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“The third phase of the Hunter Exam begins: Now!” declared Rogoto as he emitted a shockwave into the ground. When the shockwave came in contact with the stone slab Raymo was perched on it crumbled into dust and pebbles, and down he plunged into a slick stone tube, completely engulfed by darkness.
The amateur examinee was taken by surprise by the sudden drop, but quickly composed himself and let the slide take him wherever it chose. It twisted and turned several times within the course of a few seconds, until finally Raymo tumbled out into a slightly more open space. He brought himself to his feet quickly and brandished his spear, on guard for anything the exam may throw at him.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the rectangular room, Raymo realized he was the first to reach this place. He gazed at the opening in the wall opposite the one he’d emerged from, expecting another examinee to rush out of it any second now.
Just as he’d predicted, his opponent soon slid out of the opening, albeit much more smoothly than he had. The woman landed firmly on her feet, allowing Raymo to get a good look at her features. He recognized the woman as one of the examinees he, Yashi, and Cricket had shared the boat ride to the third phase with. What he had yet to realize was that it was the same woman who was working with Byruz to try and hunt him and Yashi down.
Raymo was still on his guard, waiting for her to make the first move, but she didn’t seem even remotely concerned with him. Immediately after she’d slid out of the opening in the wall she stood casually, brushing the dust off of her red and black clothing. Raymo wasn’t even sure if she was aware she wasn’t the only one in the room. When the woman finally turned her attention to him, she apparently hadn’t realized who had been standing across from her, because her expression immediately changed into a delighted grin that sent chills up and down Raymo’s spine.
“Oh how my luck has turned out,” she purred. The woman attempted to take a step forward, but Raymo quickly pointed the blade of his spear in her direction.
“Not another step!” he demanded. The older examinee wasn’t armed as far as Raymo could tell, but she still filled him with unease. She was completely calm, and the way she’d entered the room was unnerving. She must’ve known there could’ve been an opponent already down here that could’ve struck her as soon as she’d come out into the open, yet she hadn’t been cautious at all. And it wasn’t until she noticed it was Raymo she was fighting that she displayed any interest whatsoever.
Still, she’d stopped when Raymo had ordered her to. Her expression hardened into a sterner one upon being given an order. “Now, now, boy, don’t get so uptight,” she said. “Right now fate has pushed us together into the circumstances of battle. Let’s allow fate to take its course.” She turned her body sideways and raised her open right hand in front of her, readying herself for combat. “Come.”
Raymo wasted no time in making a move. In a matter of seconds he launched himself at her, twirling his spear in the air above his head to gain momentum, and swung the blade at a diagonal angle towards the woman’s shoulder. In response, the woman extended her long arm out and blocked the shaft of the spear with her forearm. With the same hand she quickly took hold of the spear shaft and swung it herself, with Raymo still hanging on to the other end. She had had the intention of smashing his body into the stone wall, but Raymo shifted his body and landed squarely on the wall with his feet. Using the forced of her swing to bounce back, the younger examinee then flipped around and aimed a precise downward kick at the woman’s head. Surprisingly, the woman was able to catch him by the ankle with her free hand, and once she’d done this she proceeded to throw Raymo along with his spear back to their original side of the room. This exchange spanned about ten seconds.
“You’re quite the little scrapper, boy,” the woman cooed, the grin of a sadist on her face. “But alas, you still didn’t put even one scratch on me. You’ll never be able to accomplish what you desire with that kind of power.”
These words struck a chord with Raymo. “Shut your mouth! You don’t know anything about me!” He shouted. Upon hearing the volume of his own voice he realized he lost his composure, so he took in a deep breath and tried to stifle his rage. He readjusted the position of his spear, holding it behind his back with the blade pointing upward, his free hand open and held out in front of him defensively. Then, ever so slowly, he began inching his way in an arch around the perimeter of the room. The woman did the same on the other side.
“Hmm, such a strange stance,” she said, her expression now intense once again. She must’ve been working out different possibilities as to what the stance Raymo had taken might be used for in her mind. “You’re leaving yourself much more open to attack now.”
Raymo stopped once they were directly across from each other against the side walls of the room, which has three flames burning on each of them to provide light for the combatants. “The stance of your opponent should be meaningless to someone of such a superior caliber as yourself. Or maybe you’re not as in control as you’d like me to think?”
The woman narrowed her eyes at her younger opponent. Raymo could feel them boring into him like two lances, but he had to remain calm and keep her attention.
“Taunting me will get you nowhere, young man. If I were to allow myself to be distracted by such things I couldn’t respect myself as a fighter,” she responded coolly, though to Raymo it sounded more like ice-cold, and sent another chill throughout his body.
Finally the boy jumped backward and sprung himself off the wall behind him, directly at his opponent. His spear was raised and ready to slice straight down at the woman.
Surprisingly however, in response to his actions the older examinee let out a slow laugh. “Are we growing desperate now, boy? Don’t tell me that you’re all talk after all. It would be very disappointing.”
Raymo didn’t let her words shake him and continued in his actions. Once he was close enough he swung down at the woman with the blade of his spear. It was a fairly simply attack, but that was what he’d hoped. Just as he’d expected, his opponent stuck out her arm and clutched the shaft of the spear just below the blade, planning to catch it and throw him just as she’d done before. Instead she quickly jerked her hand away from the spear and gave a sharp cry, feeling the sting of the piping-hot metal she’d just grasped. This gave Raymo the opportunity he’d been waiting for. With the woman distracted for just a moment, he quickly regained his footing on the ground, swept her feet out from under her with his spear, and landed a powerful downward kick to her abdomen, causing her to hit the stone floor with a painful crash.
With his opponent on the ground Raymo gripped his weapon with both hands and was about to bring the spearhead right down into the woman’s gut. Against any other opponent he would’ve most likely been more merciful and ended things with a nonlethal attack, but this woman had disturbed him so deeply that he felt he needed to stop her permanently. He never got the chance however. Just as the blade of the spear was coming down, an explosion from seemingly nowhere erupted between the two combatants, sending Raymo crashing into the wall behind him.
The woman slowly rose off the ground as the dust settled around her. The impact of hitting the wall made Raymo’s vision a bit hazy, but he could tell that she wasn’t as injured as he would’ve liked her to be.
Once she was back on her feet, the middle-aged woman smiled bitterly at Raymo. “I’ll give you credit, boy, you’re even more clever than I’d imagined. That’ll make recruiting you all the more of an accomplishment.”
A wave of confusion swept over Raymo, who was still on his hands and knees in a daze. She wants to recruit me? Recruit me for what? This woman’s insane! He shakily rose to his feet, but once he was finally standing straight up again he opened his eyes and found his opponent standing right in front of him, her eyes level with his own. He jumped back. To say he was startled would be the understatement of the century.
The woman smirked at him. “You’re quite the resourceful one,” she hissed. “You inched your way around to the wall with the lanterns on them so you could hold the spear in the flame. Then, you purposefully used an attack you knew I could easily stop, so my hand would come in contact with the spear after you’d just heated it up. Quite the strategist; I like that.”
“What is it you want with me, you triclops!?” The woman stood up straight, apparently offended by this nickname, but she quickly recomposed herself and regained her sly smirk.
“You are a person I value, Raymo,” she said quietly. Raymo had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but the woman continued. “You’re a talented fighter, and just as smart as you are strong. If only you would let someone cultivate all this raw talent you have within you.”
“I don’t need your help to get stronger,” Raymo replied sharply. He hoped his knees weren’t shaking as bad as he thought they were.
“Oh, come now. Surely you have a goal,” Gantua said, putting her face closer to his own so that they were eye to eye with each other. “There must be something you hope to accomplish after getting a Hunter License. Something you want to find? Someone you want to… defeat?”
Raymo must’ve allowed his expression to change once he’d heard that final word, because the woman immediately realized she’d dug down deep enough to find what she’d been looking for. “Don’t act like you know me!” He shouted, getting more agitated by the second. He launched a sudden palm strike at his opponent’s chest, but she simply grabbed him by the wrist and threw him to the other side of the room.
“Raymo, be reasonable. What’s stopping you from accepting my offer?” The woman insisted, walking over to where he’d landed. “I wouldn’t imagine a young boy like you having a family, at least not a good one if they let you take the Hunter Exam at your age.”
The more he listened to this woman the more Raymo was enraged by her words. “Don’t speak another word,” he said quietly, though his tone was deathly threatening.
“What? I’m only discussing hunches I have. I know nothing about you. These are all just guesses. You could easily just deny whatever I say if it isn’t true. You have no family you value and no friends, so why do you insist on fighting me on this?”
“That’s not true!” Raymo said quickly, causing the woman to raise an eyebrow at him. “I have a friend!”
The woman smiled and leisurely strolled towards him. “Oh, you mean that little Gheran boy that’s been shadowing you this whole time?” Raymo remained silent. She was referring to Yashi. She knew exactly who he was talking about. The woman let out a wicked laugh that reverberated against the walls of the square room. “Oh please,” she said with a chuckle, “That weakling only teamed up with you so you could pick up his slack.”
Raymo couldn’t believe what he was hearing from this woman. “No! Don’t try and lie to me anymore!”
But the woman continued. “That little street-rat only befriended you because he sensed the same strength in you that I did. He wanted to make sure you were his ally instead of his enemy, because he knew what a threat you could be to him getting his Hunter License.”
Raymo put his hands over his ears, trying to block out the woman’s words. “Shut up! You’re just trying to get under my skin!”
“Open your eyes!” The woman shouted, allowing herself to become more passionate and less smug. “Don’t you see he’s been playing you!? All this has been an act because he’s afraid of you!”
This last sentence resonated within Raymo for a moment, shaking him to his core. The woman looked at him and smiled. She’d done exactly what she’d planned from the start. It took some deep digging to get through, but she finally managed to plant a seed of doubt within Raymo, and now it would take root.
Raymo’s mind raced, going through each moment he’d shared with Yashi over and over again, but this time he was seeing them in an entirely new light. He thought about Yashi’s insistence to be near him whenever danger turned up in the exam. How he’d spoken to him so familiarly on the airship after the first phase and the boat after the second, even though they’d only known each other for a few days. He thought about how Yashi and Cricket had purposely tried to make sure they were on the same boat together, even though there was no real reason for that since they were all going to the same place and it was a short trip. Had this all just been part of an elaborate ruse?
No! This witch is just trying to manipulate me! Just like she did for all those years. But what if she’s right, and it was him who’s been the manipulator this whole time? A fierce conflict raged within Raymo as he tried to rationally analyze and reanalyze all this information at once. He was overthinking it much more than most people would, but as he thought about it more and more, he felt more and more anxious, which caused him to rethink it once again, and the cycle went on.
The woman knelt down next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. She spoke much more gently now than she ever had before. “Come now, Raymo. If you join me all this insecurity you’re feeling right now will vanish. You’ll have people you can really trust around you, and you won’t need to worry about us trying to lie to you because we’re scared. We aren’t weak like that little street-rat.”
Raymo looked up at her, his eyes pooling with tears of frustration at not knowing what to do. Looking up at her, her face now wearing such a sympathetic and gently expression, it seemed like the only option he had at this point. “How can I make that happen?” He finally asked.
The woman didn’t let her expression change on the outside, but if she had she would be smiling from ear to ear now. The seed she’d planted was growing just as she’d hoped.
She lowered her eyes so that they were level with Raymo’s and whispered, “I just need you to do one thing for me. Are you ready to hear it?” Raymo nodded at her, and he drew her face closer so she could whisper directly into his ear what it was she wanted him to do. Once she told him, she leaned back and looked at him again. “Can you do that for me?”
“That’s all I have to do?” Raymo asked. The woman nodded. “Can you make me stronger if I go with you?”
“Stronger than you could ever imagine.”
Raymo stood up and took in a deep breath. It took him about five seconds to completely inhale and then exhale, but in these five seconds he relived the entire exam up to this point, considering one final time what all had really happened between himself and Yashi, and what might’ve driven such things. Sorry Yashi, but this is what I’m choosing for myself. In a firm tone he declared, “I, Raymo Xang, forfeit the 291st Hunter Exam!”
A voice from a speaker that must’ve been planted somewhere inside the room asked, “Are you one hundred percent certain of this?” Raymo nodded his head in the direction that voice had come from. A shudder not unlike the one that had been generated by Rogoto at the beginning of the third phase shook the stone room, and the blocks of one of the side walls slid apart, creating a door. At first hesitantly, then with confidence, Raymo took a step and then walked through the door, which promptly closed behind him. His eyes were hazy as he left. And left in the stone room all by herself was his opponent, now able to fully admire her work.
Continued in: Cut × Short