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The sound of a frog croaking is what woke her up in the morning. Chickadee had a little device that made the sound whenever sunlight hit it. She rubbed her eyes and looked around for the alarm, finding it only after Zaniyah had tossed her cloak over it to make it shut up. That was when the faint scent of burning hit her nose, and Sybil looked over towards the fire in a panic.

Zaniyah had taken out one of their folding pots and set it over the fire. A random assortment of their supplies along with some water had been put within. What appeared to be a breakfast porridge could in actually be a terrifying pitfall of random flavors and possible food poisoning. It didn’t help that Zaniyah had forgotten to stir it, leaving the bottom to burn.

Sybil crawled over as fast as she can, grabbing onto a wooden spoon and stirring about the porridge quickly in an effort to save what was already a disaster. Not only did Zaniyah not take care of what she had put in, but she had also not reasoned rationing. Now Sybil didn’t know if they even had enough food left for the rest of their stay. Forget that, they probably didn’t even have enough food left over for lunch.

“I think it’s ready.” Zaniyah beamed proudly. She gestured over to Chickadee, who was still sleeping soundly. “Should I wake him up?”

“Let’s… Let’s let it cool first.” Sybil grabbed the handle of the pot and removed it from the flames. She sat it in the grass, which began to smolder as she began to look for some bowls.

“Look at all of them.”

Zaniyah gestured down the hill. Sybil could see the whole field where the other applicants were set up. They were also now just waking up, scurrying about like disorderly insects. Some eating, some stretching, all nervous. Others were already practicing dueling with one another or going for morning jogs. It also sounded like someone was practicing singing scales, for some bizarre reason.

Sybil frowned as her eyes went to the barracks. “There are some already lining up at the gate.” Either that or they slept there. She didn’t know how late into the night they were doing the interviews, and it seemed like there was already a line of more applicants still waiting for their chance to do them. “We have about forty minutes to handle everything. Chickadee double checked our weapons last night, so we should only have to eat.”

Zaniyah sighed, dishing herself a bowl for herself. There were times where Zaniyah really did relish in new foods, but moments like these made Sybil think that such pleasures were wasted on her friend. The way she wolfed down scalding hot food, caring more on how it filled her stomach than how it tasted, that’s what gave Sybil this opinion.

She also got a bowl for herself, blowing on it in fear of burning her tongue. Luckily they only had dried out vegetables and oats left. Other than being burnt, it didn’t taste that bad, and it shouldn’t make them sick. Sybil then realized that she was also in a hurry, so she also took a moment to wolf down her food as quickly as possible.

“You know, you’ll never learn to enjoy the finer things in life if you always eat like that.” Zaniyah shook her spoon at her friend. Sybil responded with a glare as she continued to shovel food in a speedy manner.

They set aside a bowl for Chickadee and woke him up. He ate slowly, wearily swaying side to side as he did so. He told them that he was supposed to meet up with a knight within one of the buildings, once again explaining how he won’t be with them this day of testing. Chickadee made doubly sure to tell them that he would be around for the team tests the following day. They would in no way stop him from showing up.

Zaniyah whined for a bit, but Sybil just assured her that the exams were different for mages. They’ll just have to do the best they could on their end and meet up later. After packing their things, they headed down the hill as a group. Chickadee giving a final wave as he stepped through the doors, and Zaniyah and Sybil leaned up against the wall alongside the other applicants.

“He’ll be fine.” Sybil nudged Zaniyah in the ribs with her elbow. “Start doing warm-up stretches.” She kicked up her foot against the stone and started to bend her torso against it.

“Well, yeah. I’m not worried at all.” The blue haired girl laughed off the statement, reaching down to touch her toes. “It’s just Chickadee... All by himself… H-he’ll be fine.” She didn’t sound certain. “Just our wee little friend out on his own in the world... With no one to h-help him.”

Sybil ignored her and finished her stretches just as Sir Stonetoe stepped out of the gate. He looked grumpy and more irritated than he had the night before. Following behind him was Sir Grimhawk, feeling the ground in front of him with his staff and walking in a feeble manner. Within Stonetoe’s hand was a wooden cone, which he held up to his mouth.

“Listen up!” His voice boomed over the field, leading Sybil to instinctively cover her ears. “Gather up all your battle gear and put it on. Armor and weapons! Don’t skimp out on anything! Afterward, head into the field and locate the sign that has your region and town on it to figure out what group you’ll be participating with! You will be assigned a mentor who will oversee the rest of your testing!”

Zaniyah lifted up her axe from where she placed it against the wall and attached it to her harness. “I guess we’re done. Where are we going next?”

All Sybil could manage was a quiet, “Nooooo…” as the applicants around them started to pull items from their packs.

“What was that?” Zaniyah lifted up her brows and bent down to look Sybil eye to eye. “The field, right? It’s just us two from Dogfall. Not like we’re going to run into any trouble.” A sudden look of panic hit her face. “Does that mean they’re going to make us fight each other?! Is only one of us is going to pass?!”

“I doubt it,” muttered a scowling Sybil. “They’re supposed to judge us on individual performance, not set us up to fail.” She let out a sigh. Then again, she could be wrong about that. “Let’s just head out.”

There was a sign for the Crimson Region that had both Carapace and the swamplands listed on it. At the moment, Sybil and Zaniyah were the only ones present. They didn’t have much in the way of armor. The cave system didn’t leave much room for raising large animals, so leather was out of the question. Instead, they wore thinly woven golem silk that had been dyed brown and had inlaid plates of metal. The metal had been hammered thin, as armor wasn’t a thing used in the core, they had to save up for their own supplies and worked with what they could get. Chickadee’s family forge helped immensely with that.

To the normal eye, they appeared to wear standard cloth armor. It had to be tight fitting to be functional. Sybil chose to not wear the bodice that Zaniyah had, opting for something similar to a tunic in design. Most of what she wore was simple and cloth. Despite the simplicity and the fact that she was modestly covered, she still chose to wear a cloak over that.

Zaniyah refused to wear her cloak, as the loose fabric around her torso was a distraction. The bodice and the half skirt that hung at her left hip were the only bits of femininity about her. She had her axe, and if that ever faltered, her throwing axe. Her legs were mostly covered in leather boots, a luxury item that she had spent years saving up for. The quality of them let her run around without tearing up her feet, thus the cost was at least justified despite Sybil not supporting her friend’s purchase.

As they examined the area, they noticed that there were several lock boxes at the base of the sign. They chose one to toss in their unnecessary supplies. Hopefully, no one was expecting them to carry travel rations and spare clothing into battle. It was also nice to not have to carry everything about for a change.

Sybil locked up the box and looked up to see the six remaining students from Starsons approach them. Her face twisted in a scowl and she looked away, only to look up again as she heard someone calling her name. Veximarl was jogging up to them, still in his ill-fitted oversized armor while his sword’s scabbard swung about his leg.

“I am grateful that they allowed me to request which group I would be a part of last night. Hopefully, I won’t be too much of a bother.” He nearly doubled over, panting as he spoke. Sybil looked between where the wall was and the spot they were standing now. It wasn’t that far at all. Her lips curled downward with concern.

“Ah! Hey, Vex!” Zaniyah beamed out a huge grin. “We talked it over and you’re more than welcome to join our group tomorrow. I mean, as long as you let me check out that sword of yours.” Her eyes gleamed a bit as she stared lovingly at the broadsword.

A giggle of glee escaped her as he passed it over. Veximarl stretched out his back and wheezed in pain. “I will need it back when we- ...” He paused as Zaniyah drew the weapon out. She took a few steps away from the group and started to swing it about in a wild manner. The noise of maniacal laughter she was making didn’t help either.

“What’s wrong with her?” A girl from the Starsons group stepped next to Sybil, watching Zaniyah “practice” with the sword.

“She likes large weapons,” Sybil said apathetically. She took a sudden step away from the girl when she realized who she was talking to.

“Don’t worry about me.” The girl waved a hand as a greeting. “But I am just a bit curious... Is she one of those mutant hybrids that are born in the core?” She smiled innocently at Sybil, who in return was not amused. “Sorry! I promise I don’t mean to be racist! It’s only because of her blue hair. I know strange colors are a normal mutation among those in the mist, even outside the core. We have Alton and he… Well, he’s human. He has that going for him.”

“Is that mutation normal?” Veximarl squinted his eyes at Zaniyah’s movements. “I am from a mist region as well, and I have never seen unusual hair. A third eye can be common. Additional fingers, scales, excreting an odd slime that is similar to a slug’s…” Both girls fell silent and turned to stare at Veximarl. “... But such traits in the mist are completely normal? Nothing to worry about?” They continued to stare. “Let us move past that topic. I am Veximarl Tuton. Paladin trainee.”

“Mila Fletch, a, ah, sorry, the archer for the Starsons squad.” She pointed out to the other individuals, who were keeping to themselves. “The silver-haired one is Alton Toval, he’s our sword and shield. Silas Gallagher is our two-handed, Luca Atwater is the cleric, and Oscar Falk is our scout.” She paused. “Oh, and the seriously gloomy one over there is Vincent Highland. He’s our captain.” Her finger pointed over a heavily armored teen who was watching Zaniyah with great concern. He was also the one who Sybil had seen starring at them the night before. “Best not talk to him. He’s been bitter for weeks now.”

“Sybil Twist, scout.” Sybil gestured over to her friends. “That’s our two-handed, Zaniyah Krogastein… Who needs to stop swinging around so much! You’re loosening your bodice! Why didn’t you bother to tie it up correctly?!” Zaniyah wanted her armor to look more like outlander fashion but hadn’t bothered to learn how to put any of it on correctly. Sybil was already seeing future complications because of it.

“Eh, what? Are we starting?” Zaniyah looked around in a wide-eyed manner. “Where are we heading?”

“Zani,” Sybil mumbled as she walked over. Her finger curled about as she gestured for Zaniyah to face her. “I said that you didn’t tie up your bodice tightly enough again. The strings are coming loose.”

Zaniyah let out a wheeze as Sybil yanked at the laces. “It’s not like I have any breasts that are going to go flying out whenever I’m not looking. What’s there to worry about?”

“Please pretend to pay attention. That is the only thing I am asking of you today.” Sybil finished up the laces, tying a hard knot at the bottom. “I don’t care about anything after this. We only need to make it through together.”

“How am I going to mess this up? They tell me to run somewhere, I run.” Zaniyah shrugged. “They tell me to hit something, I hit.”

A gruff voice replied to her statements. “A correct way for a soldier to view battle but not the way a leader should think.” Zaniyah let out a small squeak and hopped back as Grimhawk spoke right next to them. Sybil had reached to pull out one of her daggers but lowered her guard when she realized it was a knight. It concerned her that she hadn’t even noticed him until he spoke up.

“Settle down.” Grimhawk waved his staff about dismissively. “Soldiers are told what to do, and they follow their orders blindly. Knights are responsible for reading a situation and responding in an appropriate fashion. They are the ones who command a scenario, not obey the whims of it... But as for today, I will tell you to run and you will run. Baby steps in your training, after all.”

“Yes, sir!” Sybil’s voice shouted loudly.

“Aye, sir!” Zaniyah’s own words overlapped Sybil’s. This caused the applicants from Starsons to line up at attention, and for Veximarl to fumble getting his sword away from Zaniyah and back into its sheath.

“You nine are one team for the rest of the day. The first exam is in ten minutes. Here are your instructions.” Grimhawk lifted up his staff and pointed toward the fort wall. “Starting at the door, do laps about the field until lunch. You all must do the same number of laps. That is all.”

“Yes, Sir!” The applicants said in unison. Veximarl still struggled to sheathe his sword, making his response slightly delayed. He muttered it as he lifted up one leg, trying to balance his sheath against his thigh so he could get a better angle of entry.

“See you in four hours. No need to ask any questions, as you should already know what to do. I will return when you are done.” He waved his staff about again in a dismissive manner and started to walk away at a slow pace as he let his weapon find the path for him.

The group fell silent, with Sybil folding her arms as she thought. Some of the Starsons group started to double check their gear to make sure it was on properly. Zaniyah was tightening her harness about her body to make sure her axe wouldn’t fall off and cut up her legs accidentally.

“An easy task as long as we all keep the same pace. I suggest having water available, as well as marching rations.” Veximarl nodded to himself, and then looked over Zaniyah, who appeared perplexed. “When you exert yourself for long periods of time, your muscles begin to break down due to a build-up of…” Her confused expression was increasing. “It’s special food that boosts your energy. I have enough for the two of you.”

Sybil folded her arms and began to tap a finger against her forearm. “Taking magic into consideration… Including Veximarl, we have three people that are able to cast rejuvenation spells. That will help us keep a good pace, but he didn’t say how many laps we had to take. Only that we all had to do the same amount.”

Zaniyah sighed. “Look at the other groups, though!” She gestured to one who was fumbling about on the tightropes of an obstacle course. “Why do they get to have fun while we just run?” She pointed at the tightropes again. “Look at that! We should be doing that! We are so good at that already!” Then she pointed at a group that had paired off and were now doing a formal dance. “And what are they doing?! I mean, what is even that?!”

“Because there is already a set amount of laps that he expects us to do,” muttered Sybil.

Sybil lowered her arms and looked over the field. Her attention fell upon another obstacle course, where an applicant was being forcefully dragged by a teammate through a volley of flying arrows. Her nose scrunched up. Why were they doing something simple as laps instead of anything challenging?

“It’s a forced march,” stated Vincent. The trio looked over to him. “In times of war, an army is expected to move a certain distance each day while carrying full gear. It’s standard practice within the army to teach how to do a forced march before weapons training begins.” It made sense. There isn’t a point in being good with a blade if you were unable to reach the battle.

The Starsons scout, Oscar, waved a hand to catch their attention. “Thirty laps. If I figured out the distance correctly, that is. That would be the minimum new army recruits would be expected to do.”

Vincent nodded. “Thirty is an acceptable minimum. The courses the others are doing are set up to test strength, agility, court etiquette, and the ability to mentally access a difficult situation under duress.” At his words, Zaniyah pointed to the dancing group again. “It would be foolish of us to believe that our test is something as simple as running. Sir Grimhawk is testing our logic and reasoning as well. He stated himself that they trained leaders here, not soldiers.”

“So it all comes down to testing the most basic of abilities, endurance. Every other skill we bring to the table is useless if we lack the ability to use them for long periods of time.” Veximarl put his thumb to his chin while he contemplated the facts.

“And our ability to ration our resources,” Sybil added. “Zani and I might have ended up in trouble if you didn’t offer some of your rations, Vex. We will also be in need of your restoration spells. It’s the same for the group in Starsons. We need to evaluate how much water and food each person will need, and be able to adjust that as we move. There is no choice but for us to work together.”

“As you have stated before, three of us are able to cast the spells we will need. We will divide ourselves accordingly.” Vincent gestured to the pair from Dogfall and Veximarl. “You three already have a plan that appears suitable. I will take Falk and Reese. Atwater, you carry extra supplies for Gallagher and Toval. Five minutes to get what you need and meet at the door.”

Sybil unlocked the chest that had her and Zaniyah’s supplies were in, pulling out a waterskin for each. Veximarl handed them some small parcels wrapped up in leaves. Zaniyah kept sniffing at hers and wrinkling her nose.

“It’s a concoction of nut paste, mushrooms, ground roots, and honey. Take a small bite after unwrapping and swish it with a mouthful of water.” Veximarl explained as he tied his hair back in a sloppy bun. “It will expand into a paste you may then swallow.”

Despite the growing look of suspicion on Zaniyah’s face, Sybil gestured to the starting point. “We’ll match our speed with the rest of the group and run in the second position. Vex, you’ll be alright? Casting on the run can be hard.”

“The swamps make hardy people.” He adjusted his glasses and beamed at his statement. “There is no need to be concerned on my behalf. I will be fine.”

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About the author

Adelaide West

Bio: Author of the Grimstone Series and Duck and Wolf.

I have a Twitter. I check it often, so I guess tag me anytime you want. I just don't post very often. @AdelaideGWest

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