The light of morning struck the pave stones as one by one the applicants trickled into the large assembly field. Unlike the days before, however, they came dressed for battle and armed to the teeth. Many came early, fully prepared for the trails ahead. Slowly, they took their accustomed places, choosing to stay in groups mostly made up of friends, teams and longhouse members.
It had been a tense week. The clustered living conditions combined with the number of applicants lead to several issues. Also, it didn’t help that the youths gathered here were mostly headstrong fellows with backgrounds that would normally be impressive to the outside world. Valerian had even had the pleasure of meeting the nephew of an Earl. Tempers ruptured and tensions rose as the friction caused a lot of fights. Clearly, Strapping’s reputation was not exaggerated.
Valerian had estimated that there were at least three hundred people here for the exam though looking at them now, he felt that his estimate may be too low. It wasn’t just the numbers. The sheer presence and personalities of some them was a bit mind numbing. Gathered here were, supposedly, some of Bathar’s brightest. Valerian counted himself in that number but the fact that there existed these many people on similar levels as he astounded him. All of this considering that many did not even come to Strapping’s and the geniuses that allegedly went to the elite schools.
Truly, there were mountains beyond mountains and seas beyond seas. Even if geniuses were as rare as diamonds, didn’t every wealthy household have at least one set in their jewellery not to mention the ones still stuck in the earth? Having come to an epiphany concerning his place in the world, Valerian waited for the proceeds to start. Eventually, a cadre of soldiers climbed onto the raised platform in front of the assembly.
“Greetings”, one of them called, leaving his fellows to stand at the podium. “I suppose you know why you are here today. All the same, I will make it clear. Before you are done the honour of being accepted into our fine training centre you must prove yourselves to be worth our time. To help with that, we have constructed a course for you. It’s a standard endurance course. One you must prove capable of completing before we even deign to spend our time on you”, he informed them.
“If you look to your right, you’ll notice that seven gates have been set up. In front of each gate is a station”, he gestured. “Those are your starting points. The large gate on your left, however, is your finish line. Whichever gate you choose to leave from will take you on a course that will eventually bring you to the one on the right”, he announced.
“Here’s the kicker, each applicant must pick up a pack from the station attendant before being let through the starting gate. They must then bring that same pack with them through the course and to the finish station. The packs are graded and weigh from sixty kilogrammes to two hundred”, he added.
That caught everyone’s ears. The applicants began to worry. Running an endurance course with a weighted pack? The members of longhouse four began to chatter amongst themselves. Thanks to Alenwaa, they already knew what was coming but they had been under the impression that the tests would be conducted separately. However, from what the soldier was saying, they were rolling the endurance, strength and possibly speed portions into one.
The man at the podium merely smiled and continued. “That’s not all. Anyone who is unable to take the course will immediately be disqualified. They’ll be marched from this assembly grounds to their longhouses to pack their things and leave and as for those who choose to take the exam. You’ll have to follow certain rules” he revealed.
“First rule; any applicant who does not complete the course will not pass the exam and you already know what that entails. Second rule; you must present any pack you take at the finish station before you’ll be recognised as passing the exam. Third; the use of storage equipment like spatial items, etc and any other essence artefacts either to remove or reduce the load or even to cross the distance speedily will have the user disqualified. Same goes for using pills, elixirs, essence stones or the like while running the course.”
Anyone wanting to get through the course is going to have to sweat it”, he added with a pleased smile. “Fourth rule; no applicant is allowed to sabotage another. Fifth rule, the last fifty applicants to go through the finish station will automatically fail this exam!” he ended.
Cries of protest and dismay came from the assembled youths. The exam was hard enough, they didn’t need rules to make it more difficult. Some among them, like Valerian, quickly figured out why they were not allowed to use equipment or attack their colleagues. It was common sense to the more unscrupulous applicants amongst them. With the last fifty standing risk of elimination, there was clearly incentive to sabotage others to ensure they remained above the cutoff whilst artefacts would render the test meaningless.
The soldier on the podium only smiled. For the first time, Valerian caught on that the man might not be as old as he thought. Beard aside, the man didn’t seem that much older than some of the fellows beside him. Was he even an instructor here? Valerian would believe it if they told him he was looking at one of his upperclassmen.
“I will not waste any more of your time or mine. The first exam begins now!” he proclaimed with a flourish.
Quickly, all the applicants began to push their way towards the starting gates. Valerian went with the flow allowing the crowd to push him towards gate two. There, he joined the queue moving up till he was face to face with the soldier dispensing the packs.
“Which one do you want?” the young soldier asked him.
“The heaviest”, Valerian told him.
The soldier nodded and gave him a large pack to carry. Valerian took it, noting how the man didn’t even seem to notice its heft. Then again, Valerian didn’t as well. He could have carried a pack like this as a child to talk of now. Unlike him though, most of the other applicants chose the sixty-kilogramme pack. The course was bound to be difficult enough. There was no need to add an extra burden.
Valerian could only chuckle at their naivety as he set off on a jog through the gate. If that was the case, why give them packs of varying weights. Passing was only half the purpose of the exam. The rankings had already started and Valerian was aiming for the top.
The next few days were hell. It turned out that the exam wasn’t over with the first day. The course had been run every subsequent day. Every day, people were disqualified either for trying to cheat, breaking one of the rules or simply because they were unable to complete the course and had to be rescued and carried away. Some were unlucky enough that they were eliminated even after completing the course just because they came last.
Each day had a reduced margin. For instance, on the first day, fifty people were eliminated. The second, forty, the third, thirty and so on and so forth. This was the fourth day and the reality had begun to hit many of the applicants. The endurance test wasn’t just running the course. Already, many of the applicants who started out strong had begun to fall behind. Most found that they could not keep up their performance. The course they were given was a veritable marathon through the surrounding hills and they were running it whiles weighed down.
Running that once was doable but every single day? Many crawled into the longhouse with jelly legs on the first day. As for the second, third? Even those with access to pills and medicines with recovery properties found themselves running ragged. A few were running short. This had added an interesting dynamic to the exam. Recovery medicine had become the hottest trade among the applicants. They weren’t allowed to use them in the middle of the exam but after or before? No problem.
Alenwaa, for example, was making a killing selling to their housemates and the ones from the surrounding houses. Many could see now why he was so confident in making it through the exam. Not only did he seem to have a surplus, he even gave medicines to his team members for free. He also seemed to know a lot of benedictory spells. It was this fact, that had allowed him to upgrade his teammates.
Once it was clear to everyone what they stood to gain, he didn’t even have to ask, people started clamouring for his attention. Longhouse four even held a small competition to see who could get into his team. Valerian sat back, not taking part but looking on with incredulity. The whole incident had even made his decision to not create or join any team waver.
It wasn’t just longhouse four. Many of the applicants had begun to team up. There was currently a high demand for arcanists who knew recovery spells or had some experience with benediction like Alenwaa as well as tellurians with lots of strength. The underlying formations were simple. Tellurians would carry the loads and arcanists would help either with benedictory spells to lighten them, speed them up or help them recover afterwards. Those with a lot of medicines and essence stones to spare could also recruit others into their teams.
Even so, there were quite a few like Valerian who continued to go solo. These applicants had begun to gain attention, not just from the examiners but from their fellow applicants as well. Valerian did not mind the former but the latter was bringing him a fair bit of trouble. Thus far, he had completed the course always in the top five percentiles while carrying the two hundred kilogramme pack and always without any help.
He had already had to refuse several recruitment offers. Then, there were the ones who hoped to join him instead. His eyes flicked to his left where sure enough, a certain tall, musclebound cultivator was staring at him again. The refusals extended even to Alenwaa, the now uncontested leader of longhouse four. This hadn’t done him any favours as it only made him seem more unsociable. However, for now, Alenwaa seemed to be a likeable person. He hadn’t pushed too far and appeared content to keep their relationship amicable.
The fifth day was same as the ones before it. At sunrise, the applicants dragged themselves to the assembly field and waited for the signal to begin. The only light thought in their tired minds was the fact that it would all be over soon. Going by the decrements in eliminations, it was clear that this was their last day at this trial. Valerian spared a look around. They had started with close to four hundred people now, there were barely over a hundred. His guess was that today, they’d lose at least twenty more.
Sighing softly, Valerian wondered where he stood in the current rankings. He knew they were being ranked but there was nothing he could reference to tell his current position. ‘Today, I will push myself to the front’, he resolved. He had been conserving his strength so far but if this was the last day of this exam he could stand to reveal some of it. Flicking an insect off his steel grey armour he stepped forward. Today, he would take the lead!
Two places from picking up his pack, something strange happened. It started out as a dark flicker at the edge of his sight. Turning around, Valerian saw nothing. He’d have left it there if it didn’t happen again. Valerian found himself looking around again and still seeing nothing. But then the flickers multiplied.
Quickly, he enhanced his eyesight and gazed upon a shocking scene. The flickers were people. Valerian watched as an examiner caught a fleeing applicant right next to the gate and begin pulling him to the station. Astonishment filled his eyes, the boy in question was not wearing or carrying a pack. Had he tried going through the gate without a pack? How?
Suddenly, something occurred to him. How had he gone by the station without the attendant giving him one? Even more surprising, how had Valerian not noticed that one of the people right in front of him didn’t pick one? Valerian realised that he had never even seen this applicant before. Nothing of him triggered any memory, recollection or familiarity. Valerian wouldn’t call himself an expert by any stretch but he did consider his senses to be very acute and well trained. Plus, his memory had always been one of his strong points.
The examiner dragged the boy closer allowing Valerian to see that unlike the other ‘examiners’ this one was actually old. Old enough that he seemed middle-aged as opposed to the youthful looks of his fellows. He was also speaking. Valerian strained his ears trying to pick up what he was saying.
“…expect that, did you kid? What a bother! Don’t worry, you’re not disqualified but I’m sure you know that already. The rules said any pack picked must be delivered to the finish station. Picking nothing meant you had nothing to deliver. Smart but from today, you’ll go through the exams same as everyone else. I’ll be watching. This was a warning. Try to sneak past again and I will disqualify you”, the man was saying.
His quarry was young, less than a score of years old. He looked very ordinary with the exception of the scale armour he wore. Contrary to Valerian’s expectations, he didn’t seem concerned or worried at being caught, an easy smile played out on his face.
“Wait here, I’ll grab you a pack”, the man added.
With that, he disappeared. It was then that Valerian realised he was the only person to have caught the exchange. You’d expect some clamour from someone being caught cheating but no one was saying anything. They were simply going about their business. Valerian glanced around to make sure. No one around him appeared to notice what was happening. The queue was still moving slowly and the girl three persons behind him was still arguing with the one behind her. He caught the station attendant glance toward the captured applicant proving that he too had caught on but apart from him no one else seemed to.
Valerian’s breath caught in his throat. What was going on? The instructor, for he could be nothing else, came back. Somehow, he had obtained a pack and walked all the way to his quarry without anyone paying him any mind. Valerian stared, unsure of what to do. Were they trying to keep the fact that an applicant had cheated successfully and several times from the sound of it, secret? It seemed plausible but how? Valerian was stumped. Illusions? No, it didn’t seem so. Someone in the crowd would have noticed.
Right then, the cheat looked up. His eyes met Valerian’s. The two stared at each other for a few seconds before the cheat grinned cockily. Placing the pack around his shoulders, he waved goodbye. As if that was a signal, a strange shadowy mass engulfed him and he disappeared. The examiner followed the exchange and laughed walking away.
The cheating applicant made his way towards the gate sparing only a glance backwards at the only person who had seen him. His eyes immediately widened. The grey armoured fellow was still staring at him.
Hastily, he checked to see if his concealment skill was still active. It was and yet the other was staring straight through it. Puzzled, he tried something else. Sinking into his shadow, he slid along the ground and appeared a few metres away. The other boy’s eyes followed, not missing him in the slightest. He tried some other tricks but the other, now picking up his pack, continued to see through them. The examiner had stopped, watching them curiously.
‘Interesting’, he thought with a smile. Then, he grinned, pushing his skill to the max and fading away like mist. ‘This will be very interesting’.
Valerian stared at the dark shadow that slipped through the gate ahead of him. He might not have noticed him before but now that he knew he was there, there was no way he’d let him slip past him again. Truthfully, he hadn’t even caught all he had done. Valerian had heard of concealment skills but he’d never seen any like this. Half the time, the boy was shrouded in shadows that not even his eyes could see through. However, he could still ‘see’ and track his unique signature. The challenge on the other boy’s face stuck in his mind.
“Find me!” it said.
‘Interesting!’ he said to himself, unknowingly echoing ‘the shadow’. He shot through the gate, eyes peeled and searching, a new objective added to his list.