The route they were supposed to traverse ran along the edge of the Radiant Sun headquarters. It was still within the large spells protecting the area, but only barely. The terrain was not exactly hilly, but it wasn’t completely flat either. The runners wouldn’t have to struggle due to difficult terrain, but it wasn’t a completely simple run either. The route was not overtly long as the applicants were not supposed to be spending more than a couple of hours running it, hence the presence of weights to increase the accrued fatigue.
As the signal went up to signify the start of the test, the differences between the applicants became obvious very quickly. Those applicants at third rank and below were significantly slower than those that ranked higher, and formed the group at the back. Their hope about getting in wasn’t lost though, because the order didn’t only recruit based on their current abilities, they also paid attention to their future potential. A lower ranked person who really showed effort here and did well on other tests could gain acceptance over a higher ranked person that didn’t have the appropriate character.
On the other hand, if a person was already high ranked and also showed proper character and potential, then all the better. The gifted people at the higher end of fourth rank and the few people at fifth rank formed the leading group that was leaving the others into the dust far behind them. At the forefront of this group was a pair of elves that looked both a lot like each other, and yet seemed so very different.
Their faces had features similar enough to mark the two as brothers and even twins, but not close enough to be identical twins. The two were further separated by the aura they exuded. One of them had the golden brown skin and the silky gold hair that was so often seen with High Elves. He seemed to have a heroic and charming air about him that screamed uprightness and charm. His brother on the other hand had the pale skin and raven black hair more often seen with Dark Elves. His aura was by no means sinister, but it did signal his unwillingness to deal with other people as well as his disinterest in those he deemed below his notice. In this case that meant everyone running behind them.
That meant all but three other applicants aside from his brother. The two elves were about ten mel ahead of everyone else in the front group and the gap between the two and the others was growing slowly but steadily. It wasn’t that the two of them were intentionally sprinting faster. On the contrary they set a very natural pace for themselves. The other simply had trouble keeping up and it was getting harder by the minute. They also knew better than to try and compete with the trio that had left them behind straight after the starting signal had been given.
The trio of a particular kitsune, wolfman and Lacademonian had shot off like they had been chased by the hounds of war themselves. The two elves knew better than to pick a fight outside their specialty. Lacademonians were the most physically gifted of all the High Humans. They didn’t have the magical natures of many other species or even other High Humans, but their physiques were not a matter to be taken lightly. The wolf beastmen on the other hand were known for their speed. They could even defeat the feline beastmen types over longer distances.
The kitsune girl was something of a mystery to the duo. They had heard some wild rumors that they had already dismissed. However, once Ascalon, the darker of the brothers, had laid eyes on the girl, he had gotten goosebumps and a cold shiver on his back that told him to not to pick a fight with the girl. His instincts had been honed by the court politics and secret backstabbing of the Autumn Court, and he had learned to trust his instincts when they were screaming at him that clearly.
Ilthuryn, his brother, on the other hand had seen nothing special, as was usual with the much less insightful elf. Ascalon was yet again forced to admit the deficiencies of his brother. Perhaps it was better this way. His brother was enough of a terror with his monstrous talent with a blade and his ability to draw other people to his cause. If he had the instincts and eye for intrigue that Ascalon had, then he would make his brother feel inferior. Now at least he could protect Ilthuryn from the shadows. And mock him for his stupidity.
The trio in question had continued with the stupendous pace and had already long since lost any sight of the other competition. The Lacademonian girl had stuck with their pace for half the course. The wolfman Shunkaha kept increasing the pace slowly but surely and he was impressed that the High Human had managed to stick with them for so long. She had to have been around mid-level of the fifth rank with her speed and stamina. Even considering her heritage.
Speaking of heritages, the kitsune girl was a complete mystery to Shunkaha. He could smell the wolf heritage in her, but he also smelled something demonic. Plenty of demonic in fact. She most likely had more demon in her than beastman, if she had any beastman at all despite her appearance. And what an appearance! Those tails! Those ears! Those hips! After growing to his current height and strength, Shunkaha had always been popular with the other sex, and for a good reason. This girl however…she was something else.
This girl made his blood boil in a very good way. He could sense that this girl was someone who could be his equal. He was an Alpha male without a doubt, and while he could make due with submissive Beta females, he yearned for a woman that could challenge him. A queen to his future kingship, and not just a concubine. This girl radiated danger, both in a good way and a bad way.
‘Only I will gain, win or lose, was it?’ Shunkaha chuckled to himself. It was clear the girl though of herself as being above him. This was a first from a girl roughly his age. And he wasn’t sure it was unwarranted. Sure he had met a couple of girls assured of their own importance, due to their family and background, but this was different. The kitsune girl didn’t think her family or background was above him. She thought she herself warranted that position on her own merit. ‘I wonder how true her assumptions are? She clearly has strength. I’ll be glad to find out how much.’
His thoughts were interrupted by the kitsune girl’s voice. “I wonder if we have played around long enough? I think we were polite enough to the human girl’s feelings by keeping back this long.”
‘Wait, keeping back?’ Shunkaha suddenly registered her words. ‘She was still holding back too?’
He was slightly shocked as the ground suddenly caved in under the pressure as the kitsune girl shot off with almost double the speed she had shown previously. He grinned. ‘Well, well. Looks like I don’t need to pace myself after all.’ Shunkaha thought as he matched the girl’s pace, barely catching up to her. The power around him fluctuated as he revealed strength equal to someone who had just entered the sixth rank as a warrior, a Champion.
“So. I’m not the only sixth ranked person in this event. How interesting.” He spoke to the girl seemingly casually despite the speed. He wasn’t actually feeling as casual as he seemed, as he really had to work at it to keep pace with her. Even for him, the weights were starting to make a difference with the exertion. She on the other hand? She seemed to be ignoring the presence of the weights completely.
“Ah, and I was worried this whole competition would be boring.” The kitsune girl shot back with a faint smile of amusement. “It seems the rumors about the speed of Winter Wolves wasn’t exaggerated. Good, I’d hate to think my money was wasted.” So the girl had paid for some information, eh?
Shunkaha only laughed in response. He also noted that they only had about two kilomels until the finish line. The speed at which they were moving really wore away at the distance quickly. They were close to finishing and in third of the time the test administrators had assumed it would take. If he wanted to impress the girl, he had to do it now. “I think we’re close enough to the finish that we won’t be accused for cheating anymore.”
The girl gave him a suspicious look, and he simply laughed before his form started to change. He took the form of a ferocious white wolf, large enough to match a small bear. “Well then, it has been fun, but I must bid you farewell. See you at the finish line, and remember our little bet. I believe it was for a privilege of taking you out on a date.”
Dee watched as the white wolf suddenly dashed forward much faster. ‘He’s forgetting something. Two can play this game.’ Her form shifted as well, the harness would’ve snapped with her large size, as she was now twice the size of the white wolf ahead of her. The harness hung feebly on one of her tails, which were now spread out in all their glory.
“Goddess dammit! I should’ve known a kitsune can change shape as well. Those hips though! So sleek, and that fur! Mm-mm. Well, it would be kinda bad if she catches up now.” Shunkaha shot a small projectile of white ki back towards Dee.
The attack was way too weak to actually do damage, it was more of a warning shot that was forcing Dee to react and slow down by dodging. If she didn’t dodge, she wouldn’t really be hurt, but the impact would still slow her down. “I see, so that’s how you want to play this game.” Dee mumbled, as she simple brushed the projectile aside with a hand of telepathic power.
‘Want me to give you a little boost?” Croestia asked with great amusement.
‘No need. I can defeat him on my own. And it’ll be all the more humiliating that way.’ Dee sent back a thought.
Suddenly Shunkaha stumbled slightly as if he had tripped on something. He actually had, namely on another telepathic hand made by Dee. Just like the attack aimed at her, the hand didn’t have any real strength in it, but it was enough to make him stumble. At the same time she used force control to give her a little boost in jumping over him. Then she finally let loose with all her speed and seemed to almost disappear from the sight of Shunkaha and the people observing.
Shunkaha could only hear her mirthful laughter left behind, and couldn’t avoid laughing himself, admitting his defeat. He found Dee finally pretending to be yawning on the other side of the goal line. That elicited another bout of laughter from him as he too crossed the finish line. “Well then, when will you take me on that date?” He still asked cheekily.
Dee simply brushed him off with a dismissive wave of her tails.
“So, what do you think so far?” Commander Wolfhart asked with trepidation from the man next to him. A man he used to call a brother, despite not sharing any blood relations, as was obvious from their differing race.
“Well, you would expect someone of the sixth rank to leave those of lesser ranks in the dust. That said, her speed is far beyond anyone else I’ve seen of that rank.” The man squinted his eyes. “Are you absolutely sure she just entered the sixth rank?”
“As shown by her tails. Her master in psionic skills also said that she was still fifth rank a few weeks ago.” Even though the man next to him acted cordially, Wolfhart was still vary of him, and grieved for their lost friendship. He also felt pressured just by the man’s presence.
“Hmm. Even for a speed focused races, the speed she showed towards the end was closer to the eight rank. And not a fresh eight rank either. There’s something going on here.” The man mused. In fact Dee’s speed had made quite an impression on him, as had her casual handling of the weights.
The two of them were situated at the VIP section with a dedicated viewing crystal instead of sitting among the other observers. This room was closed even to the chapter masters of the order, and only the Blades and the grandmaster were allowed entry. Wolfhart was here only because his companion allowed it. His companion’s presence would’ve drawn too much attention among the other observers; even with the clothes he was wearing that hid most of his features. He was simply too well known.
He was wearing the standard issue black cloak and black leather armor that was the usual outfit for the scouts. His lower face was covered with a black mask, only leaving his blue eyes and a bit of light skin visible. Wolfhart knew the man had long horns that could perhaps be better described as antlers, but one of the features of the hood on the scout cloak was to make such features disappear as if into a void inside the cloak.
The man spoke again after a moment of silence. “Niklos, you do realize that this will be the last time, don’t you?”
Commander Wolfhart knew the gravity of the question the man had asked, although it seemed simple on the surface. “I know the order has let you down, and so have I. I can’t apologize for the things that have happened, and I won’t demean the memory of Lilly by trying.”
The man almost growled at the mention of Lilly. Wolfhart continued. “I do recognize that this is the last time, and I know what the consequences will be, should the worst happen. I simply think she is worth taking the risk.”
The man calmed down quickly. He thought Wolfhart didn’t have the right to utter Lilly’s name anymore after what he had done. However, he was a calm man by nature and Wolfhart was one of the few people that had actually known Lilly. “You have a lot of faith in her.” He said, once again turning his eyes to Dee.
Wolfhart shrugged. “She will be strong enough to become one of the Blades. Of that I am sure. Only questions are, how long will it take, and how strong will she eventually become?”
The man suddenly gave a small chuckle. “You’re hoping she will be stronger than me, don’t you? And you’re hoping she might tie me back to the order.”
“I won’t deny either charge. However, I also realize that I’m handing you a weapon that might become strong enough to topple the order, if you should ever turn against us. Which way she will turn is an open question, but you have a chance to turn her against us as her teacher.” Wolfhart admitted freely.
“Again, you have a lot of faith in her. If she really is as you say, you’re taking a big risk putting her in my hands.” The man said curiosity clear in his voice.
‘I believe she will be harder to manipulate than anyone realizes. You will have a harder time turning her against us, than she will have tying you back with the order.’ Wolfhart thought to himself.