one officer, right? Our job is to train the villagers in place of a permanent Rune Knight garrison, and without someone to, you know, do the training, the whole mission would be for nothing".

    "I think what he's trying to ask is why exactly it had to be us, and not any other team in our stead, Staff Sergeant". The clarification that came from Bradley felt like he had every intention of asking the question himself. "Well, ... I can't really tell you guys. Not like I wouldn't want to tell you, but I don't know why the Field Marshal sent us specifically on this mission. As much as I try, I can't really tell what she's thinking, but I know that she's a good leader. She'll have a reason". Well, that wasn't entirely truthful. Shen had a vague idea why he had been sent, with Sergeant Bradley and Corporal Sherman being dragged into it by the Staff Sergeant. He figured that this was another task that was meant to develop Shen's abilities, the Field Marshal seemingly having a talent for coming up with these tasks that seemed to gently push him to the edge of his strength and increase his capabilities further, bit by bit.

    Why exactly she had taken an interest of this nature in him he didn't know, but it was safe to say that Shen, on some level, appreciated her assistance greatly, the woman called Serilda Sinclair becoming something akin to a guiding force to the young Rune Knight. Not only did he look up to her, both as the leader of the Rune Knights and as a mage, but he was certain that he could develop himself if he followed the path that she had sent him on. "Ah, well, I suppose it can't really be helped. An order from the Field Marshal is an order, after all. Look at it as a little bit of a vacation away from the hustle and bustle of Era and the HQ. Who knows, maybe you'll get to sleep in as long as we're training the villagers?". Realization unsubtly dawned on Sherman's face, and his own thought-process that followed seemed to placate him somewhat. "M-mhm, maybe ... That would be pretty nice". Bradley said nothing, his eyes still locked ahead as the vehicle, stacked full of weapons and supplies, bumped and rumbled forward, but Shen could sense that the prospect of a full night's rest, free of any military drill or wake-up calls, seemed like an attractive thing to the outwardly stoic Sergeant as well. Admittedly, Shen looked forward to it, too. Still, he would make sure that the lot stayed at least somewhat disciplined. They had a job to do, after all.

    ---

    3 weeks later

    It had taken a little to properly get the people of the village acquainted with the weapons the Rune Knights had brought with them, and instructing them on their use had been, in Shen's eyes, a challenge, to put things lightly. Not only had most of the villagers never used a weapon before, most of them had never even seen one. Granted, Shen had had the added advantage on his side that the Rune Knights had put some clever thought into the kind of weapon they had prepared for the villagers: A truckload of breech-loading rifles. These weapons were, at least by modern standards, obsolete, and they had a few distinct disadvantages, namely the fact that one had to reload after each individual shot, as the weapon itself could only hold a single projectile at a time, which meant that the rate of fire was low compared to contemporary firearms. Further, this was coupled with the fact that ammunition was carried loosely or in a belt, meaning that it could be lost or damaged in the course of battle.

    Still, these disadvantages were by far outweighed by the glaringly obvious advantages such a weapon had. It was easy to use and understand. One had to simply pull the breech upwards and insert the round into the weapon, at which point it would be ready to fire. Pulling the trigger, the weapon would fire the projectile with surprising accuracy, the large caliber of the gun meaning that even though single shots were fired, it could easily penetrate armor and even spell trouble for mages in this way. When used in numbers, which was an advantage the villagers had, they could be used to deliver devastating volley fire. Further still, the mechanism used in the weapon was simple and thus very easy to maintain. Even in an absence of spare parts, the village smith could easily fashion the replacements. The same applied to the gunpowder and cartridges required for the bullets. Its last big advantage was that the weapon used no magic, meaning that the overwhelming majority of normal, magicless villagers who called this place their home could use it. All that had been needed was to teach the people of the village how to properly utilize a weapon like this one to its full effect, Sherman and Bradley working day and night to drill the villagers into a state that would allow them to at least form a passable defense, the sound of firing drills echoing back from the surrounding snow-capped mountains from sunrise to sundown.

    While they had been working on the training of the villagers, Shen had tackled the task of training the village's only individuals that seemed capable of using magic. Twin brothers, it seemed, and both talented in the use of elemental magic. Paradoxically enough, though, one of them had, after careful explanation on magecraft in general and the effective use of ethernano to produce effects, started to generate fire in his palm, while the other brother had created water. Well, it seemed oddly fitting, in a way, Shen thinking it somewhat poetic as he watched their abilities become sharper with each day of training.

    The time to use that same training had come sooner rather than later, however. With the ring of the village's alarm bell, the villagers and Rune Knights alike had hurried outside their accommodations one morning to find the sight of impending danger rushing for them from the nearby forest. The form of a massive monster, easily 6 meters in height, resembling a large reptilian creature in appearance, had been bursting through the trees, it's massive roar and earth-shaking steps alarming the people of the village, who did not hesitate for even a second. Just as they had practiced, the 50 or so villagers, men and women alike, young and old, formed up in two neat rows, one just behind the other, every single one of them carrying one of their new weapons. The lines were flanked by the now at least somewhat trained mages at each side, Shen acting as their commander, taking a position just behind the two rows of people, ready to intervene. He didn't want to, of course, to test the developments the villagers had made in a real life-or-death scenario. "The twins will begin the battle with an offensive spell each, after that, wait for my signal to shoot the beast. The battle starts ...", Shen spoke, waiting for a few seconds to let the monster draw out of the cover of the trees and come into view before shouting his command, which would act as a signal to the twin casters, "NOW!".

    Just like they had practiced, one of the twins formed a fireball in his hands before launching it at the encroaching beast, the other doing the same with a sphere of boiling-hot water. Shrieks of pain and rage rang out just a second later, the spells striking true and hitting the reptilian creature in the face, blinding it momentarily. "Now's our chance! First rank, fire!". A second would pass by until everyone had registered the command, the air filled with the sound of thunderous crackles only a moment later. Crimson splatters of blood burst out from all over the monster's body, the projectiles tearing heavy wounds through its flesh, though the massive beast seemed resilient enough to withstand the initial attacks, still standing despite the injuries and bloodlust. Regaining its composure, driven by agony and rage, the beast roared anew before charging towards the group. "No good. Second rank, aim!", the Staff Sergeant's voice echoed across the frozen plain around them, clear as day. He would wait for a second until everyone had had the chance to properly shoulder their weapons, the first rank kneeling down to make space for the second one, just as practiced. All was going according to their training.

    "Fire!"

    Another series of explosions crackled, then, a heavy thud could be heard, the beast slumping over and sinking head-first into the snow, staining the blanket of white crimson, it's body still and unmoving. A few seconds of tense silence would pass before suddenly, a wave of cheers erupted. They'd really done it. The villagers took this as a cause for celebration. A monster attack that would have caused many casualties just weeks ago, if not wiped out the village entirely, had been repelled without the loss of a single person. Shen breathed a sigh of relief. Seemed like the weapons supplied by the Rune Knights would be effective enough against the local beasts.

    So all the training and practice had not been for naught, after all. A smirk would lift one of the corners of Shen's mouth as he stared ahead at the fallen beast, it's huge, unmoving form still bleeding. He had no problem with fighting monsters, but he had wondered how it would've been if a hostile mage had attacked them. Well, that was an entirely different matter. Fighting a sentient, intelligent being would be a difficulty in-and-of-itself, and the young Rune Knight officer wasn't sure if he was even capable of battling another human being at all. So far, all he had done were tasks that had been relatively mundane, but with this part of his mission done, he felt like he, too, had accomplished something. His leadership skills had improved, just like the skills of the villagers had improved. He could tell. It had been no problem commanding the large group of villagers in a manner that seemed entirely uncharacteristic to the young man, but his actions had almost felt natural, Shen drawing another little bit of confidence from these facts. Perhaps this was what the Field Marshal had intended all along. In that sense, this mission had caused the Staff Sergeant to deal with a side of himself that he had previously thought entirely absent from his character, and yet, here he was.

    Shen lowered his gaze, closing his eyes briefly as he smiled to himself.

    Perhaps, he thought, with this, he would finally be able to catch up to his older sister.



    Word Count: 3,539

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