Barely able to parry the immediate strike, Darren staggered back a few steps from the unexpected force from the middle aged man. A glint sparked from the corners of the older man’s orbs as he stepped forward to close the distance. In a flurry of strikes that Darren increasingly struggled to defend, it dawned on the knight that perhaps his intuition was mistaken this time.
“Is this all that you’ve got, boy?” the knight goaded with a minute sneer.
“Wha—?” An expression of surprise at the knight’s incitement filled Darren’s face. None of the examiners had talked to the recruits like this in the previous evaluations.
Darren’s brief moment of disconcertion cost him. In a swift chain of intricate swordsmanship, the knight disarmed Darren. His wooden sword flew sharply into the air toward the spectators. At the front of the crowd was Essairyn.
Seeing the sword about to hit the girl, the knight reactively rushed forward to block the blow. Inwardly, he cursed himself for going too harsh on the boy. Although he was able to effectively gauge the boy’s skill level, Bodraig, the knight, effectively let the day’s frustration agitate him. Upon seeing a promising trainee, he resolved to thoroughly test the boy with more power than usual. But to his disappointment, the boy was one of the least skilled trainees yet that day.
Just as the sword reached halfway through its descent, Essairyn reflexively deflected the sword straight downwards onto the floor. Since she was caught off guard, the deflection was more forceful than necessary. The wooden sword splintered as it plummeted to the ground. For a transitory moment, everyone froze. Then returning to their senses, all eyes flashed toward Essairyn.
“A mage…?” Bodraig began in excited astonishment. “That move just now was definitely C-rank. Are you here for the entrance exam too?” The Knight’s Order accepted both physical and magical fighters. Everyone who joined was called a “knight,” including mages. But usually, the Order received mostly physical-based knights. This was due to both the rarity of human mages as well as the small percentage of which who joined the Order. Most human mages studied at the Academy on partial or full scholarship as per the school’s mission to support the human race in Sol’h’meyr. The rest of the in-house mages were elementals.
Thus, if this girl was entering their ranks, then she would be a significant addition to the Knight’s Order. Recently, mages were scarce due to their mysterious kidnappings and homicides across the southwestern region of As’pyze. Using only physical force to carry out missions against the perpetrators proved to be immensely more difficult than imagined in the last few months.
Essairyn opened her mouth to answer the knight’s question, but before a single sound was uttered, Bodraig felt a sharp wind hurtling toward his side. His well trained senses and reflexes enabled the man to dodge the incoming blow. It was Darren.
“Your eyes should be on me. This fight isn’t over.”
A glare of humiliation layered with indignation and determination bore into the knight’s eyes. Yes, this is what I saw in you. Your hidden spirit. Bodraig’s mouth quirked upwards in a provoking smile. The boy had retrieved another sword. Since Bodraig had never said that the evaluation was over, and the piles of weapons were directly outside of the sparring ring, Darren could reclaim another weapon as long as the majority of his body was inside the circle.
With renewed vigor, they clashed swords once again. This time, Bodraig took more careful notice of the boy’s swordsmanship, footwork, and overall physical capabilities. He reaffirmed that the boy was a rookie swordsman, but Darren was rather light and stable on his feet. The condition of his body was also well above-average compared to the typical examinee. Okay, this is enough. You still have a lot to work on, boy. But my intuition was right yet again. You have the potential to grow enormously. Bodraig smirked at his accurate ability to judge new trainees’ talent before verbalizing the signal that the test was over. He easily disarmed Darren once again and then strolled over to the other knights to convene about the boy’s score.
Darren immediately hunched over and supported himself with his hands on his thighs. It had only been a few minutes, but he already worked up a noticeable sweat. Thinking about the ending move, Darren grimaced. This man was playing with me the entire time. Yet again, even in this new body, I’m still weak. Why am I—?! Darren’s forehead wrinkled in aggravation, and he straightened his body. With eyes like knives, he pierced the knight’s back. Just you watch, one day I’ll beat you old man.
“Darren?” He turned toward the hesitant, concerned voice. Essairyn was walking over to him.
“Yes?” His voice was dull and insipid. His mind was turbulent with mixed emotions. No matter what he did, this girl always stole the spotlight. He couldn’t win against her.
“Are you okay? I feel like he went harder on your than the other trainees.” Unlike most of the spectators who couldn’t follow the knight’s swordsmanship, Essairyn’s keen eyes traced every movement. But despite being able to see the sword’s motions, she knew that her current weapon mastery was far from coming close to this knight’s expertise. In fights, Essairyn relied on her enhanced physical body’s abilities and natural skill of imitating what she visualized in her mind. But mimicking moves from movies and games were nothing compared to Bodraig, a true swordsman in the flesh. Countless years of real life experience and practice trumped a beginner’s talent. Bodraig was no young man, but his age didn’t detract from his body’s peak condition. Essairyn supposed it was another effect of magic in this world. Those who trained extensively had increased amount of regular m’u. Thus, older people with more experience could upstage the robust youths.
Darren merely nodded unemotionally in response and busied himself by continuing to stare at the trio of knights. Realizing that Darren was avoiding her gaze, Essairyn pursed her lips in confused disgruntlement. What’s this sour mood again? He’s more moody than a girl I swear! Boys! I never know what they’re thinking! She turned her head away and started to leave the ring. But before she took another step, Bodraig called out to her.
“Excuse me! You there! I couldn’t hear your answer before, so are you here for the exam too?” The girl had entered with Darren, so he was sure that she wasn’t here to just spectate and support her friend. Somehow, he felt that they weren’t that close. Maybe they had just met up recently after both coming to the Academy to join the Knight’s Order. Bodraig didn’t know that his suspicious were correct, but to his arrant disappointment, Essairyn replied she wasn’t joining because of the obligation and expense.
“That’s a shame…the Knight-Mage Academy could use a magical talent like you.” Bodraig furrowed his forehead, trying to brainstorm a way to convince her otherwise. Suddenly, he was reminded of the Farinheld mission. A small village town on the outskirts of Byar’non was the target of the suspicious group ensnaring mages and random people alike. The scouting group which had been sent to uncover the group’s identity returned with only one heavily wounded member. In order to prevent further disappearances of the villagers and better confront the group, the Academy formed a high-class, investigative team that could combat the perpetrators on the spot. Bodraig succinctly explained the situation to her and offered free knight’s training if she joined the mission.
Intrigued and tempted by the proposition of both adventure and excitement, Essairyn instantly agreed. In a team, danger would be diminished. And in the worst case scenario, she could always flee. Essairyn was confident that she would be able to escape any entrapment if she was preemptive and cautious about her surroundings and attackers. Not to mention, she would learn useful skills in the two week, intense training period for recruits.
Darren, on the other hand, was disturbed by the knight’s proposal and Essairyn’s quick consent. The whole mission screamed more danger than anything they had experienced or what Essairyn had told him about in the Spirit-Demon Forest. This was a group that had gotten away with murder and kidnapping on multiple occasions in various locations. No matter how strong Essairyn was, she was only putting herself directly at risk as a mage, the group’s key target. But since he knew she wouldn’t listen to him, he kept quiet.
After he received his upper-middle D rank score, they left the Academy. Tomorrow would begin their training, so they could explore the town more before resting in their temporary dorms. The crowds had subsided, and as they meandered through the streets, Darren fiddled with the knight’s badge in his fingers. A simple, but sturdy dark gray sword with a leather grip in a lightweight, silver scabbard hung on a new, brown belt. All these items were provided by the Academy to all newly accepted trainees.
“Essairyn…” Darren finally spoke. The girl perked her head up at the boy who hadn’t spoken to her since their last exchange after his evaluation spar. “About this mission tomorrow, I think that—”
His words were abruptly cut off by a stranger who knocked into him. Darren stumbled backwards but was able to maintain his balance along with the stranger, a scarlet-haired, lanky man with fulvous, piercing eyes.