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The woman standing with Dreff in between the crowd of examinees who had made it to the tree’s summit and the Hunter Association airship tethered behind them was decked out in full Viking attire. She was taller than Dreff by four or five inches, and he was nearly six feet tall. The majority of her clothing was made of fur, and she wore a dark blue skin as a shawl over her shoulders. Her light blue hair was cut in a bob style, and a leather headband was placed on her brow. All in all, she was a pretty intimidating person to greet you after just overcoming forty-eight hours full of near-death experiences.
The top of the tree was similar to the interior canopy in that it was so densely grown together that it was almost like a carpet of leaves. Raymo looked all around them, but it appeared the examiners were still waiting for more applicants before they addressed the crowd, so he chose to sit down and inspect his injuries while he had the time. Yashi spotted the girl who’d saved them sitting on the edge of the naturally-made platform with her legs dangling over.
He was about to go ask her about their encounter, but Raymo stopped him. “She’s not going to tell you anything useful yet,” The younger boy said without looking up.
Yashi was about to argue, “I wasn’t eve-“
“Yes you were.”
“But she might-“
The two boys appeared to be at a stalemate, but Raymo had Yashi figured out. “Have you figured out what you could’ve done differently?” Raymo asked, finally meeting Yashi’s gaze.
“Well… no,” he replied, a bit hesitantly.
“Then she’s not going to tell you anything. She gave us something to do and she’s not going to give any ground until we’ve done it,” Raymo explained. He neglected to mention however, that he deduced this because his master had a similar way of giving instructions.
Yashi pondered this for a moment. Reluctantly he concluded that Raymo was probably right, so he decided instead to look himself over and assess his own injuries. As he was stretching his left arm over his body to look at his shoulder, a sharp pain flared up in his torso and he pulled his shirt open to find a long slice across his left ribcage. Yashi wasn’t sure when he’d sustained the injury, but he was surprised that he hadn’t noticed it until now.
When Raymo finished wrapping a bandage around his leg he noticed Yashi clumsily trying to doctor his own wound, and failing. With a not-at-all surprised sigh, the younger boy got up and walked towards his companion. “Let me do it,” he said, though it sounded more like an order than an offer.
“I think I got it,” Yashi replied, though he was clearly unable to position himself in a manner in which he could get a good view of his own wound while he bandaged it.
Without another word Raymo snatched the bandaged from Yashi’s grasp. He knelt down next to him and said, “I’m no doctor, but I can do a lot better job of this than you can. Now hold your arm up so I can apply some ointment.” Yashi did as he was instructed. Raymo rubbed some ointment on the wound, which stung a little at first, and then stuck on some thick bandages incase the wound reopened. After he was finished he tossed the tub of ointment to his patient. “Put that on the rest of your wounds and they should scab up quicker. I figured I owe you for having my back up til now, so I’ll watch yours.”
Yashi was a bit surprised by Raymo’s softer side, but managed to say, “Uh… thanks. I appreciate it.”
For the next hour or so the boys sat and chatted while more applicants gradually trickled out from the tree. When a little over a hundred applicants stood on top of the tree, Dreff finally addressed the crowd. “Everyone please give me your attention,” he began. All the applicants turned their eyes towards him. “As lovely as our time together has been I’m afraid it’s time for me to turn you over to me colleague.”
The Viking woman stepped forward to speak. “Greetings Hunter examinees. I am the examiner for the second phase of the Hunter Exams. My name is Kuhad, and for the time-being you are all under my authority. In just a moment you will all get on this airship behind me and we’ll be on our way to the site of the next phase. It will take use approximately seventeen hours to reach the site by airship, so during that period you are free to do whatever you see fit on the airship. There will however, not be any violence tolerated until the start of the next phase. Any harm done to one examinee by another will result in the offender’s immediate expulsion from the exam, and possibly the airship. Lodging and food will be accessible for anyone who wishes to take advantage of them. Now without further ado, let’s get a move on!”
With that Kuhad walked up the stairs and into the airship, followed by the remaining applicants. Once everyone had gotten into the airship, the engine buzzed to life and the flying vehicle took off. From the summit of the gigantic tree Dreff watched the airship gradually fly out of sight, smiling sleepily and waving farewell. When he could no longer see the airship, the examiner turned and his heel and said to his assistants, “Man, that was a strange bunch alright. I feel like I need a vacation after babysitting them for two days.” The equally exhausted assistant examiners sighed and nodded in response.
There were several rooms on the airship with various activities to do, but Yashi and Raymo were so exhausted from the past two days that they decided to stay in the room they shared and sleep, awaking only to be checked by a Hunter Association doctor and eat a rather large meal prepared by the ship’s kitchen staff.
Meanwhile, as the two boys along with the majority of the remaining examinees rested for their next trial, the woman that had saved Yashi and Raymo, Cricket Arctan, wandered the corridors of the airship in solitude. She’d been pondering the day’s events for some time now. ‘’I wonder if it’s really worth it. Those two aren’t exactly the most compatible with ‘’his’’ personality, but they certainly show some signs of potential, especially the younger one. But are they worth risking my chance at a Hunter License this year?”
As she thought this, the blond young man Yashi had attempted to strike up a conversation with before the exam started came strolling down the corridor from the opposite direction with his hands in his pockets. Cricket noticed him walking toward her, but continued to walk at her casual pace. She thought he just might pass her by without a word, but right as they were parallel with each other, the man spoke quietly to her, “When two bats are tracking fireflies it would be wise that a moth not get in the way. Otherwise, it might get snapped up by a bat in the process.”
Cricket turned around to face him, but he continued walking. She called back to him. “You’re metaphorical drivel doesn’t intimidate me. If you want to avoid a confrontation, then don’t cause one. And besides, what makes you think we’re chasing the same ‘’fireflies’’?”
The young man stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Someone who’s disinterested in those two boys wouldn’t risk getting torn in half by that insect just to save them.” Cricket was unnerved by this line. Had this man been observing her during the exam without her noticing? And what was even more upsetting, had he seen an opening she’d inadvertently left that the bug could’ve used against her? No. That would’ve been impossible. Even if there had been an opening an insect wouldn’t have been intelligent enough to take advantage of it.
Cricket pretended what he’d said didn’t shake her, and instead replied with, “Don’t think yourself so superior to me. We’ll just see how things unfold. For now, just stay out of my way while I get my Hunter License.” With this Cricket turned back around and began walking again. Once she was able to turn into another hall she let out a sigh and put her hand over her chest. Her heart-rate was more agitated than she’d let it be in a long while. She bit her thumbnail, her eyebrows knit with irritation. There was one benefit to come out of that encounter however. Cricket now had an answer to her original question. If Yashi and Raymo were valuable enough to that man and whoever his accomplice was to notice them, then she could ‘’’not’’’ allow them to have the two. Of that she was certain.
The airship touched down at the site of the second phase of the exam at around 7:30 the next morning, but due to crossing a few time-zones on their way, it felt more like five a.m. to the examinees. Even so Yashi was feeling the best he’d been for the last three days. He and Raymo, along with Cricket and the other remaining applicants filed down the airship ladder and took in their surroundings. In stark contrast to the desert they’d been in the center of for the first phase, they were now in a dusty clearing with lush forest and vegetation on all sides. In the distance a mountain range stood peacefully.
The scene seemed very nice and benign, offering no intimation of any form of danger. Yashi couldn’t think of anything that could possibly pose a threat in an environment like this unless the objective was for the examinees to hunt each other. There must’ve been a large river running nearby, because that was the only sound he could pick out over the voices of his fellows.
Finally Kuhad stepped off the airship, ready to give the applicants her directions for the second phase. “Hunter Examinees!” She shouted to grab the attention of the crowd. “As you’ve probably already guessed, this forest will be the site of your next challenge on your journey to obtaining a Hunter License. More specifically, the actual starting post is this way,” she said, pointing to a wide path sloping downward into the depths of the forest. “If you all will be so kind as to follow me, we’ll go ahead and get this over with.” She led the way down the path with the group of examinees following close behind her.
As he made his descent down the hill and further into the woods, Yashi kept an eye out for any signs of what this challenge might entail, but he saw nothing. Everything around him seemed like your average everyday forest, not that he was too familiar with those anyway growing up in the desert. He did begin to notice something however as they went further and further down. The sound of rushing water seemed to be getting closer and louder.
Up ahead Yashi could finally see the tree-line breaking. When the group came to this point the forest opened up and laying in front of them was a river at least a hundred and twenty meters wide. A banner with the Hunter Association’s logo and the word “START” written in big red letters was placed right on the bank of the river, and about as many rafts as there were examinees bobbed sluggishly in the water, tied to stakes driven into the riverbank.
Yashi began to break out in a cold sweat. He couldn’t believe his luck. In just the second stage of the Hunter Exams he had a water-related challenge to do. To most of the examinees this probably didn’t seem like such a daunting task. Then again, most of the examinees could probably swim. Yashi could not. Growing up in the middle of a desert with the nearest large body of water being a river closed to the public, swimming had never been a very necessary skill. Now he’d wished he’d put in the time to learn at some point.
Kuhad turned around to face her hundred charges, looking about as interested as someone watching water drip from a faucet. She spoke just loud enough for the applicants to hear over the water. “Your next challenge on your way to becoming Hunters will be a water race. You will all hop on one of these rafts and maneuver yourselves down the river until you find the starting line. Furthermore, only the first fifty of you will be accepted into the next round. This phase is more mental than physical, so make wise decisions. I think that’s all Mr. Chairman told me to say, so you guys can start or whatever.”
The applicants were utterly astounded by the disinterest of this examiner, but they went ahead and took her words as the official start of the second round and took off for to claim their rafts. Yashi ran for the bank with the rest of the crowd, albeit a bit less enthusiastic. He stepped into his craft and looked it over for a minute. It was a rectangular dark blue raft made out of rubber with a thing wooden frame on the outside. It seemed sturdy enough. There was no motor, but there was a rudder in the back. Yashi hoped the controls wouldn’t give him any trouble. After declaring the vessel safe enough, Yashi yanked the stake from the riverbank and let the current propel him forward with the rest of the examinees.
The young helmsman positioned himself in the center of the raft, being careful not to sit too close to any one side. As he grew more comfortable sitting in the raft, Yashi began to look around as he drifted downstream. Up ahead of him he saw Raymo close to the front of the group. Between them Cricket was handling her own raft with expertise, steering herself past a few different applicants.
When Yashi glanced behind him he was surprised to see the giant man who he and Raymo had had to altercation with while climbing the vines creeping down the river in a raft of his own. Yashi wasn’t exactly overjoyed to see the man, but the fact that his raft was still floating even while supporting such a heavyweight gave Yashi some comfort in the stability of his own boat.
He chose to just sit still for a while in his boat and let the current take him where it would, not being so bold as to try and use it. Anyway he wasn’t too worried about his current position. He could tell from where he was that there were no more than about thirty examinees in front of him.
As time went by the river twisted and turned, meandering all over. After about twenty minutes Yashi noticed the current was slowly but surely picking up speed, which worried him a bit. He began practicing maneuvering the boat’s rudder in case he would need it soon. To his dismay, his prediction proved correct. After another ten minutes Yashi was desperately turning his rudder from right to left, attempting to avoid a collision with other applicants as they floated through a patch of rapids. Water splashed over the side of the raft, but Yashi was too preoccupied with directing the vessel that he couldn’t scoop it back into the river.
Another applicant accidently steered his raft directly into Yashi’s path. The random applicant, a young man in his twenties with spiky red hair, was thankfully more proficient at working with his raft than Yashi was, because if he hadn’t realized his mistake in time the two boats would’ve crashed into one another, and Yashi wouldn’t have been able to steer his own raft away in time to avoid such a thing.
Unfortunately the red-headed applicant wasn’t so lucky a second time, and soon collided with another raft being steered by a middle-aged man with graying hair. Both rafts capsized, their drivers lost in the water.
The sight of an examinee more skilled at controlling these rafts losing his life didn’t reassure Yashi at all, but up ahead he saw an even more unwelcome sight. Just a hundred yards ahead of his raft, the river forked into two separate paths. One path seemed to be more smooth and peaceful, but the force of the rapids would most likely try and carry anyone into the other more dangerous and turbulent path.
Yashi tried with all his might to hold the rubber in the direction of the smoother path, but the strength of the current was almost as forceful on it as he was. The raft hugged the left side of the river as best it could on its way down. Right as Yashi came to the fork he gave the rubber one final jerk and the boat broke the current’s grip just long enough to switch into the peaceful lane. Yashi breathed a long sigh of relief, dumbfounded by his own ability to direct his raft into this part of the river.
The young examinee didn’t have much time to relax however. His boat had taken on quite a noticeable amount of water, and he had to set to work immediately to scoop it out. If he ran into another stretch of rapids, even if he did manage to navigate through them, taking on any more water would cause the boat to sink anyway.
A little while went by and Yashi remained vigilant for any signs that the river might speed up again, but to his surprise the current only seemed to become more and more tranquil. ‘’That’s a relief. I’d almost think that was the worst of it, but so far every time I’ve thought that during this God-forsaken exam things have only gotten worse. ’’
The boat floated ever-onward for a while longer and Yashi allowed his mind to drift to the subject of the girl who’d saved him and Raymo. He thought about the statement she’d left them with before flying off. ‘’”I want you two to spend the rest of the exam thinking about how you might’ve been able to do things differently. This will be an opportunity to learn.”’’
Certainly Yashi could think of several things that he might’ve been able to do differently now, but at the time he didn’t really put too much thought into it. He’d seen Raymo in trouble and acted on instinct. ‘’Maybe that was it. Maybe what she wanted was for me to think up a plan before acting. Like observing the insects movements and acting as Raymo’s eyes from afar.’’ He would’ve pondered this idea for a time had he not noticed that he was drifting toward a clear spot on the riverbank up ahead.
Excitement built up in Yashi’s chest as he got closer to the spot, but once he was directly parallel with the clearing his spirit dropped right into the river. About a hundred stakes lined the river bank, not a single boat attached to them. Standing under the Hunter Association banner with the word “START” was Kuhad sipping on a cold drink through a bendy-straw, her face completely neutral as if she’d expected this to happen. She waved at Yashi lazily from her spot on the riverbank. In response Yashi managed to utter the only words he could get out after taking in such a scene. “WHAT THE HEEEEEEEELLLLL?!”
Kuhad’s expression didn’t change at all. She just calmly continued waving as Yashi stood in his boat, jaw-dropped and crest-fallen. Finally when he snapped out of his daze, the young man waited impatiently for the current to carry him down the river once more. He wasn’t entirely sure how it was possible that the river made a giant circle since all water is supposed to flow downhill, but right now he didn’t have time to worry about that. Since the smooth, safe path had led Yashi back to the starting line, that could only mean that his only option now was to take the dangerous path he’d initially avoided where the river branched off.
Yashi sat in his raft, letting the current carry him back to the fork. The speed of the current picked up right where it had last time, but now that he’d been through this once, Yashi planned to utilize what little experience he now possessed with this river to make sure he handled his vessel more skillfully.
As he floated onward, Yashi noticed other examinees from time to time. Some were floating in their rafts, now aware of the trick this river had played on them all. Others however lay broken and lifeless on the riverbank.
Just a short time before Yashi expected to see the fork in the river, he noticed a shadow appear over him. When he looked up he might’ve been surprised, but a girl with dragonfly wings diving out of the sky right for him certainly wasn’t the strangest thing he’d seen as of late. Cricket landed in a squatting position opposite Yashi in the small raft. The force of her impact made Yashi fear that the boat might capsize, but it remained right-side-up for the time-being. He looked at the girl in astonishment as she brushed herself off, acting as if what she’d done was completely normal, and managed to utter, “’’You?!’’” in an exasperated tone.
“Permission to come aboard, Captain,” she replied with a salute.
“You’re already aboard!”
“Yeah, well, I figured it’d be polite to go through the motions anyway.” Yashi was about to say more, but the girl interrupted him. “So, did you figure out what I asked of you yet?”
Yashi mind rushed back to the idea he’d had before getting caught in the rapids the first time, but before he answered her he had some questions of his own. “Whoa, whoa. Wait a minute. How about you tell me your name first of all. And secondly, how and why did you land in my boat?”
“The names Cricket Arctan,” she said as she nodded her head once, “As for why I’m in your boat now, well…” Yashi looked at her more intently, his eyebrows raised, “Um, my boat kinda… crashed. I was able to fly away before I got swept under, so I flew up over the river and finally saw you.”
Yashi didn’t know exactly what to make of this rapid turn of events, but right as he was about to get back to the initial topic of the challenge she’d given him and Raymo the day before, the current sped up exponentially. They were about to get to the fork once again.
Yashi threw himself onto the rudder, preparing himself as best he could for what might happen next. Cricket scooted back to opposite side of the boat. The fork in the river’s path was now in sight, but now instead of forcing all his weight to go toward the left side, Yashi was simply trying to keep the raft on top of the water long enough to let the current pull them to the right.
The raft gained more and more speed as it got closer. Yashi almost thought they’d be able to make it before anything too bad happened. Of course that was too much to hope for.
An especially large swell jolted the right side of the raft. It nearly sent the two examinees into a spiral, but just as it hit, Cricket extended he wings and flapped furiously, propelling them back to their original course.
Down the right path they shot, the current getting even more turbulent as they went. Over the roaring waves Yashi heard Cricket shout, “Hey! There’s something I need to tell you about this river! It makes a giant circle that takes you back to the starting line.”
“I already know!” He replied, “That’s why I went down this path! I already tried the other one and floated all the way back to Kuhad!”
“No!” said Cricket through a mouthful of water, “I mean both paths do that! I saw the entire river when I was flying overhead. No matter which path you take you’ll end up back at the start. It’s like a giant figure-eight!” Yashi hadn’t even thought of such a possibility. He couldn’t even put together a sentence to reply he was so surprised. Then Cricket cried, “Look, up ahead!” What Yashi saw in his path that Cricket was pointing to caused his stomach to jump into his throat. Only fifty meters ahead the river widened out, and dead in the center was a monstrous whirlpool.
Yashi threw all his weight on the rudder, but it only affected their trajectory in the slightest. “Cricket!” He called desperately, “I need you to flap your wings again. I can’t turn us any further!”
Cricket attempted to do as she was instructed, but her wings were too heavy to flap. “I can’t! They’ve gotten too wet from the water!” Hopelessness consumed Yashi spirit. ‘’How could I die like this already? I was so careful, and I still end up like this.’’
Seeing him in his daze, Cricket had only herself to think of a plan on how they might get out of this. She considered all the information she’d collected from the previous Hunter Exams she’d researched, the examiners, the river, anything that she thought might be useful. Finally an idea popped into her head. It was a terribly one-sided gamble, but it was all she had.
She took Yashi by the shoulders and shook him, yelling over the waves, “Get your ass in gear and help me! I have a plan.” That seemed to snap him out of his trance, and he nodded at her. She sat in the back of the raft and called, “Help me keep the rudder steady!” Yashi did what was asked of him and held the rudder with her.
“Um, Cricket,” he said hesitantly, “We’re not anywhere close to dodging the whirlpool. Cricket remained silent and held her position, her eyes narrowed and determined. “Cricket!” Yashi repeated desperately, but she gave no reply. Finally Yashi broke his grip from the rudder and yelled, “Are you trying to get us killed?!” But it was too late. The whirlpool swallowed the raft and the two applicants swiftly, and they both blacked out.
Continued in: The × Ancient × Cube