“Crying won’t work! Shouldn’t you be used to water by now, Sylv?”
“Kyuuuuu…” Sylvie finally escaped from my grasp and scurried out of the shower, still dripping.
“Haa…” I shook my head as I finished washing up by myself.
Wearing nothing but a simple t-shirt and pants, I took one last look at the room I had been living in for the past few months, imprinting the image. I put on my glove and ring, packing the coat and mask along with a few other necessities into my bag. I strapped both Dawn’s Ballad and my short sword to my waist before walking out.
“Trust in Jasmine when things get rough. She may be the youngest but don’t doubt her strength and experience as an adventurer,” my father advised as he pulled me into one last—firm—hug.
“Why are Brother and Sylviee leaving? No! Stay here!” My sister was now struck with realization that I wouldn’t be home for a while. She was clutching my waist and refused to let go as she used the weight of her body to anchor me down.
“Honey, your brother will be back, okay?” My mother attempted to console her.
“Nonononono! Stay!” my sister demanded. She had refused to listen to excuses and began shouting with tear-filled eyes.
Kneeling down, I wrapped Ellie in my arms as I patted her back. “I know you’re a big girl now. Can you protect Mom and Dad while I’m gone for a bit, Ellie?”
“UUuuu…hic…I can protect them…” she replied in a muffled voice, burying her head into my shoulder.
Letting go of her, I studied my baby sister’s face, wiping the tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Atta girl. Your big brother is going to be gone for a little bit but I’ll be back. I feel a lot better that we have someone strong like my little sister here to protect the house.”
“Yes!” she seconded eagerly, her eyes filled with a newfound determination.
Patting her head, I gave Mother and Father one last hug.
“We’ll miss you. Don’t forget to keep the ring on your finger, okay?” My mother squeezed me tightly.
“Stay safe and know your limits, Arthur.” Father placed a hand on my shoulder and stared at me, waiting for a response.
Know my limits, I repeated to myself, giving my father a firm nod.
After the partings were finished, I made my way down the front stairs to where Jasmine had been waiting.
I waved them one last goodbye, gesturing to my sister, who was waving both her hands as she bit her lips to keep from crying, to cheer up.
“Let’s go, Jasmine,” I declared while putting on the mask and coat.
She replied with a terse nod as we began heading downtown to the Adventurer’s Guild Hall.
The Guild Hall was not what I had expected it to be. A vivid image of a place filled with thugs seated around wooden tables downing beer was what I envisioned. Instead, it was a building filled with prestige and luxury. A marble structure towered over us like a sacred museum. Once inside, it was clear the amount of work that had been put into the intricately designed interior. There were tables made from metal where I could see other adventurers giving us a passing glance. The whole place had an ambience of extravagance that didn’t suit me, much less some of the barbarian-looking adventurers here, but I simply continued my stride.
“Welcome! How may I help the two of you?” The female receptionist’s rehearsed smile gleamed a pearly white.
Before I had the chance to reply, Jasmine slid a piece of parchment towards the woman.
“I would like to sponsor him for a rank examination.” Her face remained expressionless as she said curtly.
“Y-Yes! I understand,” the receptionist answered, nodding her head fervently as she handed back the piece of paper. “Please, come over this way.”
Getting up from her seat, the women opened the door beside us from the other side. As we entered, I couldn’t help but notice the hushed murmurs around us.
“Oy, there’s someone taking a rank examination,” someone whispered.
“It’s just a girl and some masked midget, though,” another hoarse voice mocked blatantly.
I held in any questions I had and simply followed the clerk in silence. Passing through the door, we were led past the row of seats behind the glass counter where the receptionists were stationed and into a small room.
The office was minimally decorated with two leather couches positioned to face each other. On the far end of the room was a dark, wooden desk facing the door; a slender man was seated behind the pile of neatly-stacked papers, jotting down something with a quilted pen.
Roused by the sound of his office door being opened, the man looked up to reveal a sharp and angular face. The head of black hair I had been staring at was parted down the center and reached just past his thin neck. Behind his rimless and thick glasses were a pair of sharp eyes that regarded us intently.
“A-Class Adventurer, Jasmine Flamesworth has requested this…” the clerk’s voice trailed off as she eyed me cautiously. “…gentleman to be taken in for a rank examination.”
“Yes, I’m quite aware of who Miss Flamesworth is. You may wait outside, Mary.” The slender man waved her away as he stood up from his seat. “Miss Flamesworth, how are you these days? I met with your father not too long ago.”
Jasmine simply gave a terse nod, that barely resembled a bow, as the man approached us. Her expression had gotten sharper since coming into this room, but at the mention of her father, Jasmine’s hands clenched into fists.
“Anyway, it is a pleasure to meet you.” The man shifted his attention to me, finally acknowledging my presence. “My name is Kaspian Bladeheart, and I am in charge of this branch. I take it that you must have some sort of close relationship with Miss Flamesworth. Is there a name I can address you by?” His gaze darted up and down as he quickly assessed me.
“Kuu!” Sylvie answered in my stead.
I had made Sylvie transform back into her original form during my time as an adventurer so her horns protruded and her red spikes were visible.
“I go by Note,” I answered gruffly. The name didn’t mean much and was made fairly mindlessly based on the blue streak that went through the left eye slit; it had reminded me of a single half note.
Kaspian’s eyes widened in surprise but he quickly recovered, responding with a casual smile. Other than that, seeing a mana beast didn’t seem to surprise him, which I assumed was because of his line of work. “Yes! Well… Mr. Note, we will proceed with Miss Flamesworth here as your sponsor. Do you know how this will work?”
Shaking my head, I let him explain. “An Adventurer of B-class or higher has the right to sponsor a new adventurer for an examination. Depending on how well you do, this exam will give you the opportunity to be placed into a suitable rank. This way, you can avoid the needless struggles of starting from the very beginning. The rank exam will consist of only a practical portion. Now, judging by your weapons, I can assume that you are either a fighter or augmenter, yes?” He looked quizzically at the black stick tied to my waist below my short sword.
“Okay! Usually, there would be a quick application along with an inspection of your mana core before the exam but since it is Miss Flamesworth here sponsoring you, I will waive that,” he continued as he opened another door at the far end of his office. “Mary, take these two to the examination hall.”
“Y-Yes!” The receptionist, who had been waiting outside the room, entered hastily and led us toward the back door. “Please, Mr. Note, Miss Flamesworth, right this way.”
I peered at Jasmine through my mask as we made our way down the long corridor. Was this the reason why she wanted to be the one to follow me? The Flamesworth House was mentioned with a fair degree of respect, but what exactly was the Flamesworth House?
I was forced to squint as my eyes tried to adjust to the sudden change in brightness as we exited out of the dark passage. As the blinding glow subsided, I was able to make out the details of the hall we were in. The brightly lit area was an indoor, dirt-floored arena with standard theater seats that appeared more like exaggerated stairs. While most of the seats were empty except for the scattered ten or so people, there was a tense atmosphere as everyone’s eyes focused on the two people at the center of the arena.
“Please, follow me to your seats. There are quite a number of examinees today so if you would remain seated until the examiner calls your name, it’ll really help speed up the process.” The receptionist gave us one last, quick, bow before scurrying back down the rows of stone seats.
Placing Sylvie between Jasmine and me, I leaned forward to get a better view of the two fighters about to duel. Jasmine simply leaned back in apathy with her legs crossed.
“Haht!” the larger, bald man roared as he swung down his polearm. It was obvious that he was at a disadvantage against his opponent. The man he was fighting was of average build with short black hair and a jagged scar that ran down his cheek, but he was easily dodging all of the bald man’s wide swings.
The scarred fighter had an apathetic expression much like the one Jasmine had. He didn’t even bother using the broadsword he had in his right hand as he continued weaving around his bald opponent’s brash attacks.
Face red in frustration, the bald fighter bellowed, “Take this!” The fact that he had announced his next attack meant that he was either confident or he was simply an amateur. In this case, it seemed to be the latter.
The polearm he had brought up high above his head suddenly began glowing a dim orange as a heat wave surrounded his weapon. The scarred man’s expression changed from boredom to mild surprise.
“Hell Smash!” the bald man roared as he hacked down. Just like how conjurers chanted spells to focus their intent, many augmenters also chose to do something similar, like vocalizing the name of their attack. However, for such a simple move, it seemed excessive.
Even from up here, I could make out the scarred man’s derisive sigh as he simply held up his broadsword to take on the attack.
The sharp ring of metal meeting metal echoed throughout the arena. However, the sight of the polearm spinning up high in the air made it fairly easy to determine who the winner of the exchange was.
The large cueball of a man was gawking down at his empty hands, apparently surprised that his ace attack was so easily dealt with.
“Your skills as a polearm wielder is nonexistent and your battle senses are lousy… and that’s me being nice. You depend too much on physical strength compared to your mana reinforcement, which throws your attack’s balance off. It says you’ve just turned thirty-five but you’re now only at the dark orange stage. I would normally put someone of your caliber at E-class but seeing how you have a fire affinity, if that little heater move you just did can even be called fire, I’ll pass you as a D-class…barely.” The scarred examiner’s assessment was curt and to the point, but I couldn’t have agreed more with him.
“Next! Diane Whitehall!” the scarred man bellowed as the bald examinee dispiritingly made his way back to his seat, picking up his polearm along the way.
“Yes! Coming!” A woman on the other side of the stadium scampered down the rows of seats, nearly stumbling along the way.
She was a freckled girl that looked to be well into her teens. She had her curly brown hair tied back and was wearing a standard conjurer’s robe that looked more like a fancy bathrobe. She fumbled to get her wand out of her belt, but managed to get in position without dropping it.
Snickers and giggles spread through the arena from the scarce audience, shrinking the girl—Diane—even more so in embarrassment.
“What a waste of time. Just fail this girl,” a boy’s voice to my left caught my attention just in time for me to see him mockingly shake his head.
The boy didn’t look much older than me, which surprised me. I hadn’t expected there to be someone so young trying to become an adventurer. While he was also wearing a conjurer’s robe, it was on a different level; it really did make Diane’s robe look like a bathrobe in comparison. With his embellishments and other fineries, it was apparent that he was a noble. With medium-length blond hair that covered his ears and was trimmed to set just above his dull, green eyes, it was easy to tell that he was an attractive boy. By the permanent smirk plastered onto his face and the way he lifted his chin just a tad so he was always looking down at everything, I’m sure he thought of himself as a superstar.
However, what caught my eyes was the polished white, wooden staff that was by the boy’s side. Embedded at the very top of the staff was a large ruby-colored gem that sparkled in the stadium lights.
He was a fine example of someone that rubbed me the wrong way, so I chose to turn my attention back to the stage.
The scarred examiner that had examined the bald augmenter was sitting down, replaced by a woman. The person, who I assumed was the conjurer’s examiner, wore a conjurer’s hat in the shape of a large cone that set a shadow covering most of her face.
Tilting her hat back, I was able to see the instructor’s pale face. Her thin eyes darted around at the audience before she let out a loud cough to have everyone settle down.
“Ahem! Diane Whitehall, age eighteen, a conjurer at the solid orange stage with a single specialization in water. Let us begin.” The female examiner threw the notepad towards the scarred examiner and held up her grey staff.
Once a conjurer had reached the orange stage, it was apparent where his or her specialty lied. Instead of wasting time trying to be adept at all four elements, it was much more efficient to focus solely on the element of their highest affinity. Single specialization, in her case, meant that she relied primarily on water spells. Dual specialization and up, there would be a strict test to see if you really were adept at two elements.
Instantly, the freckled examinee murmured a spell, conjuring a bubble of water to surround her.
The basics of battling as a conjurer was setting up defensive measures. They did this since most weren’t proficient in reinforcing their bodies with mana.
Diane’s examiner, however, didn’t cast a defensive spell but instead chose to go on the offensive.
“Sandstorm!” the pale examiner shouted as a gale of sand whirled around the freckled girl and her defensive water bubble.
The gust of sand merged with the water, turning Diane’s defensive spell into a large orb of mud. “Release!” The mud bubble burst at the examinee’s command. Jumping back, she muttered another spell while a pressured ball of water began forming at the tip of her wand.
The sphere of water burst out in a blazing speed towards the pale examiner.
Rather than defending against the spell, the examiner nimbly dodged the water sphere. Thinking back, I had realized that this was the first time watching a duel between two conjurers. This mock fight would be a good way to study the differences in fighting styles between long range conjurers and melee augmenters.
“BURST!” the freckled teen screamed while she swung her wand down. The condensed ball of water exploded just as it zipped past the examiner, filling the stadium in a cloud of dust.
The noble brat that was mocking the girl earlier was shaking his head in disdain.
“She’s not bad,” Jasmine mumbled beside me.
The small dust cloud that covered the instructor from view began clearing up to reveal that she wasn’t there.
Suddenly, the examiner emerged up from the ground behind Diane, and her staff lightly thumped the top of the examinee’s head.
“Eek!” Diane jumped forward in surprise.
“I must say, your control is quite decent, Miss Whitehall. You were a little overconfident in your last spell chain, not preparing any defensive measures, but overall, the efficiency in mana control and cast speed was good. C-class!”
Diane let out a sigh of relief. Being a C-class adventurer at her age was a feat she could be proud of.
“Next! Elijah Knight!” The Conjurer examiner announced.
“Here…” A couple rows away to my right, a boy that looked even younger than the blonde noble, stood up. He looked somewhat unapproachable, with short-trim jet-black hair that came down to cover half of his forehead. He had a very serious expression underneath his framed glasses that made him look more mature than his actual age. The boy wore a simple beige long-sleeve and black pants and didn’t have any sort of weapons on him. I half-expected him to be an augmenter but the fact that the examiner didn’t switch out meant otherwise.
Suddenly, a clerk that was keeping notes at the side ran up to the examiner and whispered something into her ear.
The pale-faced examiner’s thin eyes widened before quickly regaining her composure.
“Elijah Knight, age ten. I have been just notified of your special status. As of now, you are a B-class adventurer.”
B-class at his age and he didn’t even need to get tested?
I could see looks of disbelief on everyone’s faces. Even the augmenter examiner’s face was in surprise as he craned his neck to get a better view of the boy in question.
The solemn boy merely made a small bow and sat back down without a word.
“Next! Lucas Wykes!” the examiner continued.
“Hmph! Guess it’s finally my turn!” The blond-haired noble boy jumped up from his seated position and leisurely made his way down to the stage, staff in hand.
The examiner looked down at her notes but this time, her voice sounded evidently surprised. “Lucas Wykes, 11 years old. Conjurer at the…. light orange stage! Single specialization in fire.”
What? He’s already at the light orange stage? How is that even possible?
Without even bowing, Lucas leaned lazily against his staff.
“Let us begin,” the examiner declared, obviously a bit vexed by the boy’s lack of respect.
At her signal, Lucas immediately jumped back as he chanted a spell. “Arise, my protector!”
A pillar of fire erupted in front of him, fading to reveal a two-meter tall humanoid made of flames.
“Looks like we have a special little talent today. As expected of someone from the Wykes Family,” the augmenter examiner whistled in awe.
The flame guardian sprinted towards the examiner, leaving smoldering footprints in its path as Lucas started to cast another spell.
So he does have some skill to back up his ego.
The female examiner was obviously a bit impressed but she responded skillfully with a wave of her grey staff and a few words to ignite her spell.
Three triangular planes of solid earth shot up from the ground, trapping the fire guardian inside a pyramid of rock.
It was a good response. The flame guardian would naturally disappear once it used up the limited amount of oxygen inside the tomb.
Lucas chortled in response, however, as he finished his chant. “Too late, Miss Examiner.”
The ruby stone embedded on his staff shined a dazzling orange as a spark burst up in the air. The seemingly harmless spark exploded like a firework, separating into dozens of small, floating tendrils of fire. The tendrils remained afloat all around the stage, surrounding the both of them.
“The boy is good,” Jasmine complimented, giving a rare sign of approval.
The examiner’s face turned serious now.
I was a little confused on the purpose of those floating embers, but my question was soon answered.
“Expulsion!” Lucas raised his staff above his head as he continued dashing backwards.
Suddenly, the dozens of fire tendrils radiated a bright red before shooting out beams of fire at the examiner.
The examiner aimed her staff down at the ground below her as she calmly continued chanting. The surface around her glimmered a bright yellow as multiple pieces of earth began emerging from the ground.
[Stone Shard Field]
The glowing rocks darted into formation to block the lasers of flame. Only, it didn’t just block the lasers, but redirected them towards Lucas.
“Release!” Lucas paled as he desperately yelled. The wisps in the air disappeared but the flames that were already shot out were still heading towards him.
Pointing his huge staff at the multiple trails of flames rapidly approaching him, he let out another spell.
A cyclone of fire just large enough to surround him generated from the ground. The trails of flame got caught up in the vortex of the fire tornado, merging into it.
“Pierce,” the examiner commanded with a fluid motion. The rock shards that had redirected the flames wobbled before they shot forward at the flame tornado Lucas was hiding within. The large shards of rock bulleted through the fire tornado, shredding it out of existence. The shards stopped just short of the angry but trembling Lucas, who was shielding himself with his staff held in front of him.
“How dare you! This preposterous lack of decency for a mere rank exam should be recorded and dealt with accordingly!” Lucas cried out with baleful eyes. His once creamy complexion were a few shades lighter as a layer of sweat covered his body.
“Calm yourself, Mr. Wykes. I have enough control to keep myself from skewering arrogant little children,” the examiner calmly reassured, leaving Lucas to silently utter curses at the woman.
“Your control and creativity in the combinations of your spells are excellent. As long as you stay cautious and know your limits, you will have a great future ahead of you, Mr. Wykes. I think it is safe to say that you can be placed into B-class. Do you agree, George?” She turned to the augmenters’ examiner.
He gave a simple shrug in response, indicating he had no problems with it.
Whatever wrongful actions Lucas had accused the examiner of seemed to have disappeared into thin air as Lucas, once again, wore a smug grin at the final outcome.
“Another little monster!”
“Damn, I want to just go home!”
“What is with today’s crowd?”
The few members of the audience all cried out and complained in envy, as some of the other audience members that have already taken the exam murmured excitedly amongst their peers.
“What did you blundering apes expect? Did you guys think I was on your level?” Lucas taunted aloud as he dusted off his robe.
He made his way back to his seat before the examiner, who wasn’t even tired, switched places with the augmenter examiner named George.
The scarred man got up, stretching his body like a lazy cat. Casually high-fiving the other examiner as he walked past her, he stared at his notes.
“Next examinee, Note! Please come down!” he bellowed without looking up.
Jasmine placed a hand on my shoulder. “Good luck.”
Giving a firm nod in response, I walked down the steps, leaving the worried Sylvie in Jasmine’s care.
“It seems you’re here to be tested under special conditions, seeing as there isn’t any information here written about you. Okay! Let’s see what you’re made of.” George regarded me with a curious stare, trying to look through my mask’s eye slit to see who I was.
The examiner smoothly unsheathed his sword, as did I.
“Begin!” he announced while lunging at me. The thrust was aimed directly at my head, most likely intended to scare me.
Instead of dodging back or ducking, I faced the incoming tip of the sword and took a step forward, willing mana into my legs. Tilting my head just enough for the flat of the blade to graze harmlessly past my mask, I brought my sword up in one, swift motion.
George’s sharp eyes widened by my counter as he desperately retracted in hopes to make it in time to block my swing, but the tip of my sword was already pressed against the man’s throat. The examiner immediately stopped, afraid that any sudden movement and my blade might actually embed itself into his neck, regardless of mana reinforcement.
“Enough,” a voice interrupted. “Stand down, George. I’ll be the one to test this particular examinee.”
Turning my head, I saw the thin, bespectacled man named Kaspian walking toward us from the corridor Jasmine and I had come in from.
“S-Sir? You will be personally examining this participant?” George backed away from my blade as casually as possible, but a bead of blood rolled down his neck.
“I apologize if this sounds presumptuous, but is there really a need for an AA-class to lower himself to test an examinee? I will be more than enough to assess this applicant!” he continued, quickly wiping the blood off with his hand.
Kaspian’s gaze lowered to George’s neck, silencing the examiner. The man, regardless of what he assumed was a simple blunder on his part, was visibly baffled by the fact that the head of this branch would be the one to test me.
It would be a lie to say I wasn’t surprised as well. Someone classified as an AA-class adventurer was at a much higher level of strength compared to an A-class. As the class ranks increased, each jump was exponential, meaning that compared to D-class to C-class, the jump from A-class to AA-class was uncomparable. Being an AA-class adventurer signified that you had the strength of ten A-class adventurers, and that was just a rough estimate.
He should be on a whole other tier of strength compared to other humans. I was curious as to what stage his mana core was, but there was no way for me to see without him finding out.
“His sponsor has deep ties with me so I feel obligated to test him personally,” he chuckled as his right hand reached towards a thin rapier on his waist.
Waving away George, the two of us stood at the center of the dirt arena.
“Let us begin.”