"What are you thinking about?" asked Xeik, as he admired the cherry hair of Blossom flowing with the wind as she stared out at the open sky absentmindedly.
She turned around and presented him with a heart-throbbingly beautiful smile on her innocent little face. "What do you think?"
The sight took Xeik aback, almost losing himself in her beauty. After a short pause, he presented her with a smile of his own and said, "the wilderness."
Blossom chuckled lightly upon hearing those words, "I can't wait. I will bring about a new era and take humankind to new heights. I'm sure my father watching from the other side will be proud."
He walked up the small hill she stood atop, placing his jacket over her shoulders, covering the exposed back of her slim sundress. She smiled sweetly and held onto the edges of the warm jacket. She wasn't cold, but the jacket had his smell and having it close made her feel safe.
"I'm sure he's plenty proud of you already. You are the most talented mage of our generation. I'm just glad I get to tag along to see your greatness," Xeik stated as he stared into her eyes lovingly.
"You're flattering me. How can I compare to you or that monster, Ari? If not for my charming disposition, who knows if I could ever get to follow you around?" Blossom flashed a toothy grin and wrapped her hands around his neck.
Her actions brought a flutter to Xeik's heart and a smirk to his face. He held her close and their lips met, their lips parted and Xeik stepped back in bliss. "We have a long way to go. We haven't even qualified to join a raid team yet. But with you by my side and me by yours, I know we can reach the other end of this continent together," Xeik professed.
"What are you two lovebirds doing over here? Isn't our evaluation starting in a few minutes? I had to come all this way to find you." A green-haired beauty in tight leather armor stood on the path, fuming.
"Lili, what are you talking about? We have plenty of time," Xeik declared confidently as he casually glanced at the timepiece in his pocket. His calm face turned to one of flabbergast. "holy shit, how is this possible? We have to go." He grabbed Blossom's hand and disappeared in ploom of fog.
Lili's small face turned even more agitated, "son of a-" she disappeared in a ploom of flower petals. Leaving behind a frowning after image.
Lili reappeared on a platform filled with young people. All with determined yet nervous smiles on their faces. The group chatter drowned out as everyone turned to the new arrivals on the platform. With his blue hair and signature mischievous smile on his face, he walked confidently with the cool beauty, Blossom by his side.
A few from the crowd gave a salute to the young man, while others felt like such a thing would be beneath them. None of this bothered the blue-haired youngster. He was just happy to have made it here in time. If he was a second late, he would have had to take the assessment a year later.
A ploom of flowers came together a few feet away and the young lady within marched over to Xeik and grabbed his collar, "I went out of my way to come and get you, yet you left me behind. You know I'm not as fast as you. Why didn't you take me along?"
The fury in Lili's eyes made Xeik feel like something was gripping his heart and squeezing it. "I'm so, I'm so sorry. I panicked. I forgot all about you."
"Tsk," Lili let go of him and turned her head in disdain, "you worthless thing, you're lucky I made it in time or I would have killed you."
With his shoulders slumped, he couldn't bring himself to refute his niece's harsh words.
"Why didn't you call us on our Ecko's instead of flying all the way to Equinox City to find us?" Blossom stated defensively as she stood beside Xeik. He looked up at his fire haired beauty and couldn't help but feel his heart flutter.
Whether he was right or wrong, this woman would always support him. It was Lili's turned to feel embarrassed as she didn't know how to answer that question. The thought hadn't crossed her mind upon till Blossom said it just now. Instead of admitting her mistake, she huffed disapprovingly and walked away from the two.
Xeik still had a downcast attitude. He was always sincere in his feelings. His inability to hide his emotions from showing on his face was one of the many things Blossom loved about him. She rested her hand on his cheek to reassure him, "I also forgot about her in our panic. Don't be so hard on yourself."
Xeik sighed but said nothing.
"I know what you're thinking," Blossom stated.
At that prompt, he finally turned his gaze from his boots to her red eyes. "Really?"
"You're thinking of your brother, you're thinking 'if I can't do this much, how am I going to ever catch up to him?' right?"
Xeik turned his eyes back to his boot, admitting that Blossom's words held truth. She hugged him tightly. "This is only the beginning. At your age, you've already far surpassed your brother at the same age."
"Tsk." Xeik was unconvinced, "when my brother was my age he had thought up the mana compression techniques. All I've managed to do is get stronger using his methods, techniques, and resources. My current cultivation is solely thanks to him, me, and everyone else here."
"Don't say that, while what you've said is true. It's your hard work that's gotten you this far. Everyone here had the same opportunities you did, but none of them have come as far as you in this short period. While your brother is extraordinary, I'm sure you are no less extraordinary than him or anyone else. You will be great and you will be Xeik Von Creig while doing it. Not anybody's son or brother." Blossom's words went from his ears to his heart and filled it.
He pulled her into his embrace. "What would I do without you?"
"Die a slow and painful death?" Blossom said playfully.
Xeik was about to reply when a voice interrupted him.
"Alright worms from up!"
He released Blossom, and they rushed to form up as they looked toward the mage, who showed up. He had his hair cut low and a pair of glasses hanging on the bridge of his nose, with no straps.
"Greetings, Grand Mage Choir," the crowd shouted in unison while giving the mage salute.
Choir smiled at this, "at least you all know how to kiss ass properly. But this will not get you a passing grade. You must get through this trial if you want my respect."
"Yes, Grand Mage." Everyone chorused.
"This is your first assessment, and it is also your first training drill inside the artificial biome. This one is special since all of your energy seas have already matured. We will head straight into the volcano territory. Those who can use their mana to fend off the heat for three days will qualify for the next round of testing. Everyone else will have to return next year to try again. Questions?"
Almost every hand went up simultaneously, seemed a lot of questions were left unanswered in that vague explanation.
"Begin!" The crowd stood in a daze upon hearing the order. Half of them weren't sure exactly what they would be doing and still wanted their questions answered. However, the ground underneath them rose and formed a hand that held them in its palm. Then, to their horror, it flung them through the forcefield into the lava world.
The moment they entered, their bodies began to sweat immediately. Even their clothes singed and armor melted. The flame mages were the only ones not under pressure.
Everyone quickly used their mana to create a membrane around their bodies to ward off the heat. They made their way towards the center of the world. The further they got, the higher the temperature and the faster their mana was burnt through.
It did not take long for people to panic. They either used too little mana, and the heat burned their skin, or they used too much and were running low after only a few hours. Others were fine on the surface, but were wondering how they were going to survive three days in this condition. Half the crowd had given up by the end of the first day and were escorted from the biome by the mages under Choir.
At the highest peak, in the center of the biome, was a lava pool on the mountain. To everyone else, it was the most horrible place, but to flame mages, it was a paradise. The remaining group sat atop the lake's surface. Everyone meditated while practicing their respective breathing techniques.
While the other mages could not absorb the mana in this place, enduring and overcoming the conditions of this place will make their bodies and mana stronger.
By the third day, only a handful of people were left inside the lake. Others couldn't hold on despite trying their best. Xeik glanced over at Blossom, who seemed to be engulfed in flames, but he understood she was just practicing her breathing technique. She kept going even after the assessment ended.
"Congratulations, you've all passed the first round. Now for the next phase, resist the heat for 30 days." with that, Choir came and went like a ghost, leaving everyone with unreserved fear in their hearts.
Some gave up right away, knowing they had absolutely no chance of passing. Other's grit their teeth and pushed on. No matter what, they refused to give up. Like that, a month passed in the flaming world. As time passed, the pressure kept piling up and the number of candidates dwindled from well over three thousand to a little over 100.
A group of men appeared in the sky, Choir stood at the front. "Congratulations, all of you meet me back on the viewing platform for an announcement."
Everyone had annoyed looks on their faces. "This man is always so light on the details," a youngster complained.
While they were annoyed, the fact that they made it through their assessment was not lost on any of them. They broke into cheers and applause as they made their way back to the platform. This platform was a plaza outside of the training grounds where groups of mages would gather to receive briefings.
The group returned to the platform and saw everyone from their year group at the Stardust Academy. Even the ones who were disqualified. Everyone had the same confused looks on their faces.
They took glances at Choir sitting with the other directors of the Training and Assessment Department on the pedestal. Once everyone arrived, Choir stood to his feet, ran his hand through his brown hair, and looked out at the crowd with a disinterested gaze.
"All of you who lasted one day or more inside the lava world passed the first assessment. Those who haven't failed. Try again next year." After saying that, he turned around, intending to return to his seat.
But how could it end like this? Everyone was even more confused than before. "What is the meaning of this? If all it took to pass was lasting a day, why were we in there for an entire month?" It was Lili who blurted out her questions in a fit of rage.
Everyone turned to look at her, but no one was surprised, they had gotten used to her fiery temper and disregard for authority.
Choir turned around to look at her. He was annoyed, but seeing who was shouting at him, he understood immediately. He addressed her directly, "miss Von Creig, are you saying that you would have been fine achieving the bare minimum to pass? Is that the attitude to be had by the daughter of our City Lord and patriarch?"
Hearing those words, Lili turned her head, refusing to meet Choir's eyes.
He went on, "those who lasted a day barely passed, those who lasted three days are elites. Those who lasted up into the month are the most extraordinary among their class and are aces. These are the people who will be paid attention to by every department, especially as time goes on. They will recruit the most outstanding amongst you to join elite raid teams, army platoons, and strike teams. Their future will be brighter than all of their peers. Miss Von Crieg, if all of you did the bare minimum, how do you suppose we find those elites I spoke of?"
The confused faces of the crowd turned to one of understanding. This was also the most they had ever heard Choir speak in all the years they had known him. Lili didn't even bother to look up from her shoes. She could feel everyone's eyes on her and couldn't help but feel embarrassed.
A second later, a golden light flashed and a young lady with long golden hair appeared beside the downcast Lili. Seeing the golden glow, she became so excited that her prior embarrassed state was erased.
She leaped into the embrace of the young lady. "Ari!," she screamed in elation. "you're back. I'm so glad. How did it go? How's everything? Are father and mother back too?" the smile on her face was so bright, it outshone even the dazzling Ari.
"Calm down, child, yes I'm back, and yes, they're back too. I came here to see how you were doing and to congratulate you on passing the first assessment and, as an ace, no less. We're all proud of you, and this trouble maker here," while Ari spoke, the ear of a blue-haired youngster appeared between her finger.
"Ow ow ouch, stop stop, why are my nieces so mean to me?" Xeik cried in indignation.
"What do you have to complain about why did you not stand up for your niece earlier?" Ari asked mischievously.
"She's fine. She doesn't need my help with that sort of thing. It's just Lili being Lili," Xeik spoke to defend himself.
"Lili being Lili, huh?" Ari said with a thoughtful expression.
"Ow, Ari, could you let me off now?" Xeik begged. While this was happening, the crowd had all turned their attention to them, including those on the pedestal.
Ari noticed everyone's gaze and addressed the crowd. "It's so nice to see all of your young and curious faces. I remember being like that not long ago. This is but your first assessment of 100. If you can make it through all of them, you will reach the peak of the west coast. Not even I or your City Lord have made it through them all, so don't feel too intimidated. Do your best and I hope to see you all at the end of the line."
Her words brought smiles and looks of determination to the faces of those in the crowd. Every one of them looked up to Ari as their hero. She was not much older than them, but she had already passed the 60th assessment. Only the most powerful mages on the continent have passed through assessments 60 and above.
Ari then turned to Choir. "I'll be taking these three with me. Their parents want to see them." She brought Blossom over a while ago.
A golden light flashed, and the group disappeared, "Congratulations again, I'm proud of all of you."
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