The six thousand three hundred and ninety individuals that managed to pass sat in a rather numb silence while the sun rose over the horizon. These were even the ones that passed, but it had been a brutal twelve-hour span where they slowly struggled forward through the haze of images that were presented to them.
Every second was another trial. Every step brought a deeper and more lifelike image. Every breath was through clenched teeth.
Of the tests, the Tree of Yggdrasil was definitely the most difficult by the result. Only at the last moment did five people manage to force their bodies forward in the face of the overwhelming aura that the image emitted. Several hundred had passed out directly after prolonged exposure to the Yggdrasil images. That path wasn’t one for the faint of heart.
But it was hard to say which was the easiest. Definitely, the test passed most commonly by the applicants was the Emerald Essence. Yet, when looking at those who managed to pass that test… at least four thousand gaunt eyed individuals sat on the ground and looked at the ground. The grass had grown up around their bodies, twining up their legs as it drew strength from the emerald essence. Some people were entirely covered with the plant growth and now sat so exhausted they looked more like the leaf men than the people they used to be.
By far the most widely attempted was the Ashen Spear. During the preparation for the event, some research was done into “Sir Ghosthound”. It was learned that he was a rather successful Spellspear that originated out of the Northern Domain, under the guidance of Shal, the Spear Phantom.
The emerald fire and the tree were widely believed to be related to Sir Ghosthound’s spells, while the Spear Phantom and Ashen Spear were considered to be his actual spear moves. And as the Spear Phantom was likely inherited from Shal, the Ashen Spear…
It was something directly from Randidly Ghosthound. His life’s work. A Pontiff’s own Skillset, available to the public.
That didn’t happen.
Even those that were selected as core disciples of larger Styles rarely received direct instruction from Pontiffs. Those Skillsets were carefully guarded in order to prevent rival Styles from rising up.
True, the story everyone talked about on Tellus was the pure spear user that created his own Skillset and Style. That was why Aemont, the original Spear Phantom was so famous. For all that he was a common man without any backing, he had worked hard and seized his own future. Few others could say that.
It seemed like that Sir Ghosthound was one of those few who could claim that very thing.
The woman lay panting, looking up at the sky. She was one of the five that had passed the Tree of Yggdrasil challenge. Or at least that was what she had been informed by the congratulatory voice of Sir. Ghosthound. To that information, she had said nothing. She had not even wanted to say anything; she was too tired.
Yet, in fact, she had stopped two meters away from the inner ring of the test, unable to move forward. In a fit of desperation as dawn drew closer, she had collapsed forward to try and pass the line, even if it was just by a finger length. Unfortunately, she was short by about half a meter.
For whatever reason, all she could manage at that point was to spin over on her back. She lay and looked up at the thick green foliage from the imaginary tree during those last minutes. The branches moved just slightly, tiny leaves seeming to savor the freedom of the air. Spreading and flapping, enjoying the night breeze. Thick ruts in the bark seemed to be carved by ancient spear strokes, hiding the mysteries of time within.
The woman had breathed. The trial had ended.
And when she sat up, the woman found herself past the line. It didn’t make any sense.
After what seemed like an hour, she stood and wandered amongst the exhausted individuals until she found the tall man. The light of the dawn was illuminating the field in portions; she found him in the darkest portion, down by the Ashen Spear trial.
“Welcome to our new life,” The woman said with a tired smile. She tried to sit on a mound next to the tall man, but she overbalanced and just smashed her face in the soft grass. Even simple tasks were impossible with this level of sourness. Wincing, she straightened. With a deliberate stubbornness, she began to scrape the clinging grass that had latched onto her legs as she hobbled over here. That fucking emerald flame turned this whole field into a wild jungle. “Which one did you choose?”
“I didn’t pass.”
The woman paused. Her ears informed her brain what was said, and her brain asked for confirmation. It received it. She turned and looked at the tall man. His face was still in shadow. Her eyes couldn’t see his expression, but she knew the look that was likely on his face.
It was an expression that she had known for years, looking at her own reflection in the water bowl every morning. Her own face, tight and loose in all the wrong places. Bitterness and exhaustion. Disappointment. A look searching for purpose. Wondering what it could have been like to have truly mattered. To have meant something.
The face that said for another day, life wouldn’t change. This is how things would stay
Why was I past the line? The woman wondered, even as she searched for the right words to say to the tall man.
“Forget it. This was fun, but… I have my place in the Northern Camp, yanno? Who would take care of my crew if I left? And honestly, being with Darrune more than necessary… It’s the worst, right? You are going to regret this. It’s so much better to just… stay here…”
“Rascule…” The woman mumbled. Dawn’s light was slowly approaching. The rays slid over the nearby grass, turning forest green into vermillion. But at the last minute, as the light was about to reach Rascule’s face, the woman turned away.
She knew the face he was making. There was no need to look. For whatever reason, the woman began to cry.
“Well… I guess I should get back. Today’s the extra rations day at the camp. Honestly, it would be- it would be hard to miss that.” This time, Rascule’s words ended in a hiss. Like a bear, he twisted warily back and forth until he could languorously push himself up off the ground. Then, when he was standing, he offered the woman a hand. Rascule’s face was studiously blank.
“Goodluck Yonna. Don’t work yourself too hard.”
Yonna’s throat seemed to close. The best response she could give him was a nod. Then the sun passed the edge of the horizon, and the whole world was filled with light.
Platton glanced at Randidly. “Who are these people?”
“Some strays I gathered. When we arrive at the Death School, I want to build something.” Randidly said with a shrug. “Besides… if Wights have the whole School, then we need to hit hard.”
Grunting, Platton took a closer look at the several thousand spear users that had followed Randidly from the Northern Camp to the fort South of Hastam. Most were skinny like hungry rats, all bones and bright eyes. They certainly possessed armor, but whether they would be able to hold out on the frontlines was a different matter…
“If you believe it’s best…” Platton finally said. “When can you depart?”
“Now, if possible. Shal told me that he had already arranged for suitable transportation? Whenever that is prepared, we can move out.”
“Hmmm,” Platton rumbled. “The transportation has been arranged… but it seems like a fool’s errand. In addition, the provisions we had in the base are nowhere near enough for all of these people. Hell, I am not sure how C Corp managed this long, but even their stores are running dry. This… mission does not seem well advised.”
Randidly looked at Platton. Platton stared back, his eyes serious.
“Randidly, this doesn’t add up. We are barely managing to contain to Wight threat as it is; toward the end, before the Northern Group arrived… Things were bad. And now we get these orders to accompany you on an offensive? Someone wants you out of Hastam. This isn’t a true mission. It’s a death sentence. Even making it to the Death School would be-”
“I know, Platton. “ Randidly said patiently.
“And the orders come from somewhere high, Randidly.” Platton whispers. “So high that even my superior-”
“I know, Platton. Believe me.” Randidly said quietly. Then he turned and looked toward the horizon with a frown. “My Master warned me… He came to me this morning. Truly, something wishes me out of Hastam. But…”
Randidly smiled. “I think they will find that this little challenge isn’t enough to finish me off.”