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The airship touched down on the landing platform, sending a mild shockwave throughout its interior. Stairs extended down from the airship’s body, and 718 men and women filed out of the gigantic vehicle. These people had all come from different parts of the world, and all different walks of life, but the sole thing that united them all was their eagerness to complete the goal in front of them: passing the Hunter Exams. Among the examinees was a certain young man. His name, Yashikage. He made his way down the airship stairs and onto the landing platform.
Yashi glanced around him, taking in the new surroundings he’d found himself in. It seemed the first phase of the exams was taking place in the middle of a desert. “Almost makes me feel nostalgic for home,” he muttered to himself. ‘’Almost,’’ he repeated silently. He did a complete three-sixty, looking for any form of landmark in the vast expanse of sand, but the only thing he noticed was a small tree several hundred yards away.
Yashi heard a blunt ‘’THUD’’ from the direction of the airship and turned around just in time to find their examiner for the first phase, who had just jumped from thirty feet in the air from the airship’s stairs, which had begun to retract before he had completed his descent. The examiner was a gruff man named Dreff. He wore a long brown trench-coat, which he currently had wrapped around his waist due to the heat. His hair was long and light-colored, tied back in a stiff ponytail. Stubble covered the lower half of his face. As he spoke to the examinees a long piece of dried grass flapped from in between his teeth. “Alright kiddies!” he began, grabbing everyone’s full attention, “The first phase of the Hunter Exam is about to begin. This platform…” he said, pointing at the ground, “is the starting line. The finish line is that tree over that-a-way,” he continued, gesturing towards the tree Yashi had noticed.
Some suspicious murmuring bubbled up within the crowd of examinees. ‘’Surly the Hunter Exams weren’t so simple, even in the first phase.’’ Yashi was having similar suspicions, but when he glanced back over to Dreff, the examiner seemed to be waiting to say more.
Once the wave of commotion died down, Dreff continued. “Once you get to the tree, you will wait there with me for further instructions. How you get to the tree is entirely up to you. Vehicles such as collapsible dirt-bikes or hovering boards are all permitted. Any questions?”
A colossal man towards the back piped up, ”Hey! How is that fair?! None of us knew we could use equipment like that during the exam!”
Dreff responded with an amused grin, “When you walked into the registration building, was anything you had on you confiscated?”
“Well… no. But I don’t se-“
“Was it, at any time, ever implied that you could not leave the registration building once you entered?”
The giant clammed up, and as he listened to Dreff, astonishment and comprehension slowly washed over his face. What Dreff was saying was that anyone who entered the registration building and noticed that no officials were asking for any of his belongings could’ve easily gone back out and bought more items to aid him in the exams. In this way it was entirely fair, because everyone was using whatever items they had had the foresight to bring with them.
Yashi raised his eyebrows. “Wow. I guess Dreff’s got him beat, huh?” he whispered to one of his neighbors, a tall young man in his early twenties, with messy blonde hair and slanted eyes. The fellow examinee glanced at Yashi, then back towards Dreff without offering any sort of response. Yashi scooted a little farther away from the man. ‘’Weirdo’’ he thought.
Back at the front of the crowd, Dreff was finishing his introduction of the exams. “To be completely honest, there’s no chance that ‘’all’’ of you are going to live through today.” There was another small wave of surprise from the examinees, but this time only the greenhorns who had come unprepared made any complaints. There were dozens of veterans among the crowd who were already aware of this. This was Yashi’s first year taking the exam, but he wasn’t going to complain. It was only natural that those fit to become Hunters would live through the Hunter Exams. Now all he had to do was make sure he was one of them. ‘’Don’t die,’’ he reminded himself.
“Now, without further ado,” Dreff exclaimed, “’’’’’BEGIN!’’’’’” As he said this he swiped his arm vertically through the air. The time for worrying was over. The Hunter Exams had begun.
Naturally, those eager to get on to the next phase hurried to the front of the group and took the lead. Yashi noticed that the blonde-haired young man he’d spoken to was among them. As Dreff had stated, he noticed several people had brought portable vehicles, and, kicking up a cloud of dust in their wake, they shot off in the direction of the tree. As for himself, Yashi proceeded with a bit more caution, leading with a steady jog towards the goal. He noticed a few other examinees had the same idea.
Just a few meters in front of him, Yashi noticed a young boy jogging at his same pace. He couldn’t have been more than twelve. A young kid taking such a dangerous exam somewhat worried Yashi, but he didn’t dwell on that too long. What had really caught his eye about the boy was the long spear strapped to his back. Weapons were permitted in the Hunter Exam of course, but still, this spear looked a little much, especially when strapped on the back of a kid that was shorter than it was long by a good twenty or so centimeters.
Yashi looked around more, sizing up the other examinees that had chosen to begin the exam with a relatively slow and steady start. He noticed a middle-aged man with shoulder-length green hair. He carried no weapons, but still looked pretty lethal with a physique that appeared capable of snapping a tree trunk. Directly to his left, Yashi noticed a girl with long blue hair tied back in two pigtails. She wasn’t much older than Spear-boy either. Her skin was dark like Yashi’s, making him wonder if she was from his home country as well, but he decided not to engage her. Then there was a plump, petite little woman with purple hair. She wore a white and yellow cloak with a wavy pattern. On initial inspection she didn’t seem like much of a threat, but once Yashi moved a little closer in her direction he heard a loud clatter with every step she took. Her cloak blew open for a short period of time, but it was long enough for Yashi to see dozens upon dozens of throwing knives and other projectile weapons hanging from the inside.
‘’Best not cross her in case we’re put in an ambush setting. She’d pick me off before I could even blink,’’ he thought.
Yashi glanced over his shoulder to see if he could spot Dreff. He wasn’t much of a talker in most situations, but with little to do besides walk, he thought he’d strike up a conversation with somebody, and his fellow examinees all seemed far from friendly. He found Dreff, as he’d expected, steadily keeping pace a few dozen meters behind them, but as he was about to slow down and meet him, the young man had to take a double-take behind him. Behind even Dreff, bringing up the rear of the group, was a tall woman, her dark hair blowing behind her in a single braid. What really astounded Yashi was that she was walking. ‘’Walking’’. She seemed utterly unconcerned that she was in last place within the first ten minutes of the exam.
‘’Someone seems pretty confident,’’ he remarked to himself. Still, her amount of composure unnerved him a bit. He decided not to fall back and talk to Dreff after all. Better not to get any closer to her than he had to. Instead Yashi focused his attention solely on his destination. But as he gazed at the tree in front of him shimmering in the hot desert air, a thought occurred to him. They had been walking for almost fifteen minutes now, yet the tree didn’t seem like it had gotten any closer. In fact, Yashi hadn’t even expected it to take ‘’this’’ long to get to it.
‘’Should I ask somebody?’’ he wondered. ‘’No. Maybe I should take this as an advantage. I should just keep quiet.’’ But even as he thought this, doubt was already forming in the back of his mind. ‘’Perhaps I should at least ask Dreff about it,’’ but this was immediately followed by, ‘’What am I saying? He’d probably just laugh in my face.’’ Finally Yashi decided to simply catch up to the kid with the spear and ask him. As he picked up his pace to catch up to the boy, he thought to himself, ‘’What’s the worst that could happen?’’ Of course this was met with the realization, ‘’I could become a stain on his spear. That’s the worst that could happen.’’
When he was finally parallel with the boy, he bent over slightly and whispered, “Hey, does that tree look like it’s gotten any closer to you?”
The boy glared at him menacingly in response. Yashi straightened his posture, but continued to jog next to the boy. The kid seemed surprised that Yashi remained next to him, and when the two made eye contact again, he found Yashi was still staring at him intently, expecting an answer. The kid gave in with a sigh and said, “To answer your question: no, it doesn’t seem to be getting closer as quickly as anticipated.”
“I see,” Yashi stated, seemingly unaware of the annoyance in the kid’s voice. Yashi remained next to the boy as they both jogged, which seemed to irritate the younger examinee a bit, but Yashi apparently didn’t notice. He hadn’t gotten skewered yet, so what reason did he have to lose the only company he’d had for the past day and a half since he’d left the registration building.
Twenty-five minutes into the race, and they still weren’t to their goal. In fact, the tree seemed to have only gotten slightly closer since they began the first phase. Still, it was progress. At least that meant they ‘’were’’ getting closer.
Yashi was still jogging next to the boy with the spear, but they hadn’t spoken any since their initial conversation. Finally the older of the two broke the silence. “So, what’s your name, kid?” He said it a bit awkwardly, but friendly all the same.
“Why do you want to know?” Responded the boy, keeping his gaze aimed forward.
“Just curious I suppose,” replied Yashi.
The kid turned his head to look at Yashi. “That’s the explanation you’re going with?”
“No, I’m really a special agent sent here by a secret society to monitor the exams, so I need to scope out all the examinees,” Yashi answered with a sarcastic tone.
The sass irritated the boy, but he answered, “My name is Raymo.”
“Raymo? Wow, that’s a weird name,” remarked Yashi.
Raymo got flustered and replied, “Well what’s your name then?!”
“Yashikage, but I just go by Yashi.”
“You have a peculiar name like that and you make fun of mine? What’s u-“ Raymo would’ve continued, but he saw something that tore his attention away from the conversation. Yashi followed his line of vision and was taken aback by what he saw. A little ways in front of them, directly in the two boys’ path, there was a body. The duo rushed toward it. As they got closer, Yashi noticed it was one of their fellow examinees.
Raymo bent down and placed his fingers on the young woman’s neck. “She has a pulse,” he reported. “She probably passed out after sprinting all the way here from the starting line.”
“What do you think we should do?” Asked Yashi. His tone somewhat surprised Raymo. He was already over the initially shock of discovering the woman’s unconscious body, and now he spoke with a reserved and puzzled trait to his voice. There wasn’t more than a hint of concern however.
“Nothing,” Raymo answered. “She knew the risks of the exam like the rest of us. She probably won’t be the only body we encounter from this point onward, and the ones we do beyond this point might not be so lucky. There will most likely be someone to come and pick her up once we leave, so let’s get a move on.”
“Hold on,” Yashi said. He bent over the woman and took a ruby bracelet off of her wrist. At first Raymo thought he might be stealing it, but instead Yashi gathered the woman’s long hair in his hands and used the bracelet to hold it back. Next he rolled up her sleeves all the way to her armpits and, pulling a canteen from the folds of his robe, poured a bit of water between her chapped lips. Then he stood up and faced Raymo again. “Might as well cool her off a little before she’s picked up,” he said before taking a sip from the canteen himself. He offered it to Raymo, but he declined, instead putting his own canteen to his lips.
With that the two boys continued to jog across the sand, leaving the woman behind for the association to come rescue. But even as she faded behind the dunes, both boys had a feeling in the back of their minds that she probably wouldn’t be rescued any time soon.
For the next hour and a half the boys traversed the sand together, sometimes walking, sometimes jogging. Occasionally they would talk, but the conversations were always brief. They passed many more examinees in similar conditions to the first girl. They could’ve been dead or just simply unconscious, but it was hard to tell, because neither Yashi nor Raymo stopped for any more after the first.
In front of them their goal still loomed, but their progress seemed sluggish at best. The duo eventually got to the base of an especially high dune which blocked their view of the tree, but from what they could tell once they reached the summit the finish line would be just a little farther.
With some difficulty due to the shifty nature of the sand they were climbing up, Yashi and Raymo ascended the dune with high hopes. When they finally reached the summit however, their hopes were immediately squashed. Only now did they make the crucial realization that explained why it was taking so long to reach the tree that always seemed so close. The small tree was actually several hundred meters tall, with the shimmering of the desert air and the vast expanse of sand around it giving it the false appearance of being small and close to the starting line. And worst realization of all; it was still a good two or three kilometers away.
Exhausted by the distance they’d already covered, Raymo sat down at the top of the dune, a deep sense of desperation washing over him. He’d swallowed the last of his water at the bottom of the dune, ignorantly thinking he wouldn’t need it anymore. ‘’After getting so far, I’m done in by my own stupidity,’’ he thought to himself. He glanced up at Yashi, but in the place of the desperation he’d predicted was instead an expression of puzzlement, similar to the one Yashi had worn when they’d first found the girl.
Yashi narrowed his eyes as he stared at the giant tree. He took out his canteen and took one last swig from it, then tossed the rest to Raymo. “Drink the rest of that. I won’t need it. After you’ve finished we’ll head to finish line.”
Raymo blinked at him in disbelief. “What do you mean you won’t need it? I knew you were annoying but I didn’t peg you as stupid.”
“I’m not being stupid. I spent my whole life living in a desert country. I can operate on less water than most people, so go ahead and drink so we can start moving again.” Raymo wasn’t entirely sure if what Yashi was saying was true, but he had no interest in arguing any further. He swallowed the remaining water in the canteen and stood up. “Ready?” Yashi inquired.
“More then I’ll ever be,” Raymo replied in a tepid manner. The two boys descended the great dune swiftly and began the last leg of their journey. They ran perpetually, despite the fact that they were losing water faster. Dreff wouldn’t wait at the finish line forever.
Five minutes passed. Two kilometers left by Raymo’s estimation. Seven more minutes went by. One more kilometer. But they were losing momentum. Despite Yashi’s apparently true claim of being able to keep up with Raymo on less water, the heat and exercise was still taking a toll on him. After eight more minutes, running was no longer an option for either of them. They had less than half a kilometer to go, but they were now half dragging themselves across the sand. Thirty minutes after they left the giant dune, the finish line was finally in sight. It wasn’t just at the tree, it was in the tree. At the base of the giant plant was an opening with the Hunter Association insignia over it.
Seeing the finish line invigorated the boys, and they finished the last part of their journey shakily jogging towards it and into the massive tree. Once they successfully crossed it, they proceeded to collapse on the floor of the tree’s interior. Several other examinees that had gotten there before them were scattered on the floor doing the same. Yashi didn’t have time to notice who else had made it, because as soon as he hit the ground he lost consciousness. At this point though, it didn’t matter. He had survived that godforsaken desert.
There was one particular examinee that Yashi had forgotten about however. Far behind them in the desert, just a little while before the two boys had ascended that especially large dune, the woman who had left the starting line walking was steadily making her way toward the tree. Behind her there was a pillar of smoke rising into the sky. At the base of the pillar was a large crater, with bits of debris scattered around it. Among the debris, a ruby bracelet.
Continued in: Tree × From × Hell