As I took my seat at the end of the table in the empty spot beside Lieutenant Neera, father asked, "Where's Cervidae?"
Major Ursa, shrugged. "We sent messengers to fetch him. He sent them back with 'I'll go along with whatever you decide.' What are we supposed to do?"
Father rubbed his forehead in exasperation. "Fine. The Paladins aren't suitable for this sort of battle anyway. Lieutenant Ava, report."
"Yes, sir." She responded with a formal salute. Stepping up to the podium at the front of the room, she pointed at a location on the large and detailed regional map that was laminated onto the wall.
"This, here is the centre of the forbidden zone." She drew an irregular circle centred on the point and as her finger moved, it left a shadowy trail on the map. "And this, is the border of the zone. As you can see, it lies right at the intersection between the borders of three regions: The Regiis empire, The territory of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries, and the Crimson Coyote territory."
She drew another shadowy curve from the outskirts of our military outpost. "This, is the region where my scouts are active. Any further and the rise in the danger levels wouldn't be worth the time we would gain whenever the zone shows signs of unrest." She pointed at a spot at the extreme end of the curve and closest to the centre of the zone. "This is where the fifth recon squad confirmed their sightings of the ants."
Father raised his hand to stop her. "They saw some ants, right? What were the numbers? The composition? What makes them so sure that this is a Calamity and not just a foraging party that has strayed too far from their nest?"
Ava shook her head. "There were soldier ants, sir. It was no mere foraging squad. Also, the report mentions a Tier 3 Fire Ant and it was winged. It's a Calamity, alright."
Del Tauros patted the table none to gently. "I say we don't take this lightly. Underestimating a Calamity, or leaving things to chance will only turn us into corpses faster. A winged Tier 3 this close to the border means that the legion isn't too far off." He pounded his fist into his palm. "We should hit the advanced party hard and fast, take them out before their reinforcement arrives."
"Are you daft!" exclaimed Major Ursa. "You want to take the battle outside our walls? Has your brain gone into those horns of yours? Every sane man knows that in the case of an insect tide the best strategy is shoring up the defences. The advanced party is insignificant compared to the numbers of the ant legion. To wipe them out you would be diverting manpower better spent strengthening the fortifications and preparing for a siege."
I was a bit out of the loop regarding this conversation.
I could understand that they were talking about an insect tide and having read about the Sixth Forbidden Zone in quite a few books, I knew that the reason the region was 'forbidden' was the colony of fire ants that nested in it.
But, what I couldn't follow was their seemingly random inferences from the smallest of details. Yes, defence was always a good strategy. Blitzing the advanced party of the enemy and wiping them out before the main army came was a time-tested classic. But, how were they so sure that there was an advanced party in the first place. They only knew of one squad of soldier ants with a Tier 3 flier.
How did that translate?
Basically, such inferences required experience. It was experience only someone who lived beside a forbidden zone could possess. Something I lacked.
Soon, I felt lost as the conversation proceeded without me. I just sat there, watching Major Ursa and Major Tauros grow increasingly abrasive as they argued over the preferred strategy with father and their two wives interjecting once in a while.
I felt quite useless as I silently audited without contributing anything. It hurt my pride. I had spent so much time in the library, perusing the bestiaries and preparing for the grand globetrotting adventure I would embark upon someday. And yet, here I was, unable to offer any sort of assistance with that knowledge.
Suddenly, it hit me. I was a mere four and a half cycles old and I was a civilian. This was the first time I found myself in an army's command post and I expected my opinion to matter somehow. Why? Just because I had read some books?
When had I grown so arrogant?
I might hold the provisional post of Lieutenant due to my token, but that changed nothing about who I actually was. A boy wet behind the ears who had set out on his very first journey outside the confines of his home.
I realised what father wanted me to learn when he brought me here, to this high-level discussion and gave me a chance to be seated among men and women far above my station in both rank and experience.
Bookish knowledge was fine, but on the true battlefield, it counted for very little. If I couldn't keep my mind open and learn from those who had worked in the field, trying to flaunt my erudition instead, I would never succeed.
Realizing what was expected of me, I let go of my disappointment, taking on the attitude of a student rather than the equal of the men and women at the table. As they explored the various problems associated with the mobilization of the army to defend against the approaching insect tide, I tried my best to link their strategies with what I knew from my books.
All too soon, the meeting was over and a tentative plan was in place. Only some details needed to be hammered out and some strategies tested on the real battlefield.
Father and I walked side by side as we made our way back to our quarters in the military camp. He patted my shoulder and said with a smile, "Good. You did much better than I. When my father put me in my first clan meeting, I presented my opinion on most things and got quite discontented when the Elders shot down most of my suggestions."
He sighed. "I never expected this to happen when you decided to come visit us. First the Geas and now the Calamity. It seems your stay is doomed not to be peaceful." He looked me right in the eye and spoke with great gravity, "This will be your first time on the battlefield. Remember this; here, individual ability doesn't matter and the only victory is returning alive."
Just as I was letting his words sink in, the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps interrupted our conversation and we looked to the end of the corridor. Rounding the bend, Phobos leaned against the wall to catch her breath as she saw us. She gasped out, "It's Ceres. She's awake."
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