The obstacle course was followed by a written test. The main instructions had been ‘answer as many as you can’. Questions at the beginning were about cultivation and combat, but there were other questions on history and mathematics. Pete was happy to find that it covered questions about various trade skills and useful professions as well. There was no way anyone would complete the whole thing, but that wasn’t the point. They were clearly looking for how people would be useful.
Pete did his best, answering farming, energy cultivation, and fighting questions for the most part. If he saw something simple as he browsed he would scribble down an answer, but at the back he found questions on formations. The first few were simple, but as he continued on he found himself taking longer and longer. He only got through about half of them. He thought his experience with formations was pretty good, but clearly there was a lot still left to learn.
They hadn’t been told a specific time limit, but each of them were stopped in order, likely based on when they finished the obstacle course. It was only a few minutes difference all around, but it put some pressure on those who knew the end was coming. Pete exchanged looks with Oskar, who shrugged. It was hard to say how they did on the written portions. Nobody had really talked about those, or the tests in general.
Next came sparring. They were matched against other entrants. Oskar fought against another muscular man who was almost equally muscled- a rare sight. However, while their bodies seemed to be closely matched, Oskar’s fighting experience pushed him ahead. He had learned an aggressive axe fighting style from Hoyt that constantly kept the enemy on the defensive, before finally his axe came to rest next to his opponent’s neck. Pete marvelled at how well the formation was able to stop the attack, though he did see it was actively being watched over.
As for Pete himself, he ended up fighting the round young woman. Gerd, apparently. He wondered if he should have asked that or not. Either way, he supposed she would not like that descriptor much. Determined, maybe. Pete wasn’t sure if his help was technically allowed, but she was participating in the rest of the test at least.
The time of rest seemed to have done her a great benefit, because she seemed nearly brimming with energy. Actually, everyone was quite full up. Pete had only experienced similar levels of natural energy suffusing the area in Misty Hill Palace and occasionally a lesser form when Catarina set up energy gathering formations. This was still more, and he’d filled up easily and without even really noticing.
It was sword against sword. A common choice of weapon, though spears had the advantage of reach. For cultivators fighting individual battles, what suited them was the most important. In Pete’s case, he hadn’t felt any particular draw to certain weapons, so had gone with the same weapon as Catarina. He didn’t wield it in the same way, preferring to rely more on his strength rather than her elegant technique.
As their swords began to clash, Pete quickly found himself on the back foot. Gerd clearly had some experience fighting, and he didn’t quite know how to react. He kept himself secure in the battle by relying on his greater physical strength, which was still sufficient to overcome a certain amount of energy. He hadn’t tempered his meridians yet. He was only at the third star, and while Anton had been able to achieve that for his first prime tempering, it was too difficult for Pete. He would be waiting until the fifth star and the second prime tempering. He couldn’t tell what Gerd had tempered. It wasn’t muscle, unless she had been positively infirm before she began to cultivate. Her energy wasn’t so strong as to make him believe she had her meridians tempered. Bones? Marrow? Those effects were hard to see.
He learned something when he managed to slice along her upper arm. His attack was shallow as her skin resisted. That was one tempering then, but she still pulled back from the damage. Trained to fight, but not used to being injured. Meanwhile, Pete had fought for his life several times. He had to admit he was well defended for the most part, but against the bandits just past the Estary border he’d felt the danger. This was just a spar.
He didn’t want to put down Gerd’s determination, but that was even more reason to take what advantages he could. If he held back, it might be insulting. Pete began to take reckless tactics. He attacked with little regard for his own defense, counting on Gerd to defend herself rather than taking the openings. It worked often enough as she prioritized her own defense. Pete got to see exactly how she would defend against each strike, the precise position she held her guard. She seemed to have good training, but she lacked the adaptability learned in actual battle.
Pete feinted a slash towards her left side, but instead twisted his sword into a stab towards her heart. Her reaction was nearly quick enough but his sword stabbed into her chest before she could parry it. At least, that was what it would have done if the formation hadn’t stopped his blade. He was counting on it. They’d said not to worry about injuring their opponents, and meant it.
“A good fight,” Pete said. He didn’t feel great about beating someone a decade younger than him, but they were both third star. She’d probably been training a similar amount of time to him, maybe even longer. Though it seemed her actual exercise had been neglected. He wondered who taught her- or if she’d had to learn on her own. If it was the latter, then Pete could only say he was lucky to have excellent guidance.
Gerd was breathing heavily. It seemed she was finding it hard to accept that she’d lost. “You- you…” clearly she had something she planned to say, but thought better of it. “… A good fight,” she inclined her head.
Pete hoped that her losing the spar didn’t mean she wouldn’t be recruited. He’d assumed it was an exhibition of skill, but he actually didn’t know. Then he was pulled away for several other tests- including a short segment where he tried to discern the effects of certain actual formations instead of just writing about it. He wasn’t sure if that test was tailored to him specifically, but he didn’t see anyone else in that area.
Then it was already dusk. He was quite pleased that, as the sun settled behind the mountain peak, he was declared to have passed. Not only that, he was apparently the best ranking, receiving as a prize several pills and instructions on how and when to best use them. In short- only when extra accumulation of energy is the limiting factor in advancing cultivation. Pete wasn’t fully confident in his ability to judge that, but he knew Catarina and Anton could give him advice.
After the test he was taken to a little complex of four simple houses. Oskar was already there- and he’d even had time to get Patricia. The third neighbor was one of the other young men who was participating in the test. The fourth remained empty. Had only three passed? Three out of twelve was low, but then again the test could be repeated monthly. There could also be another complex that was filled out first.
Pete was out in his courtyard, messing around with the dirt making simple formations, when he sensed her. It was well after dark now, but Gerd’s exhausted form was dragging itself behind one of the older disciples. Good. She’d passed. Though she might need some help with certain kinds of training, since she seemed to be ignorant in some areas.
Anton eagerly awaited the results. He was quite pleased when Sterling came to him saying that both Pete and Oskar passed.
“I can’t believe you’re at the twelfth star already,” Sterling said. “I was two stars ahead, now I’m three behind.”
Anton smiled. “Don’t worry so much. It’s not a race. I can provide some advice on Peak Body Tempering and thoughts on Spirit Building, if you want.”
“I might take you up on that,” Sterling smiled softly. “But those two… quite interesting. Not what we normally see. I can see your influence on both of them. In the obstacle course Pete clearly thought it would be more difficult and reserved himself too much… and then he helped someone over the last obstacle instead of just reaching the finish.”
“Good!” Anton said, “One should always be ready to help others.”
“I agree,” Sterling said, “And that’s something we watch for. There’s a reason the tests are the way they are.”
“About that,” Anton said. “What about those who arrive at fourth star? I was just able to walk right in, nobody even checking me over.”
“Well,” Sterling said, “That wasn’t exactly true. You said Vincent was your sponsor. It could have been a lie, but we’d prefer to get fourth star people into the Order as soon as possible. The second prime tempering isn’t far for them, and the fact that they made it so far shows talent. Plus, it wasn’t as if you were just roaming about unwatched.”
“The instructors?” Anton asked, then nodded, “But also Elder Daniela.”
“That’s correct,” Sterling said.
“I’m not sure if that’s the method I’d use,” Anton shrugged, “But I can see why. Still wonder why you don’t just raise up people at the first or second star. Or even just potentials.” Anton held up a hand, “I know, I know, that takes people, they might not all become true cultivators, bla bla bla. But you would have more people to teach if some of them stuck to it. I don’t think it would be bad for Graotan to have more low level cultivators anyway.” Anton was planning to talk to everyone he could about his ideas. Some of them needed refinement still, but if he never started then he’d never get anywhere with his ideas. Besides, when people told him what was wrong with certain things he could smooth out that area, instead of waiting for months or years to realize it himself.