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The Altered Hunters were fully engaged, their attention fixed on Edvard as he spoke. The abnormality of the situation was apparent, prompting them to hang on his every word.
"The number of Altered in our world is increasing by the day!" exclaimed Edvard. "Scientists and researchers are discovering new methods to create even more Altered individuals. It's a trend that shows no sign of slowing down."
"By now, I'm certain that you're all aware of the black liquid that's spreading throughout the lower-tier cities. Some of you may have even had the unfortunate experience of encountering this new breed of Crazed Altered that has emerged as a result.
"Given the urgency of the situation, we have determined that the Altered Hunters must be put on a fast track to accelerate your progress," Edvard announced. The Hunters exchanged anxious glances, eager to hear what he had in mind.
"We will be seeking out the most exceptional among you, those with natural talents and abilities that set them apart. We will closely monitor your progress, with the aim of helping you become pillars that support the Altered Hunters of tomorrow," Edvard explained.
"Today, I’ve called you all to undergo a series of tests and assessments. Regardless of your current status, whether you have no stars or three stars, you will all be treated as equals. We will evaluate each of you based on your potential to excel as an Altered Hunter."
Murmurs and whispers rippled through the group. The stars were everything to an Altered Hunter. They represented their hard work and dedication to the cause, so how could their leader dismiss them so easily with his words?
"Now, now, I understand that all of you take pride in the stars you have earned up until now, and I’m not saying that we’re abandoning the system completely. In fact, at the end of the tests, we will give you your new evaluation." Edvard explained. "With enough dedication and hard work, it's fully possible that any apprentice might make it as a three-star Hunter."
"However, if you fall behind your peers or show that you aren't deserving of your star rank, you’ll only have yourself to blame. I assure you that this is all in the the best interest of the Hunters. It’s an essential step to prepare for the looming war," he continued.
"In the upcoming conflict, we need to ensure that the best among us receive the support they need to succeed. Those who are close to becoming four-star Hunters will take an operative assessment with the four-star Hunters, with the potential to advance to five stars."
"After the assessments, you will be allowed to select weapons and armour from the Armory, equivalent to your new star grade. In the case your star rank has worsened, nobody is going to take back your current equipment. The shame in knowing that you aren’t deemed worthy of it will hopefully serve as enough motivation to do better in the future," Edvard concluded.
Innu scanned the room, taking note of the other hunters' reactions to the news. As a newcomer with no stars, he had little to lose in this assessment, which allowed him to approach it with a sense of ease.
Many of the hunters with lower star ratings seemed highly motivated to prove themselves. Blake, in particular, had a glint of determination in his eyes, eager to demonstrate his worth.
Meanwhile, the more experienced hunters with three stars or more looked more uneasy than Innu had expected, likely feeling the pressure to maintain their status.
"This is my chance…my chance to stand by my father's side," Blake thought to himself, feeling a sense of determination wash over him.
The assembled Altered Hunters trailed behind their leader and the five-star Hunters until they were eventually divided into two groups. The larger of the two groups comprised hunters with two stars or less, including Innu and Blake, and numbered in the thousands. They followed their leaders into a massive building that seemed to be carved into the mountain.
The ceiling was shrouded in darkness, providing no source of light to gauge the size of the room, but the dampness in the air hinted at its enormity. Innu followed the others, his hand brushing against the rocky wall, feeling the sharp edges and the moistness that clung to them.
Finally, they entered another large hall and were told to spread out. A few small light sources were attached to the wall, so they at least knew where the edge was, but even the Hunters kept bumping into each other.
Three five-star Hunters had entered the room with them: Fang, the ninja-like Hunter that Innu had talked with, Edvard the head, as well as a large man with a huge back who looked like a giant standing next to the other two.
"Everyone, throw your personal belongings on the floor in front of you, including any armour or hunter gear you have on your body," Edvard shouted.
Everyone did as they were told, and Innu even put his axes on the floor. Based on what he had learned about Anti-Altered equipment, he imagined this was a precaution to stop them from drawing the powers from their weapons.
"Alright, for the first test, I want everyone to get into this position," Edvard announced, gesturing to Fang who then demonstrated the proper form. The position was relatively straightforward: a squat with legs shoulder-width apart, knees bent, and buttocks hovering as if sitting on an invisible chair.
"Everyone hold your position! Remember, this is a competition, so don't give up easily," Edvard reminded them. With that, he signalled for the test to begin.
Without hesitation, the Hunters got into position, legs shoulder-width apart, and began to squat. Many of them had trained their bodies extensively and found the exercise relatively easy. However, Innu, a master at using his legs and training his leg muscles, found it particularly effortless and was sure that he could hold the position for an incredibly long time.
Ten minutes passed until the first started to drop out, though many of those who remained were sweating from the exercise.
Hugo, the towering five-star hunter, commented on their performance, "They're holding up pretty well."
Fang, who had previously demonstrated the position, looked towards Innu as he spoke, "We’re not here to look for ‘pretty well’. This is merely the first assessment, and we're searching for the truly talented among them."
"I see someone has caught your eye, Fang. There are a few in this group that have caught mine as well," Edvard stated. "We don't need this to take all day, so why don't we speed this up a bit?"
Edvard walked over to one of the Hunters who were sweating, focusing, trying to ignore the pain. Edvard stood right in front of him and then tilted his glasses down, revealing a pair of red glowing eyes. They twinkled slightly in the dark.
"Sit down," Edvard ordered the name.
As soon as the Hunter heard those words, it was almost as if he was possessed. He could feel something take over his body, and immediately he sat down on the floor and was out of the assessment.
"Let's keep this going," Edvard smiled, placing his sunglasses back on and walking to the next student.
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