Charles was meditating as he waited for the combat test to start. In his building, only about seven hundred applicants had passed, out of more than ten thousand. The building was plenty large enough for him to find a secluded place to ready himself, and he was helping himself to all the rest he could. He had passed the power test despite his fears, but he had even less confidence in the combat test.
Leon had shown him a few moves, but he was still incredibly nervous. He ran through the dodging and throwing technique, and the basic sword stabs, slashes, and blocks that Leon had shown him back in the park. Charles could only practice with a stick, but Leon thought it should be good enough.
Suddenly, a set of doors at one end of the enormous room burst open, and dozens of examiners poured in, led by a rather rough-looking knight with a sloppy green uniform and a face full of dark stubble. Each of them carried a pair of wooden practice swords.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he shouted. Despite his unkempt appearance, he radiated the power of a fourth-tier mage, though the applicants couldn’t identify it. Regardless, the light conversation that had filled the training chamber immediately ceased.
“GOOD! Now get into groups of ten!” With everyone being silent, he lowered his voice a little, but it still carried throughout the entire chamber. The other examiners spread out, assigning people to groups if they didn’t move fast enough.
Charles wasn’t one of those people. He waited a moment for the initial groups to form, then walked right to the nearest one that still needed someone and asked to join. Even for all his anxiety, he wasn’t shy.
When the examiners were finished grouping everyone up, there were sixty-eight full groups, and three groups of eight, with an examiner for each. A few examiners were left over and joined the unkept knight back by the doors. He didn’t need to say anything more, his job largely ended after the initial shouting.
“Alright, all of you keep quiet and we’ll get this done quick as can be.” The examiner for Charles’ group was clearly not in the mood to waste time and began explaining the rules for the combat test immediately. The other examiners did likewise, and the training chamber quickly filled with the sounds of speaking again.
“Now, I’ll have each of you spar with me for a minute. After that, you’ll get your score. Simple enough, right?” The examiner glanced at each of the applicants in turn, but no one said anything. The examiner rolled his eyes and said, “Well I take your silence as a ‘yes’. Now, fork over your cards!”
Everyone complied, and the last man to present the examiner his card was grabbed. “You’ll be first, take this.” The examiner handed him one of his practice swords, and the applicant’s face went pale, but he still took a position a few feet away from the examiner. The other nine members of the group arranged themselves in a half-circle around them.
The examiner waited a few seconds for him to make the first move, then lost patience and went on the offensive. Charles tried to pay attention, but he was so anxious that it was very difficult. His hands began to shake, and he began to sweat, despite the relatively cool temperature of the chamber.
The man next to him was significantly calmer and noticed Charles’ condition. “Hey, buddy, you ok?”
“Uh, yeah, I’m good. Just a little nervous is all.” Charles responded, trying and failing to keep his voice from shaking as badly as his hands were.
The other man slapped his hand down on Charles’ shoulder, startling him, but Charles stopped shaking for a moment. “It’s fine, don’t worry about this so much. You made it past the first test, so chances are you’ll make it past this one as well.”
“Y-You sure sound confident.”
“Of course, I am, a friend of mine took this test a couple years ago. He told me that it’s the power test most people fail at, followed by the written test. The combat test is more of a formality, as the main point of the Academy is to teach you how to fight. It would kind of defeat the purpose if they only took those who could fight to begin with, right?”
Charles had to admit he was right, and he managed to relax a little. The other man noticed him loosen up and smiled.
“Hey, I’m Henry by the way. This here’s my friend Alain.” First Henry pointed to himself, then to the tall and heavily-built man beside him, who gave Charles a friendly nod.
While they were talking, the examiner finished sparring with the first applicant. He was clearly not impressed.
“That was damned pathetic! There’s more to fighting than just standing still and blocking! You’re lucky we aren’t that stringent with first-tier mages!” The examiner scribbled down a ‘20’ on this applicant’s card and almost threw it back to him. He then glanced at Charles. “You, nervous boy! If you can talk, then you can fight! Get over here!”
The first applicant handed the training sword to Charles with a look of relief, which Charles accepted with a look of dread. His chat with Henry had relaxed him a little, but he certainly wasn’t calm. He walked forward and assumed the basic stance Leon had taught him; his right foot was slightly ahead of his left, and he held the wooden sword at the ready.
The examiner smiled slightly, then said, “Alright, let’s do this…”
As soon as he said this, Charles took a step forward and stabbed at him. Leon hadn’t just taught him a few basic moves, he had also given him some valuable advice, such as the value of getting in the first strike.
Given Charles’ obvious nervousness, the examiner wasn’t prepared for him to take the offensive and hurriedly raised his own sword to block. Charles wasn’t deterred, though. He had never once gotten in a hit against Leon when they sparred, so he was used to this. The examiner had deflected his sword upwards, so Charles followed up with an overhead slash, bringing his sword down hard against the examiner.
The examiner’s smile grew a little bit bigger, even as he blocked again.
Charles followed up with another stab. Leon hadn’t taught him too much, as he figured they didn’t have the time for Charles to really internalize it, but he did always push Charles to keep up the pressure when on the attack. He never outright told him to, but he pushed Charles to be as aggressive as he could. This was partly due to the fighting style Artorias had taught him. It took advantage of the strengths of lightning magic, speed and power, and to compensate for its lack of defense.
Charles didn’t let up, never once waiting for the examiner to attack. The examiner was so impressed at Charles’ aggressiveness, especially when compared to the first applicant, that he didn’t even bother taking the initiative to attack. Of course, being a third-tier mage himself, he didn’t have any trouble blocking or dodging Charles, but he wanted to see if the young man would keep it up.
Charles aimed a slash at the examiner’s arm, which he handily blocked. Charles stepped back for a moment, during which the examiner thought that he might be taking the defense, but then he lunged forward, stabbing towards the examiner’s chest. The examiner dodged with a well-practiced side-step, but Charles then slashed towards his stomach, constantly staying in range and keeping the pressure on.
“Why was this guy so nervous if he could fight like this?” Henry wondered out loud.
“His moves seem a little awkward and basic. I’d guess he hasn’t had much practice,” observed Alain.
After a minute passed, the examiner said, “Alright, that’s enough!” Charles sighed in relief, but since he didn’t get in even a single good hit against the examiner, he wasn’t sure how he well he did.
The examiner quickly wrote down his score and handed Charles his card back, and even gave the young man a stoic nod of congratulations. Charles nodded back on instinct, then looked at his card.
His eyes widened and his heart beat with excitement. Even though the fight was finished, he felt another adrenaline rush from the sheer joy he felt. He walked back to stand next to Henry with a huge smile on his face.
Henry clapped him on the shoulder and gave him a congratulatory smile and nod, which Charles returned.
“You! Next!” the examiner shouted at Henry. Charles handed over the training sword, and Henry took up a position opposite the examiner.
Charles spent the next few minutes reveling in having passed the test, very much enjoying the rush he got from the fight.
The nobles in the third-tier training chamber stared at Leon as he closed the door behind him. The attention made him a little nervous, but he kept his expression neutral. He walked over to an empty space by a wall and sat down to meditate until the combat test started. The nobles were a little dumbfounded and looked at each other in confusion. The woman in blue and woman in yellow were the only exceptions, as they were the only ones among them who had seen Leon during the power test and identified him as a third-tier mage. They knew he would arrive sooner or later.
Of course, they didn’t bother telling anyone this, and of the rather blatantly hostile looks, the golden-haired noble was clearly the most hostile. Everyone present was at least of the third-tier and thus could see that Leon was of the third-tier as well, so none of them questioned him. Everyone except for the golden-haired noble.
He walked over to Leon, and after failing to even try to conceal the derisive and mocking looks at Leon’s simple grey clothing and plain-looking sword, he asked as politely as he could, “Pardon me, but I don’t think we’ve met…”
Leon barely even glanced up at him, then shook his head no; a response that seemed to infuriate the golden-haired noble. He attempted to keep his calm, as he could feel the women in blue and yellow briefly look his way, but his eye began twitching under the obvious strain of keeping a smile on his face.
‘Who does this little shit think he is, not saying anything when someone as noble as myself is addressing him?!’ he thought.
What he said out loud was quite different. “In that case, allow me to introduce myself. I am Gaius Caecilius Tullius, son of Domitius Aquillius Tullius, the Duke of Lentia!” He looked especially pleased with himself and even puffed out his chest a little so he could look down on the still sitting Leon better.
Leon thought for a moment. If he remembered Artorias’ history lessons correctly, Lentia was a region in the south that lay on one of the rivers between Calabria and the Gulf of Discord. The trade that came through along the river had made Lentia relatively rich, despite its general lack of other resources. By the time the first Bull King had united this land, the King of Lentia had lost almost all of his land and power to his rivals and had only been given the title of Duke because he surrendered to the Bull King without a fight.
That same family had kept their lands and titles in the following five thousand years, a feat which few others had managed to accomplish. Gaius certainly thought quite a bit of himself, given his attitude, but Leon wasn’t impressed.
“Leon,” he said quietly.
“What was that?” Gaius had expected Leon’s eyes to widen in fear and shame at having disrespected such a high noble, not the casual indifference the young mage now showed.
“My name… Leon…”
“… Just ‘Leon’? Nothing else?”
That really got everyone’s attention. With a few exceptions, they had all been subtly paying attention to the conversation despite appearing to be talking amongst themselves. They were curious, if dismissive, about the new arrival, and had assumed him to be just a simple commoner who had reached the third-tier through luck, not a tribesman from the north!
Gaius was perhaps the most stunned of them all, but he quickly found his tongue. “You’re a fucking barbarian? What do you think you’re doing here? This place isn’t for you, get lost.”
Leon glared at Gaius and slowly rose to his feet, but fought the temptation to release his killing intent and draw his sword. “Explain, then, who this place is for. And if I’m not welcome, why then was I directed here in the first place?”
“This chamber is the domain of nobility, it’s reserved for those of proper breeding! Anyone who would send you here is clearly just jumped-up common trash who doesn’t know better.” None of the other nobles who were paying attention looked like they disagreed, though that didn’t include the woman in blue, who was immersed in a conversation with an equally inattentive woman in yellow.
Leon straightened up before responding. He was almost half a head taller than Gaius, and he made sure he was looking down at the noble. “You sure do have a strong opinion about this, but unfortunately, we must take the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. There are no rules prohibiting my presence, and I will not leave just because you demand it.”
Gaius began channeling his magic, and the other nobles smiled in pity at Leon, clearly thinking he was about to be beaten and thrown out. After all, in their minds, no commoner would be able to measure up against a properly trained noble, even if they were in the same tier.
Gaius’ aura began churning as his mana soaked his body in magic power. The two women stopped chatting and looked over, as did the other few nobles who had been meditating off to the side rather than paying attention.
“Well, since you refuse to leave like a good little peasant, I guess I’ll have to make you.”
Leon’s lips began to turn upwards in a slight smile of anticipation, and he subtly slid one of his feet forward, lowering his center of gravity and preparing himself to fight. “Someone as noble as yourself ought to know better than to bark like a rabid dog…”
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