It was strange to be nervous, Pete thought. Certainly, he was about to take a test, but when Anton Krantz said that he would pass easily, Pete Sharman believed him. He believed him, but still… joining a cultivation sect? The Order of Ninety-Nine Stars was known all throughout Graotan. But Pete still thought of cultivators as something else. Something that didn’t include himself.
Oskar clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, don’t worry. You’ll do fine.” Oskar decided against mentioning that this wasn’t their only chance. Better to pass the first time. Oskar himself wanted to give it his all, because Anton believed in them. There were many opportunities as a member of the Order, not just fighting. He would still make sure he could fight, to defend his family, but he didn’t want to continually risk his life. He had a wife and child, and though his death might support them financially he knew the loss of loved ones would tear them apart. Kevin was still too young to really understand, but both he and Patricia had lost most of those they knew in Dungannon.
Pete and Oskar couldn’t help but be a little bit nervous as they found themselves lining up with a half dozen others who all seemed to be a decade younger. But… age wasn’t everything. Some seemed strong and muscular, but one young woman was quite… round. They probably had a better chance than her, at least. Pete and Oskar had started cultivating later, and Anton demonstrated that age wasn’t impossible to surmount. It didn’t help that the one running the test seemed younger than them.
“Welcome! My name is Sterling.” the young man said. “All of you have reached the third star. That’s good, but not enough by itself. We have to test your body and mind.” He gestured, pulling back the cloth covering a doorway to the outside. “First we have an obstacle course. The rules are simple, make it to the end as fast as you can.”
Pete stood on his tiptoes, trying to see as far into the course as he could. He couldn’t see the end, but he did see a number of ramps along with strange impediments on the ground. He could see several routes he might take.
“With twelve of you, we’ll do two sets of six, a minute apart, so you don’t get in each other’s way too much.” Sterling pointed out six of them, seemingly at random. “You’ll be the first group.”
Neither Pete nor Oskar were picked in that first group. That gave them a chance to watch the others go first. It seemed like an advantage, but he wasn’t going to complain. As they ran ahead at a quick pace, Pete learned of something he hadn’t spotted before. Mud. One of the dips was quite full of it, and it seemed to be both sticky and slippery at the same time. It was quite difficult for people to go up ramps or hold onto ropes after that point. That added some appeal to a higher route that simply looked more difficult. “Maybe we should go that route?” Pete said.
“Go ahead,” Oskar said. “I’m gonna pick my own route though. No offense, but I feel like going with you would be too easy.”
Pete shrugged. So Oskar wanted to deal with a challenge. That didn’t exactly mesh with getting to the end as fast as possible, did it? Then again, he supposed they should all pick their own routes.
Around the time the trailing members of the first group were rounding a corner, it was their turn to go. Oskar ran straight ahead, stepping over wires seemingly placed to trip uncoordinated runners. Three of the others ran with him down the middle. One went to the left side, hopping between poles that were over a pit of water. Pete took the right side, up a ramp.
The ramp was steeper than it looked, and slippery. However, a bit of momentum and some energy on his boots to help resist the slipping got him to the top. Then there were swinging logs. They seemed to be powered by a simple formation. He considered trying to disarm it, but supposed that would be outside of the bounds of the test. He stopped for a second, watching the flow of the movements that would knock him to the left or right, off of his elevated position down into other parts of the course. It was just a few seconds, but others were getting ahead.
He stepped through, not at a run but a quick walk. One swings from the left, one from the right, then a tricky angled one to catch people off guard. Stop for a second, then three quick steps. Half of the pathway disappeared ahead, requiring him to balance as he moved forward.
Once past the swinging logs he climbed a rope even higher. Pulling himself up wasn’t too hard. Then there was a rope hanging out in front of him, out of reach. He stretched out his hand, and extended his energy to grab it and pull it to him. He held the rope further down as he swung, then at the end of the arc let go as he flew over the mud pits. He was behind everyone else, but that was okay. He was saving his stamina for when it got hard.
Obstacles continued in the same vein. Climbing, dodging, jumping, balancing. Some points required quick reactions, and there was a pole with spinning sticks basically attacking anyone who passed by, but not only were its movements easy to predict the power it had was far below a cultivator with a weapon. It was also less scary than one of the turtles, and not sharp like the spiked rollers. He did get knocked on the back of the head as he passed, but his energy easily absorbed the blow.
It wasn’t long before he came up behind someone round. She was attempting to climb a rope up a vertical wall. Pete could see the problem. She had exhausted her energy, and her hands were slick with mud. There seemed to be no option but go up this wall- it covered the entire width of the course- and there were only higher walls and not lower. Then there was the matter of her roundness. Pete didn’t want to be rude, but it was quite clear she came from a life of affluence, to have reached such a weight. It seemed she hadn’t tempered her muscles, either. While the first full body tempering would have given her some strength, she had more to carry than most.
She had clearly wiped her hands on her formerly fine garments, but there was enough mud on them that wiping her hands more didn’t help. Pete stopped next to her, before attempting to climb up. “I can try wiping that off for you,” Pete gestured to the rope.
Her eyes turned to him. Sharp. Maybe a bit angry, but also… tired. “… isn’t that cheating?”
Pete shrugged, “I might want to use that rope.” He touched it, and instantly became glad he’d avoided the mud previously. It stuck to him like molasses, but slid along the rope at the same time. It wouldn’t shake off his hands, and he didn’t want to wipe it on his body and just make more things awful to touch. He used a little energy, with a trick Anton had done to get mud off his boots. Just sort of pushing from the inside out. It fell right off. He grabbed the rope and poured his energy into it, the mud sloughing to the ground. “Could I see your hands?”
She seemed reluctant. “I think… this is enough.”
He shrugged. “That’s fine.” He stood and watched as she grabbed the rope. Her grip remained firm, but she just didn’t have the strength to pull herself up. But she didn’t let go either. “If you work on that for the next month, I’m sure you can do it.”
He had meant it innocently enough. They were supposed to be words of encouragement. But the eyes half hidden behind rounded cheeks glared at him. Then she muttered under her breath in a way he clearly wasn’t supposed to hear. “… Don’t get to come back to try again. Want me to fail.”
Pete waited until her attention turned back to the rope before grabbing the next one over. He didn’t want to look like he was taunting her with the ease he could do the same task she was failing. She probably noticed anyway, but he didn’t look. When he reached the top, he saw there was just a slide down to the end where Sterling was waiting. It seemed to be the final obstacle.
Pete looked down at the young lady struggling below, then at Sterling. Sterling had his arms behind his back, looking up. “Come on,” Pete called down. “You can do it!” He didn’t think she could, but he wanted to motivate her. In return, he didn’t even get a glare. In fact, the only thing he could see was the top of her head below her white knuckles. She seemed to have a death grip on the rope, but couldn’t move. Pete looked over at Sterling. No reaction. Well, technically nobody had said they had to reach the end on their own. There was nothing he could change that would even end up with a minor formation to bolster her energy. It was also clear she wasn’t able to move under her own power anymore.
So he grabbed the rope. The young woman clearly wasn’t willing to give up, and if she really couldn’t try again… he might as well see if he could bend the rules a little. He was glad he’d reserved his strength, because pulling a rope at his angle wasn’t exactly easy. There was barely any room at the top before the slope down, and he didn’t want to risk damaging the rope. So he had to pull straight up. That worked muscles he really hadn’t had much reason to use, and he needed energy to augment them and keep the rope from slipping. Hand over hand he pulled, until he had to lift his hands over his head. She wasn’t much shorter than him, so to get her feet over the edge he had to extend his arms to their full height. Then he gently set her feet on the ledge.
She just stood there with her arms raised, the rope hanging down. Pete could see her eyes were closed, but then she yanked on the rope, bringing her arms down in front of her belly. She didn’t immediately seem to register what was happening, but she seemed stable enough to not fall backwards. Pete hopped over to the side and ran down the slope in the section next to her.
He watched carefully as he passed Sterling. If he was to get in trouble, he wanted to explain that he was the one who’d done everything. However, the only response he got was, “A bit slow.” With that, he walked past into the next section. It was full of tables, and people were already furiously scribbling away at papers. Well, he’d done what he could. Another member of the Order was waiting and pointed to an empty table. “Answer as many questions as you can.”