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The first thing Yashi consciously felt was the blunt crash of his body hitting the rocky floor of the cave. After lying there for a moment or two, he sat up and groaned, aching and soaking wet, attempting to piece together the events that had unfolded before he blacked out. He managed to mutter, “That wasn’t fun,” under his breath before coughing up some water. When he opened his eyes all he saw were dark purple spots for a moment, then, as his vision cleared he realized he was in a wide cavern surrounded by several other examinees.
He turned to his side and was startled to see Cricket staring at him intently. When their eyes met she heaved a great sigh of relief. “Oh god, I thought you were dead,” she said. As she spoke, the hazy pieces of Yashi’s memory put themselves together and he remembered all that had happened. The infinite river, the rapids, and Cricket steering them straight into a whirlpool.
He grabbed her by the shoulders roughly and pulled her closer so that their eyes were parallel. “We almost were dead thanks to you! What were you thinking?!” Cricket had been willing to risk not only her own life, but Yashi’s as well, and without even telling him or asking his opinion of whatever plan she’d come up with in the heat of the moment.
“If I hadn’t acted then we would’ve died anyway. This was our only option!” Cricket shot back.
“Well still, you could’ve at least told me your idea before you threw us into a spiraling current of death!”
“If I had told you, would you have let me?!”
Yashi clammed up upon hearing these words. He took a deep breath and let his anger simmer down within him, then he opened his eyes and faced Cricket again. “You’re right, you were just making the decision you thought was best, and you ended up being right. Thank you.”
Cricket smiled, “Well, I guess now’s not the time to be arguing anyway. Just forget about it.” She stood up shakily and took in their surroundings more thoroughly, which prompted Yashi to look around as well. A few dozen examinees stood in the cavern around them, which had a large waterfall directly cascading down from the ceiling. That must’ve been where the whirlpool was connected. At the opposite side of the cavern was a large opening, and what stood at it was enough to make any residual anger Yashi held for Cricket melt away. It was a banner much like the one where they’d set off on their rafts, with the Hunter Association’s logo in the center. The only difference between this one and the first was that this one had the word “FINISH” printed on it. They’d made it through the second phase.
Yashi flopped back down on his back, left in a gleeful stupor, and laughed. Cricket smiled and allowed a small chuckle of her own escape.
However, this moment of joy was short-lived once another thought crept its way into the young examinee’s mind. He moved his head back and forth, taking in every single face that was in the cave. To his surprise and disappointment, Raymo was not among the examinees in the cave.
Yashi wasn’t given much time to dwell on this though, because right before he opened his mouth to speak to Cricket, another voice filled the cavern. From a speaker attached to the wall of rocks, Kuhad’s voiced resonated throughout the cave. “Congratulations Hunter Examinees! If you can hear my voice, then that means you’ve passed the second phase of the Hunter Exam.”
A whoop erupted in the cavern from the joyful applicants, who now had a guaranteed ticket to the third phase of the exam, but it was quickly hushed by Kuhad’s unrivaled amplified voice. “Now, now, listen to what I’m about to say. It’s important. From here you all will need to leave your caves. Once you’re outside, look for an orange flare. You will need to follow this flare to its launching point. There you will find a boat that will transport you to the site of the third phase. You will not see me from here on out, so this is goodbye. Good luck.”
The speaker cut off, and the applicants set themselves in motion, all of them hurriedly making their way to the caves entrance. Once they all were outside, they looked around in every direction, looking for the flare Kuhad had spoken of. Sure enough, there it was, climbing into the sky approximately four hundred yards to the right of the cave. They all ran for it.
As the group of examinees made their way to the site of the flare, Yashi noticed the presence of other small groups of examinees running parallel to them. There must’ve been more than one cave. Yashi tried not to get his hopes up, but he allowed himself to consider the possibility that Raymo may be a part of one of these groups.
Upon closer inspection of his own party, Yashi noticed the large man with the razor blades that he and Raymo encountered while climbing inside the tree was among the thirty or so examinees. What was worse, the big troll was staring menacingly right at him. Aw, he remembers me. How lovely.
Finally the group broke through the woods they’d been running in and found themselves on a wide, sandy beach. Docked right off the shoreline was a line of four small ferries, ready to transport them to the third phase. “I’ve just about had my fair share of boats and water for the next year,” Yashi grumbled to Cricket.
“I feel you,” she replied unenthusiastically.
Standing between them and the boats was a smallish man dressed like a captain. He was bald and possessed a somewhat large nose, but his eyebrows extended out and around the side of his head like a giant misplaced mustache. “Hellooooo, Hunter Examinees!” He exclaimed, a little too peppy for the applicants’ tastes. “I’m your examiner for the third phase. My name is Rogoto. In just a moment we will be setting off on these boats to the site.” He glance at his clipboard for a moment, then returned his gaze towards the crowd in front of him. “There are fifty-five of you that passed the second phase, and each boat can hold fifteen passengers plus the helmsman. Now, if you would all be so kind, please file on to the boats behind me at this time.”
Each time they had announced the number of applicants that successfully made it through the phases of the exam, Yashi felt at least a little astonished by the number, but now, hearing the number finally in the double digits, he was more astonished that he was actually included in such a figure.
Cricket on the other hand, she wasn’t surprised by the numbers in the slightest. After all, her teacher had told her almost everything she’d need to know about the Hunter Exam before she took it. What was on her mind was Raymo. As the crowd shuffled into four groups to get on the boats, she noticed him in line to get on the boat directly to the left of the one she and Yashi were about to get on. She was about to let out a sigh of relief, but instead it turned into a sharp inhalation. Stepping on the same ferry as Raymo was the blond young man she’d encountered on the airship. She could not allow Raymo to be left alone with him. She acted quickly.
“Yashi, look over there,” she said pointing to the adjacent ferry, “that’s Raymo, isn’t it?”
Yashi turned around and his face immediately brightened at the sight of his friend. “Yeah, that’s him! Maybe we can get someone on our boat to trade with him so he can ride with us. Hey, Raymo!”
Raymo heard Yashi’s call and waved. “Hey. Glad you’re not too dead.”
While the two boys spoke Cricket dashed around the small group that was filing onto her and Yashi’s boat, asking if anyone would be willing to trade with Raymo. She managed to convince an older gentleman to switch boats, and once Raymo was safely on the boat and away from the blond man, then she let out a sigh of relief.
She left the boys to their own conversation and sat down off by herself for a few moments of peace, being mindful to still keep in close proximity out of caution.
Meanwhile, Yashi and Raymo spoke about the events of the second phase after they’d been separated. Raymo had made the same mistake initially that Yashi had, taking the calmer path of the fork. “After I circled back around and passed Kuhad again, I steered myself as close to the shore as I could and hopped off. From there I followed the river around the other path, and once I realized it circled back around as well, I took a chance and jumped in the water to see where it would take me.”
Yashi regarded Raymo’s much more daring story of passing the second phase somewhat melancholically. Raymo asked him how he’d managed to figure out the trick to the river, but images of Cricket throwing them into a tornado of water and himself knocking his head on rocks several times prompted him to simply reply with, “Um… Cricket and I just put our heads together and figured it out.”
“Hmm?” Raymo persisted, “That’s kind of vague. Can’t you say anymore?” Yashi just shook his head vigorously, his body and pride still sore from the entire ordeal.
While the two young men continued to speak calmly, Cricket allowed her eyes to wander around and scan the various examinees they were currently sharing the boat with. There was a middle-aged woman with all kinds of jewelry on her hands, wrists, and ankles. A little ways to that woman’s right was a young man in his early twenties, who had a black eye and a bandage wrapped around his right arm. Cricket continued to look around the boat, but the next person her eyes landed on made his blood go cold.
Sitting directly across the ferry from her was an incredibly tall woman with dark hair, shaved on the sides and braided from the top. In the center of her forehead was a tattoo that seemed to depict some kind of third eye, but it was her two regular eyes that concerned Cricket. They were staring straight at Cricket, making no effort to be inconspicuous, and she wore a cold, terrifying grin. The woman seemed to want Cricket to make eye-contact with her. As soon as she was sure Cricket was looking at her, she turned her eyes toward something else: Yashi and Raymo.
Instantly Cricket’s conversation with the blond man on the airship flooded back into her mind. “When two bats are tracking fireflies it would be wise that a moth not get in the way.” He’d said two bats. He was the first one, and now Cricket was certain this giant woman was the second.
Damn it! Fucking damn it! Cricket cursed to herself. I was so preoccupied worrying about that guy that I completely forgot he was working with someone else. And of course they’d be good enough to make it this far in the exam. Damn it!
Cricket didn’t take her eyes off the woman, but the fellow applicant made no move towards Yashi and Raymo. Perhaps it was because fighting was prohibited between the phases of the exam. If she’s this close and still isn’t doing anything, then maybe she actually wants a Hunter License. I could use that to my advantage.
Cricket scooted back over to where she was sitting right next to Yashi and Raymo, but she kept quiet and continued to let them carry on their own conversation. Every so often she would glance up at the giant woman cautiously, but the woman never so much as looked at either Cricket or the boys after that first initially moment of eye-contact.
After about half an hour of riding in the boats, Rogoto’s voiced came to life over the ferry’s intercom. “Hunter Examinees, if you look up ahead you will be able to see the place where the third phase of the exams will be taking place.” The examinees flocked to the front of their respective boats to see what the third phase would have in store for them, but none of them expected anything like what they saw.
Looming on the coast of a narrow peninsula directly in front of them was a massive, limestone temple in the shape of a perfect cube. The examinees had no idea what exactly they were looking at, but Yashi was sure of two things: the structure was extremely old, and curiously intimidating.
As the ferries neared the beach, Yashi noticed that there was yet another Hunter Association airship awaiting them. Once the vessels were all successfully docked, Rogoto gave them further instructions. “We will now take the airship to the top of this temple. There we will begin the third phase.” The ride took less than five minutes, and then the fifty-five applicants were discharged from the ship along with Rogoto.
Yashi turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees, but the top of the cube looked identical to its side, constructed completely with limestone blocks. The examinees turned once again to their current guide, who was prepared to answer the last few questions that may be floating in their minds before sending them on their way. “Ahem, before I explain the nature of this trial, allow me to first give you all a bit of background knowledge on what exactly it is you’re standing on. This temple was constructed over two thousand years ago by an ancient civilization. It is unknown how they managed such an architectural feat, but it is believed it had something to do with their religious ceremonies. Now, as for what you all will be doing…” Rogoto closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. Then, he quickly planted himself in a wide fighting stance. At the time Yashi had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until later that Cricket informed him that Rogoto had used one of the four principals of Nen, Ren, and the temple reacted to it.
Once Rogoto was in his stance, Yashi felt the limestone he was standing on tremble. The block under his feet raised up under the top of it was a full foot higher than the rest of the blocks around it. When the young examinee looked around he noticed that dozens of other blocks had done the same thing. He didn’t bother counting how many blocks did this, but he guessed it was fifty-five.
Rogoto continued where he left off, “Each of you will stand on one of these blocks. Depending on what block you stand on determines who you will be battling in this round. Go ahead then, pick a block.” The group of examinees wandered around, some taking which block they chose under careful consideration, while others simply hopped on the one closest to where they had been standing.
Cricket was uneasy about the apparently random method of determining who was battling who in this phase, but it couldn’t be helped. She quickly chose a stone platform to stand on and hoped for the best.
Once all the examinees had chosen a block to stand on, Rogoto faced all of them and said, “The third phase of the Hunter Exam begins: Now!” And with a small shockwave from where he was standing, the stone slabs that all the examinees were standing on crumbled to dust, and down a shoot they went to who knows what.
Yashi hadn’t been prepared for the ground under his feet to give way with him on top, but to be honest, he didn’t know what he’d expected from this madmen’s exam. He clumsily slid down the slick stone slide, unaware of who may be awaiting him at the bottom.
For a few moments he was in complete darkness as he slid, until finally the shoot opened up and he tumbled down into a dimly-lit square room. “I’ve landed on my head more in the past two days than I have in my whole life,” he muttered, rubbing his head as he leaned up from the cold floor. When he finally opened his eyes and they adjusted to the dark space, he nearly had a heart attack from the sight of who he’d been pitted against.
Out of fifty-five different applicants Yashi could’ve been paired, he had the misfortune of being paired with the most unfriendly applicant of them all: the blond young man he’d attempted to speak to just before the start of the first phase. The same blond young man who Cricket had encountered on the airship. His name was Byruz.
The room they were in looked more or less like the outside of the cube had, made up of limestone blocks stacked one on top of the other. Lighting the room were four torches resting on bowl-like protrusions jutting out of the walls. Byruz was standing opposite Yashi, facing him with his arms crossed, a somewhat cross expression on his face.
Yashi stood up as quickly as he could, taking his boomerang from the place it had been hanging on his belt. How it had managed to stay attached through violent swim earlier that day, he wasn’t sure, but he was definitely grateful that it had. Even so, he was at a disadvantage given his current setting. In the room the two examinees were in, which couldn’t have been more than twelve by twelve feet in area, Yashi had no room to throw his boomerang. Instead he’d have to rely on close combat.
Yashi waited for a moment, sizing up Byruz, but the other combatant gave no intimation of moving. He simply stood in the same position, watching. There was no doubt that Byruz was the superior fighter of the two. From these past few days of intense physical and mental trials, he looked practically unscathed save a few tears in his clothing, whereas Yashi had several bandages and scars to show. What was most unnerving was how calm Byruz seemed to be.
Finally Yashi gathered that he would have to be the one to make the first move, which already was pushing him out of his comfort zone, but he had no choice. Swiftly, he launched himself at Byruz, his boomerang held in front of his body in a defensive position. He kept his body low and close to the ground leading up to the last moment, when he exploded into the air, crossing both arms across his body as he was about to slash the sharp blade of his boomerang over Byruz. Byruz on the other hand, was much quicker than anticipated. As Yashi arched his right arm to slash, Byruz’ own arm shot up and caught it in mid-air, effortlessly stopping the motion. Byruz might’ve had a follow-up attack in store, but he didn’t get a chance to do it, because right after he caught Yashi’s right arm, he felt a sudden pain under his right eye. Yashi had landed a cut on Byruz, with the boomerang now in his left hand.
Byruz loosened his grip on Yashi’s right arm, allowing the younger examinee to break free and jump back a few feet. Byruz put his hand to his face, and when he brought it back, he found it covered in blood. “Hmm…” he said, though it seemed to be more to himself than Yashi. He raised his gaze so that their eyes met, “You faked me out. You purposely brought both your arms across your body before you swung. Then, when your right arm came down, you knew I’d catch it. But when I did, you let go of the boomerang and let it fall into your left hand, which you’d also swung back around as well. Clever, but you didn’t do much damage I’m afraid.”
Yashi gulped, afraid of what his opponent might do next. That had been his only strategy, and he’d been aiming for the eye, but he’d undershot his swing.
Byruz wiped the blood away that was running down his cheek, then put his eyes back on Yashi. The fact the he even dared to take his eyes away from his opponent was a testament to how well he knew the difference in their strength. “My turn now.” In one swift motion Byruz pulled his arm behind him and launched it at Yashi, with it extending all the way across the room. Yashi was prepared to block a punch, but when Byruz’ fist met his body it was the sharp pain of a blade that he felt tear into his shoulder.
He fell his knees, clutching the wound Byruz had just inflicted which the other applicant retracted his arm. Gripped in his Byruz’ hand was a small sickle. How is that possible?! I was sure he didn’t have a single weapon within easy access.
Yashi expected another quick slash and he would be finished. A deep terror weighed down on him as the prospect of dying showed itself more evidently than it even had in the past few days. But the second strike never came. Yashi looked up, and was met with Byruz looking at him coldly, but not aggressively. Byruz narrowed his eyes. “Have you already given up?”
Yashi hadn’t expected this at all. Byruz had never intended to kill him. He’d just automatically assumed the worst, and was going to let it happen. He looked down at the ground, sweat dripping from his forehead. “Hmph, you still have plenty of room to grow. It’d be a waste to scout you now,” Byruz said. The young man walked over to Yashi and stood over him. “Get up. You can at least make yourself look less pathetic by helping me figure out a way outta this box.”
Yashi had no idea why Byruz expected his help, but he might as well keep talking instead of whimpering on the floor. “We can’t get out. One of us has to defeat the other before they’ll let us.”
“Yes, but there has to be an exit for when that happens, right?” Yashi considered this for a moment. It made sense, he supposed, but he wasn’t sure where to start. Suddenly the pain in his shoulder flared up again, and he cringed in agony. Byruz looked at him and sighed. “Fine, if you have any first-aid equipment you can use it to dress your wound first, but get to work right after. You’re useless as you are.”
Yashi was reminded of the ointment Raymo had given him earlier. All the bandages he’d been carrying had been waterlogged, but the ointment remained sealed in its container. Carefully Yashi applied it to his shoulder wound, and the gash instantly felt relieved, albeit there being some residual pain. He looked down at his container of ointment, and then up at Byruz. It was against his better judgment, but he decided it couldn’t really hurt anything. “Here,” he said to Byruz, holding out the container, “For your face.”
Byruz looked at him in complete surprise, and for a moment Yashi regretted saying anything at all. However, the older examinee just returned to his work quietly, muttering, “Worry about yourself.” For some reason, this disappointed Yashi, though he wasn’t exactly sure why. He wasn’t even sure why he’d offered it to him. He’d simply done it on impulse. Whatever the reason, Yashi stood up and what to work looking for switches on the opposite wall.
For twenty minutes the two examinees scoured the walls of the room, but found nothing. After surmising that there must not be a switch available to them from inside, they met in the middle to discuss what they should do next. “Well, do you suppose that it’s activated by some stance like the one Rogoto did on the top?” Yashi asked
Byruz shook his head. “I tried that already while you were doctoring your wound. The way I see it, the only way we’re both getting out of here is by breaking out.”
Yashi looked at him in confusion. “Uh, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I doubt a sickle or boomerang is going to be any effective means of breaking through solid stone blocks.”
“I’m not going to use my sickle,” Byruz replied, his annoyance evident in his tone. “Just lie down on the ground for a minute and let me handle this.” Yashi had no idea what his companion had in mind, but he wasn’t about to question him anymore than he already had. He did as Byruz told him and spread his body flat on the ground, looking upward to see what exactly the other applicant would do.
Byruz stood in the center of the room, motionless. Then, all at once he brought his left arm behind him, and seemingly out of thin air a lead block appeared in it with the number twelve printed on it. Byruz swung his arm and it extended just as it had when he’d cut Yashi. The lead block smashed against thick block wall, but harmlessly bounced off. Byruz on the other hand, didn’t seem discouraged by this. He swung his arm wildly around the room, crashing the lead block into all four walls with incredible force and momentum. He did this for over five minutes, Yashi all the while lying on the floor and looking on in amazement.
Finally Byruz stopped and caught his breath, visibly fatigued. The walls, however, were hardly cracked. He was about to resume his actions, but Yashi interrupted him. “Hold on!” Byruz looked down at him, irritated even more so now than before. Yashi decided he’d better talk fast. “Look around us for a second. Look at the floor!” His words made Byruz stop and take note. Sure enough, the floors were in much poorer shape from his beating than the walls. Cracks webbed the stone from one end of the room the other. Yashi was about to say more, given confidence that he may be able to speak a little more freely now that Byruz realized what he’d discovered, but before he was given the chance, Byruz acted upon the first idea that entered his head from seeing the cracked floor.
With a quick drawback, Byruz threw the weight of the lead block against the floor, and the stone gave way, causing him and Yashi to fall into a wide-open space from over a hundred feet in the air. The area below them was vast, well lit, and contained a whole ecosystem of vegetation. Unfortunately, the two didn’t have much time to appreciate the view, because as eery second went by they were plummeting towards it. As he fell, Yashi managed to yell, “Why does this kind of stuff happen to me?!”
Continued in: An Offer × I Can't × Refuse