The placement of chairs and desks within the classroom were as such so that the student could subliminally, through the use of the Cadres strict non cheating rule to in fact cheat. According to the cadre and the books required for him to read as per CUSP’s guidance: the body must be tempered in order for the mind to follow. However, the spirit must be trained too.

The more he thought about it, sitting in the classroom preparing for the test the more it made him think these deeply profound thoughts, steel must be tempered, folded over itself many many times, polished and refined so that it may become the cutting edge that never fails to dispatch. He looked around him, he saw many people younger than he, and some too were older. He was what one may considered middle aged, the body putting wear and tear on the body. For this line of work he was in his prime, so why was it that he felt like an old man?

This test, the test that was being handed to him by the proctor, also a cadre, would determine the rest of his career in CUSP and ultimately his life from here on out. This was the end of the two year process to become part of CUSP’s elite paramilitary fighting unit SCEPTR. No one knew what the final exam would be, it was as much an initiation into a fraternity as it was a good paying gig with the added possibility of death. So there was the mystery, one did not know what would happen next, but to persevere plan for the worst and hope for the best… perhaps that was part of the plan too.

He took the testing packet graciously, well as graciously as anyone wracked by the uncertainty of the situation could. He wasn’t jittery like some of his peers were, but he definitely wasn’t a cool stoic either. There were sixteen students in his class taking the mystery test with him. He glanced around, noticing Etienne, with his bulbous nose and Linebacker’s build. He was huge for a SCEPTR trainee, most of the big guys washed out earlier in the cycle because they could not carry their own weight, a testament to how much of a stud Etienne was.

Ymir tried to conjure his own inner Etienne, to be a tough guy, to quell the anxiety in him and lock it down deep. He would either pass or fail, everything hinged on this one defining moment. ” No pressure,” he muttered under his breath.

“Open up your testing packets and begin.” said the proctor

The students all did so, when Ymir opened the test to the front page, it read in bold red lettering, “Remove yourself from the classroom,” his eyes almost popped out of his head, and his heart sank to his boots. He got to his feet quickly and almost tripped over the chair trying to place it easily under the desk. He walked out, test in hand and stood out next to the wall where a cadre was directing incoming traffic. Seven others followed behind him. Inside the old Sergeant’s mouth was a chewed up unlit stogey he moved around in that huge maw of his. The man had a chin the size of the planet itself. The students began to nickname him double chin for obvious reasons… but no one ever dared call that to his face… also for obvious reasons.

Either way the man looked pretty pissed in that short stocky angry little guy syndrome that he pulled off so well. Then, like a switch the expression on his face turned from a furrowed scowl to a smile and he said, ” Congratulations gentlemen you have passed the first phase of the examination to become a full fledged SCEPTR member. If you were holding your breath please continue to do so,” Ymir wasn’t sure but he could’ve swore he heard a whole hallway of men about shit their pants out of excitement and still more to come… impending doom.

“An now the real shit begins follow me everyone,” said Double Chin, the irony was not lost on Ymir, he smirked. The seven or so students were joined by seven more from down the hallway, they too must have gotten the pleasant surprise. They all were led outside into the cold of the morning. Activity buzzed around them with trainees in black sweats working out. The elite training grounds for CUSP’s most highly decorated combat unit SCEPTR. Its seasonal weather made it ideal for conducting exercises that simulated most if not all forms of weather. Nestled neatly in the south eastern region of CUSP’s Imperial might, the simulated exercises were often conducted clandestinely to engage the trainees that were coming through in unconventional warfare. Ymir glanced out at one of the hopeful prospects. A young man about his height and build, probably a bit younger than himself. He was hopping up and down the road like a sweaty demented bunny rabbit. Plus he did so over his own peers. Which made it even worse, for if one failed and gave up, they would surely bring all their weight down on their buddy, and though it did not look like a test it was.

The young man was being subjected to the hell week where his physical limits were to be tested. The guy seemed ready to fall out though, each jump was progressively becoming weaker. The trick was to push harder, push through and persevere. He wanted so badly to turn around and tell him that, hell he wished someone wouldve been kind enough to share that information with him, but everyone had their own path to follow. He would not interfere, but mainly because doing so could ruin his own chance to become a SCEPTR.

If the trainee was strong enough during this test of endurance he would come to learn more about himself during hell week than ever before.

Here he was daydreaming about how other people should hope to succeed when he was here struggling in a different way. Out the corner of his eye he saw a trainee just drop on top of one of his peers like a sack of rocks. He tried to get up, but his legs were shaking, crumpling underneath him like spaghetti. Within a millisecond two cadre were in his face calmly.

“Trainee are you quitting,” one of them asked. The other asked if he needed to see a medic. The trainee shook his head to both. But he could not get to his feet either. Through tears and phlegm he tried his hardest to get to his feet but couldnt.

“Thank you for trying for a slot within CUSPs Special Operations Group: SCEPTR. Medical staff will be with you shortly to debrief and assess your medical condition. ” There was no contempt and disappointment in the Cadre’s voice. SCEPTR was not for everyone. The student relented and just sat down, where he watched his peers and friends go on through the intense training.

It was a demoralizing sight, to watch someone the students knew was a strong individual. They did not show their emotions, but it was written on some of their faces. The trick to passing the selection exercise was not to incur so much injury that they would have to drop during training. The process was designed for people to either adapt or die attempting to do so.

Ymir and his group led by cadre walked by the turtle farm of students starting down their own journey like pilgrims passing one another on the highway.

It was a harrowing tale of what was to come. Along the road to becoming CUSP’s elite. Friends would become foes, and new bonds would form, for in SCEPTRs greatest strength was the commonality among all life forms for good will and prosperity. Or so the manual read.

Up in the highest peaks of the Dresdell mountains, anxiety cut through Ymir’s energy. It hel him at bay, disallowing him to gsther the proper balance he needed to fully climb the mountain. He had struggled mostly all the way up, having to rig together make shift picks since losing his equipment in a near fatal fall. He just did not have the liberty of falling and then having his abilities save him. There was no coming back for him, his worked a little differently. The battle sense only alerted him of danger, and in certain cases allowed him to overcome his danger through a form of minute reactive evolution. Strength, speed and agility things he naturally possessed as an athlete were enhanced or even altered in some cases. It wasn’t flashy but it got the job done. Now? not so much, and he didnt want to test the limits of his powers by falling off a mountain… he was sure he wouldnt survive that.

If the event was timed then he was doomed, for in stopping, propping his arms and legs into a spot where the cold sleet could not him, he was able to rest for a moment, to gather his bearings. The situation had evolved into a wholly different monster, the variables were changing all around him, and none for the better. The route too treacherous. In his moment of pseudo respite he took out a knife his father had given him, he could see his face now the man was a hard worker, industrial, hands like mallets. “Don’t give up son,” he heard him say. Eyes scanned all about him and he found a thick branch sticking out the side of the mountain just shy of where he was. He took to hacking at it as best he could without losing his grip and plummeting to his death. From the long thick branch he was able to make L shaped ice shoes by tying five fifty cord around where the sticks intersected, and then rigging them to the backs and bottoms of his boots. The process shaved about 20-30 minutes off his time from inception to completion. With the added support from the augmented boots he was able to take the mountain more easily. On his way up he saw no one, and thought it likely that he was the last to complete the trial.

At the mountain’s summit what remained of the trial’s participants were standing in formation with cadre taking note of Ymir as he came up and fell in.

“Welcome trainee Cruz, so glad you could join our little party, even if it is fashionable to be late,” Double chin said.

“sorry sir,” cruz replied

“No matter, you’re lucky getting up the mountain wasn’t timed”. Hearing the cadre say that was a weight off his shoulders. Thank God. But the cadre had more, ” Power, respect, merit, equality these are things that make a true SCEPTR operative. Ten of you left now, the true test of wills will begin.”

“Drendell mountain is the culmination of three years of grueling work. This is the end gentlemen. The pipeline is finished, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You are all fine students, not in several years have we had so many of you best the mountain. It goes to show that the times are changing, enemies growing stronger, and smarter. With that, we must be stronger.” He paused for a moment, ” Okay, so there are ten of you, wait for your name to be called, this is it people. The last one, for all the marbles. Live combat, no rules, limiters released… against each other.”

The realization hadn’t hit just yet, the blistering cold made it that everyone was on a short delay. ” When your name is called move to the designated marking. Each fight will have thirty minute time limit,” as Double chin finished talking a spec of light gleamed in the distant white out, a few of the students noticed, even himself, but said nothing. After a moment the spec grew larger and was not indeed a spec but a person flying at incredible speeds that shot through the mix of hail and snow like a bullet in the night. He landed behind cadre.

The man and his sudden entrance was none other than Command Brigadier Generzl Carlos Brigante, it said so on his uniform. Everyone seemed to straighten up a little more crisp than they had been. But he wasnt paying any attention to them, they were like gnats to him. Irritatedly he wiped the cold frosty white that settled on his shoulders, three cadre hurried to him and they spoke in hushed tones, Ymir could not make it out over a sudden gale of gusting wind that blew against him and the assembled trainees. The deliberation took but a moment but once it was done the cadre fell back to their respective sections. They started calling names and pairing individuals together.

The temperature gradually dropped to freezing. A thermostat on a make shift lean to read twenty degrees. But the bottom was falling out and everyone knew it had to be colder. The wind chill itself cut through most layers the trainees had on. Even the cadre were affected, bundled up in their huge coats with fur lining the inside collars and hoods. The problem wasn’t so much the cold itself, it was more the combination of that and the precipitation that made for bad company. A standard military goretex coat would eventually soak through.

Despite the cold the Drendell Rockies were a sight to behold. They were blue capped mammoths that stretched almost as high into the sky as CUSP’s biggest metropolises. Its beauty however paled in comparison to its rich history found in the annals of CUSP’s most cherished codexes. To become a SCEPTR operative one must know the historical annals inside out. It was the sole reason for that ridiculous reading list he had to complete. Most of the books themselves were about the Drendell natives against the God Emperor and his ancient military before the western continent’s unification.

The Drendell were Shaman folk who worshipped wolves. When CUSPs ancient conventional forces came to bear upon the Drendell, they lasted for over a year as a guerilla force conducting unconventional warfare against the larger and more oppressive force. Eventually as with any swan song the Drendells went out with a bang and were subsequently defeated, yet even so, their greatest claim to world history notated them as fearsome warriors who stared death down in a contest of wills. He was sure at that time they weren’t fighting on top of a frigidly cold mountain, but either way he still needed to summon that very same will.

“May the glory of CUSP guide you steady,” said the cadre assigned to Ymir. He had drawn the short straw, given the initial track up the mountain. He was lost, therefore he would fight first. It was the only way he could get his SCEPTR tab.

To his opposite, and placed before him was stout svelte blonde man, from the south western region of the empire. Wilshire North, a liberal minded fellow from the beach. Rightly so, everything was so easy going out there near the beach as he could imagine it. The man was not stereotypical however, Ymir remembered him from the team events, Wilshire was a team player, social and witty when necessary, but what made him a threat was his ability. The man could sketch, and as strange as that sounded, anything he put to pad came to life. Basically anything he could think of, if he could draw it, it would conjure itself into existence. The man was regulated to his own creativity, but often times opted for animals or weapons that would accentuate him as a fighter.

Fuck… Ymir thought. As a competitor he knew he’d drawn the worst of luck with his opponent, not only did Wilshire know all there was to know about him, but the terrain favored him as well.

When cadre called the fight to begin, the snow poured harder, blanketing the hollowed out plateau of a mountain in even more white. Wilshire wasted no time, dropped to his knees and pulled out pen and pad. Feverishly he went to drawing, a frenzy of an act that conjured to life a wild dog that hopped out of the sketch book and into the three dimensional world with nothing more than an after thought. Ymir came into the fray, digging into a side pouch on his person to pull out three shiny shuriken, held between the folds of his fingers respectively. He crouched low, waiting for Wilshire to make a move. It was the wrong move, Wilshire sent the dog straight at him. He dove to the side rolling; then came up to backhand the dog as it homed in on him. Meanwhile out the corner of his eye Ymir saw Wilshire drawing more, lost in the world of creation, the man was vulnerable, the man’s eyes trading glances with the page and Ymir.

The speed at which Wilshire worked was uncanny, and Ymir was being sucked into the pace of the match for not only did he have two dogs to deal with now but also a ferocious bear that trudged forth to intercept him. A swiping claw came out to knock Ymir down to the snow. He was out of the way and dancing around the animal. It roared defiantly, its fur bristling gray,b lack and white the color of the lead which brought it to life. Wilshire truly had a gift on his hands that put most to shame. Ymir bypassed the creature and went straight for the source. He felt a sharp pain at his ankle, the dog’s teeth bared and growling, and had hold on him, and it would not let go, in fact it shook Ymir’s leg with the intention to tear it off and never set it free, he tripped, fell to the ground scrabbling to grab hold of the wolf whom although was not as big as the bear certainly made up for it in ferocity and agility.

He cursed loudly, punching at the dog, the third lashed out and hit the dog right on top of its snout, with a resounding crunch and the dog fell over whimpering. He had barely enough time to get to his feet before the bear closed in on him. It went in to swipe at Ymir once more, his battle sense kicked in, adrenaline coursing through his veins on maximum. Everything had a profound clarity to it., the smell of his own blood, drew action out of him. The bear missed, Ymir reacting, placing both hands on the ground when he dropped, the left leg extended out in a stretching side lunge, he spun counter clockwise, pivoting on the injured ankle. The extended leg sweeping bear’s legs out from under it. The force behind Ymir’s spinning body spinning body dropped the bear on its neck with a sickening pop. As Ymir regained his composure he caught a front kick that pushed him to the ground a few feet. He was able to block the incoming blow, and drew back to his feet slowly.

“This is it bro, the best of the best. Its either you or me and it damn sure aint gonna be me who doesnt pass this test, sorry” said wilshire and he drew a mace and shield and pulled them out as he dug into the page. The shield was a spiked variation of the one’s issued to CUSP’s military police forces. Wilshire brought the shield to bear on Ymir shoving the serrated edge against him he scraped it against his body then shoved off, angling out and away only to vector in with the maul to end Ymir. Aiming for his head Ymir was able to duck out of the way luckily.

“Spineless from the start, you never had what it took to be a part of the organization.” Wilshire muttered, brought the maul up in a back hand stroke, the edge grazed Ymir and he reacted, spinning in a circle immediately, delivering a jab and then an uppercut, he dropped the shuriken in the snow. Both punches landed on Wilshire’s shield. Wilshire parried and pushed his weight on Ymir. The intent was to push Ymir off the edge of the cliff. He gave ground, Wilshire pursued, the other students along with the cadre watched. Silently Wilshire the shorter and stockier of the two, thought it best to push his weight around. The man was getting arrogant in front of him, it was almost as if he felt he didnt need his powers against him. Ymir had just enough time to see himself falling backward as Wilshire plunged forward, tackling him off the cliff.

Wilshire stood there motionless, lowered his shield and went to look over the ledge when suddenly Ymir appeared grabbing hold of Wilshire’s legs and pulling himself up in one swift motion, his spine and lower hips and torso contorted sideways and he brought his knee to pulverize the side of his opponent’s ribs. He scored an injury on Wilshire, her dropped to his shield and held his side, cadre made note of it. Wilshire recomposed himself, in his moment of daze, the transmutated construct of lead, although diamond har, dissipated into the snow, as nothing more than excited molecules. Wilshire charged in on the taller Ymir, knowing that his own style favored being on the inside.

Ymir knew his lank and reach would be an issue for the man if he could keep him to the outside. The problem was that Wilshire was a trained pugilist, and he not so much.

They came at each other careful and measured, warm blasts of air crystalizing from their mouths in the darkness. Wilshire initiated at mid range with a blitzing combination of jabs crosses and uppercut. His style was heavily influenced by the pugilist sport, as evidenced by the way he bobbed and weaved to his right and then left, Ymir missed a jab and Wilshire capitalized on his mistake, scored a hook that came around from a diagonal route and slammed into the side of his head. It floored Ymir.

while the two fought, the other trainees erected a quick fire underneath the lean to, and put up a tarp for overhead cover for some much needed warmth. The smoke wafting from underneath made it hard to see the fight but it did not matter.

” I dont see how you could make it this far, you’re so damn soft ive seen chicks take better hits than you,” the blonde put a boot into Ymir’s side, Ymir thought he heard something crack, when the second came all Ymir could do was think of how he’d gotten to this moment. He knew that CUSP was grooming him, preparing him for a life in the austere environments. They wanted to see if he had the heart to handle the types of situations SCEPTR would challenge him with. He would not quit, could not stop now.

So he rolled to his feet, Wilshire forged sword and shield out of malleable dark energy. The man’s will and indignation were the same that alone gave him the potential to be a one man army. Wilshire charged in once more, Ymir was on the bounce this time, and back pedaled to an angle where the pugilist cut him off. He battered Ymir with his shield and drove him into the crowd of hopeful prospects, they shoved him back into the fray.

“Stop running,” yelled Etienne, who warmed his hands to a burn barrel, his powers gave him an invulnerability to the elements, but regardless the cold still numbed his fingers. He watched Ymir dance around Wilshire, the man was being forced to fight the type of fight Wilshire wanted, and watched the gradual transition in momentum, it was a fascinating thing for him to watch, but felt the outcome of the match was already decided. It was a matter of time before they all realized it as well. The cadre next to him a female psychotherapist and a hand to hand combat specialist jotted notes down on paper, while a full bird Colonel watched with his hands damn near inside the fire, it did not matter though, as he was transfixed.

“These children they have much to learn, yet i see potential,” he muttered. Regardless the battering continued, Ymir blocking yhe blows from the shield as he could. His opponent could not score a clean hit with the ink blade he possessed. Ymir was just barely able to stay out of range, and just step ahead of his opponent’s rhythm. His battle sense kicked in again, well it had always been on but there were certain parts when more awareness hit him. This was one of those times. Ymir feinted hard to the right suddenly and then juked left with a a right cross that landed on Wilshire’s sword arm right where the sword arm bicep met elbow.

The calculated attack scored on Wilshire made it so that the force behind the blow stunned as well. The breach in concentrated will on behalf of his opponent gave Ymir hope, for in its happening the potential for him to advance was now finally possible. The concentration of hardened ink as shield and sword burned thick ebon globules of condensed energy, Ymir noticed that he saw Wilshire survey the affected area, and more to the heart of the situation his own options, for in the luck of the draw he found himself without the sketch pad nd so he gathered himself and by force of will alone yielded the globules of dark energy to his command once more. THe strain on his body allowed for fatigue to begin its inevitable trek through the body.

“Luck’s ran out now.” Wilshire hissed and then jerked his arm back, with all the might he possessed in his body the globules dark solidified into a whip swiping through the air to crush Ymir. He took heart and leapt frantically into the fray once more.

Ymir felt no regret but in his heart and mind knew that he had not found the answer to the dilemma of defeating Wilshire. The dive into a combat roll drove him underneath the whip and into the heart of WIlshire’s defenses. He risked it all in the bold move; the look on WIlshire’s face was priceless, Ymir smelled ammonia off his opponents body. A left hook came out to greet his opponent, lead foot pivoting with the turn of his hips and torso, and its force was enough to fracture a rib in the process. Wilshire staggered backward and fell, his concentration shot from the pain from the inflicted injury.

“Yield,” said Ymir he was injured too but in knowing himself he felt he could push harder.

“I will not,” the blonde man retorted, he could not continue but it did not matter. Wilshire tried to stand to his feet but faltered. Cadre called a stoppage to the duel. Two medics came and made sure everyone could walk out under their own power.

“Well done the both of you” said the cadre psychotherapist as she took notes, they watched him evenly, jotting things down and annotating as well. The cadre cleared her voice and asked, ” In a life or death situation the victor is the one who pushes hardest, yes or no?” She was average looking, even for those within her profession. Brown hair brown eyes mousy features.

“Candidate Cruz”

“YEs”

“Do you ever have thoughts of suicide”

“No”

“Have you ever killed small animals for fun” she asked.

Again with the crazy fucking questions. It was starting to annoy him, especially knowing that they were asking him the same questions over and over, just phrased differently. That and the cold, by far the cold was kicking his ass worse than any living breathing creature ever could. Eventually he was allowed to take a spot near one of the burn barrels the heat was a glorious victory that brought a smile to his face. Even so there was a twinge of self regret there could only be one.

Here he was sitting in an austere environment no support system, the people around him, his peers were his only source of friendship. They were the ones he looked to as friends. Yes, it sucked that one of them was not going to make the cut. He knew how hard Wilshire trained, because they were beside each other every step of the way. He really wanted to ask the cadre if there the guy would have another shot at becoming a member.

That night he watched six pairings go at it for a slot in becoming a member of CUSP’s elite. The hardships were far from over, it just meant that they were tabbed now.

Someone told him once, ” A warriors duty is to learn from his or her mistakes, to spend much time in reflection, so that when the opportunity to improve arises, it is he who benefits from its happening,” he wasnt sure where the quote came from, perhaps it was his, or maybe someone made it up. Usually when it sounded good in his head it was usually something someone took the time to share with him.

Wilshire for all his shit talking was an excellent teammate, who had the capability to instill a sense of self worth and confidence, he knew how to carry a team. He was smart, perceptive, a people person. Himself? Not so much, he was more a loner, and fumbled over his words and towards what he wanted to say sometimes. He learned a lot from Wilshire, the man was a little older than him but a well full of knowledge when it came to social settings and situations.
He was married already, had a kid, was an attorney for juvenile delinquents in a former life before joining CUSP’s military and then trying out for the selection process

The feelings he felt were bitter sweet, having served time with someone, shared the same hardships, laughed at the same jests, broke the same fasts, one can learn to open up and become friends with the soldiers one trains with. He certainly had done that, and so the feelings unsettled him a bit.

Perhaps his victory was assured simply out of luck. Or maybe it was ordained, who knew? What he did know was that some things

Each ability that came into use seemed to be more fantastic than the last that came before it. He felt blessed that he had something to show for at the end of the process. As the abilities themselves were less about luck and more about a combination of variables that comprised the mind, body, spirit, circumstance and of course talent.

“Thats real cute, real cute son,” he said.

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