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As she double-checked the documents, Maria Anasta sighed, placing the papers on her desk before taking a long, hard look at the man in front of her. Something about his appearance felt off. It wasn’t his tanned skin, nor his short stature, but rather the peculiar way his facial hair he possessed grew. It was trimmed as if it was just for show. It didn’t leave any impression that it could be used for an ability of sorts. However, she couldn’t be sure due to the spiralling pattern his beard made around the cheekbones.
‘Gin Julius Gale,’ she addressed the man. ‘In all the eighty years that I’ve been the colonel of squadron W, I have never seen an application as empty as this. Did you make a mistake somewhere?’
The man leaned closer. He inspected the very documents he gave to Maria in the first place, rolling his eyes as he did so. He assessed his application again then leaned back in his chair, satisfied with what he had written on the pieces of paper. The silence that ensued prompted Maria to clarify.
‘All you put down is your name and age,’ she said.
‘That is correct,’ he confirmed without a hint of hesitation.
‘So, your magi classification?’
‘Technically doesn’t apply to me.’
‘Your magi rank?’
‘Don’t have one.’
‘Location of breeding.’
‘Applicable if I was bred.’
‘Right,’ Maria concluded as she sifted through the application form once more. ‘I get the feeling asking about the other questions would be pointless too.’
‘But that doesn’t matter in the end, right?’ Gin spoke out. ‘I was told squadron W was the only one that accepted people through a test, rather than their application.’
‘That is true. With this sort of application, we’re the only one you could go to. Which division did you want to apply to anyway? Your test will depend on that.’
‘Offence,’ Gin said, again without hesitation.
‘Is that so?’ Maria replied, eyebrow raised before speaking again. ‘You wrote down that your Date of Breeding is twenty-third March, forty-nine-hundred-and-thirty-nine. That means you’re only twenty-nine. You shouldn’t be any more than a child going through puberty. Are you sure you want to be on the frontlines?’
Gin got up with the colonel following suit. She walked around the desk and inspected the mysterious applicant once more. She noted that she stood a few inches over him, forcing Gin to look up, his expression as calm as ever.
‘Here I thought that I was short,’ Maria commented. ‘Then again, you said you’re twenty-nine. You’re still a child. You’ve got several decades to grow.’
‘I’m a fully-grown man, I’ll have you know. I won’t grow beyond my current six-feet-ten. So, about this test…’
Maria led Gin out of her office, through several wooden corridors, carved out of the Rezah tree the whole of Squadron W lived in. The bark of the Rezah allowed for torches to be lined up on the sides without catching fire. They flickered, illuminating the path to the testing room. A few of them had run out of fuel but it wasn’t too problematic, as the fire elementals would get around replacing it.
‘Look,’ Maria said at last, breaking the silence. ‘I still don’t want to involve a child. Do you know what the test is?’
‘Yes. Just survive a one v one for a designated time period. Should be simple enough,’ he answered, again with an air of confident arrogance.
Maria rolled her eyes at his brashness. She didn’t like the tone he was using and decided to change her original plans.
‘On second thought,’ Maria pointed out. ‘This way.’
‘What? Don’t know your way around your own home?’ Gin scoffed.
‘No. I just realised we got a special invigilator today. With our standard test, your chances of success are around seventy percent but I thought someone of your calibre would enjoy a challenge instead.’
‘It’s fine with me, I guess. Shouldn’t be that hard.’
‘You have that much confidence? How do you plan to fight? You have no claws and you lack bulk or any other significant physical trait. Don’t tell me you’re a poison elemental type.’
‘Let’s just say my technique is a bit unorthodox compared to you mages.’
‘Does it have anything to do with what’s on your belt?’ Maria said, indicating to the cuboid-shaped objects on Gin’s belts, a different coloured hue on each of them.
‘You’ll see,’ Gin assured her.
They entered a room that was split into two. A thin, see-through film separated the two sides. They were built the same way, with dirt flooring and tree bark walls, but differed in cleanliness. Bar the dust and branches merging from the ground, nothing noteworthy existed on the side Maria led Gin into. On the other hand, the opposing side was stained red, green, and brown. The stains were dry. At least most of them were.
‘Looks like there’s another test before us,’ Maria whispered. ‘You’re quite fortunate, too. You get to see your opponent in action.’
Three people entered the other side: two men and a woman. Of the three, Maria noticed Gin’s gaze was fixated on his future opponent, the only person that looked more like a beast than a human. A ten-foot behemoth, wearing nothing but loose shorts. Brown hair sprouted out of every single part of his body. His nose looked more like a snout, elongated and rounded off with canine-like nostrils at the end. His eyes were fierce; one that showed experience in both killing and being on the brink of death. His legs were packed with muscle and, combined with their bent posture, were ready to pounce at any moment. On the top of this beast’s head were dark black horns, a few centimetres in height. Three thousand years ago, he would have been called Lucifer; El Chupacabra; Evil incarnate; Satan. However, he was none of them, but rather a creation of mankind. He was a human being.
‘Um, Colonel?’ Gin asked, a hint of fear in his voice.
‘Yes, child?’ Maria answered.
‘Just how low is the success rate against that beast?’
‘I see you have your eyes on Varunel,’ Maria commented, giving the Gin a wry smile. ‘He’s one of the MBP’s finest creations. He’s been in Eurasia’s service for nearly a hundred-and-forty years. Let’s just say your chances have dropped significantly.’
‘The Mage Breeding Programme, huh.’ Gin replied in an inquisitive tone to mask his true emotions. ‘They really do breed monsters there, don’t they?’
‘You have good taste, child.’
‘I’m actually fascinated by all three. I can’t tell if the other man will take the test though.’
Gin referred to the one clad in heavy, brown armour, even covering his mouth, that made him bulkier than he really was. He was chatting with the other two. The others nodded at whatever he was saying. Then, once done, he looked through the film and gave Maria a thumbs-up.
‘No, he’ll be invigilating the fight,’ Maria cleared up.
The man left the room, only to return to Maria’s side. Maria nodded to the man. She watched the duel that was about to ensue while keeping Gin in her peripheral vision. He was attentive as well, leading to Maria changing her thought that he wasn’t as reckless as he first appeared.
The man told Maria and Gin to step back. He then reached to his side where several twigs stuck to his armour. Each of them had red marks engraved on them. Despite the varying lengths of the twigs, the intervals the marks appeared were uniform. He picked out one of the small ones with five markings.
‘Like I said, you have five minutes to survive, Whyte. Varunel, you have the same time to kill her. Is that clear?’ he addressed the two, getting a nod from both of them. ‘Once I light this, the test will begin. Once it is completely burnt up, the test is over.’
He walked over to a torch and pressed one end of the twig into the flames. The twig caught fire. The test had begun.
The woman’s dark skin began to glisten. The liquid that formed rolled down onto the palms of her hands. It collected into a globule. Her middle finger and thumb coupled together. She clicked her fingers. The rough grooves on them rubbed together, creating a spark that fell on the globules, lighting her hands into a fiery blaze.
Varunel was unfazed. On the contrary, he was inviting Whyte on. His arms were relaxed, both hanging by his sides. His face contained the widest grin. He kept himself wide open for an attack.
Whyte didn’t hesitate to take the initiative. She hurled the ball of fire. Her aim was perfect, hitting Varunel directly on his torso. Whyte smiled, as the fire began to spread, but it didn’t last long. The fire fizzled out on Varunel’s fur until it was snuffed out without a trace. Whyte’s face turned into one of horror as she knew what it meant.
In desperation, Whyte smothered her hands with more of the oily substance. However, Maria noticed the liquid had a different texture. It burned but, instead of the orange flames from before, it turned into thick, black smoke that impaired everyone’s vision of the fight.
A sharp shriek filled the room.
‘How long did I take?’ a gruff voice called out.
‘Done already?’ Maria replied.
‘Not your best time, but forty-seven seconds.’
The smoke cleared via shafts in the ceiling. As they did, a conjoined figure formed. In the middle of the room stood Whyte; her ribs broken, lungs bleeding out, mouth agape, unable to make a single sound; her heart destroyed and Varunel’s fist in its place.
‘Whyte has failed the test!’ the man in armour announced, as he put out the fire on the twig.
Varunel let go of Whyte. Her lifeless body made a thud as it hit the floor. By her leg, Varunel dragged her out of the room, smearing the pool of blood she left behind.
‘You’re next, child,’ Maria said. ‘You’ve got thirty minutes, while the room is cleaned up. Please take your time preparing. After all, you might share the same fate as the girl.’
Gin didn’t respond. His thumb was propped under his upper teeth. He was mumbling something under his breath. Maria could see he was deep in thought. She listened to what he was saying, trying to understand his thought process.
‘-which means that the technique she used was a ‘fireball’. It’s a common technique for fire elementals, so I shouldn’t be surprised she could use it. But why didn’t it work on Varunel? Hmm. Does Varunel’s fur have fire-resistant properties? No wonder she looked distraught after her failed attack. He literally is the worst matchup for those types of mages. But why didn’t he finish her off earlier? What if – Yes, If that’s the case, then maybe I can-’
‘Gin!’ Maria called out, causing Gin to jump. She had enough of listening to his ramblings.
‘Time is up. Go to the other side. We’re about to begin.’
‘What?!’ Gin exclaimed. ‘You said I had thirty minutes. It’s barely been five!’
‘I lied. Please proceed to the testing room.’
Gin’s eyes widened. Maria knew that look he gave her. It was one of minimal battle experience. The look one had when they knew they were facing their death. It’s what you deserve, Maria thought. She had no tolerance for those who act mighty, only to falter when faced with danger.
‘Give me a minute more. I need more time to prepare,’ Gin pleaded.
‘When faced with someone much stronger, it is natural to feel afraid, to panic and to begin to beg. It’s only human nature. I understand your sentiments, child, I really do. However, imagine you were allied with Whyte and a mage, on the power level of Varunel, attacks you. Given that she tells you she’s going to stall, only to last for not even a minute, do you think the enemy will wait thirty minutes for you to prepare? I will repeat again. Your time is up. Please proceed to the testing room.’
‘Guess there’s nothing I can do to change your mind then,’ Gin said with a shrug as he walked into the room with a swagger in his stride.
‘Was your begging an act?’ Maria asked, taken aback by his response.
‘Who knows? I’ve come up with a plan anyway.’
Gin entered the testing room. Varunel joined him soon after. The bloodstain remained wet, but Maria’s main focus wasn’t on that. She watched Gin take off two of the cuboid-shaped objects he had on his belt – one red, one green – and wrapped his hands around them, one in each hand. His fingers entered holes in the cuboids.
At first, Maria thought they were just for grip, but then his index fingers moved further into the chambers. From the red cuboid erupted a thin, yet long, blade that was pointed at the end. From the green one emerged a circular plate that Gin held up in front of his chest.
‘Is this the ‘unorthodox technique’ you were talking about before?’ Maria questioned.
‘Yep. Custom made by me.’
‘AHAHA,’ Varunel guffawed.
‘What’s so funny?’ Gin queried. ‘Something wrong with my sword and shield?’
‘You’re that weak that you rely on these objects? You’re worse than the Afro-Australian Alliance!’
‘Varunel!’ Maria snapped. ‘We don’t have time for idle banter. Let’s begin this test.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Varunel obeyed.
‘Are you both ready?’ Maria asked, with Gin and Varunel both affirming.
Another twig with five marks was lit up. The test had begun.
Gin stepped closer towards Varunel, staying cautious. Their difference in size was apparent. Even with his hind legs bent, Varunel towered at least a metre over his opponent. But instead of making the first move, he kept himself open for an attack.
The invitation wasn’t taken though. Gin continued to tease an attack, only to withdraw.
The one-minute mark had been reached. Neither side made a move in this strange dance. As the time went on, Varunel grew agitated. He growled, causing Gin to stop. A temporary truce was made.
‘You do realise I am deliberately letting you get a direct attack on me, which is why I haven’t killed you yet,’ Varunel grunted. ‘But you’re wasting too much time now. Attack me before the two-minute mark or I’ll end it.’
Gin paused for a moment, looking at the twig that was burning. He kept a watch on it, biding his time until it hit the second mark. Right before the flames reached that point, Gin charged.
He struck out with his sword, aiming for Varunel’s heart. Varunel stuck true to his words and allowed the direct attack. The sword connected, piercing through his skin.
The sword stopped moving. Gin couldn’t go farther.
Varunel looked at his opponent in the eyes. His grin showed an array of sharpened teeth as if the bleeding around his chest was irrelevant. His muscles tensed around the blade, nullifying any further threat from Gin’s attack. He didn’t act, allowing Gin to struggle.
But Gin wasn’t done yet. He pressed his middle finger through the second chamber of his sword, then into the third. The metal began to glisten then ignited into flames. The fire burned Varunel’s insides, causing him to howl in pain. He had enough.
Varunel sent a right hook at Gin. Gin raised his shield in response but it didn’t help. He flew through the air, crashing into the wall behind him. His arm dislocated. He was winded. His legs refused to get up. He switched the shield to his working arm and raised it above him, pressing into the second chamber.
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In his rage, Varunel broke the blade in two. A piece of metal remained in his body, but the flames stopped. He chucked the other half to the side. He took deep forceful breaths as he took out the blade that remained. The wound began to close and Varunel’s focus was on Gin once more. But his opponent had already made his move.
A metallic dome surrounded the area where Gin lay. Varunel hurled a fist at the dome but all that did was make a clank upon impact.
With two minutes left, he didn’t have time to mess about. Fist after fist, punch after punch, he battered the dome. His knuckles bled from the constant flurry of attacks that was deflected. Each attack dented the dome but it wasn’t enough.
‘You’ve got one minute left, Varunel,’ Maria warned.
The dent in the dome got larger. Varunel was getting through. Time was burning down. The constant clanking spurred him to go faster. Each dent made him hit harder.
Then he got his breakthrough.
Varunel punched through the dome. He tore off the sides of the hole he created. He still had time.
He didn’t hesitate to pick out the prize inside, lifting Gin out of the dome. With his free hand, he smashed through Gin’s chest, crushing his heart.
The test was over.
‘Finally!’ Varunel gave a triumphant roar, dropping Gin’s body onto the floor and turning towards Maria. ‘That was more annoying than challenging.’
‘His tactic was to waste time and hide in a corner all this time,’ Maria commented. ‘And here I thought he was going to show off his fighting prowess. Turned out he had none!’
‘It almost worked in the end though.’
‘So did I pass?’ a familiar voice said.
‘What?!’ Varunel exclaimed, turning around to see Gin, lying in his own blood with a smile. ‘How are you alive?!’
‘Did you know that the human body can still function for a few minutes, even after the heart stops working?’ Gin replied before continuing, ‘It takes quite a lot of willpower, but one can even stay conscious for a bit as well. The task was to survive for five minutes and I managed to do that, so do I pass the test or not? Don’t worry, I will still survive. Probably. Maybe. I hope.’
Maria began laughing. What a peculiar person. She wouldn’t mind having him in her squadron and technically he did pass the test, albeit without a heart (though she didn’t know how he was going to survive).
‘Yes, child, you pass. Welcome to squadron W.’
Gin chuckled to himself. ‘Good,’ he said with his final breath before losing consciousness.
‘You’re dismissed too, Varunel. Oh, and leave Gin’s body behind. I’ll go get someone else to tend to him. If he lives, that is.’
‘Tsk. Fine,’ Varunel obeyed with reluctance.
‘Maria,’ the armoured man whispered. ‘Mind if I take him under my wing?’
‘What?’ Maria scoffed. ‘You really believe he’s going to survive without a heart?’
‘Not really, but just in case.’
‘He does use the same unusual fighting style as you. Alright. Permission granted.’
‘Thank you. I’ll be taking my leave then,’ the man said before allowing Maria to be by herself.
She scratched her head. Now for the troublesome part: Explaining to the higher-ups how she had admitted an unknown person into her squadron.