The rain poured behind the barrier, gusts of wind causing it to go sideways at times. The trees flailed wildly, and it was strange to be warm and comfortable behind the barrier, as the elements howled outside.
“Welcome Trainees, to the hell months!” Quintis shouted.
“At any time, you worthless goblin-loving maggots can choose to leave hell months, and return back to the sweet, tender embrace of the villa! You will be warm! Fed! Safe! Escorts to meet your every need! All you need to do, is tap that gong over there!” He said, pointing to the silver gong, now taking on a dreadful psychic weight.
“Before we begin, we have a pair of unusual restriction skills with us. Ranger Elaine! Trainee Diao! Front and center!”
We moved to the center, where Quintis clapped a hand on both of our shoulders.
“Ranger Elaine is obligated to heal unless you explicitly ask otherwise! You will now ask otherwise!” Quintis roared out.
In a slightly softer tone, he followed it up.
“Ranger Elaine will disregard and still save your worthless life if it’s needed.”
A bunch of muttering came from the crowd.
I will admit, this was strange. Nobody was being directly coerced to ask me to not heal them – and I could still at any time – but I felt this was strongly pushing [Oath].
At the same time, it wasn’t like [Oath] demanded I fix every little bruise and scrape, nor that I need to touch everyone and heal them just incase there was some lurking disease I didn’t know about. This was simply making sure it extended a bit further than usual.
“Trainee Diao is obligated to fight to the death if challenged! None of you will challenge him to a duel, spar, fight, or any other feat or contest. Understood!?”
I yelled my understanding with everyone else. How on Pallos had he managed to stay alive and un-arrested by the guard with that type of restriction skill? Was he a gladiator or something before becoming a Ranger?
“Lastly, some of you think you can use your aura skills. You would be wrong! If you troll-screwing scumbags can keep your aura to yourself, you may use it! Else, turn it off!”
“If you are caught using a wide-spread aura, you will be thrown out! This is a personal challenge, not a test of who can get closest to people with beneficial auras!” He screamed out, in that cadence only drill instructors could manage.
I withdrew [Warmth of the Sun] to only include me, and, looking at the pouring rain, upped the temperature.
“You are permitted to use skills, as long as they only impact yourself!”
“Now follow me!” He yelled, and jogged through the barrier.
I followed, along with everyone else. Passing the barrier was a strange sensation, that could only be described as “tingles of light”, like my leg had fallen asleep and was waking up with an angry buzz, but all over my skin.
The storm hit me like a physical wall, buffeting me, almost bowling me over. The rain was freezing, colder than anything I’d ever felt before.
Heck, we were in a nearly tropical climate, during the summer. This should be a warm rain, not a freezing rain.
Ah. There was a skill at work.
We ran down to the sandy beach, where the first of many torments began.
“Trainees! Down in the sand, and roll!”
I threw myself to the ground and rolled in the sand, as ordered. It got everywhere – my hair, my hands, my clothes, inside my clothes, in my sandals – there wasn’t an inch that wasn’t coated in cold, sticky, irritating sand.
“Up! And run!” Quintis ordered.
We ran – no longer jogging – and it quickly became clear who had builds that were physical, and who had builds that were more based on skills.
Seeing a brief opening through flashes of lightning, I activated [Rapidash] to try and stick with the main group. There were instructors lurking in the back, and I didn’t want to be the unlucky girl they pounced on.
Lightning continued to crack the sky, great spiderwebs like reaching branches segmenting the stars before the rumble came down, the weight of the thunder pressing down on us, interspersed with howls of wind and rain driving into us.
The bright lights from the villa pierced the storm, mocking us, letting us know it could all be over soon.
We started to run around the island, and on a particularly muddy patch, after the burst of speed from [Rapidash] was gone, I slipped and fell into the mud. I tried to catch myself with my hands, but it was too deep, my face planting into it, mud getting into my eyes, my nose, my mouth.
A hand grabbed my shoulder and violently threw me back. I windmilled, then landed on my back in the mud, back and hair getting caked. I was now a mud-monster.
“Ranger Elaine! Are you alright!?” One of the instructors screamed in my face, a violent tone to gentle words.
I half-saluted from my position in the mud.
“Sir! Yes sir!” I called out, mud spraying from my mouth.
“Then why are you not running!?” He screamed.
I got back to my feet, continuing to run after the group. Nice of the instructor to make sure I wasn’t busy drowning in mud. It would’ve been a real awkward way to go.
We made it back around to the sandy beach where we’d started, close to the villa, only to get new orders.
“Halt! Drop, 500 pushups!”
I dropped and started to do pushups. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dozen of the instructors descend upon us, one of them heading towards me.
“Ranger Elaine! What type of push up pace is that!?” He screamed at me. “Faster!”
I redoubled my efforts, arms already starting to feel the burn. Satisfied, the instructor moved onto some other poor sod, yelling at them in a similar manner.
I didn’t dare slow down, mentally dismissing [Training] level-up notifications as they showed up.
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Training] has reached level 29!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Training] has reached level 35!]
[*Ding!* Congratulations! [Ranger’s Lore] has reached level 145!]
I’d murder to have my [Greater Invigorate] skill back at this moment.
We kept running and exercising as the storm calmed down, and the sun came up, my stomach rumbled I figured we’d stop for food any minute now.
Any minute now.
I was feeling light-headed as the sun peaked in the sky, having been working out with everyone for roughly the last 10 hours without a single break.
Curses. I see why Julius had made a comment on vitality and Academy.
I opened my menu, and, without really thinking too hard on it, dumped my remaining 62 free stat points into vitality.
I immediately felt somewhat better, and perked up as I saw some bread being brought out. A second, smaller tray of food was brought out, filled with meat.
My face fell, and there were cries of dismay, as one of the instructors gestured dumping sand all over the bread.
“Trainees! Lunch is served! Half a loaf per person!” Quintis yelled out at us. “Companions that eat meat line up over there.” He pointed to the smaller tray.
Ah. Not getting people’s companions killed. That was a one-way ticket to not recruiting anyone with companions, and they could be powerful.
“Fuck this.” One person yelled, staggering off towards the villa. I quickly threw an [Identify] his way, to get the experience. No level, sadly. One of the instructors leapt over to him, and helped him along the path of shame, the path to quitting. Quintis had a sadistic grin on his face.
“Right then! Anyone else want a real meal? No? Then what are you doing, form a line, move!”
We scrambled into a line, and quickly, with exhausted military efficiency, grabbed our half-loaf of sandy bread.
I half-heartedly brushed the sand off, then bit into it, the hard, stale texture nearly breaking my teeth, grains of sand grinding my gums.
It was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. I wolfed it down within seconds of getting it. Warm, slightly salty water was also served, and downed with gusto. There was plenty of water, it was just somewhat nasty. They weren’t trying to kill us.
We were given maybe five minutes of rest before the instructors were yelling at us again.
The afternoon started, more of the same, with the exception that a blowing sandstorm covered us, tiny grains pelting us, getting in our eyes. My limbs were feeling heavy, my eyelids drooping.
The rain of projectiles being shot over our head was never-ending, causing me to flinch and jump every time, occasionally flickering [Veil of the Aurora] reflexively to shield myself.
Some Trainees stopped caring about the shots, which had me frowning to myself with the tiny amount of extra energy I could muster up. Ignoring potentially lethal blows was a great way to get yourself killed one day.
We continued on through the day. Through the night. And right back into the day. We were fed again at midnight, frozen bread instead of sandy bread.
More dropouts. And we were still in the first 48 hours of hell months.
The physical aspect was hard. The sheer boredom was almost harder.
A week passed, more of the same. More dropouts.
“Trainees! Groups of eight, by height!” Quintis yelled at us.
Ug. More running. Fine, fine. I got up and started to run along with the other trainees, only for an instructor to get in my face and yell at me.
“Ranger Elaine! What is your malfunction! Group up by height, nitwit!” He screamed in my face, spit practically flying into my face.
I wasn’t the only one, as the other trainees who’d started to run on auto-pilot also got roasted.
Groups of eight were rapidly formed, and I quickly found myself isolated.
Men, as a rule, were taller than women. Generally speaking, as a person got older, they got taller.
Not only was I the youngest recruit, not only was I the only female recruit, I was also on the short end of the spectrum for a woman. I was roughly 155 cm tall. The shortest man who was still with us was 170 cm tall, and it only got worse from there.
The instructors moved along, smacking people around, getting them into proper groups of eight. One group had a group of six, another had nine people in their group. Yelling about “proper counting” and questioning their intelligence and their ancestor’s sexual choices.
“Ranger Elaine! What are you doing!?” Quintis yelled in my face.
I gave a wobbly salute, as my coordination had fled along with my lack of sleep.
“Sir! There’s nobody even close to my height, sir!”
“Are you sassing me Ranger Elaine!?”
“Sir! No sir!”
He looked around with a gleam in his eye, mentally measuring people, seeming to agree with me.
“Wood! Earth! Metal Mages! Raise your hand!” He called out.
A few scattered hands were raised, and he grabbed the closest one.
“Make Ranger Elaine platform shoe! She must be taller!”
The mage muttered something to himself, making me a pair of tall, thin metallic stilts. In my sleep-deprived haze, I eyed them, unsure how I’d ever keep my balance, or how they could support my weight.
“Do you call these platform shoes?! Ranger Elaine is a person, not a mantis! She will be running in your group; do you want to fail!?” Quintis continued to yell.
The mage hurriedly fixed the problem, and suddenly I had platform shoes to use. They were heavy, awkward, and unwieldly, but now I was at the proper height for whatever the instructors had planned next.
“Form up in your group! Follow me!” Quintis yelled.
As we started to run after Quintis, who never slowed down the pace, my respect for the Senior Drill Instructor went up quite a few notches. Not only was he sticking with the murderous pace he set the rest of us, eating the same food we were, he was also keeping an eye on all of us, finding and solving problems in a quick, practical manner.
We ran to the center of the island, the omni-present light of the villa promising warmth, food, sleep, clothes. My tunic was already ruined, in shreds, and I was coated in sand, mud, and other disgusting fluids that I didn’t want to think too hard on. My new boots were killing my legs, the extra weight and unsteady balance doing me no favors.
Bless [Center of the Galaxy] for keeping me sane. I’d need to check on my levels at some point, but I was too tired to process them right now, didn’t have the bandwidth. The recurrent background *ding!*’s reassuring me that I was making amazing progress, as hellish as this was.
A series of seasoned, gargantuan logs, glowing with inscriptions, were in the middle of the island, and we were ordered to grab a log each as a team.
“One, two, three, LIFT!” I said, coordinating my team. Nobody else was doing it, and I seemed to be the only one with a mental stability skill, still able to process things.
More of the same was next, except we were now carrying a massive log, designed to be a challenge even to high-strength individuals, around with us.
The log got steadily heavier and heavier, and I strained, doing my best to pull my weight.
Suddenly, the log got much heavier.
“Blah.” Someone on my team said, shaking his arms. “Just need a quick break.”
That was clearly the wrong move, as the instructors descended upon him like eagles to prey, a whole flock tearing and yelling.
“You do not give up on your team! Everyone pulls their weight!” Was the main refrain.
Two minutes later, he was heading to the villa, tears in his eyes. From what I’d heard, he hadn’t been forced to quit – the instructors had verbally brutalized him until he left of his own volition. There was the standard yelling they did, then there was that.
I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that.
One of them tapped the log, and suddenly it was lighter, designed for seven people to carry it, not eight. And by lighter, I meant it was just as heavy as it was before Slacker decided to stop pulling his weight.
Those were some impressive inscriptions. I quickly glanced at my mana, seeing that there was a moderate drain on it, probably what fueled said inscriptions.
Being made to shoot myself in the foot like that was easily the worst part about carrying the log.
Another day. Another week. Of running around with the damn heavy log above our heads, more people dropping out. One team had a single giant of a man, just a hair shorter than Arthur, single-handedly carrying a log himself.
That’d be one hell of a weapon.
The elements kept changing around us. Thunderous gales turned to sandstorms, sandstorms turned into sleet, sleet turned into snow, with frozen icicles flying through the air. Billows of choking smoke, banks of noxious coughing gas that made us all tear up, boiling steam making us wish for the sweet release of the frozen snow to return, followed by more heat as all the elements vanished, and the hot, hot tropical summer sun beat down on us.
The food never got better, but there was plenty of water. They wanted to push us to the extreme, not kill us.
Crawling through conjured ooze, worse than any mud. Stickier. Smellier. Nastier. It clung to our limbs, foul stench clogging our noses. I wished I was crawling through dirty diapers; it would’ve been an improvement.
A month later, the tone shifted slightly.
“Fuck!” I yelled, as a stinging sensation hit my arm, blood being drawn. I quickly healed myself with [Phases], and threw up [Veil] as another projectile was shot at me.
“They’re shooting at us!” I yelled, the remaining four members of my team groaning.
That made us all jumpy, as we no longer knew if the omni-present sound of projectiles flying over our head were designed to miss, or aimed at one of us. We dropped the log more than once as someone got jumpy, diving to defend themselves instead of carrying the log.
The instructors were Not Amused by that at all, and one chronic dodger found himself leaving in tears.
Games were played with the logs. Races.
The first team could rest until the last team made it. The last team got no rest.
Turns out, it’s possible to put a log down as a team, and fall asleep, in seven seconds. Getting even 40 seconds of sleep was a worthwhile endeavor. We were well-motivated to move fast.
Everyone else had the same motivation. The all-physical teams did amazingly well.
The more mage-centric teams struggled, like mine. It was completely random if a team was physically or magically based, and some drew shorter straws than others.
We ran up to the center of the island, where we dropped the logs down.
“Congratulations! You are all slightly less worthless for having made it halfway through!” Quintis yelled at us. “You have earned yourselves a rest!”
It was like Black Crow had come down and killed every single Trainee, as we all collapsed to the ground in unison, desperate to get some sleep. Rocks? Water? Someone else’s rank foot? None of that mattered, the sweet siren of sleep summoned.
I woke up, to a hazy fog covering everything, unable to even see the person next to me. The villa was still visible, cutting through the fog like a false beacon.
A soft voice whispered to me, coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
“You killed him.”
“Nobody will want you.”
“It’s your fault.”
“Why would the gods touch you of all people? You’re worthless.”
“You’ll only kill more people.”
“Nobody will marry a girl who’s a killer.”
“It’ll be your fault again.”
“Why are you here?”
“You’re a good healer. For a girl.”
“You killed her.”
“What’s the point?”
“You should quit.”
“No! She should die!”
“If you had done nothing, she would be alive.”
That, and a thousand other words whispered to me, pressing on my sanity, rooting through my mind, unearthing my deepest, darkest secrets. I shook my head. Just words… just words….
…. But it was my fault Origen died. I had killed Lyra, as surely as if I’d pushed her off a bridge.
Were the voices right? Would I just kill more?
Hours. Hours of the voices whispering to me, tormenting me.
The fog lifted with the dawn, and maybe a third of people were no longer around.
I got up, and started to walk to the villa. The voices had been right.
I took three steps, and hesitated.
What would Kallisto say?
What would happen to Julius? He’d be demoted, right? Maybe thrown out?
What would the look on Artemis’s face be? Would understanding and acceptance be worse than the disappointment?
Shaking my head, I turned back, rejoining the group. Quintis gave me a stink-eye, another recruit almost broken.
We continued running, the boredom returning rapidly, the ‘rest’ having been a trap, a sleepless night full of mist taunting us.
The instructors descended upon me as a single unit, a horde of rats onto a single morsel of cheese.
“Your parents must not care about you to let you do this. Are they trying to get you killed?”
“Just be dead weight on your team!”
“Who ever heard of a healer Ranger!”
“Girls should stay at home!”
“You’ll just distract your team!”
“Just go home and have some babies!”
“You’re only here because you spread your legs for the right person!”
“We’ll stick a knife in you!”
“Your hysterics will bring your team down!”
“Nobody needs a childbirth expert on the road! What else could you possibly know?”
“You’re so damn ugly with your hair all muddy like that!”
“We don’t want you!”
“Nobody would want you!”
Hundreds of insults, threats, promises of mutilation, harm, and more came from all the instructors, demeaning me, causing tears to well up in my eyes and fall from my face in hot streaks.
But I kept on running. I wasn’t going to quit, they’d have to force me out themselves.
“She’s not quitting.”
And just like that, I was free, free from the swarm of instructors, and I blinked, looking around, only to see them descend upon another trainee, hurling abuse at that one.
Something about their mother and sealskins.
Three minutes passed, and in spite of having made it two months, through all the trials so far, the instructor mob did him in, and he raised his hands in surrender, walking towards the villa.
I was in the back of the pack, and I got to watch them cleverly isolate, then torment each trainee in turn. [Veil] was on almost permanent flicker-duty, deflecting a constant barrage of shots heading my way. As trainees quit, unable to put up with the abuse, the combined focus of all the Instructors, I threw an [Identify] their way, barely remembering my plan to grind the skill.
Other trainees didn’t have as many shots aimed at them, but my combination of shield skills and healing left me receiving the bulk of the barrage. Every other trainee had at least a dozen minor injuries from impacts, and it seemed like whoever was controlling the attacks wanted me to join them.
And yet, once the “instructor mob” portion was done, it was suddenly easy, as easy as it had been at the start. That is to say, it was only running, no sleep, shit food, and environmental hazards. The shots started to go over our head again, the ooze pit vanished, the insanity mists were nowhere to be seen, and there were no traps, no logs to carry, no instructors screaming threats in my ear. No races, no cruel games pitting us against each other, with the reward being sleep.
Just a single, unified body of Trainees, who’d all gone through hell together. An unspoken bond was between us all, binding us together, making us a single, cohesive whole. I could see why Night was reluctant to isolate me, why he wanted me to have this bond with everyone else.
The last two weeks felt almost perfunctory. Not a single person dropped out.
“Fall in!” Quintis yelled, and by sheer sleep-deprived instinct, we assembled into our formation.
“Cooooooooooooongratulations! You’ve all passed!” Quintis yelled at us.
There wasn’t a single cheer, just a mass-collapse event as we all settled into the sand right where we were to go to sleep.
Walking to the villa? Clean sheets and food?
Nope. Not worth it. Sleep now.