Chapter 81 – Bull-Wind Forest (Part 1)
The days passed in succession, each much the same as the one before. Everyone would walk and try to maintain pace. Even though it sounded simple… Even walking at a slow and moderate pace wouldn’t be so simple if having to do it for 10 hours a day and then repeating it the next day and the day after. Everyone had been excited an anxious the first few days, but as the days passed instead of growing less anxious everyone only grew more wary.
Everyone of these participants understood one thing which was evident in the guardsmen’s palpable anxiety. The more time that passed without incident, the more likely the odds increased of them coming into contact with monsters or other creatures that would want their lives. Everyday less and less conversations could be overheard, everyone mainly walked in silence trying to maintain their energy. Only those who practiced their endurance everyday still had the energy to complain or carry conversations with their friends or the ones who would at least listen.
It had already been 5 days since their departure and they were now closing in on the forest. They could clearly see it. It seemed like they would reach it after only one more day.
Some of the candidates were growing restless. They wanted to get there as soon as possible to test themselves and prove their worth and begin their future. For every candidate that had this mentality there were just as many if not more who became more and more wary. Now that the Bull-Wind Forest was within their view each step closer felt like walking one step closer to their own graves. Except now there was no turning back. They had come this far, had already left behind a few and their fates were sealed.
They could enter and fight for a chance to enter the most prestigious academy in their city and change their futures by risking their lives or they could stay outside the forest and still risk their lives but for zero rewards. The choice was evident and yet it didn’t change or dissipate their lingering doubts.
Leo and Marcos had been faring well. They’d focused their efforts on learning how to wield weapons. Their strength was a practical one, meant to kill and defend and not premised on knowledge. Knowledge being the necessity and driving force behind those who sought to use mana and the elements to wield a form of power greater than their own but weakened into something they could control.
At this point most people had grouped off, if they didn’t have friends before the exam then during this long trip they made friends. Very few people were being competitive to the point of viewing everyone around them as competition waiting to be slaughtered, after all everyone was well aware that regardless of what happened from the moment they left the city and continued forward. No one was going to be safe on this trip. A few of them would definitely die during this exam, as there were always fatalities on during the practical examination of the academy. This was a foregone conclusion, so most people were trying to pair up or make friends.. People they could rely on in order to increase their odds of not only passing the exam but simply surviving it as well.
During the day everyone would grumble and complain about the heat. Instead of being content that they didn’t have to face a biting cold, these kids complained about the weather itself. A lot of them were still warriors or raised as such and carried weapons on them. The heavy ones taking a huge toll on the ones who didn’t have the strength or endurance to walk this far with a heavy weapon on their back. Moreover since they were warriors, many of them had leather on instead of fine linens were only exacerbated the heat making it a very sweaty and uncomfortable journey…
The 5th day had finally ended as the guardsmen and proctors informed the students that they would be stopping for the evening as the sun was setting. Most of the participates sighed in relief. Exhausted from the day, more over no one wanted to enter the forest exhausted and at night, or camp out right in front of it if they didn’t have too. They were more than glad to stop for the night and get one final good night of rest before walking the final leg before reaching the forest.
A lot of the proctors were paying attention to the participants at this point. They hadn’t paid attention to anyone up until now because there was no point. There was no telling who would be so cowardly to stop and turn back up until now. No telling who would be so weak as to not be able to make the walk to the forest or would have the battle capacity to fight and survive. Except they had unexpectedly made it this far, five entire days with absolutely no problem. There had not been one single attack on their lives from anything this far. Any experienced guardsmen who had been out more than a few times knew that there was no safety anywhere in this world anymore. They knew that getting attacked was an eventuality not a possibility. Danger lurked everywhere, it was only a question of more or less danger. Therefore not being attacked once, had put them on edge. They were now ready, because they knew that the longer they went without an incident raised the odds of one occurring.
Due to this, they were now eyeing the participates (albeit without much concern) any of them who looked particularly wound up would be noticed by them. The students who looked relaxed and carefree were idiots in their eyes. The students who looked fearful and hesitant were cowards to them. Only those who looked wary and and on guard were taken notice of. If anyone looked interesting, these would be the ones that may get special attention once the exam begun.
Unaware of all of this, Leo and Marcos were talking while keeping an eye on the others. They were being very wary of their surroundings because they were discussing the book Marcos had found. During the past few nights they would take the time to read the book together and discuss possible strategies. They discussed how best to survive in a numerous amount of settings. They wanted to increase their survivability as much as possible without letting others know what they had in hand.
One of the teachers of the academy was making a visual sweep of the participants and noticed two students. Sitting alone together looking somber and speaking in whispers. They looked serious and focused and very aware of their surroundings. Noting this, she made a mental note of it and decided to add these two students to her group for the exam. She received preferential treatment and got to choose which students were graded by her. All of the professors of the academy did (as opposed to the guardsmen). While their final opinions were valued (as they had to keep watch of participants with no one around) most of the time, the majority of the students that were accepted were those who had been under the vigilance of the professors that came along.
Professor Lydia made note of these two and carried on. She had a very cruel system in place for how she determined who would be in her groupings. She chose two types of people. Those she thought could be strong and worthy of her time, and able enough to pass… And those she thought were weak and cowardly and slated to die in a battle of life and death. She used the deaths of the weak to temper the strong ones. If the strong ones couldn’t handle the death of others their age in their midsts, then they weren’t worth raising. Only the physically and emotionally strong were worthy of her notice.
She had already examined 3 groups in her 15 years at the academy. Although she was 30, she looked like she was 19. She focused on water magic and had the ability to use mana to rejuvenate her appearance. Although it didn’t particularly keep her from aging, she could at least with her current knowledge prolong her youthful appearance. It was one of the main reasons she had been drawn to practicing magic. She wanted to utilize whatever element it took to herself young forever. Her goal was to become immortal and forever youthful!
Meanwhile while talking in whispers Damien had noticed Marcos and Leo and had begun to mock them with his group of friends.
Damien had an entitled personality. Everyone is his family was strong and while they had coddled him towards his desires they had raised him to be strong. He had the entitled belief that whatever he desired was his and whatever he wanted he could take, because he could he would!
He’d noticed Leo and Marcos two days ago and had slowly grown annoyed by their closeness, he also felt like they seemed familiar. They always talked in whispers and didn’t socialize with anyone else. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they seemed like close friends, but something about them deeply annoyed him even though he couldn’t figure it out. He’d had swarms of people who’d come up to him and asked to be friends and join him during the exam. His family was well known, the Knight family. They had once been knights in the times before, the times of classes. Now they still used it as their symbol and their last name. It was their heritage.
Damien Knight had been well known by others. He’d received accolades for helping to defend the city in the previous horde attack. Unlike others his age he didn’t mind monsters. He didn’t care about taking the lives of the ugly or the weak. In his mind they were meant to die, especially if it could make him stronger.
With such a well known reputation, it was only logical that so many people had sought him out to befriend him. Even so, he knew. He knew that none of these people were genuine. They all just wanted something from him. Whether it was his protection, his name, his good luck or strength, they were all trying to use him and it made him sick to his stomach. None the less he kept a group of lackeys he deemed worthy of being moderately useful. He’d chosen a few while thinking “These’ll be good meat sacks to stave off weak monsters or food for the stronger ones just in case…”
Tonight when he noticed Marcos and Leo being secretive yet again he finally realized why he’d felt he knew them before. Marcos’s dad was one of the guards posted outside his family home (mansion really…) to keep the riffraff out. He’d seen Marcos from time to outside the mansion and had felt a deep disdain for him. Even though Damien had power and prestige, a family name that everyone envied and whatever he wanted. This boy had had more freedom than himself.
Clenching his teeth it annoyed him that someone else had something he wanted but couldn’t have. A twisted smile spread across his face as he decided to put this boy down in his place.