It was four minutes only before Nikumu started screaming.
His shrieks, almost feminine, rang through the night in piercing bursts, and Kisaro's first instinct was not to help the man, but to find the source of danger. And then he realised: the only one who was still calm, was Hiroshi.
"You," Kisaro growled. His blue eyes narrowed, and Hiroshi merely smiled.
"I'll see you there if you make it, Hanta." He snapped his fingers, and his body seemed to fade away into wisps of fog. Cursing, Kisaro ran to Nikumu.
"Somebody help me snap him out of it. As much as I'd like to leave him, we can't. That's not part of the test."
Raiyo shook the man's shoulders, yelling at him, but Nikumu had been reduced to a screaming, writhing mess on the narrow path. Tears streamed down his face; his mouth was twisted open in an expression of terror. Again, Kisaro swore. Mei crouched beside them, raising her hand above him. A dark energy sept from her palm, engulfing him instantly. Slowly, the screams ceased, and the writhing was reduced to a trembling. She was more powerful than he'd imagined.
"Wake up," she growled, retracting the shadows. Nikumu blinked twice, then jolted upwards and lunged for Mei's throat. She threw herself backwards, as Kisaro grabbed the man's arm.
"She just saved you!" Raiyo yelled. "Snap out of it already!"
"What the hell did you do to me, witch?" Nikumu demanded, oblivious to Raiyo. Mei narrowed her eyes, swallowing hard. Nikumu threw him aside, and Kisaro stumbled. Why did they have to get stuck with this idiot?
"Either you stop being so petty, Nikumu, or we all fail the trials. It's your choice," Kisaro snapped.
Nikumu shot them all a dark look, before snorting irritably, and storming down the path. "Come on then," he grumbled. "Or we're going to be late."
Kisaro scowled at him, but followed anyway. Mei thanked he and Raiyo politely, and Kisaro shrugged it off. "We'll have to look out for Hiroshi. If anybody starts to scream or anything showing their fear, do not leave them. Do I make myself clear?"
"Who made you the leader?" Nikumu hissed. He still sounded shaken. "I'm the most experienced."
"Also the most stupid," Raiyo pointed out helpfully. "Kis is leader. Mei?"
"Kisaro is leader," Mei agreed. Shooting them all a disdainful look, Nikumu turned up his nose.
At which point, Nikumu started to scream again.
Mei knelt beside him, her hands once more emitting the dark energy. A misty shape started to form above her, and Kisaro charged forwards. Hiroshi, forming quickly from the mist, evaded his blade, instead thrusting his palm towards Mei. Shadows rose from around her, forming a protective shield around her as she turned, quickly stumbling to her feet. For a shards of a second, the two faced off with magic, and Kisaro realised Hiroshi had released Nikumu.
Then the shadows seemed to fall, broken beneath Hiroshi's power, and Mei collapsed, convulsing more violently than Nikumu had. Her lips were open in a silent scream of anguish; terror filled her eyes as she twisted, flailing helplessly. Kisaro charged Hiroshi. He slammed into his examiner, knocking them both over. His concentration seemed broken, but Hiroshi had already pinned Kisaro down.
And then Hiroshi was standing up, running to Mei, cursing and swearing.
She was still on the ground, trembling, gasping for air, completely emotionally destroyed. Another figure seemed to materialise beside her, but Kisaro hardly noticed. Mei had been their ally - and now she was reduced to this.
"What the hell did you do to her?" Kisaro demanded. Hiroshi looked up at him.
"She fought off my magic. It was instinct... I used my whole power." He swore again, lifting her up into strong arms. Her breathing was still rapid. To Kisaro, Raiyo and Nikumu, "Carry on with the trials." And then, to the woman who had formed in the same way as Hiroshi, "Keep testing them. Understood?"
She nodded, and both faded simultaneously into the air.
"Mei!" Raiyo called after her, but Kisaro put an arm out to stop him running at the empty space where Hiroshi and the new examiner had just been standing.
"You're pathetic," Nikumu snorted. "She's just competition for you."
Raiyo spun around, eyes blazing. "What the hell are you saying? She saved you twice. Don't be so stupid, when you were the one in tears twice."
"Shut up!" Kisaro hissed. "Nikumu, you're being foolish, but we don't have time to fight. Rai, if you want to see how Mei is, we need to hurry up and reach the end of the path."
Gritting his teeth, Raiyo finally nodded grudgingly. "Fine."
Nikumu scoffed, spitting at Kisaro's feet. "The hell I'm working with you." He stormed ahead. Kisaro made no attempt to stop him. The rules of the test stated that they couldn't leave comrades; they said nothing about being left. Nikumu was nothing but a hinderance. Kisaro was not willing to risk anything for a man who cared nothing for him.
Suddenly, it felt like he could no longer breathe.
The world around him transformed into an empty plain of nothingness; he was without warning alone, but for endless oceans of sand. Was this meant to be what he feared? Was this the power that had debilitated Nikumu so easily?
Then, before him appeared another image, and suddenly Kisaro could see his village burning and Majo running free. His veins blazed with fire, but as he moved forwards to stop the Majo, he tripped.
Realised what he'd tripped on - a corpse.
And the face - easily recognisable, blond hair bloodied but still the very same; empty brown eyes unchanged.
Kisaro felt his knees buckling, his lips forming his friend's name in a strangled whisper.
Then there was warmth; the familiar, irritatingly, familiarly powerful voice of Raiyo, dragging him away from the burning village. Breathing in deeply, he blinked twice, and returned to reality.
He was leaning heavily against Raiyo, who was steadying him without complaint.
"Kis?" his best friend repeated urgently, gripping his shoulders. "You okay? You just collapsed on me."
Kisaro quickly pushed himself away from Raiyo. "Yeah. Thanks."
He could still feel the warmth of Raiyo's hands steadying him, of the deepened bond between them. Thank you, Raiyo, for saving me.
"Great. Then, you ready to keep going?"
Kisaro nodded somewhat weakly. "Of course."
They started walking along the path, and Kisaro's senses were fully alert. He couldn't afford to fall apart like that again. He'd almost dropped the walls he'd been building around himself for years, and he refused to allow them to crumble.