The second of the trio of trials was between 1A and 1B, and it went exactly as the order would suggest. Lena’s quintet showed superior tactics and skill at virtually every turn. The one surprising twist came once 1B were reduced to two members while their foes still numbered five. A rather scrawny looking kid of Indian descent awoke his daemon’s natural form: a white tiger. Mikael was barely saved from the embarrassment of yielding by Gianni bringing his closed knife hard down on the kid’s head. Gail had managed to take down two herself, earning her some much overdue respect from her team.
With two weeks between each trial, 1C had four back-to-back weeks of training. Lethen had been working on his footwork and attempting to control his new gift. The others had their own areas of needed improvement and Angus was happily surprised by their progress. He had no doubts whatsoever about his squad’s chances when the game started the next morning. He was even starting to notice the rudiments of teamwork appearing. They hadn’t been together long enough for them to truly be used to each other, but at least they were beginning to understand that sometimes different styles worked well together.
As with the previous trial, Angus brought the entire team together for a meeting and strategy plan. Unlike before, he just set the dossiers down in front of the group and waited. After giving them a few minutes to get a rough idea what kind of group they were facing, he simply said, “Thoughts?”
“Is this the kid with the tiger that we heard about?” Marnie asked. “Ankur Deep? Sounds like a pirate.”
Angus nodded. “I believe that’s him. Uses a spear?”
“I don’t know how good he is with the weapon, but gaining the natural form of a daemon is a powerful skill. A daemon that can move freely is a daemon with fewer restrictions. Remember that while in beast form it can use it’s gift. Since he hasn’t awoken said gift yet, we have no way of knowing what it could be. Exercise extreme caution with him.”
“And we have Prolier’s old friend Dellman,” Lethen said. “You gonna be able to put the old friendship aside and take him down if necessary?”
Prolier snarled. He had been even more waspish than usual since the trial where he failed to strike a single blow. “Do you want me to show you what I’ll do to him if we meet?”
“Boys,” Angus said. “Play nice. I don’t want you two going into this tomorrow with injuries inflicted by me. You are all progressing nicely and I’m sure you will handle yourselves well, but can we get on with this? You have to be up early. Who else do we have?”
“A guy with a flail,” Prolier said. “Three heavy balls on the ends of chains. Goes by the name of Dmitri. A Russian with a bad attitude and a quick temper.”
“A flail is a difficult weapon to control,” Angus said, “but dangerous once mastered. Word is, he was disappointing in his first trial.”
“An American named Butch who uses two pistols,” Renala said. “Am I reading this right? He has two daemons?”
Angus nodded. “That’s right. He’s the only first year who’s ever started with a pair. It’s not unheard of for a daemon knight to have control of multiple daemons, but a student… I guess we’ll see how that works out.”
Renala read the file. “It says here that he’s from the most prestigious of the American families. Why is he here and not at one of the academies in the States?”
“Because Hikari is still considered the best school in the world. We only accept fifteen students from around the world each year. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but I can’t believe you got in Lethen. You have proven yourself worthy, but I know for a fact that competition for the few spots was fierce this year. From what I hear, Butch’s family was furious that their baby boy wasn’t placed in 1A. He’s a little spoiled, but his quick draw is nothing to sneeze at. Most ranged fighters are exactly that, ranged. This one excels at close fighting.”
“Lastly,” Angel said. “We have an English girl with a cleaver. Claire. She was the last one left in the fight against Lena’s crew. Another one with a temper it would seem. They seem to have more than their fair share of hotheads.”
“The Council of Three do try to keep them together when they make their determinations about who goes where.” Angus said. “I’m sure that if they had expected Lethen to be a berserker, he would’ve been right there with them. It often breaks down like this: 1A are the elites. The children of powerful knights with a proven genealogy. 1B is raw power. The students who seem to possess unnaturally strong fighting prowess. Often this group is the least stable of the three, but capable of cutting through a battle like dervishes. And 1C are the oddballs and niche fighters like we discussed before. That’s why teamwork is going to be so important for you.”
“So,” Prolier said, “we would be expected to lose in a one-on-one situation against just about anyone else.”
“Honestly yes, or at least you would’ve been before that first trial. It makes you the most interesting to watch and teach though. In order to get through, you’ll have to work together and be creative with your tactics. Speaking of which, any ideas on who should face whom? Having the third trial gives us a little more information on what to expect. The first round of trials are always held in the areas held by the second years. The desert was first, followed by 1A beating 1B in the mountainous region. That means we will be in the jungle zone. They will have a certain advantage there, as they are based in the forest, which is a lot more similar than where we are.”
“As usual,” Angel said, “I will go after their ranged fighter. Perhaps his penchant for close combat will mean I can stop him by keeping him at a distance.”
Prolier looked up. “I’ll go for the Russian. I can easily dodge his flail.”
“I would suggest Lethen fight the Russian,” Angel said. “Even you would find it difficult to dodge that unpredictable weapon.”
“Well if I can’t dodge it, the half-breed certainly can’t.”
“I don’t expect him to. Of all of you, Lethen is the most able to withstand punishment. Dmitri is their strongest physically, and whoever fights him is going to get hit at some point. There’s just no avoiding all three heads all the time. Prolier, I would send you after Claire.”
“You would have me face the only girl in the group? Is this punishment for getting poisoned in the the first trial?”
“No, this is tactics. She uses a shorter blade than you and you are much quicker and more agile. I don’t imagine she’ll be able to land a single hit on you. Her weapon it somewhat cumbersome. Not as much as the flail, but enough that it will be hard for her to mask her intentions. With your dodging skill, you should be able to see her moves like you choreographed them yourself.”
Prolier grinned at the sensei’s faith in his skills. It seemed that not only were they increasing in skill, but Angus was getting better at knowing which buttons to push to motivate his team.
“I guess Renala and I will face off against the foes with similar weapons?” Marnie asked.
“That would probably be for the best,” Angus said. “Renala is the only one who might be able to defend herself against a daemon tiger if it comes to that. Let’s hope it doesn’t. Marnie should be able to defeat a fellow sword bearer. Your fencing should have you dancing circles around Dellman.”
“So that’s it set?” Lethen asked. “We just go after our intended targets? It’s not like that worked too well the last time. We won, but it was all improvisation. All of our planning meant nothing.”
“How about we start applying some basic tactics then,” Angus said. “The jungle is going to have very little in the way of long distance line of sight. Angel is going to be crippled. On that same note, why don’t you stick together? You spread yourself too thin in that last one and had to wing it. Another little hint might be to enter the arena from an unpredictable direction. How do you think 1A knew where to find you?”
“Couldn’t you have told us this stuff before?” Marnie asked. “We might have done better in the first trial if you’d shared some of your wisdom before now.”
“Better than forcing the A squad to quit while they still had three members conscious? No, you weren’t likely to do better than that. That has cemented your place in school lore for generations. Throw that on top of what happened during the initial testing and most of the eyes in the school are firmly on you guys now. Let’s keep this thing rolling and knock that B team down tomorrow. I had to see what you five were capable of. Now I know and can tell you things that will work for you.”
Angus eyed the team. “You have all been training hard and tomorrow is going to be a long day. Get some sleep and remember that as soon as the trial is done, mission season officially begins. We will only have minor ones but we will be training on the road some of the time. Just because a mission is deemed easy enough for first years doesn’t mean it’s nearby or quick. We may have to go halfway across the world and get there undetected. You’ll learn to appreciate a good night’s sleep soon if you don’t already.” As the group disbanded, Angus motioned to Lethen to stay.
Once everyone else had walked away a bit, Lethen spoke. “What is it sensei?”
Angus waited another second to ensure he wouldn’t be heard. “It does make good tactical sense, but I have another reason to want you facing the Russian. One of my contacts got back to me a few days ago. The kid is the son of a prominent family. Not unusual at all in Hikari, in fact it’s almost required. The thing that stands out a bit is that this particular family is the one that happens to have hired a lot of shady individuals to run some illegal side businesses. Wanna guess what one of them is?”
“Daemon farming.” It wasn’t a question.
“Exactly. Silva is in their employ and I started looking at this thing from a different angle. I think there’s more to this Russian’s presence than just another rich foreign kid.”
“Do you think he was planted to spy on me?”
“Possible but unlikely. The headmaster is the one who wants you to fall, and he can watch you easily enough himself. I’m thinking it’s more likely that his entry was payment for your badly bound, almost untraceable daemon. If anyone ever discovered it’s origin, all it would do is lead back north.”
“They did him a favor so he’d let their kid in.”
“I think so. Either way, he might know something. There’s no audio on the cameras during the trials. Find out anything you can from him. Who knows, maybe they’re planning to get him into the family business. It won’t be easy though, Russians train more than any other country to withstand questioning techniques.”
“I’ve never interrogated someone before. What would you suggest I do?”
“If you want answers I suggest you use your imagination.”