If the team thought they would have extra time to pack, they were sadly mistaken. The harsh training regimen continued and they were expected to pack during their personal time, which included few waking hours. A great deal of sleep was lost during those three days. It wasn’t until the night before that Angus came to them to see how it was progressing. “So what have you guys deemed important enough to take with you on your trip northward?”
Marnie opened her backpack first. She had put a few changes of clothes, a flashlight, a canteen and what was left of the MREs she had taken from the first trial.
Angus nodded. “I approve of what you have so far. We do need to travel light, but you might want something to help you sleep at night. We’re going into Russia and and winter is coming. I want to see warm clothes and blankets. It may still be temperate here, but once we get up there, I would expect to see snow piled up around us. It gets really cold really quick up there and if you’re not prepared, you will die.”
It went downhill from there. Prolier, Renala and Angel all had packs filled with comfort items. Granted Prolier’s protein bars might be useful, but they weren’t long term sustenance. Angus was shocked when he saw Lethen’s bag.
“Is that all you were planning to take?”
Lethen’s face was stony when he answered. “This is more than I had with me for most of my life, and I survived just fine.”
Angus looked at the change of underwear and sighed. As much as he wanted to yell at Lethen for his lack of foresight, he also wanted to applaud him for having the balls to travel over a thousand miles with nothing more than some spare boxers.
Lethen watched his sensei, knowing that he wanted to say something. “I’ve lived most of my life having to hunt for food and water. Barring the few times I went to Marnie’s house for a meal, I had nothing given to me.”
Angus looked at his student. “I understand your past, but you do realize that you’re in Hikari now, right? You are no longer an wandering waif. You don’t have to go without anymore.”
Lethen nodded. “I know exactly what I am, but what else can I take with me? What you see is everything I own.”
It was then that Angus understood. Lethen was an oddity in Hikari not just because he was a half-breed. He was also unique because he was poor. Every other student that had ever stepped foot onto the campus had financial backing. If Marnie had wanted to, she could have asked her parents for an RV. They would’ve rode up in comfort. When Angus had told them to pack, he’d expected to see people making difficult choices, like every year before. It had taken Lethen all of twenty seconds to throw all of his earthly possessions in a bag.
Angus shook his head. “Alright you guys. I will admit that the packing was just another test. For your first mission you will be given a standard issue Hikari pack that hopefully contains everything you will need for the upcoming quest.”
He whistled and a pretty redhead stepped forward pushing a cart full of knapsacks. Angel smiled as he recognized Meredith.
Angus ignored the look on Angel’s face. “This is Meredith. I was her teacher when she was a first year and now she’s come to help us out. Each of these packs has a name on it and each has been tailored to one of you. The clothes are fitted and the supplies are standard. Each contains a highly insulated bedroll and a week’s worth of food and water. They’re not light, but as Hikari students, you’re expected to be able to carry them.”
They all stepped forward to inspect their new gear. Each pack contained three changes of clothes besides the other supplies. One was standard green and brown camo, one was white and gray camo, and the third was a set of normal clothes.
Angus looked at the team. “I doubt we’ll have much use for the forest camouflage, but we will need the winter stuff and the standard civilian clothes. There will be times when we have to blend in with people, rather than just snow or trees. Either way, we’re all packed. I would advise getting some rest. We leave before first light tomorrow.”
* * * * *
Each member of squad 1C had different expectations of what their trip to Russia would involve, and all of them were wrong. They were not going into the country for friendly purposes and as such they couldn’t just fly into Moscow and show their Hikari student identification. They had to get into and out of Russia without anyone knowing they were ever there.
Luckily for them, they did get to fly most of the way. They landed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia under false documents. It wasn’t well known, but when a student is accepted to Hikari, the school uses it’s influence to create five new identities for each of them.
From there, they hopped on a bus heading north to Altanbulag, just south of the Russian border. It was just a short mile and a half trek west into the forest where they would make their crossing into Russia.
Angus stopped them as they approached the road they would have to cross. There was a barbed wire fence, but other than that, it looked to be an easy crossing. “Okay guys, this is the end of the easy stuff. Once we are within Russian borders, we are enemy combatants and will be treated as such if anyone discovers who we are. Watch yourselves and watch out for each other. Although it is uncommon, there have been entire squads of first years slaughtered while on their first missions.”
“I bet he’s just saying that so we’ll be careful,” Prolier whispered to Angel.
Angus glared at Prolier. “Actually it’s true. Right now we don’t have a 5C for that exact reason. If you don’t watch your asses, we won’t make it out of here. Usually first years, especially C squads, get simple missions. Many times they act as guards for people who think they’re more important than they are. Hiring a squad of daemon knights doesn’t come cheap, even a 1C squad.”
“So this is considered to be an easy mission?” Prolier asked.
“No, it’s not.”
“Then why are we doing it?”
Lethen knew why, but wisely chose to keep quiet.
Angus waved his hand to indicate the team. “Because I think you guys are better than that. I think this is the strongest first year team I’ve seen in a very long time and I want to challenge you. I think your talents will stagnate unless you are constantly put in situations that force you to grow and improve.”
They all smiled at the compliment, though the smiles were strained by the thought of what may be lying ahead for them.
“So,” Prolier said. “If you don’t mind my asking, what year would normally have come on this mission.”
Angus smiled. “Oh, it’s nothing too serious. The mission was classified 3A, meaning only the strongest of third years would be able to handle it.”
Renala gasped. “And we’re here doing it?”
Angus motioned for her to keep it down. “Yes, we are, and that’s true whether it was a good idea or not. It’s possible that this is beyond your abilities, but it is our mission and we will do our best to see it through to the end.”
Angus looked around the bushes to view the road again. Seeing nothing he stepped forward to start working on the fence. It didn’t take him long to cut enough of it free for the team to squeeze through.
“We have to hurry,” he warned. “They do regular patrols along here. If they spot the break in the fence they’ll know something’s up and investigate. It would be in our best interest to be as far from here as possible when that happens.”
The students nodded their agreement. Border security might not carry daemon weapons, but they weren’t unarmed and a gun can kill just as quickly as anything they carried.
Angus ducked through the hole he’d made and began waving the students across the road.
Everything was going swimmingly when Angel, the last one in the line, somehow got his rifle and bag snagged in a tangle of wire. Both he and Angus tried to wiggle him free, but the fence just wouldn’t let him go.
The four who had made it safely across the road started to backtrack, but Angus threw up a hand to stop them. He pointed to the other side, indicating that he wanted them over there. They started moving back, but did so reluctantly. They didn’t want to leave anyone behind, but knew that Angus was in command. If he said to stay back, they would do so.
As the others watched the two struggle, Prolier chances a look to the side and sees headlights coming around a bend, a bend that’s not nearly distant enough for his liking. “Psst!” He waves toward the oncoming vehicle.
Angus cursed and looked at Angel. “This isn’t ideal but I’m gonna have to cut your pack. Once that’s done it will be harder to carry, but you should be free to move.”
“If we go now they’ll see us for sure,” Angel said. “Shouldn’t we back off after I’m loose?”
“No. We came here to do a mission and we’re better off on that side of the border, even if it means they’re coming after us. Run on my mark.” Angus looked at the snarl and got his clippers ready. “Three, two, one, mark.”
There was a ripping sound as Angel pulled loose of the fence, nearly dropping his pack in the process. As soon as he was stable, he bolted across the road, closely followed by Angus.
The border guards driving down the road clearly saw them bolt because the siren and lights immediately came on and they sped up considerably.
Angus and Angel made it across long before they got there. “Run!” the sensei shouted as he led them deeper into the woods on the Russian side.
They hadn’t been able to run very far when they heard the vehicle skid to a stop and car doors were slammed.
“Halt!” The voices shouting behind them were not asking.
Not surprisingly, they group did no such thing. Instead they sped up, trying to put as much distance as possible between them and their pursuers.
They ran for several minutes, though the burning in their legs made them feel like it had been much longer. They were all in good shape and had experience running cross country, but trying to keep a steady pace and running for your life were two very different things. Even Olympians would find it difficult to keep up a dead sprint for that long.
The sounds of pursuit were getting further away, but they didn’t disappear entirely. If fact, it appeared that the pair that had originally spotted them had called for backup. They could see at least half a dozen different beams of light as the border guards followed them into the forest.
“This isn’t working.” Angus stopped them for a moment of rest. “I want you guys to keep going north by northwest. Don’t stop until you hit a river, the Selenga River. Wait there for half a day and if I haven’t caught up to you by then, follow it north until you find a town called Selenduma. Wait for me there.”
Renala fixed him with a stare. “You’re not coming with us?”
Angus shook his head. “As it stands, we’re making a trail that a blind man could follow. I want you guys to take it easy and slow from here on. I’m gonna head northeast making as much noise as possible.”
Renala was about to say something else but Angus stopped her. “Go now.” And with that he took off into the woods, breaking every twig and stem he could find.