Chapter Twenty: Trial
The sun hung high behind dark, looming clouds, casting a forbidding glow across the ground.
I stood in a line along with around thirty other initiates. There was going to be a big test today. All new initiates were taken through a tough run which would be lead up to their assigning into the strike unit, a low task one, but actively called upon to be taken out on issues where a highly trained unit would not be necessary.
I’d seen Adrianna earlier before being put into formation. She was somewhere towards the far right of the line. I was near the centre, stuck between two hulking and brutish looking men. One of them, clearly with a large ego, stood with his physical form reflecting his daemonic characteristics. The other didn’t need an ego. He was big. Frightening in a way. His arms bulged and veins could be seen clearly. He was like a giant.
A tall man walked up wearing the pure white armour with deep blue and silver trimmings that all Paladin’s wore. He pushed aside long blonde and silver hair that flowed down in a neat curve to his rather handsome face. Eyes almost as bright to match his armour shone with dark beady pupils darting back and forth to the initiates and a note board he held in his hand.
He stood like that for a moment, before slipping the note board behind and addressing the group in a surprisingly strong tone.
“Initiates! Welcome to your first day employed under The Order. If you are lucky, today will also not be your final day with the Order.” – There was a faint nervousness felt through the group – “I am Fenix. And today me and a few other instructors will throw you into traditional courses that all new initiates must take. A trial which will pit your instincts, tactic, teamwork and combat skills to the test. And me and other trainers will be assessing you.” He stood his ground for a moment, allowing the information to sink in. He seemed to smile a bit when he saw discomfort among some.
“By pure random you have been assigned into groups of four.” He continued. “You received an envelope when you arrived here and told to hold onto it. If you have already opened it or miss placed it, then you can leave now as we have no use for you anymore.” No one seemed to move. “Good. Open it now. Inside will be a piece of coloured fabric. Find the other three who have the same colour, and that is your team today.”
I withdrew my envelope from my hip bag and pried it open. The piece of fabric inside was blue. Initiates around me murmured and looked about, trying to find others with the same colour.
“Common!” Ordered Fenix. “Get it together!”
People started to call out their colour and the group began to order themselves. I found my first teammate. A weedy looking boy with a buzz cut and pale skin. He fiddled with the fabric in his hand and seemed content to keep a distance when he noticed me coming over to join the team.
Then from behind the third member arrived. The man with the big Ego, and behind him, the large form of the even bigger one behind him.
I cursed under my breath.
“Alright.” Called Fenix. “Looks like we’re all sorted out now. Get moving now. I want you all do a full lap of the citadel, then come back here and enter the training ground via your assigned colour marker.”
We began to run immediately, when he called out over our heads.
“If one of you fail, you all fail.”
At that, the ego slowed his sprint to see me, the bigger one and the weedy kid moving not far from behind. He seemed disappointed.
“Come on! I don’t want to be held back.”
The Giant shoved past with a grunt, and moved to keep up with Ego, while the Weedy kid just managed to maintain his pace behind me.
“Seems there won’t be any contest of wits among our group. There’s no way they have the mind-set for it.”
The weedy kid let off a slight chuckle that sounded almost like a chirping sound.
You don’t say much. Common, we better keep up with these two buffoons.
I pressed on harder and easily caught up with the other two. Surprisingly, the weedy kid was keeping easily in tow, and he didn’t even seem to have been exerting much energy into it.
We rounded the first path that stretched around the citadel. Another team, red, the fabric that was tied around their arms, was just ahead in the garden.
“Get out of my way!” Called the Ego. “You, big guy, get us a path.” The Giant grunted happily, and then with an almost unimaginable burst of speed, he charged past and through the other team, scattering them. We then, among their disorder, went past with ease. The Ego seemed more than pleased by this, and the Giant seemed equally pleased by the result.
Another team was ahead as we rounded the next corner, running in a straight line and keeping a pace that was faster than ours. Again the Giant gave forth a burst of speed and charged through the group. Three out of Four scattered, but the one in lead turned to face the Giant and with nothing but the palm of his hand, he put a stop to the carnage and launched the Giant with nothing more than wave of his hand.
The Ego charged in, and took to the advantage.
“So you want to play?” he launched a fist towards the man who dodged with seamlessly no effort, then employing the same trick, used nothing but his force to shove the Ego away. The rest of the team had recovered by then, and had taken to the defence too.
“What are you two doing!” He yelled. They want to play, get in and do something!”
I let out a sigh. This was not part of the plan.
In still a fast paced run, our groups battled forward to the finish. Punches had been exchanged, and small blasts of energy had been shot forth.
My opponent was another woman, with striking fire-red hair. She seemed able at using bursts of energy and issuing them through fast jabs of her fists. I felt each blow glance off and burn a little, even when blocked. Using bursts of energy in punches was not a talent I’d adapted, leaving me with no other offence than to shove and attempt to grab a hold and throw.
“Why are you even attacking!” She roared angrily.
“Blame my idiot self-proclaimed leader. As far as I’m aware, this is a warm-up, not a race.”
“But you didn’t answer. Why are you attacking?”
I opened my eyes wider, realising the question, then ceased the engagement and began to run alongside the woman.
“I see your point.” The Ego continued his engagement with the other team Leader, who as before moved flawlessly and deflected all blows with nothing but a wave of his hand. “I must admit. If there’s one thing this pointless engagement is showing, it’s that my group leader is as much a hot-head as expected, and that yours is as cool as ice.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, he is a mysterious one. Didn’t say much. He organised our group instantly, then in a straight line we sprinted off ahead. Well, not entirely ahead. There’s several further in front.”
I nodded towards the finish. “And many more by the looks. I think some of the other teams overtook us.”
I looked around to see how the Giant and Weedy kid faired.
The Giant was in a mid run wrestling match with an opponent half his size, but bulging with almost as much muscle. He seemed ready to collapse from the exertion of the hand-interlocked battle of strength and will.
The Weedy kid ran calmly nearby, his opponent tailing not far behind in what seemed a trance. I did not even see him fight, but for whatever he did, his opponent seemed incapable of doing anything else.
The woman next to me interrupted my thoughts. “That kid on your team… There’s something very unique about him. I’d keep an eye on that one.
The finish line drew near, and finally the last two drew back and the team split.
“Damn that bastard.” Scowled the Ego.
“He seemed to have some powerful skills at hand.”
“Trickery. He manipulated my blows with his own force. It was impossible to get near to him. But I’ll find a way.”
A Blue flag marked our meet.
* * *
We reached our flag almost as the team we’d fought with did theirs. The other teams that’d gotten ahead were lining up in their own places and preparing themselves for the instructions of the next test.
Before us stood a towering obstacle course of weaving ropes crawl spaces, walls and what appeared to be traps.
Fenix spoke out loud as the last of the groups arrived. “This is the obstacle course. The obvious goal is to circumnavigate it as quickly as possible, then when you reach the end, grab a device marked by your squads colour. Take it end of the course on the other side and without any delay, I want you to use your device to unlock your doorway to the Oblivitorium.” – There was more nervous murmuring at the mention of the Oblivitorium, a well known historic arena where centuries ago warriors and slaves fought for their life in a battle to the death – “I trust your warm-up went smoothly” He spoke in a note that hinted disapproval, surely towards my own and the other group. “You all have one hour. Go!”
We all ran off again, this time the Ego not charging instantly ahead. The Giant fell behind him as before, with me and the weedy kid in tow. I took note of the two nearest squads choosing an entrance and making their start on the tangle of obstacles. As soon as they did, a wall shot up from behind them, sealing their entrance, and their exit if they needed it.
We entered a point and were instantly thrown into combat.
Vines shot out from the sides of our narrow path, latching onto arms and legs and holding on with an unshakable grip. Several vines wrapped themselves around one of the bulky arms of the Giant and started to squeeze tightly. He shook and growled angrily at them before with one mighty swing of his entangled arm, the vines snapped off.
The Ego dodged past them, channelling his energies to move faster than the vines. When one came too close, he’d slash down with a shadowy manifestation of a blade and remove any more of vines.
I seemed to be having the most trouble. Vines latched themselves and squeezed tightly around my ankles, refusing to relinquish their grip. I focused my own energies, preparing to strike down and use whatever means necessarily to cut them off. Then without warning the vines withdrew. Behind me the weedy kid moved at a steady pace, his eye’s aglow. The vines around him cowering away from him.
“Impressive…” Was all I could utter.
“We need to cross the next barrier to be free of them.” He spoke in a almost inaudible tone.
I nodded in agreement, then, without moving too far away, evaded the vines grip. The Ego and Giant were already at the next obstacle. A large wall with a mysterious pattern of glowing glyphs upon it.
The Giant used all his might to hit it as hard as he could in an attempt to smash it down.
“Hit it harder! No wall can stand up for ever.” Ordered the Ego.
The wall stood firmly against each blow, without a single crack appearing. It was clear that no matter how much punishment was inflicted, it would never budge.
I examined it quickly. The pattern was similar to those used to strengthen the walls that surrounded the ancient fortress whenever it had been sieged many years back during an uprising. This type of mysterious energy was not impenetrable. It was meant to slow down an enemy who had even managed to reach the walls.
“We need to break the barrier.” I said.
“Well of course!” Barked the Ego. “What do you suppose we are doing?”
“No. Not the wall. The glyphs. They’re erecting a barrier that prevents the wall from taking any direct physical damage. If we combine our own energies, we can break the glyphs barrier. Then the wall will be vulnerable to direct assaults.”
The weedy kid walked up, his eyes still aglow. He touched his hand gently to the wall and breathed deep.
“I need help. This barrier is designed that the whole team must do it.”
The Ego scowled. I placed own hand to the barrier and started to focus. The Ego nodded to the Giant and in unison they did the same. Without warning the barrier began to tremble, then with a wave of energy the glyphs vanished.
The Giant gave a sinister grin, pulling back his right fist. Then with thunderous force, he smashed the wall, cracking it. Then with a quick follow through, he smashed a huge hole in the wall with his other fist.
“We’ve wasted enough time here.” Barked the Ego. “Lets go.”
He shoved through the gap, followed by the Giant who, to big still, pulled down a section of the broken wall to fit. Me and the Weedy kid followed behind. I eyed off the two ahead of me, then the other kid. He was small, and not very muscular. Yet he seemed to easily hold the most power in the group. But with him, a giant with unfathomable brute strength, and a “self-proclaimed” group leader with what seemed uncanny brutality and disregard for those in his way; they were all someone I’d have to keep my eyes on.
The test has still yet only just begun. I knew there’d be more to see later. Especially when we reached the Oblivatorium.
* * *
The remainder of the twisting winding course were almost too easy. All of us now were unleashing our best potential and were countering all the traps being set. We’d reached the top of the maze in what seemed 20 minutes, and made our way back down to the main gate within another 20. That left us with 20 more minutes to go inside and complete whatever last task lay before us.
“Open it.” Ordered Ego as the Groth pressed the light brown fragment we’d collected from before against a slot in the door.
A loud crack sounded from within the door and a burst of green energy scrolled across from the fragment and along the entire door. The rumbling sound of rock issued from behind, then with a quick jerk, the door descended down. Before us was a pure darkness similar to that at the Initiation trial.
“Pfft” Snorted Ego. “This again? They should try something new. Lets go.”
He pushed forth, with the Giant in tow. The weedy kid stood still for a moment staring into the darkness, then with a shrug he followed. I gazed for a little longer into the darkness. Something wasn’t right. But with my team already inside I couldn’t wait to suss it out, and time was fleeting.
I moved into the darkness, relying once more on keeping a calm mind and strong head to guide my path. Suddenly the darkness shot away with blinding light. My eyes stung, having not been shielded in time. I rubbed them down, trying to regain my vision. A blurry object stood in front. Tall and bulky. Was it the Giant? Or Ego?
The form shifted, then in a blink vanished entirely. My eyes continued to sting as I stumbled about in an attempt to regain my bearings. My vision slowly returning to me over time, allowing my senses to slowly take in more detail.
The room I stood was similar to the initiation. I blinked my eyes rapidly, clearing my vision faster and gazed upward to the roof. The dragon-like creature wasn’t there. Just a stone roof.
“Is this it? The same challenge as before?” I heard the Ego say and turned to face the rest of the group. “This is the same challenge!”
“We are not alone.” Spoke the weedy kid.
Sure enough, a shadowy figure lurched forward from the wall opposite from us. It’s entirely body seemed to be a wisp of smoke, with fiery, glowing red eyes.
The Giant cracked his knuckles. “Pathetic illusion. I’ll crush you!”
He charged forward, the Ego laughing manically as he did. He brought his large fist up cupped together, ready to swing down with monstrous force. But the creature simply stood there. Then his fist came down upon it and for what seemed a successful blow, the creature was crushed and vanished into the floor.
This couldn’t be right. Suddenly the Giant convulsed and he fell to his knees. A moment later Ego fell down as well. Then the weedy kid and finally myself succumbed to the same problem. I breathed heavily, gasping as my mind grew numb and body cold.
What is going on? Calm yourself. Work it out. I felt something leaving me. Something cold and sinister. I look down at my feet. A dark form shuddered below me, extending from my body. Is that my shadow? It extended out, then with a crack and pulse of searing pain, it leaped from my body.
Three more grunts of pain echoed through the room as the exact same thing happened to the rest. What is this? A shadowy form loomed up, standing tall in front of me. It shifted in and out, then settled on a single form. Is that… They intend us to fight ourselves?
My shadow-duplicate crack its neck then withdrew a sword and went instantly onto the attack. I leaped out of the way just in time, unsheathing my own weapon and engaging the shadowy fiend.
I snapped a quick glance around the room, taking in the situation. The others were all in the same situation. The Ego was in a mixed melee of sword duelling and kick boxing. The Giant was in a desperate power struggle against his own, and both the weedy kids seemed to be standing almost idle, their gazes locked in an endless duel of sheer will.
My shadow form continued to lunge at me. Matching each of my moves just as I could for it. Each parry, every block, dodge, lash and swing was matched by the perfect mirror of myself.
I chanced another glance around the room to see how the others fared, and as before, they were all engaged in a deadlock. There had to be a way around this. Some trick to this test that would let us prove victorious. I had to pass this and be accepted. I’d come too far, worked for so long, gone through so much to fail now and be kicked out of the Order.
But how to defeat myself?
Then it dawned on me. This duplicate mirrored me, but not anyone else. So either I had to start acting like another, or someone would need to fight me for me.
“Hey, Kid!” I called out. “Snap out of it, and on three we switch opponents. You two, do the same! It’s the only way we can do this.”
There was silent acknowledgment, and a faint whisper of “yes” in my head I assumed was from the weedy kid.
“One. Two. THREE!”
We switched rapidly, myself barely dodging a swift strike from my clone. I tucked and rolled out, bringing my sword to bare on the kid’s duplicate. I felt a searing pain hit me as it turned to defend itself against its new aggressor. A strong weight came down upon me, overwhelming my senses, causing my mind to go numb and feel as if in any moment my head would inflate and explode.
I brought my blade up, slashing through the shadow. A barrier engulfed my blade and a strike of heated energy lashed along its length, striking me with ferocious force. I gritted my teeth through the pain, focusing all my energy into a single fatal strike.
A pulse of energy seared through me, but this one heading out, coursing its way into my blade and into the fiend. I felt it scream, not out loud, but in my head. A wailing pain that sought to burst my ears and destroy my mind.
Reality seemed to slip from my grasp. My body began to go numb as my vision blurred. Then without warning the screaming and heat stopped, and with a return of velocity my blade slashed through thin air. My vision returned in time to see a wisp of dark smoke lift and vanish.
A scream issued from across the room. A high pitched and inhuman sound that could only mean another duplicate had been destroyed. Sure enough as I scanned the room, the weedy kid had managed to overwhelm my own double. It’s shadowy blade on inches from his head. It fell to its knees gripping at its throat and clawing at the kids legs. Then the weedy kid withdrew a short blade out of the air around him, and brought it down through its throat. With a large puff of dark smoky haze, the creature evaporated like the last, and the kid fell to his own knees, gasping.
Across the room the other two were still in their deadlock. The real Ego fought hard against the Shadow-Giant. He was more agile and capable of dodging his blows, but his large muscular body withstood whenever a blow was issued.
Meanwhile, the real Giant struggled in a power struggle. He had the Shadow-Ego in his fists and was using his mass to crush him. The shadow buckled and slashed as much as possible from its restrained arms and cut shallow wounds in the beast. Finally there was a loud snap, and the creature wailed in pain and vanished in a puff of smoke.
The Ego was the last left fighting. He seemed more annoyed that he was the last one than he was annoyed at the giant hulk that withstood all his assaults.
He growled angrily, “This is over!”
With all his concentrated might, his sword became a deadly glowing great-sword, which with a strong overhead slash was brought down with uncanny speed. The Shadow-Giant tried to block the attack with his arms but wailed in agony as the weapon slashed through his defences and continued its path through his own body.
Finally it vanished as well as the weapon cut it in twain.
The Ego quickly regained himself, returning his weapon to normal and sheathing it.
“Easy.” He huffed, but it was clear enough that he was just trying to pretend he wasn’t trying before.
The room we were in shifted and began to collapse around us. We grouped back together, prepared again to fight whatever was next.
“Common!” Roared Ego. “I’ll take whatever you send!”
The room collapsed in a flash, blinding us all. When our vision regained, we stood in a new chamber well lit by overhead chandlers, walls decorated by large blue and white drapes with the white sword and tower of the Order.
Not far from us stood another group with green bandages wrapped around their arms.
“So. They beat us this time.” Growled Ego. “Heh. They probably had it easy.”
Their squad leader stood, arms folded and eyes shut in a trance-like state. His team-mates stood idle, looking about the room and chatting among themselves. The woman I’d duelled with glanced at me, locking eyes for a moment, then went back to talking with a team-mate.
For a short moment, the world around rippled, and out of thin air another group appeared. One of them wore a yellow headband. Two of them seemed pale and worn from their experience. The other, with brown hair turned around examining the sudden new environment. She smiled happily when she saw me and ran over.
“Alex, you made it too!” She called. I moved closer, unable to hide my own smile, and like two young girls at play, jumped about in excitement, but we quickly composed ourselves knowing we needed a professional look.
“I’m glad you made it. I hadn’t seen you since the start of the test.”
“Heh. It was easy.” She spoke triumphantly.
I raised an eyebrow, “Oh really? So you had no trouble working out how to fight shadow clones of yourself?”
She stifled her laughter. “So you had the same as well? Alright, so we had a little bit of trouble.”
The room rippled again and not far off a new group appeared. One of them slumped to the ground, a team member using all her effort to keep him from falling right over.
“We certainly didn’t have that much trouble. Seems they were hit hard.” Adrianna poked my arm, causing me to sneer a bit. “Seems you took an injury too.”
I looked down at my right arm. The fabric had been torn and some charred blood poked through. I’d not noticed it until now, and as soon as I’d seen it, a slight heat pulsed from it.
“It must’ve been that pulse of energy.” Adrianna gave a questioning look. “We switched opponents in order to win. Mine got me with a strong surge of energy as I struck it. It’ll heal up fine.”
“Do you know how much time is left? I lost track. I think there’s only a few more minutes before the trial is over.”
I peered around the room. Over near a pedestal was an hour glass. It’s sand had almost fully drained away.
“I think you’re right about the few minutes. Not many teams have made it back. I think there’s half of us now.”
“Guess many just weren’t up to the challenge.”
There was another ripple and a another group appeared on the opposite side of the room near the Blue team. Then a loud gong rang through the chamber and a voice called out.
“Congratulations, recruits. You have all passed the final trial.” Fenix stood tall next to the pedestal, looking out over the five groups that had made the trial. “All of you have proved that you have what it takes now to operate as a team and solve problems both during passive and aggressive situations, and though some of you still need to work on your tactics and teamwork,” Then he gazed right at my team and the one we’d fought with earlier. “and some need to follow instructions better, you all have what it takes. Now the mess hall is open and ready and a light meal is awaiting for you to have before we continue on with our day. I’ll meet you all there in an hour to brief you on what will be your duties for the rest of the day.”
He placed right fist over his heart in a symbolic salute, and the room followed suit.
“Dismissed.” We all began to walk off, and just as before he added one more thing before departing. “One more thing. The team you worked with is now your permanent squad when being sent out in units. So get to know each other well.”