The Selection

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Chapter 24 - Academy Year 4 - Dark Horse

I knit my eyebrows, thinking what about what they said. We walk in silence for several seconds as their conversation dies out behind us.

“Umm… What’d they say…?” Hiro asks.

“They said team two beat team fourteen in two games,” Drugo answers. “Weren’t you listening, Hiroster?”

“That’s what I thought! Nice! We don’t hafta fight team fourteen!” Hiro exclaims. “So we’re fightin’ team two... Do we know anyone from that team?”

“You should remember one person in particular, Hiro,” I answer, remembering when Hiro was in awe during the second phase of the preliminaries.

Hiro closes his eyes and interjects, “Hmm…”

I sigh and then ask, “Don’t you remember the girl who won using only Water magic?”

“Oh yeh… There was someone like that… What was her name again?” Hiro asks.

“Hina. Her name was Hina,” I answer, letting more air out than necessary on the ending of her name. I still can’t pinpoint where I first heard her name. “You don’t sound that worried, considering how frantic you were a moment ago.”

“Why would I be? We don’t hafta fight the opponents who woulda been our greatest challenge,” Hiro says.

I sigh and then look toward Drugo. “Drugo, you take over.”

After a few seconds, Drugo asks, “Hiroster, in a match between two equally skilled warriors, wittiness can be the determining factor of who wins, right?”

“Yeh,” Hiro nods.

“Hiroster, why’d we win against the opponents we fought just now?” Drugo asks, but Hiro doesn’t react at all. He continues to walk forward with his eyes pointing up.

"Oh!” he interjects into my ear. I twist the left side of my face like old times. “What do we do guys?! If they’re stronger than those on the other team we saw in the preliminaries… I don’t wanna fight ’em.”

I sigh and then turn my head toward Drugo with my eyes opened widely. “No one said they were stronger, Hiroster. Remember how we won ‘Convoy Escort’ with minimal effort? We didn’t utilize our magic at all, but we still beat them.”

"Oh!” Hiro interjects right into the same ear. It doesn’t sting nearly as bad this time because my ear drum was conditioned for it. “This is even worse than I thought! You’re saying team two beat team fourteen without usin’ any Mana, completely effortlessly?!”

I turn my head toward Drugo again. I display an open mouth with lips curved downward, but he doesn’t make eye contact with me this time. Sitos shakes his head with a palm over his face while the girls chuckle.

“Yes, yes…” I say lethargically as I face Hiro. I continue in a monotonic tone, “You’re exactly right. We’re in deep trouble. I’m not sure what we’re gonna do.”

Sitos coughs and then says, “I hope everyone else knows where the hell we are going tomorrow.”

“I don’t. We should probably find Moria or a referee-looking person,” I suggest. We find out later the details of our match tomorrow. We train after eating lunch since we didn’t expend a whole lot of energy during our games today. The evening is spent resting as we retire early for the match in the morning.

We arrive at the front entrance of the Forest a few minutes before the appointed time. Our opponents are already waiting. A girl with blue twin-tails down to her shoulders says, “Well, well. Look who it is, the infamous Kai.”

She holds a buckler in her left hand with nothing in her right. She asks, “Are you ready to lose another competition to us?”

I cock an eyebrow.

“Oh, don’t tell me you don’t remember…the test in our second year. Thanks to a certain someone, we took first place instead,” she explains as she glances over to Hiro.

I slowly widen my eyes and mouth as I recall the past. “Lastly, first place, the group who will get these keys to the first large room 1A is…Hina’s group with an average score of 98!”

“It looks like you remember,” she says with a mischievous smile. “Beating your team will be a cinch. We’ll just exploit the weak like we did against our last opponents.”

She glances at Hiro. Hiro takes a step back and looks down. Hina smiles smugly. I point my eyebrows downward and exclaim, “You already have a large room! Why do you wanna win so badly for a room you aren’t gonna use?”

“It’s ’cause of you,” the boy holding a mace and a large elliptical shield next to Hina says. “We hated yer carefree attitude in the past two years… Slackin’ off, skippin’ class, and passin’ off the rest of us as inferior. Of course we’re not gonna let you win!”

“Darling…” Hina says quietly as she hugs his left arm with her open arm. I relax my facial expressions.


“It’s not only for the room,” she explains as she rests her head against his arm all while looking at me. “Our team’s value will increase if we win the tournament… Besides…”

She stops for a moment and then blushes as she presses her face harder into his arm. My heart beats faster. “We agreed that if we won another room…we would use it to establish more privacy between us…”

“Pumpkin…” the boy mutters while wearing a lewd smile. He swings his arm around, bringing Hina toward his chest. I blush and look away as their heads move closer, coincidentally in Luna’s direction. She smiles, and I look away again.

“Ahem,” one of the referees says. “May I remind you two…that we are still in the middle of a tournament here.”

The two lovebirds pull away from each other and then line up in formation again. “The first game you will play is called ‘Trophy Hunting.’ You may have noticed in the past few days the food supply has disappeared from the Forest. As a result, you were instructed to gather prepared ingredients at the pantry. Our Conjuration specialists have prepared the animals that you will hunt in this game. Throughout the Forest, there are five birds, ten boars, five squirrels, three bears, and a lion. Bears are worth two points, the lion is worth four points and the rest are worth one point.”

During his explanation, I glance over to the rest of their team. On the far left, a boy is holding a slingshot. Next to him, is another guy holding only a buckler in his left hand. My eyes roll over to the far right, where a girl is holding a rapier and a buckler. Next to her, stands a larger-built kid wielding a large sword with one hand. I cock an eyebrow as several of them are talking among themselves. “To collect the points, you will use these magical items provided.”

He points to a cart nearby. Another referee takes one and then brings it over. It appears to be a thin cylindrical-shaped device with a needle on the bottom side. “These are modeled after Crelos and Crulos, used to convert Mana and Affinities inside monsters into crystals. You will inject these into the animals and press the button after you have killed them. It will take a moment, but a colored crystal will appear on the other side. Blue ones are worth a point, yellow ones are worth two points, and red ones are worth four.

“You may use these pouches to carry any trophies you obtain. The only requirement is that the pouches must be visible if you carry it on your body. We have these clips to help with that. There is space available for you to clip on the trophy collection tool. The winning condition is to accumulate 20 points and deliver it to the referee on the opposite side of your starting position. They will only accept it if you have all 20 points. The referee at this entrance will be wearing red while the referee at the other entrance will be wearing green. You can also win by eliminating everyone on the other team. There is no time limit. Are there—”

“Yes!” Hina exclaims and raises her right hand in the air. “We’d like to start at the other entrance!”

I raise my eyebrows, understanding why her team is so lax. A referee points to a man wearing a green shirt and says, “Very well. After you have put on the leather garments and the items provided for this game, this man will take you there.”

We spend the next few minutes putting the usual leather garments located on a cart nearby. We also attach the clips on the leather garments and then attach the pouch and magical tool on opposing sides. Afterward, the referee wearing green walks away. Their team follows him, but not before Hina smirks in my direction.

“Damn, this is bad for us,” Sitos says.

“We knew that yesterday!” Hiro exclaims, but I ignore him.

“They’ve played this game before…” I add.

“We’re doomed!”

I sigh and then say, “Stop being so melodramatic, Hiro.”

“But ya said it yourself… They’ve played this game before… So they know how to win! I’m not stupid ya know.”

“I’m not saying you’re stupid, but this game isn’t hard to figure out. As long as we collect at least 11 points, then we can force them to fight us to decide the game. So they can’t use any cheap tricks.”

“What Kai said! Don’t be such a scaredy-cat, Hiro! Toughen up!” Luna exclaims, giving Hiro a few smacks on his upper back.

“Who’re ya callin’ a scaredy-cat?! I’m not scared! Let’s go! I’m ready!” Hiro exclaims as he holds his weapon horizontally above his head.

“Calm down, Hiroster. The game hasn’t started yet,” Drugo says. We spend the next ten minutes chatting away before a referee talks into something in his hand. I can’t see what it is. He approaches us.

“Get ready. The game will start soon.” Everyone gets in their positions at the entrance to the Forest. We stand next to the referee wearing a red shirt.

“Begin!” the thing in the referee’s hand exclaims. We run into the Forest.

“Do not fuck up the plan. Stay close,” Sitos says.

I run off in a different direction as everyone else does too. I make sure Drugo’s in my line of vision before moving farther away. There’s something moving in the grass ahead of me. I stay put, focusing my attention where there’s movement. I send out some Unrefined Mana, preparing to ambush it. Fifteen seconds pass. Crunching noises resound. The creature reveals itself to be a squirrel. I activate my Mana and then a ball of fire emerges. It bursts into flames as it collides with the squirrel.

I run over to the squirrel and then drop a sword on the ground. I grab the magical tool clipped on the bottom left side of my leather garments. I inject it into the middle of the burnt squirrel, press the button near the bottom side of the tool, and then wait. I check around me for enemies. A blue crystal, roughly an inch wide is present in the opening at the top of the magical tool. I loosen up the pouch attached to my waist, slip in the crystal, and then tighten the pouch again.

“Code yellow!” Luna shouts in the distance. I pick up my sword on the ground and then make my way toward Drugo.

“Hey, Drugo. Did you find anything?”

“No, but I heard Hiroster with a boar a moment ago,” He responds as we run to meet up with Luna. Along the way, Marin and Hiro rejoin with us.

“Hiro, did you get the crystal from that boar?” I ask.

“Yeh! It was no match for me,” Hiro exclaims. We rejoin with Luna and Sitos in the distance ahead of us. There’s a brown bear on its hind legs against a tree. One of his paws reaches up to an apple on a branch. The sheer height of the bear right now is around nine feet.

“It is about time you slow asses made it here. Hiro,” Sitos says.

“Right!” Hiro swings up his hammer and then lets it rest on his shoulder. He points his right palm forward. Sitos runs toward the bear. ”Water ball!"

A sphere of water appears from his palm, heading straight toward the bear. As it collides with the bear, water splashes all over its back dripping down to his hind legs.

"Volt thrust!" Sitos exclaims as he pierces the bear. The bear’s roar resounds as the wet parts of its fur sparks electricity. Sitos jumps back with his sword as the bear turns around with a swipe. Sitos jumps back again, removing himself from our crosshair. I point my right elbow toward the bear. It opens its mouth, bearing its fangs at us as it roars again. Marin shoots an arrow straight into one of its eyes before it charges at us. It lets out another cry.

"Fireball!" Luna and I shout at the same time. Slightly different sized balls of fire fly toward the bear, eventually bursting into flames on the bear. It charges at us as it roars again, still covered in flames.

Hiro, Sitos, Drugo, and I run toward the bear. Drugo is in front of us with his shield in front of him. He blocks the bear’s charge with his own. Hiro jumps in the air from the side of the bear, slamming down his weapon on its spinal cord. The bear’s legs give out. Sitos and I launch a barrage of slashes from opposing sides. The bear twitches its limbs with every strike. Eventually, the bear lies lifeless on the ground with a growing pool of blood forming. I toss away my right sword for now and then grab the magical tool. I inject it on top of the bear and then press the button.

“Good, no one has screwed up yet,” Sitos says.

Nice work, guys. Bears are a little tough, but as long as we set up an ambush it won’t be hard,” Sitos says. “Kai, catch.”

Sitos tosses me a blue crystal. Hiro holds a blue crystal in his hand and exclaims, “Yeh, it’s probably safest with Kai! Take mine too!”

I smile as I store both of the blue crystals. A piece of wood resounds in the distance behind me. Hiro shouts, “Enemy team!”

I turn around. There’s a guy with a slingshot standing on a branch. I pick up my weapon and then move forward in formation with the others. His weapon is already pulled back with a rock ready. He shoots the rock on a straight path toward Hiro. Marin shoots an arrow at the rock, but the arrow is deflected off the rock. I knit my eyebrows as I follow the rock with my eyes. Do they really think Hiro’s that weak…? Or…

“I’m not so weak to be taken out by a rock!” Hiro exclaims as he swings his hammer toward the incoming stone. He smashes it easily, but a blinding light appears from the rock.

“Ahh!” several of us interject as we are all probably blinded with shooting pain behind our eyes. I squeeze my eyes shut as I take a step back.

Damn! They have someone with Hybrid magic?! It’s gonna be bad if we’re attacked now! Something rustles near me. The crystal!

I turn around, following the pool of blood toward the bear. Eventually, my foot hits the bear. I swing my sword randomly in front of me. The rustle resounds again directly in front of me. Another sound resounds after that, but it’s farther away. The sounds only resound farther and farther away. About five seconds has passed since I was blinded. I force my eyes open. Pain lingers, my vision is double, and I’m nauseous. I ignore it as I examine the top of the magical tool. There’s a yellow crystal inside. I sigh and then store it in my pouch.

“Is everyone okay?” Drugo asks.

“I think so…” Marin answers weakly.

“The roach got away,” Sitos says.

“Looks like it,” I answer. “Let’s move together now that they know where we are. That guy’s probably on his way to report back to his team.”

“Sounds good. Only go for the one pointers unless you want to lose,” Sitos says. We agree with his suggestion and then move in a random direction. Along the way, we end up taking out a boar and a bird, leaving us with seven points in total. Soon after that, we encounter the slingshot guy again. He launches his rock in the air above us where its trajectory would hit no one. I cock an eyebrow, then immediately look away from the rock.

“Don’t look at the rock!” I warn immediately.

"Flashbang!" the slingshot guy yells. A bright light shines from behind me. No one screams, so I figure no one was blinded. Two roars resound in the distance. It sounds like the bear from earlier. The light disappears after three seconds. I turn around, finding that the slingshot guy has left.

“Damn, that dude is annoyin’!” Hiro exclaims. “Is he just gonna keep showin’ up and doin’ that?! The next time he shows up, I’m gonna chase ’im dead!”

“Calm down, Hiroster. We won’t need to do that once we obtain four more points. His blinding tactics will suffer the drawbacks when his team’s present too,” Drugo says.

Roars resound again close to us. No one says a word and simply gets into formation with weapons ready. I gulp. About ten seconds pass, when suddenly, two brown bears appear from a line of bushes in front of us. These bears feel different compared to the bear from before. Their roars sound more ferocious, and their mouths stay open. Saliva from their tongue drips onto the ground. They charge at us at a speed faster than the weakened bear from earlier.

Luna takes the initiative and stands in the path of the two charging bears with her palms up. ”Bonfire!"

Numerous flames come out of her palms that approach the ground in front of her. The flames travel in a circular motion, quickly increasing their height up to five feet before disappearing, but new flames are constantly being thrown into the upward spiral. The flames obscure the vision of the approaching bears. A moment later, both of the bears charge right through the flames. Luna stops emitting flames from her palms.

“Lunaster, watch out!” Drugo exclaims as he rushes in front of Luna, blocking one of the bears with his shield in front of him. I focus my attention on the bear still charging at us three on this side. I point my right elbow toward it.

"Fireball!" The bear doesn’t dodge and takes the ball of fire head on. It bursts into flames directly in its face, but it doesn’t even flinch. I jump back as it attempts to swipe me with its claws. Does it not feel pain?

Hiro’s hammer is already in the air. Bone crackles as his weapon smashes the right side of the bear’s head. Blood from the wound dyes its brown fur red as some of it drips down its face. I relax for a moment as I expect the bear to change its focus to Hiro.

Oh shit! I jump backward again in a hurry, barely avoiding a serious injury. I grit my teeth as its claws swipe through my abdomen. It continues to charge at me. What the hell’s wrong with this thing?!

I continue to jump backward and dodge. Marin shoots several arrows at the back of the bear, but it doesn’t seem to notice them at all. My back is against a tree. I stand still, waiting for the next attack. I jump to the right as it throws back its right paw. It leaves behind a large scratch mark on the tree.

“Heya! Have another one!” Hiro exclaims as he jumps toward the bear’s head. He swings his sledgehammer down in the same location he had struck earlier. A louder crackling noise resounds from the bear’s head, and blood splashes onto the ground. I smile.

Did that do it? The bear turns its head toward me and stares at me for a brief second before it charges at me again. It seems the bear still doesn’t notice Hiro.

“Whoa!” Hiro interjects as the bear pushes him down while it charges at me. Arrows come flying from the right into the gaping wound on the bear’s head. The bear slows down and strays from moving in a straight path. It crashes into a tree, and one of its legs give out. I charge at it with the full intention of stabbing it through the wound on its head. I throw my right arm back preparing to finally end its life, when suddenly, it raises its right paw.

Shit! Judging by how fast my attack is compared to the paw, the paw will hit me before my attack. I grit my teeth as I prepare to take the blow.

“Kai!” Marin shouts. A moment later, an arrow flies past my face that pushes its right paw away from me. I stab through its brain with my right blade. The bear stops moving.

“Marin, you saved me,” I say with a smile as she runs up to me a second later.

“I’m glad I made it in time.”

“Damn bear didn’t even notice me! Take that!” Hiro exclaims as he bashes the bear with his hammer.

“How’re the others doing?” I ask as I turn toward the others. They’re still fighting. “Come on, Hiro. We have to help the others!”

I run toward the others. Something strange resounds near me, and I stop running. It sounds like loud breathing and quiet growling coming from behind me. I raise my eyebrows and turn around, immediately running toward Hiro. He’s not attacking a corpse anymore, but he’s far behind. There’s something in the shadows behind him.

“Kai?” Marin asks.

Should I warn him? No, there’s no time! I point my right elbow toward him and shout, "Fireball!"

The usual ball of fire appears from my elbow, running its course toward Hiro’s direction. Hiro’s a little slow when it comes to thinking, but he should be able to react to this!

I pray while continuing to run forward. He manages to jump out of the way as I had hoped. The shadow behind him finally reveals itself to be a lion and collides with my magic. It bursts into flames. “Kai, what the hell?!”

Hiro turns around and notices the lion as it pounces where he was standing. The lion follows up with another pounce toward Hiro. Hiro puts up his guard and blocks one of its paws. The other paw slashes his right shoulder. “Gah!”

I slash my weapons at the lion though I don’t land any attacks. I click my tongue as it jumps backward to dodge my next attack. Hiro’s wound is not that deep. The lion’s face has a minor burn mark. Is it resistant to fire…? Where’re the referees, anyway?

I don’t see any referees in any trees anywhere. I guess they’re just hidden really well… Hiro would’ve been in trouble if I didn’t help him. Do they have a medic nearby?

I drop those thoughts for now and focus on the lion. Its eyes are pointed toward Hiro as it roars. Hiro’s body quivers as he takes several steps back. I knit my eyebrows. Taking into account the two ferocious bears that seemed to have specific targets…now this lion wants Hiro… There’s only one answer.

I think back to the start of the game when I saw their lineup. There was another someone without a weapon besides Hina. He must not have been able to control this lion as well as that bear earlier…otherwise, it wouldn’t have bothered to dodge my attack.

“Hiro, stay on the defensive. Let’s stall until Sitos and the others can help us,” I suggest.

“You do-don’t hafta tell me. I ca-can feel its blood thirst…” I narrow my eyes at the lion.

The question is…when are they gonna ambush us? They could easily win by eliminating all of us right now…but they haven’t appeared. I drop my thoughts as the lion charges toward us. I position myself next to Hiro and exclaim, “Hiro, you take the right side!”

I focus on its right paw. I block it with both of my swords. Hiro blocks its follow-up attack on his side. The lion alternates right, left, right, left, and we continue blocking every blow. It switches up the angle, but I keep my concentration up and continue to block them. An arrow zooms past me and then lodges itself in the top of its right leg.

“Kai!” Sitos exclaims as footsteps resound rapidly behind me. Drugo runs in front of me with his shield up while Sitos stands on my left side.

“Finally, you’re here. Let’s kill this oversized cat,” I say with a smile.

“It looks like you cannot do anything without me. Drugo, let us do that again!” Sitos exclaims.

“Alright! Whenever you’re ready!” Drugo answers with enthusiasm. I cock an eyebrow.

Sitos turns toward me and says, “I’ll make an opening for you, and then it is up to you.”

He runs forward and then stops positioned diagonally relative to Drugo. He stands there for a moment with a relaxed pose. He shouts, ”Magnets!”

Nothing happens. He throws his left sword in the air in an arc toward the lion and then winds his other arm back. Meanwhile, Drugo is charging at the lion. A few seconds later, Sitos throws his remaining sword horizontally toward the lion and then runs forward. Drugo reaches the lion at the same time as Sitos’ second sword. The sword seems perpendicular to the first sword that falls from above, with its blade pointed toward the lion. The lion dodges the second sword by moving over to the right.

"Activate!" Sitos shouts. The two swords that were next to each other sparks electricity and breaks apart rapidly. The second sword launches itself into the left side of the lion. Sitos catches the first sword and then throws it again in the air above the lion. I figure this is the opening he was talking about.

I run forward and exclaim, “Let’s go, Hiro!”

“Ye-yeh!” The lion launches a flurry of attacks on Drugo, but he holds his ground. The sword Sitos threw up in the air a moment ago now accelerates its descent toward the lion. The lion lets out another cry as the sword pierces its back. The two swords in the lion seem to lodge themselves deeper with every passing moment. Drugo slashes one of its frontal legs with a single swing. The lion doesn’t let up and tries to attack Drugo, but is not successful.

The lion leaps back a little and then charges in my direction. Drugo responds and moves in front of us. He stops the lion’s charge. I jump over Drugo, slashing both of my swords at the lion. Blood oozes out of its neck. I immediately sweep past its hind legs, cutting one of them as well. Hiro jumps over Drugo and then slams down his hammer on top of the lion’s head. The lion cries out one last time as it falls onto the ground. Drugo stabs it through the brain. The lion stops moving.

Sitos inserts the magical tool into the lion. He takes back both of his swords from the lion. Marin inserts her tool into the bear from earlier. I look around for Luna. She’s running toward the other bear. She eventually turns back around and then runs toward us.

“Everyone, we have a problem!” Luna exclaims in a panicked voice. “The crystal’s gone!”

I knit my eyebrows. Hiro exclaims, “What?!”

Hiro, Drugo, and Sitos run over toward Luna. I stand where I am and contemplate. So, instead of ambushing us…they took a single crystal from us when we already have 11 points… Could it be that they’re trying to…

I raise my eyebrows and smile. Sitos says, “Come here so I can tell you my plan before the roach comes back.”

I silently listen to his plan, knowing that it isn’t a good idea, but it puts me in a better position to tell them mine. I collect all the crystals before we initiate Sitos’ plan. All of us are in a tree while Hiro is by himself nearby.

“Where are y’all at?” Hiro asks with an imitation of a genuine voice, but it sounds forced. He looks toward our direction several times. I sigh and smile, glad I came up with the plan I did.

“Guys, actually…I have a better plan,” I propose quietly.

“What is it? This idiot already ruined mine…” Sitos whispers.

“Well, you know how the enemy wants to exploit Hiro, right? We’ll take advantage of that.” I begin my explanation, continuing it for several minutes. We finish our preparations and then wait for the enemy to find Hiro.

“Hey, guys… Where are ya…?” Hiro asks, sounding more and more obvious.

It’s only a matter of time… Leaves rustle nearby. Hiro yells, “The enemy! Where are ya’ll?! I need help!”

I lose count of how many times Hiro has looked straight toward us in the past few minutes. Loud laughing resound a few trees down where we are. I jump down and then walk toward Hiro. “Kai, why aren’t ya followin’ the plan? You ruined it!”

I laugh loudly. “Kai, that’s not funny…”

I continue laughing as the rest of the team jumps down from the tree.

“It must be hard having him on your team. Well, see ya! Thanks for the free two pointer!” the slingshot guy exclaims from atop a tree. He retreats.

“You bastard! I’m not letting you outta my sights!” Hiro exclaims as he runs after the guy. I smile and chuckle as we chase after him.

Well… So far all according to plan…but the next part could be dangerous as we are running into a trap. I quicken my pace to catch up with Hiro. I ask, “Hey, Hiro. Do you remember where we turn in the crystals?”

“Huh? Kai, and you said I was stupid… Of course, it’s that way,” Hiro says and points into the correct direction. I sigh as he’s correct for once.

I point in a perpendicular direction and say, “No, it’s that way, you moron.”

“Huh? That’s strange… I’m pretty sure, well never mind. We almost caught up with this guy!” Hiro doesn’t doubt me in the slightest. We catch up to the slingshot guy, who seemingly runs into a dead end.

“Wa-wait! I give up!” the slingshot guy exclaims as he unclips the pouch attached to him. “Ju-just don’t hurt me…please…”

He tosses the pouch. Hiro catches it and then throws it at me. I catch it by cupping my arms together. I raise my eyebrows as the weight of the contents presses against my arms. This is…!

Hiro says, “Looks like there’s enough in there to finish the game le—”

A stream of water suddenly bursts out from a nearby tree, pushing Hiro several meters across. He drops his weapon in the process. I turn around and then pass the pouch on my arms over to Luna. I turn back around. Hina drops from a tree. The others follow soon afterward.

“One down. Five more to go,” Hina says as her boyfriend drops his stuff on the ground. Next, he picks up Hiro’s weapon and then tosses it far away. He equips his shield and mace afterward. The path toward our exit is open. I smile and then stab the ground with my sword. I unclip the pouch attached to my leather garments and then toss it over to Hiro. Drenched in water, he stands up and then catches the pouch.

“Hiro, you’re the fastest runner outta all of us. It’s up to you! We’ll hold them off here!” I exclaim. Luna tosses the pouch she’s holding onto too.

“Yo-you’re gonna leave it to me…?” Hiro asks in a genuinely touched voice.

“Yeah, you remember where the exit is, right? Go!” I exclaim.

“You can do it, Hiroster!” Drugo exclaims.

“Good luck!” Marin exclaims.

“Go, Hiro!” Luna exclaims.

“Do not fuck this up!” Sitos exclaims.

“Alright! I’m off!” Hiro announces as he sprints off full speed with the two pouches in hand. Two members of the enemy team move away from the group.

“You two are up,” Hina says.

“We’ll meet you at the goal,” the girl wielding the rapier says. The guy with the large sword follows as they run off toward Hiro. My eyes linger on the pouches on their leather garments.

So it’s there, huh…

“Hiro’s the fastest runner here, and he isn’t carrying any weapons! Do you think your teammates can catch him before he reaches the goal?” I ask as I grab the sword I put into the ground. Their entire team laughs.

“Did you think I really gave him a pouch full of our crystals…? It was just a bunch of rocks I put in there!” the slingshot guy confesses.

“What?!” I exclaim simultaneously with my team.

“Quick! We have to catch up to Hiroster and warn him!” Drugo shouts as he runs toward the direction the others went to.

"Landmine!" A burst of water comes out of the ground, launching Drugo into the branches above him. He crashes into one as he falls back down. I jump backward, rejoining with the rest of my team. Their Tank rushes toward Drugo with his mace in hand.

"Shock!" their Tank shouts, his mace now radiating electricity. He swings it at Drugo.

"Deflect!" Drugo shouts as he moves his shield toward the direction of the mace. Mana gathers at the front of his shield. Sparks of electricity from the mace go backward. The mace user backs off and then Drugo rejoins us.

“We can’t have you do that now… Just admit your defeat. We win,” Hina says confidently. I click my tongue loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Let’s move toward our starting position! We can still stop them from winning!” I exclaim as I retreat from the scene. The rest of my team follows.

“Fine! Continue your pointless struggle!” Hina yells from behind us. I glance behind me. They’re heading in the direction where the others ran.

Sitos laughs and then says, “Those dumbasses played right into your hands, Kai. We got them.”

“Well, not yet… We still need to take their supply of crystals and turn it in,” I say as we continue running toward the next part of our plan.

We eventually make it back to the area where Hiro tried to trick the enemy. I find the tree that we were on and then climb back onto the exact branch. Marin follows me as well. On the trunk of the tree, Marin’s magic is still in place. She places a hand on it for a moment. She removes her hand, revealing a secret compartment. Our stash of crystals is still there. I sigh and then say, “It was a good thing none of them noticed that you were missing your pouch.”

“Ye-yeah…” I attach the pouch to my leather garments again as we jump down from the tree.

“Alright, let’s go over there,” I say as I point in a direction. “Hiro should be somewhere in that direction. He’ll probably be confused when he finds that the exit isn’t there at all…”

We run in the direction I pointed in. After several minutes of running, we find Hiro backed up against the corner of the Forest. He’s on the ground with his stomach side down. Moments later, the guy picks him up from the ground, holding him up by the waist. The girl takes the two pouches that he was protecting under him. Hiro kicks her several times with his legs. Marin shoots an arrow toward them. Before the arrow reaches them, the guy tosses Hiro aside.

"Scatter!" Marin shouts. Subsequently, a dirt cloud appears around the arrow, instantly disabling the two enemies. The girl points one of her open palms up before blowing some of the dirt away. Luckily or for the worse, Hiro gets back up. He tackles the girl.

“Give ’em back!” Hiro yells as he tries to force the two pouches out of her arms. She’s pressing the pouches against her breasts. I frown.

“Wh-where—are yo—you tou—ching?!” the girl screams and coughs at the same time. My heart beats rapidly.

Damn it, Hiro! Don’t get us disqualified! I hope the referees don’t count that as harassment. Hiro finally grabs a hold of the two pouches and then stands up. I locate the pouch the girl has and then cut it from the bottom. Numerous blue crystals and a single yellow one leak out. I toss aside one sword and then take them. Drugo knocks down the unarmed guy down with his shield.

“Oh! Y’all caught up! Don’t worry; I got back our stash. What’re y’all doin’…?” Hiro asks, confused. Sitos is holding onto several crystals.

“There are four blue ones in here,” Sitos informs.

“One yellow one and five blue. In total, we have 22 points,” I say.

Hiro dumps out the contents of the two pouches he’s holding onto, revealing that they’re all rocks. He exclaims, “Ah! What the hell?! These pouches have only rocks in ’em!”

I can’t help but giggle. Behind us, Luna announces, “Operation Hiro, success!”

“Kai, explain! To begin with, I was right ’bout the direction after all!” Hiro yells into my face. I laugh uncontrollably. I find it hard to believe that my plan actually worked.

“Now, now, Hiroster. We’ll explain it to you after this game is over,” Drugo says as he pulls Hiro away from me. I get back up and then store the crystals in the real pouch. Sitos hands me his too.

Sitos laughs and then says, “The other roaches are still running around in the Forest like the idiots they are.”

Before leaving the scene, we destroy the leather garments of the two on the ground just in case. It proved to be unnecessary as we successfully reach the goal. We show the green referee standing at the back side of the Forest our crystals. Soon after, the end of the game is announced. They inform us that the next game will take place at the Arena at 10 AM. We head home.

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