The rest of the Challenges went as expected. Syth had gotten third in sword-fighting. For Agility, Stylo got first place and Jaya got second. Riider, not being the most balanced, came in third out of the top five.
For the next section, hand-to-hand combat, first place was put in Riider’s hands. Anything involving strength was his win. Stylo cam fourth.
Archery was next, and as expected, Stylo was the best, high above the others. Riider came in third, making him and Stylo tied for first.
The last part of the Challenges was a combination of all the skills.
“Listen up!” Acher called after Archery. “This final section, as you know, is to test your skill in a high-paced, slightly dangerous atmosphere. Are you ready?”
Everyone began to form into five lines in front of balance beams, like Agility.
“Take your places!”
Stylo tensed, his right foot on the starting line and his entire body shaking his anticipation. He rocked slightly back and forth, waiting for Acher’s call. “One, two, four…” he said silently to himself.
“Annnd, GO!” Acher’s voice was like hitting “play”. The group became alive and the first five people shot off onto the balance beams.
The first part was easy–run across the beam. Stylo even glanced around at his opponents and spotted Riider and Syth.
After the beam was a rope hanging from a wooden arc. Stylo grabbed it and leapt, swinging and landing on a tiny platform. There were several small platforms spread around, and he had to jump to make it to the nest one. Riider, with a larger build, was having a hard time with balancing, and he sometimes ended on his knees to keep from falling. Syth was doing pretty well, but he was slower.
Stylo made it to the end and was met with a flat wall blocking his path. The wall was on a slant, so with a running start he was able to reach the top. A sharp sword had been placed there, and he picked it up and jumped to the ground.
Now there was a figure, made of ___, in front of him. Taking a quick breath, he swing the sword and brought it down hard on the fake man. Over and over he hit it, puncturing and damaging it until it was obviously dead. Beside him he could hear Riider grunting in determination, and on the other side Syth had just arrived and was jabbing the figure with sharp, distinct breaths.
Next was Stylo’s favourite part–archery. To get to the bow and arrows he had to climb a rock wall. Once there, he shot three times at a target around fifteen feet away. Two hit the bull’s eye and the third landed just to the right of it.
At the bttom of the hill was a moving platform, and again he shot three arrows at a target. This time he managed to get bull’s eye all three times.
It was clear, however, that Syth was struggling. He was naturally slower and so he tried to hurry through the skills, increasing his chances of messing up. Still, he wasn’t last–he was ahead the of person and was in close competition with another.
Riider was often close to Stylo, sometimes ahead and sometimes behind. Sword-fighting with the figure, for instance, had left Stylo a little behind, but Rider had missed the bull’s eye a few time while shooting and even missed the target completely once.
Usually at this point in the race, there was a short run to the finish line, ending the entire Challenges. This time, however, Stylo was stopped by a small table in the middle of his lane. A single piece of paper was lying on it. He picked it up, realizing it was a set of instructions. He didn’t wan to stop to read some directions–the adrenaline was still surging in his blood, urging him to keep running, keep moving. He snuck a glance to his right. Riider was reading his note with an expression of disgust on his face. Stylo looked at his own paper and began skimming the paragraph.
“Congratulation on making it this far…a new surprise part to end the Challenges…simple strategy test…” His mind clicked. Strategy test. The same thing Acher had been talking about a week ago.
He tried to concentrate on the instruction, but he kept thinking of what he had overheard. Acher had said something about a battle strategy test, a simulation of some kind.
He focused on the note. “…goal is to not get caught and to reach the end…only allowed one chosen weapon…good luck.” That was it.
He put down the note and stared at the building in front of him. He had barely noticed it in his rush. A click of a door closing made Stylo jump. Riider must have entered. This brought him back to his senses–this was still a timed race. He ran to the door and opened it. Darkness flooded in. The room was fairly big, larger than Stylo had expected, but it was quite narrow. There was no sign of Riider–they must have put them all in separate rooms. For some reason, butterflies began to flutter inside his stomach. He stepped in and saw a light–a candle–several feet away. He walked to it, apprehensive.
On the ground lay several weapons–a bow with a quiver of arrows, a sword, a dagger, an axe, and a spear. A short note had been placed on the ground: “Pick one weapon, and only one. This test involves skill more than speed. Be wise.”
He immediately grabbed the bow, put the quiver on his back, and looked around. The darkness was thick, but not black enough to block out any shapes or hints o light. As he stared closer, he realized there were a few flickering lights, like the one by the weapons, distributed around the room.
Stylo began to creep towards one of the candles, keeping his senses on alert. This light was near a wall. As he got closer, he noticed a door, black like the rest of the wall, near it. Under the flame was a short note: “One door of many. Choose carefully.”
Gingerly, he touched the doorknob and quickly pulled his hand back. It was scalding hot. He turned his ear to the door and put it as close as he dared. Something crackled inside. Fire.
A shiver, mixed with excitement and nervousness, crawled up his spine. Never in the two years he had been here–or before that–had Stylo every done something like this.
He stepped away from the door and moved toward another, becoming more comfortable with his surroundings. He tested the new door’s temperature with no surprises, and when he listened for strange noises he heard none. He slowly turned the knob.
It was locked.
He didn’t know why, but he found he was a little upset at this. Now his curiosity was seizing him. He grabbed a pin from his pocket–it was allowed, wasn’t it?–and inserted it into the lock, twisting and turning it until it licked open. Smiling, Stylo put the pin back and opened the door.
Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t this. Maybe he imagined another dark room with mysterious candles. Instead, he could see quite clearly in the well-lit area. It was plain, with white walls and no furniture–not that he had expected any. The only things there were a glass window, another door, and two figures in the middle of the room.
These men were not unlike the figure Stylo had battled against during the Skills testing. The only difference was that these were more like robots or machines than dummies–they could actually move. Upon sensing Stylo’s arrival, one of them shot an arrow at him, and he was so shocked he almost forgot to dodge it. It was easy to avoid–they weren’t trying to kill him, but they were giving a warning.
He guessed it was more impulse than any train of thought when he stood poised and ready with an arrow threaded through his bow. He shot down the one man with the bow, who presented a dramatic death and flopped to the ground, but the other man was harder.
He came at Stylo with a sword, so fast he didn’t have time to grab another arrow. Out of desperation he blocked the sword with his bow, which magically did not break despite being made of wood. The man, being mechanical, didn’t have time to get prepared as Stylo kicked him in the stomach, sending him flying back. Now Stylo could grab another arrow, and he easily shot him. He fell with a thud.
Stylo breathed out. He leaned against the wall. So this was what Acher was talking about! Mechanical men, meant to mimic a real person’s actions.
As he stood up to continue on his quest, his head brushed against something on the wall. He turned around to examine it. It was a small switch pointing up. No words, no numbers, nothing.
What else had Acher said? Hadn’t there been mention of a switch or a button that controlled all figures?
His mouth opened, something like a gasp, as he realized what he had discovered. A switch to turn off all those mechanical men. A switch that would make the test easier, that would increase his chances of winning even higher than they already were.
There was almost no hesitation. His fingers were sweaty as he flicked the switch.
* * *