12: YOU PASS
“Do you have any idea what you are doing?” Duran asked.
An incredulous look had settled on his face. There was something else playing underneath and illuminating in his eyes. It came across as worry in one moment and then descended rapidly into fear, the next, before being ruthlessly yanked beneath the surface by the soldier’s experienced control over himself.
“I believe I do… sir.” Hope responded calmly.
It was the way he spoke. There was a surety in his words and demeanor that had not been there when he first entered the arena. It was most unsettling and Duran found himself regarding Hope as a primal threat, to be eliminated at all costs. He restrained and chastised himself internally.
Get a grip. It’s just training.
“The crowd is impatient sir.”
Duran snapped back to the reality. He realized, he had been frozen to the spot, staring at Hope. He, for the first time, heard the booing of the spectators. Were they booing him? They were booing him. Raw anger coursed through Duran’s veins. He had defeated this upstart and yet they booed him simply because the boy had willed himself back up to his feet. Yet, will himself, he had and Duran could not deny the fact that he was impressed. It was time to see just how far the boy could go.
“Indeed, they are. Come, let us examine your readiness one more time.”
“Good to go?” Hope asked.
Duran sighed and glanced at the crowd.
His head snapped back as Hope’s right fist continued to familiarize itself with the surroundings of Duran’s cheek.
There was suddenly no more air to complete the sentence. Hope’s left fist had driven it out of his lungs when his well-placed blow hand landed right below Duran’s rib cage. Duran doubled over, and rammed his head, into Hope’s, knocking the boy backward and buying himself some time. The crowd was cheering now. Hope skipped backward and then moved from side to side. Duran kept himself moving as well. The boy was fast. Ridiculously so. Duran had noticed it during their first duel. Hope had reacted quickly enough to reduce what was sure to be a direct blow to the chest, to a glancing blow. Duran had thought nothing of it then. He had rationalized it as dumb luck. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
Hope moved in, in a half jog. Duran braced in his stance and saw the right fist come in. A timely deflection with his left hand was enough to parry the blow. The boy had spun around on his right foot and his left was now extending towards Duran’s mid-section. Duran instinctively pivoted so that his right side moved into the path of the kick instead. His right elbow was already coming down. The impact was solid. The deflection a good one. Hope’s left leg was sent back down to the ground, no doubt in a bit of pain.
Duran moved in quickly, his powerful right bicep, perpendicular to Hope’s neck. The close line was intended to be a spar ending blow. It never connected. Duran moved through, only to see that Hope had arched his torso backward. His hands were on the ground and though his upper body was upside down, he never took his gaze off Duran.
You’re not moving.
Duran realized, he was rooted to the spot again, but it was too late to react. Hope had lifted himself into a handstand and wrapped his feet around Duran’s neck. He yanked, and Duran felt himself uprooted from the ground and in the air. He twisted his body to minimize the damage on impact and felt the pain embrace skin, muscle, and bone, as his body slammed into the ground. Duran fell into a roll. Years of battle experience had trained his ears to pick up the sound of rushing footsteps and he knew Hope had broken into a run. Duran sprang to his knees just in time to block a kick aimed at his ribs.
Hope sprang back just in time to evade a counter blow, aimed between his eyes. Duran took advantage of the time, he’d bought himself, and got to his feet. The crowd had erupted, more than Duran had ever heard them before. He looked at Hope, who was still bouncing on his feet.
Time. He is taking time away from me. And he’s doing it efficiently.
Duran charged forward this time. It was evident he could not remain on the defensive. Despite the boy’s sudden improvement in skill, he was still small and less powerful. His only chance at lifting Duran was to execute that scissor maneuver again. It was evident it had taken a lot out of him. What’s more, Duran was ready for it this time. Duran saw his first kick blocked, but also saw that the impact still knock Hope off balance. He lifted his leg higher and lashed out a second kick. It connected and spun Hope off the ground, sending the boy sprawling to the floor. Duran moved in, expecting the boy to spring to his feet. He did. Duran’s fist was already moving in. But it met air.
Damn your reflexes boy!
Hope spun around the blow and pulled Duran’s arm with all his might, yanking the big soldier forward. Hope had already launched himself into the air, yelling as he did. His elbow was aimed right beneath Duran’s eyes. The impact felt bone crunching. Duran’s head snapped backward and then forward again. Hope’s momentum had carried him through and Duran could see the boy’s left fist aimed at his solar plexus. Duran clenched his fist as well. Hope had leaped to make up for the height difference. It would be his undoing. Duran side-stepped the blow and rammed his arm through Hope. The boy cartwheeled off the impact and splattered on the ground.
Hope lay on the ground unmoving, but panting heavily. He felt as though he had been run over by a moon. He could still hear the crowd cheering but there was something different about their cheers. It was saturated with excitement. It became clear to Hope that he had impressed, despite losing again. He tried to get up but felt a heavy boot rest on his back.
“Enough… boy. You pass.” Duran said.
A big smile played across Hope’s face before he collapsed. The last thing he heard was the chanting of the crowd. And this time, they were chanting his name.
Duran watched as a team of junior medics rushed into the arena with a repulsion hovercraft. They carried the unconscious Hope into the craft and whizzed out of the arena, just as quickly as they came.
“Did you train the boy, Kael?” Duran asked, at the same time another man emerged from the shadows on the side of the arena and walked towards him from behind.
The man was tall and toned. He was considerably less muscular than Duran and his facial features were soft and kind. His brown eyes held much the same effect and his long twisty dark hair blended gently with his brown skin. He tied a headband around his head so that a few of his locks framed either side of his face, while the rest, rolled back to about the same length as his neck, behind him. He wore the same gear Duran wore, but the rank carved into the left shoulder plate was different.
“You are breaking protocol. Are you that flustered by his performance?” Kael asked in a light voice.
Duran turned around to glance at Kael, who smiled at Duran. Duran sighed.
“I am sorry. He reminds me of you when you first joined the Gaian military. He also earned it with his performance.”
“Yeah… I agree.” Kael’s eyes roamed through the spectators. His eyes fell on the three girls who had been cheering for Duran. Kael’s eyes lingered on the dark skinned one, who had locks similar to his, yet longer.
“Are you spacing out?” Duran asked.
“Hmmm? Oh no.” Kael let out an embarrassed laugh. “It’s just… something changed in the middle of your fight with him. Did you notice? And it all started when those girls began cheering for him. Particularly the youngest of them.”
“There you go again analyzing. I’m sure he got inspired.”
“Inspiration is not enough to nearly defeat you, Duran. Even if you were not taking this fight as seriously as you normally would.”
“Hmph. Are you saying we should keep an eye on them?” Duran asked.
“Well… I don’t see anything wrong with it. After all, they already are.”
Kael nodded at a lady who stood with a few others, behind her. It was the medic who had examined Kaya. She was also staring at the three girls in the crowd.
“I see. Let’s call it a day then. We can screen more people in a week.” Duran said.
“I agree. Well, I’ll leave you to announce the close of examinations today. I have to be on my way.”