We were standing within a gigantic battle arena. The floor was coated with sand, the walls hanging with lit torches. However, we didn’t have the time to appreciate the scenery. A gigantic blue creature stormed towards the opened gates, tusks protruding from its vicious face.
It was a brutal rhinoceros, amplified by heavy wings and a sharp, milky white horn. Most strikingly of all, it only had one large eye and was thus reminiscent of a Cyclops creature from legend.
Compared to the Shifter, it had a translucent appearance, marking it as a Duobeast. With the knowledge that it must therefore be controlled by two humans, I would’ve felt reassured regarding our safety. That is, except for the fact that five of the rooms in our row had remained closed.
My eyes flickered upward, and I spotted a glass window near the top of the opposite wall. Inside were a man and woman - One I could recognize as Professor Harada, and by extension, I assumed the other must be a teacher as well. They did not make eye contact, and I doubted if they could even see me, but regardless their nonchalant, predatory expressions were concerning.
Although admittedly weak, those Shifters were not trained. They were not passive. No, they were aiming to kill. I grimaced; effectively, that meant the examiners were fully prepared for us to become seriously injured, if not worse.
To avoid that possibility, I called out to my team to hold back. Yahruji and Kali looked as if they were raring to fight, and thus I had to stop them partly to maintain my leadership of the group. In these first, defining moments of our friendship, I needed to establish my authority.
That was not the only reason, of course - I wanted to observe the powers and abilities of the Duobeast, and the only way to do so was to let other applicants tackle it first. With that thought in mind, I watched with anticipation as a girl leapt forward into the arena with two boys trailing behind her.
With holly green bangs that flipped with every movement, she jumped left and right as the Duobeast spotted her. Lowering its head to thrust out its horn, it charged. Matching its movement, the girl sprinted towards it, building momentum.
As the two got closer and closer, I wondered exactly what the girl’s plan was - In the meantime, some of the other teams began to flood across into the arena. Among them, I spotted Xiao and Ann. Like I’d expected, they’d cleared the first challenge - By the looks of Xiao’s dauntless expression, it was with considerable ease as well.
As the horn was about to tear right through her chest, she pushed against the ground and leapt on top of its tusk. Instantly recognizing the threat, the Duobeast flipped its head up to throw her off, sending the girl flying across the air for a second before crashing on its back.
Pulling out something from her jacket, she slashed downward with a knife-type weapon. I was curious, for a second, until I realized it must’ve been a fang from the Shifter in her room. Did she tear out the fang? Some people here were even braver and more merciless than I had anticipated.
The Duobeast barely winced, though. Instead, it began shifting left and right, wriggling to disorient her as it flew down towards the assembled crowd of fighters. Naturally, the crowd split in two to avoid the horn and tusks. A wise decision.
Unfortunately, not wise enough. Instead of pushing forward, the Duobeast twisted to the side at the last moment and thus swung its huge body against a crowd of fighters, knocking them into the stone walls.
At the sight of the blood, I wanted to avert my eyes, but a little blood would be the least of my issues if I wanted to beat this creature. Signalling to the others, I crept onto the battlefield.
“Haha, I was getting a little tired being out on the sidelines,” Kali giggled as we watched the Duobeast switch angles to thwack another group of applicants on the other side. It had flown up into the air, and the rest of Fang-girl’s team had clambered onto its feet as it did so. They were punching, however, I could only hope their intention was merely to distract, not kill, as the feeble assaults failed to produce much effect whatsoever.
Taking advantage of the summoned creature’s focus on its current assailants, I ran across to the wall on the side - Ann was standing there, pulling a torch off the wall, as I followed her lead.
“Where’s Xiao?” I tilted my head, instructing the rest of my group to similarly grab weapons as my eyes flickered across the battlefield, aiming to spot her.
“She’s gone ahead already,” Ann murmured weakly, before pointing up at the Duobeast.
I was foolish to have let my eyes off it for even a second, but I was extremely grateful to Ann for pointing out what I was about to see. The Fang-Girl had clambered back to its head, nimbly resisting the rumbling to poise herself for a crushing blow.
Taking a deep breath, she thrust her Fang down. Directly into the large eye of the Duobeast. It released a high-pitched screech and took a nosedive, and I understood Xiao’s plan.
Sprinting towards the spot where the beast would fall, Xiao stood with a burning torch. Accompanied by her teammates, she was planning to coat the underside of the beast with hot flames and therefore I ushered my group to join her.
In this battle, I had been very much passive - However, I had done so deliberately. As the group had obediently followed my commands of lying low without challenge, I had solidified my natural leadership. Moreover, it gave me the chance to scout some of the other candidates.
In the dive, the Fang-girl had been thrown off and I expected her to experience a rough fall, but she merely did a forward roll as she landed, diminishing the potential pain she would’ve experienced. I can’t imagine it would’ve been a pleasant experience nonetheless, but it was much better than landing straight.
As the Duobeast fell, the summoners must’ve recognized our flames, but they let it fall regardless. Our torches were small, but our position near the centre of the arena provoked more people to join with the movement, and hence we provided a concentrated thermal assault.
Still, that would not be enough in itself to fully damage the creature, and thus I watched with awe as one of the other members of Fang-Girl’s team had climbed to the top of one of the Duobeast’s legs. Pulling out the Shifter’s other fang from his cloak, he thrust it upward into the softened underbelly and the Duobeast tremored with anguish.
Snapping its leg up in a kicking motion to squash the attacker reflexively, it accidentally pounded against itself while the boy tumbled off it to escape. Unfortunately, Fang-Boy wasn’t as successful as his female counterpart as he rolled across the ground in pain.
In the meantime, I decided it was time to act. They’d never made the method of assessment clear, so perhaps we were being judged qualitatively rather than through a series of hurdles. I hadn’t expected so, considering the first challenge and the high number of applicants, but it was true that two professors were observing us and hence I couldn’t rule out the possibility.
Bearing that in mind, I motioned to Kali and Yahruji. Naomi had been with us the whole time, but she still seemed injured and I didn’t want to push her too hard.
Together, we leapt onto the feet of the Duobeast. To my surprise, Naomi followed our lead, and I shook my head a little. Placing my torch against the feet of the beast, I jumped to exploit the kick-reflex and thus allowed it to catapult me upward.
Soaring into the air with the other three, we shifted to land on its back. Landing with a discomforting crack, I immediately scorched its back with the vigorous flame while Yahruji and Kali helped burn across the back and tail.
In juxtaposition, Naomi was far bolder. My eyes widened a little as I watched her clamber across the head of the beast. Replicating Fang-Girl before her, she slashed down with the bottom of the torch to blind the beast.
Working to support her, I flipped my torch to cut down too. My grip was awkward due to the flame close to my hand, but I bit my lip to deal with the pain as Naomi must’ve been working ten times harder.
Dropping from the tusks, Naomi lunged downward to the Duobeast’s open mouth and directed the flame towards its tongue. Clamping its jaws shut around her figure, I felt apprehension wash through me for a second as the Duobeast engulfed her.
My fear proved to me for nothing, though, as she thrust the sharper side of the torch out through the beast’s lips. That, combined with the sustained weakening it had experienced throughout the battle, finally finished it off.
As it dropped to the floor with a rapid crash, it nearly squashed some of the crowd beneath as they flung their bodies to escape it. In turn, Kali and I slid off the beast a little ungracefully as Yahruji cleanly stepped off it.
Pulling apart its limp jaws, Naomi stepped out, covered in blood and saliva. To be honest, she looked disgusting, but I was more impressed than revolted.
“As I said, this challenge was all mine. A lady never goes back on her word,” Naomi winked, panting as the victory went straight to her head.
“Fair enough, I think you’ve earned it considering you have to live with that stench for the rest of this challenge,” I nodded, feigning a gag to tease her as she furrowed her eyebrows aggressively.
Watching the Duobeast disappear into a ray of light as the summoning was concluded, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. I couldn’t wait to form my first Duobeast after qualifying.
Yes, I would qualify - Nothing would stop me from that. After these two, or perhaps three challenges, there can’t nearly be as many candidates left. Only fifteen teams in our arena had qualified, and of those, I could see at least twenty or so people lying unconscious from the battle with the Duobeast.
Besides, I couldn’t assume every team had full numbers. As horrific as it sounds, I could only spot two teammates of Fang-Girl, Fang-Boy included. That would imply their fourth member didn’t make it to that stage. I shuddered slightly at that thought but brushed it off at the same moment.
If the other three arenas were like ours, then there must be around 160 or so candidates left. That was a very shaky approximation but also cause for optimism.
As a passageway opened up across the other end of the room, presumably by a pistol mechanism, I clenched my fists.
Of those 160, I would make the top 64. No doubt about it.