The next test involved training dummies, which made Hadjar feel nostalgic. The dummies were positioned on the edges of a trampled, winding path. Each of the dummies was armed with a knife and red paint had been applied to the edge of each blade.
“Your task is to get through the entire course without getting hit more than twice,” the officer announced. “The knives have been blunted, but if the blow is strong enough, you’ll still get badly injured, which will have to be sewn up. Those of you who aren’t confident in your abilities better leave at once. What you’ve shown in the last test is enough to get you into the army as an ordinary warrior. You’ll be able to repeat this exam next year if you’re nineteen years old or less.”
The officer made sure everyone had time to think about the situation, but no one gave up. Those who’d reached the stage of the Bodily Rivers already saw themselves as future cultivators. And it was very difficult to become a cultivator without proper dedication and motivation. In fact, it was almost impossible.
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That meant all of the people trying out had enough willpower to not be tempted by a bird in the hand.
“Well then, go ahead. This time we’ll start from the back of the line.”
The officer pointed at Hadjar. He stood up, a little disappointed that he wouldn’t be going last this time. He hadn’t had much time to rest.
Hadjar dusted his clothes off and walked over to the obstacle course. While standing next to the course, the officers made several gestures with their hands. A dull, gray glow covered their palms and the dummies sprang into action.
They spun at different heights. Some dummies aimed at the knees, others at the ankles, but the majority was targeting the chest and neck. Sometimes, they changed their speed or the direction of their movements. The mechanical bodies also went up and down in an effort to confuse the person running the course.
Hadjar sighed and closed his eyes.
He could use the neural network. If he asked for a hint, it would instantly determine the best route to take. The neural network would display the pattern and Hadjar would simply need to follow the proposed hologram.
But it wouldn’t be his, Hadjar’s, own skill.
He could have used the help of his neural network, as he’d done more than once during his training. But this time, he wanted to test himself. He didn’t care about joining the army. Instead, he wished to see what months of training in the village had done for his skills and to test his new body.
Opening his eyes, Hadjar went forward.
What the audience saw had no logical explanation. Even the senior officer forgot about his glass of cold, diluted wine, and watched the examinee with a slightly open mouth.
What could they have expected from a person trying to pass this test? Well, if the first dummy didn’t “hurt” the person, they were supposed to get through by jumping, dodging and falling down comically, all the while twitching like a crazy person. The audience clearly hadn’t expected to see what they were witnessing right now.
Hadjar was walking along as calmly as if he were wandering along the lakeshore on a fine day. His long hair was fluttering in the wind and his loose, ragged clothes were buffeted by it.
The movement of his legs was the only thing that attracted the attention of the people watching the testing process. Hadjar’s feet were not ‘walking,’ but ‘floating’ on the sand, leaving barely visible footprints behind.
“The Measured Footsteps Technique,” the highest-ranking officer whispered in amazement.
He’d mastered it only a year ago and it was one of the reasons why he’d been able to move up the career ladder. ‘The Measured Footsteps Technique’ was nothing complicated: it was the simple ability to move without any unnecessary movements, as silly as that may sound.
In fact, to master this technique at a level before the Transformation stage, a practitioner needed to be very talented. Not at cultivation, but at the very essence of martial arts-battle.
By all outward appearances, Hadjar was calm, but inside, he was almost groaning with the unbearable effort needed to maintain his concentration. Using all his senses, he monitored every movement within a radius of about three feet. Hadjar would foresee the attacks of the dummies and then take the single step he needed to avoid everything coming at him.
This test was like playing chess against hundreds of people at once.
That was what ‘The Measured Footsteps Technique’ actually meant. It wasn’t just moving correctly (although that was a fundamental part of it), but the ability to react and think quickly. A focused and clear Mind was the main weapon of a martial artist.
After five minutes of slow walking, Hadjar stepped out at the other side of the obstacle course. He examined himself and found only one red mark at the level of his ankle.
His initial use of ‘The Measured Footsteps Technique’ had not been perfect. Hadjar’s mind wasn’t in full sync with his body and that was the reason why the dummies had been able to hurt him.
If the Master had gone through that course, the dummies’ knives wouldn’t have even come close to his body.
“You’ve passed the test,” the officer who’d explained everything earlier came to his senses and wrote something down in his scroll again.
Hadjar sat back down. His legs and arms trembled slightly, so he closed his eyes and began to breathe evenly, absorbing the energy of the world. It wasn’t just suitable for cultivation, but for recovery as well. Some even said that true adepts didn’t need to eat or drink for years on end-they used only the energy of the world to sustain themselves.
Hadjar didn’t really believe it.
Judging by the sounds, as well as the awkward attempts to ask for a second chance, a lot of the applicants hadn’t completed the task.
As a result, when Hadjar opened his eyes, he saw that only half the people remained after the second round of testing. They were all smeared with red paint. Only one short, thin boy had been left unpainted by the dummies.
The proverb was correct—there’s always someone better. Hadjar was eager to compete, relishing the challenge, and he was glad to see someone could provide him with a goal to strive toward.
“The next stage will be the last one,” the officer announced, while ordinary soldiers were taking the dummies away and cleaning up the parade ground.
They created some sort of arena in the sand and set up some stands with a variety of weapons along the perimeter of it. These weapons were much better than the one Hadjar had used for the last month, but much worse than the ones the Master had owned.
However, comparing the Royal Palace and a mobile army camp didn’t make any sense.
“We will pair you up for sparring. You’ll fight until first blood or until one of you gives up. But remember that victory is not the main goal. Your task is to demonstrate all of your skills. There are twenty people left, and we’ll choose only five of the winners to become officers. So, even if you manage to defeat your enemy, but you do it simply and without showing any real skill, you can feel free to go and sign up as a private.”
The examinees looked at each other. All of them were clearly ready to fight, determined to give it their all.
“The first pair…”
“The General!” the senior officer exclaimed as he fell to one knee.
He put his fist against his breastplate and bowed his head along with the other officers.
The examinees gave a low bow, bending forward almost a full ninety degrees.
Hair fell over Hadjar’s face as he hunched over. It hid his spiteful gaze.
He saw a fragile looking blonde woman. Her hair was in a tight, thick braid and she was walking beside two tall officers who were clad in heavy armor. Dressed in simple clothes, she only wore half-armor. Apparently, she’d taken off her neck guard, but had kept the gloves and a ‘lower corset’, which was like a metal skirt that reached up to the hips.
Women being in the army was completely normal, so female armor had been invented long ago.
The General wore a funny metal crown with three leaf-shaped spikes. The central spike covered her slightly snub nose, and the other two framed the sides of her beautiful, oval face.
The General was beautiful enough to break even a cold, withered heart. And, apparently, despite her seeming fragility, she was amazingly powerful. In her right hand, she held a siege spear that was almost twice her height.
But the beautiful woman in armor and with a General’s seal hadn’t been the one to draw Hadjar’s attention.
The man swaggering next to her, smirking confidently, was who Hadjar focused on. A man whose face he would never forget.
He was the one who’d burned the ‘Innocent Meadow’ down. The one who’d killed Eina, Senta, and everyone else that Hadjar had lived with for the last five years.
The son of a local chief General.
“You can’t run away this time,” Hadjar growled faintly, dropping his gaze.
A half-mad smile was on his face as flames surged up from within the dragon heart.