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“ALRIGHT YA BUMS, THE TIME FOR SLEEPIN’ IS OVER!” was not Yashi’s ideal wake-up call, but nevertheless it was the one Dreff greeted him and all the other applicants of the Hunter Exams with.
The young man groggily sat up from his makeshift bed on the floor of the interior of a gargantuan tree, his shaggy white hair sticking up on the side of his head he’d been laying on. Soon thereafter his companion, Raymo, began to stir from his slumber as well. As the former began to stand up, he gazed around him and was astonished by what he saw. Dreff had said right after the examinees had filed out of the blimps that there were 718 competitors. There were still too many around him to count, but Yashi could tell that the number had decreased by at least half.
Raymo must’ve noticed this as well, because when Yashi turned around to face him once again, the boy was standing up and calling to Dreff, “Excuse me. How many applicants are here inside this tree?”
Dreff glanced into the sea of examinees, but Raymo was so much shorter than all his peers that he couldn’t be spotted. Irritated by his inferior stature, Raymo held up his spear and waved it back and forth like a flagpole. “Over here you dunce!”
“Oooh-ho-ho!” Exclaimed Dreff with a chuckle, “Sorry. Didn’t see ya there. But to answer your question, there are exactly 341 applicants that have made it to this checkpoint.”
Incredible. Nearly four-hundred of the over seven-hundred examinees had fallen victim to the first phase of the exam. Yashi gulped hard. What could be left in store for them in the next phase?
“Now then,” resumed Dreff as he cleared his throat, “Contrary to what some of you might have thought, the first phase is not, in truth, over. The starting point for the second phase is at the top of this tree.” Comprehension gradually washed over the examiner’s audience. ‘’He gets too much enjoyment out of this job.’’
Dreff continued. “If you’ll look above you, you’ll notice that within this tree is an entire ecosystem of its own.” The examinees turned their gazes upward automatically. Sure enough, there was a canopy within the tree, with hundreds of vines reaching down low enough for the applicants to grab. Well, all the applicants with the exception of Raymo perhaps. “You all will use these vines to climb up into the canopy. What awaits you once you get up there is unknown, and some of you may even end up separated from one another. It depends entirely upon which vine you choose to climb.”
Grumbling welled up in the crowd as the examinees took in this new information. Yashi turned to Raymo, but the boy had already begun scanning the vines, attempting to pinpoint the best one to ascend. He followed suit and searched for his own vine. Within a few minutes both boys had decided on their vines, which were only about three meters away from each other.
In front of them, a hand was raised above the crowd. Dreff noticed and called on the person. The hand belonged to an attractive young woman that seemed to be just a bit older than Yashi. She had long, wavy auburn hair, and her intelligent eyes were augmented with a pair of glasses. She wore a long brown jacket, which made Yashi wonder how she’d ever gotten through the desert with it on. The woman inquired of Dreff, “If we have access to an alternative means of getting to the top of the tree, may we use it?”
“Any means of getting to the tree’s summit is permitted so long as it is utilized within the tree. Going outside and climbing the exterior is not allowed.”
“Alright,” the woman responded, “If that’s the case, can we get started?”
“Be my guest,” chuckled Dreff. He raised his hand and gave the same gesture as when he initiated the race into the desert. “’’’Begin!’’’”
The remaining 341 applicants scrambled around the wooden floor, jumping onto vines one after the other. All except for the young woman who’d asked Dreff that question. What she did next, Yashi didn’t have an explanation for, but he was certain it happened nonetheless. The woman bent her knees and looked upward. In a flash four long, thin wings that resembled those of a dragonfly sprouted from her back, and up she shot like a rocket, outpacing those who had chosen to climb in mere seconds.
“What ‘’is’’ that woman?” Yashi muttered to himself.
With the second part of the first phase underway, Yashi began his climb towards the canopy above. Just as the previous trial had been, the young man soon found that this was also physically demanding, but he was in good shape.
The hundreds of Hunter-hopefuls climbed for a significant period of time, though exactly how long Yashi had no idea. Around ten minutes into the trial screams resonated throughout the spacious trunk. Yashi looked down and to his right a little ways only to witness the chilling image of three examinees plummeting to their deaths. He shifted his gaze back up to where they had fallen and found the large man who had protested to Dreff’s conditions before the desert race had begun. In the man’s hand he held a colossal razor, which he had used to sever the other three applicants nearest him’s vines up to the point at which he was at.
The hulking figure sheathed his blade next to an identical one on his back and grabbed the three other vines. Apparently his own vine was slowly buckling under his quite significant weight and he needed the extra support of the other three to avoid falling himself.
It was at this point that Yashi heard Raymo, who was a few meters below him and parallel to the large man, say, “I hope you weren’t planning on turning back any time soon.”
The man turned toward Raymo, “What are you babbling about, Squirt?”
“You cut those three vines closest to you so you could have more support for your own weight, but when you swung your blade you inadvertently cut your own vine all the way up to where you are now,” Raymo stated flatly. “You hadn’t meant to do it, because now you have no way of getting down if you decide you can’t make it, but you had no forethought to your actions before you swung. Then, once you realized your mistake, you tried to play it off like you’d meant to do it. But I saw it. I saw that split second of alarm on your buffoonish face.”
The large man narrowed his eyes at Raymo, his face growing more and more red the longer Raymo spoke. When the last word had left Raymo’s mouth, the man boiled over. Without warning he swung his vine in Raymo’s direction, unsheathing one of his blades so he’d be ready to send Raymo to the same fate as the last three applicants who had been next to him.
Raymo braced himself to fend off his assailant, placing his free hand on the shaft of his spear. The large man was almost in striking distance, but just before following through with his attack he found himself swinging back in the opposite direction. Both examinees looked upward to find Yashi swinging on his own vine. He had knocked himself feet-first into the larger applicant’s own vines in order to send him back in the direction he had come.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Raymo exclaimed to Yashi. “Why do you keep helping me when I don’t ask for it?”
“Why are you so against getting help when you need it?” Yashi retorted from above. This statement stumped Raymo. He didn’t have a response, so instead he just kept climbing silently. Meanwhile the impact of Yashi crashing into the large applicant’s vines caused him to lose his grip for a moment and slide downward before quickly regaining it just before running out of vine to grasp. He looked up at the two younger applicants, furious but unable to do anything, and began to climb once again.
Yashi managed to climb continuously for another good fifteen minutes before running into trouble once again. He was less than twenty meters from the break in the canopy where his vine was hanging down from when he just barely felt the wind off a dart as it zipped by his leg. He quickly followed the trajectory of the dart downward and found its launcher; a petite man with grayish hair and a large nose. Attached to the man’s forearm was a long silver tube with a switch and a slot for loading darts.
The man aimed his launcher at Yashi once more and fired two more rounds, which Yashi dodged by a hair. ‘’This is bad. There’s no way I can make it all the way up to that opening before one of his darts hits me.’’ He looked up at Raymo, who had managed to overcome Yashi and take the lead, but he was already climbing through the hole in the canopy. ‘’I guess I won’t be getting any help from him. He probably wouldn’t have offered me any anyway.’’
Another dart flew upward in the young examinee’s direction, but this one grazed his vine just above where he was suspended instead of landing in his own body. A small cut was made in the vine, though it would turn into a much larger one and eventually break under Yashi’s weight if he didn’t act quickly. Yashi fiddled with his belt with his free hand, grabbing a dagger he’d brought with him from his home-land. He tried to aim as precisely as he could while hanging on a vine and being shot at, and let the knife fly toward the sniper, but he simply blocked it with the shaft of his dart-launcher and the weapon fell harmlessly to the floor of the tree trunk.
Yashi tried to grab the other weapon he’d brought with him; a gold, bladed boomerang. He had just unhooked it from his belt when he looked down and saw a dart flying straight at him. The young man had no doubt that if he didn’t move within the next few seconds it would hit him, but he couldn’t shimmy up the vine fast enough to avoid it. The only thing he could think of doing to get out of the dart’s line of trajectory was to let go of the vine. It didn’t seem like the best idea either, but at this time he didn’t have any more options, so he released his grip from his vine and let himself fall. As he descended he managed to throw the boomerang at his attacker and the weapon severed to sniper’s vine.
Before falling to his death Yashi grabbed the vine near him that Raymo had been climbing and held fast. As the boomerang circled back around, the teenager caught it clumsily. He looked down to confirm the fate of the applicant with the darts, but he too had managed to grab onto another vine before falling to the ground. Thankfully, he was too far down to fire any more darts at Yashi for the time being. Not wanting to waste any time and let the sniper catch back up with him, Yashi ascended the vine as quickly as possible and finally climbed through the canopy.
When Yashi reached the break in the canopy he was surprised to see that the branches were weaved so tightly together that they could be walked upon like the normal ground. He crawled off the vine and lay on the floor of the greenery, sweating from climbing for so long. With a numb arm, Yashi reached around and grabbed the canteen that had been refilled for him while Dreff was waking up all the applicants and took a long gulp. Then the young man sat up and took in his surroundings. Dense forest engulfed him on every side except for one, which he assumed was the way Raymo had taken, as he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The path also seemed to lead toward some source of light. Since there was no alternative that was readily offering itself to him, Yashi decided to take the obvious path after feeling had returned to his arms and he had taken a few more gulps of water.
Within a few minutes Yashi saw the mouth of the path where light was coming from. As he drew closer he could hear a strange cracking noise coming from the opening. When he finally made it to the opening he saw the canopy open up into a large room. The space had no ceiling, and directly above it was blue sky. On the opposite side from the entrance was a ladder that led straight upward to the opening, which Yashi assumed was where the finish line of the first phase was. Yashi would’ve quickly rushed to the ladder and climbed it had there not been two things standing in between himself and it. The first was Raymo, who was currently brandishing his spear. The second was the dog-sized insect bouncing off the room’s walls attempting to eat Raymo alive.
The oversized bug sprung from wall to wall, and every so often it would aim its trajectory toward Raymo, who would barely be able to deflect it in time with his pole-arm before the beast ripped off one of his limbs with its mandibles.
Yashi’s first instinct was to call out to him, but he immediately hushed himself. He couldn’t afford to distract Raymo in this situation. For a few moments he waited patiently at the opening, waiting for the insect to jump high enough to provide him an opening. When it finally did, the young man jumped out into the opening and swiftly threw his boomerang upward. It missed the insect by a significant distance, but still kept its attention long enough for him to get close to Raymo.
“’’Why’’ are you always everywhere that I am?” Raymo asked in exasperation.
“Because your charming personality keeps pulling me back in,” Yashi responded quickly as his boomerang zipped back into his palm.
Unbeknownst to the boys, they were being observed by a third party. Above them, sitting silently and peering through a break in the tree branches was the young woman who had taken the early lead by flying into the canopy. She watched the two boys combat the insect, commenting to herself occasionally about a surprising action or misstep one of them might’ve taken. ‘’They complement each other well. The taller one had the foresight to stand with his back facing the smaller one’s while providing the smaller one enough space to maneuver his weapon. Still, the taller one is unable to come up with a way to use his own weapon effectively, and is taking more damage each time he fends off the bug’s advances. Out of the two of them, the one with the spear has greater potential.’’
After watching the two battle their six-legged assailant for a period of time, the young woman finally grew impatient and decided to step in. With speed matching the insect’s own, she swooped down just as it was bouncing toward Raymo and with one powerful stroke, swatted the beast to the ground with the large fan she was carrying. Yashi and Raymo looked at her in amazement, then at the bug. It lay twitching one the ground, dead.
Raymo was about the say something, but before any sound left his mouth the young woman cut him off. “I only stepped in because you two weren’t handling this situation correctly.” The two boys were taken aback by the statement. They blinked at each other, then faced her again. “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.” Then, as quickly as she’d entered, she flew up into the opening above them and onto the treetop.
Yashi and Raymo weren’t quite sure what to do at this point, but there was one thing they were sure of; they were exhausted. The two boys climbed up the ladder in silence. There wasn’t really anything to say. When they reached the top, there was a barbarian awaiting them.
Continued in: Hang × On × Tight