First off, I'd like to wish everyone a Happy New Year. I hope that 2014 is a good year for everyone. I will reiterate that I am not abandoning any of my stories (I love them all and have every intention to finish them eventually). With that said, I am going on a planned six month Hiatus on all of my stories. The reason for this is very simple: I have a novel idea I want to work on and my fanfictions distract me from those when I try to work on them. Since I am really into it and in the mood to write I am going to put these on hold for six months while I write it. If after the six months I haven't finished yet I will come back to these and get another set of chapters out quickly so I don't leave you guys a year between updates again.

I'm afraid I have to leave you with a cliffhanger again... This chapter is the beginning of the next arc. I wish I had another filler chapter I could have put in like I have with The Cave but unfortunately I don't. So please don't hate me for doing this to you guys again.

In recompense, I gift you guys 4,789 words.

I do not own Digimon :'(

Chapter 20: The Exam

(Kouji's POV)

There was a reason our school was so renowned. It was also the reason so few were Knighted from the school. It produced most of the best Knights in history because it was extremely harsh. Just two weeks into the second year and we were all gathered at the front gate with the fifth years and Duke Ishida at five in the morning.

"You all should know the reason you have been called here this morning," the Duke announced loudly as he paced the gathering of students. "Fifth years will remember this exam from when you were second years, but as with every year the location has changed. This year, our Second Year Survival Exam will take place in the Goma Marshlands."

There were murmurs rising up from those around me, some shocked at the choice of location and others confident or even arrogant. As Prince I had been informed of the location several days before, but with explicit orders to not tell anyone. The secrecy of he exam was very important, and not only to throw off the students taking it.

"You will be tasked with surviving seven days alone in the harsh swampland," he continued as he made his way from one end of the line to the other. "Whether you choose to band together with other trainees or go it alone is up to you. The fifth years are here for your protection, but don't expect it to come cheaply. They will be guarding supplies, just as enemies would if they were camped out in the swamp. You will have to work for every bite of food you eat and every drop of water you drink."

The Duke paused for dramatic effect, watching carefully for how we reacted to the news. Some stood tall with confidence while others shifted nervously. My expression was blank, but internally I was slightly anxious with the choice of location. I had heard many horror stories about the diseases and illnesses that could be contracted from a swamp, some of which were permanently debilitating or fatal.

Glancing to my side, I expected to see Takuya's usual enthusiastic grin, but instead it was replaced with a somber and concerned expression. I didn't like it; it didn't suit him at all. My Takuya was always cheerful and optimistic. Seeing him actually worried about something was making me start to feel a bit nervous.

"Make no mistake," Duke Ishida continued, distracting me from my companion for a second, "this test is dangerous. It is not common, but we have lost students in the past. You will be given only the clothes on your backs and your weapons, nothing else. No armor and no rations are allowed. You will be given one good meal as soon as we get there, and then you will have to fend for yourselves. Due to the nature of this test, and your vulnerability during it, we will be leaving immediately. No one outside of this group will hear of where we went until after we get back, and any attempts to communicate the test location will result in severe punishment. Is that understood?" he asked. The silence was all the answer he needed, and as he turned to head towards his horse I barely heard him whisper to himself, "We don't want another incident like the Agu desert."

From the murmurs I managed to pick up some of the others had either heard him as well or had come to the same conclusion. The Agu desert incident was well known in the higher societal circles. Approximately ten years ago the second year field test took place in the Agu desert region to the north. The test location wasn't public information, but it also wasn't as closely guarded as it is now, and someone on the outside figured it out. There was an ambush and twenty-eight students were killed. No one… wanted a repeat of that, so ever since then field tests had become closely guarded secrets.

"We head out in ten minutes, so get your horses saddled and ready," he shouted back over his shoulder, drawing me from my contemplations.

"Come on, Kouji," an enthusiastic voice to my right said, and I turned to see my boyfriend's characteristic grin. Whatever had him worried just a moment before seemed to have passed, although Takuya also had a habit of not dwelling on things; well, most things. I still had trouble at times getting him to take the initiative when we were alone because of his ingrained fear of status. If I ever found the person who drilled that into his head… "I want to get a horse without a bony back."

"Alright, I'm coming," I chuckled as he pulled on my arm and steered me through the crowd. Several Pages had already grabbed the reins to the horses they had trained on and were leading them towards the equipment shed, but luckily my own mount had yet to be grabbed. Upon seeing by direction of sight, Takuya said, "Go grab Lobo, I'm gonna find Aguni." With that he released my hand and took off down the line.

Smiling after him for just an instant, I quickly made my way over to my grey spotted gilding. I patted his chin affectionately as my other hand worked to untie his rope from the hitching post. The boy shook his head and whinnied quietly in approval, then I casually led him around to the break between posts and started heading towards the shed. I had made it a total of four steps when a spiky-headed brunette practically tackled me, throwing one arm over my shoulders and nearly succeeding in knocking me down. "What do you want, Daisuke?" I asked, my tone betraying my annoyance.

"Nothing," he replied cheerily, disengaging his arm only when I continued to jab a knuckle into his ribs. "It's just so strange to see you not with Takuya. Aaaand I haven't found my horse yet," he added almost as an afterthought. "Someone better not've snatched him…"

I couldn't help but chuckle again. "You seriously think someone will take that ass?" I asked. He glared at me in mock anger, although I knew he understood exactly what I meant. Still, I said it outloud anyway, "I don't think anyone other than you can control that beast."

He was just opening his mouth, most likely to give me some kind of lame retort, when my brunette shouted through the crowd at us. "Daisuke, there you are!" he called, waving one hand. The rope it held went back to the halter on the sorrel gilding, the horse he had left to locate. His other hand was also occupied with a rope, and following it back I couldn't help but shake my head slightly at his foresight. The grulla stallion was whipping his head about vigorously, nearly hitting two Pages and managing to connect solidly with the head of another. Said student turned about to yell at whoever had control of the horse, but seemed to change his mind once he saw just who had hit him. Honestly, I wasn't sure if it was because of which horse it was, or who was leading him. "I found Vee for you—wow!" the energetic stallion reared up and pawed the air. The sudden tug startled Takuya, and had my boyfriend had any slower reflexes he might have been pulled right into the horse's iron-clad hooves. Instead he managed to release enough of the rope that the grulla had some slack while at the same time not releasing the stallion completely.

In the next second our brunette friend was right as his side and tugging his horse back down to the ground and popping his nose with a stern expression on his puffed up cheeks. "Bad boy," I heard Daisuke scold as my lover caught up with me and we continued on to gather our equipment.

Once we had our stuff in hand we made our way over to a clear patch of ground to saddle up our horses and replace their halters with bridles. Takeru joined us a short moment later, already on his dun's back, and, struggling a bit to balance control of his horse and the equipment juggled on his other arm, Daisuke showed up just a few seconds later. Depositing the bundle on the ground, he quickly set about saddling up his boy.

Duke Ishida called us to mount up. I was in my seat in just over a second, so I turned to watch and make sure Takuya wasn't having any trouble. Aguni could be fiery at times, and my partner had encountered problems when he was first learning to ride. Those problems were mostly behind him now, but on occasion he would find something to have difficulties with.

He fitted his foot into the stirrup and grabbed the horn to help heave himself up, then stopped and glanced around for a second. Dropping back to the ground, he reached into his pocket with one hand and retrieved a small object able to be fully concealed in one fist. "Stay," he whispered to his mount and stepped four paces away. His actions were unusually controlled, even, a behavior I was unfamiliar with in my vivacious boyfriend. Several others were watching him curiously, too, including our instructor who had just ordered him to mount his horse. He closed his eyes and I found myself counting off the seconds. One-one-thousand… two-one-thousand… three-one-thousand… four. Also one, two, three, four controlled breaths. Then he opened his eyes and kneeled, placing his closed fist on the dusty ground. Opening the fist with his palm down, he placed whatever he was holding onto the cold earth.

It was pearl in color, with thin, slightly green veins, and partially opaque. The stone was smaller than a gold piece, just under two centimeters in diameter, and I knew that not from looking at it now, but from looking at it before.

We stood at the window to a small shop on one of the occasions we were allowed to head down to Market. Having been originally headed towards a weapons shop in search of knives, I found myself stopped in front of a shop specializing in odd stones and gems because my partner had found himself distracted by something behind the thin glass. Peering through it beside him, I had to admit the pebble had an extremely appealing color, but it wasn't anything special or expensive; at least, not to me.

"Do you want it?" I asked after several minutes passed and he hadn't moved a muscle, not even when a particularly stout gentleman had collided with him for standing in the middle of the walkway.

Startled out of his trance, he looked at me with an expression portraying equal parts shame and embarrassment. "Ah, uh… well, I…" he stuttered, gaze falling to the ground before glancing briefly back towards the stone. He didn't want to ask me for it, but it was obvious he wanted it.

A smile flashing across my lips, I headed straight into the store and up to the counter, my boyfriend scrambling in behind me. "I white pebble on display in the window, I want it," I stated matter-of-factly.

"Look, Kouji, you don't have—" he started, but I held a finger to his lips as the shop keeper made his way to the front to retrieve my purchase.

"I want to," was all I said. Two minutes and three gold pieces later we stood just outside the door on the street and I grabbed his wrist and placed my hand in his, dropping the stone into it. He stared at it for just a second longer before closing his tanned fingers around it holding it to his chest.

"Thank you," he murmured, but I heard it just fine. And I couldn't help but smile.

The memory was still fresh in my mind, for it had only happened a month before, but Takuya wasn't finished with his performance yet so I couldn't let my attention wander. He traced a full circle around the stone the a curved line above and below it, each totaling about one fourth of the circle's circumference with a small tab in the middle of the line, facing outward. He then started making two more of those lines, these two slightly longer on either side, and on the next ring out. He had attracted a crowd by this point, and while the second years all had looks of confusion on their faces I noticed out of the corner of my eye that both the Duke and my two fifth-year friends looked shocked. My friend then grabbed the stone from the dust and stood, lightly touching the stone to his forehead in the same, fluid movement before clutching it to his chest. Closing his eyes again, I once more counted off four seconds, four breaths, and then he whispered, in a voice so inaudible I could barely make it out, "Ophanimon bless."

He opened his eyes slowly, smiling down to the gift I gave him before replacing it in his pocket. Then he looked up, and I sure wished I had one of Kouichi's freeze frames on hand to capture the look of absolute bewilderment on his face. He shrunk down as much as he could away from the prying stares, and hurriedly slinked back to his horse, placing his foot back in the stirrup and pulling himself into the saddle. Urging his mount forward, my boyfriend then tried his best to hide between me and the younger blonde on my right. "Move out!" our instructor called, taking the lead on his dun mare.

I waited until the curious eyes had moved on to other things before I spoke with Takuya. "What was all that about?" I heard Daisuke ask in a hushed tone, for once being sensitive about the situation and purposely avoiding drawing attention back to the other brunette.

"It was a prayer to the Goddess of Luck and Battle, Ophanimon," a deep voice on my left stated, nearly making me jump out of my skin. I turned to find Yamato's father had made his way back to our side. "It is a tradition typically taught in the third year, although it is not necessary to follow it. How did you learn it?"

"It doesn't do any harm," Takuya started in reply, "to ask for a little aid when entering a dangerous situation." His tone was serious and final, stopping even the Duke's next words in their tracks. It wasn't meant to be rude, but he left no doubt that he had no intention of elaborating farther. His reluctance to say just made me more curious and suspicious about my lover's past. He knew a prayer meant for asking for luck on the battle field, and based on how he had performed it it was not a casual relationship he had with it, but an intimate one.

Turning to stare at my boyfriend with what I am sure was a saddened look in my eyes, I tried to mentally pull the true details out of his unreadable features, but just like his voice it was telling me nothing. Turning my attention back to the road ahead, I whispered to myself, "What is it you are afraid to tell me?"

(Takuya's POV)

"Are we there yet?" Daisuke whined, slumping forward into the main of his beast. The horse pranced diagonally at the contact, whipping its head around again and hopping slightly as he debated on whether or not he should kick at whatever happened to be behind him. "Stop that!" he scolded, slapping Vee on the neck with the end of the reins. A minute passed in silence with only the muffled clop clop of metal shoes on soft dirt in the air. Then Daisuke asked again, "Are we there yet?"

Shaking my head, I answered in annoyance, "You see those trees up ahead?"

Groaning, he groggily lifted his head. "Yeah?" he asked listlessly.

"That is where we're going," I said with fake enthusiasm, as if describing the obvious to a child.

"Oh…" my friend sighed, not catching my insult in his daze. I watched him try to slump enough to rest his chin on the saddle horn, which obviously didn't work, and after a moment of trying other methods to rest—which included resting his elbow on the horn and his chin in his palm—he finally stretched and cracked his back in an attempt to remove some of the sleepiness. Gazing at the forest looming ahead, he asked, "How much longer will it take?" On my other side I heard Kouji groan exasperatedly. "My butt hurts."

Tugging Aguni to the right, I pulled him right up alongside Daisuke's steed until our legs were practically pinned between the two. Leaning over in the saddle, I brought one hand up and slapped him on the back of the head. I would have hit him harder but I was worried his inattentiveness might make him fall from the saddle if I did. "Stop complaining," I scolded. "Your ass hurts because we've been riding for seven hours, but you can last another twenty minutes until we get there."

Moving back over so I was beside my boyfriend, I heard him mumble, "Yeah, but you didn't have to hit me…" My slap only seemed to work for a short moment, for not ten minutes later Daisuke looked like he was starting to nod off again.

"Gather up as close as you can!" Duke Ishida yelled from the front, his loud, booming voice startling the tiredness from those who were finding the long ride tedious. "Our meal is going to be quick, to give you enough time to find adequate shelter for the night, so I'm going to explain some things as we approach." The crowd of over one hundred students gathered up as close as they could, but not even the Duke's voice would be able to reach all of them over the clomping of horse hooves. "Fifth years, relay my words to those unable to hear them from me," I heard him tell my two friends and the other older students they were with. Yamato nodded to him and started to move out towards the edge, creating a break in the group just large enough for Kouji and me to slip through.

"The area you will be dropped off at is hostile and dangerous," he started, his words echoed by the Squires among us. "There are dangerous reptiles that inhabit the swamps. Some alligators will reach over three meters long and can take down a horse with ease. Poisonous snakes infest the waters, which is stagnant and unfit to drink." Somewhere in the distance I heard a whistle. Or at least thought I heard a whistle. No one else seemed to have noticed it, but my gut told me something wasn't right. "The ground level can go from half a meter above water to over four feet below it in a matter of steps. It is not a place meant for human habitation. If you are not vigilant, you will not pass, and there are no make-up tests."

The sinking feeling in the my gut was not going away, and every step closer only made it worse. I barely registered that Duke Ishida was still talking to us, my attention too focused on the area surrounding us. A slight breeze bent the tall grass ahead, the trees swayed slightly as the wind traveled through their branches, but other than that there was no noise. No noise… my mind thought, slowly, purposefully. There was something in that. "No noise," I repeated in a hushed tone, but it was enough to get Kouji's attention. And then it hit me. "No birds."

I whipped my head up and around fast enough I almost thought I would break my neck, but our time was all but out. I knew what I was looking for, I just had to—there! "Look out!" I yelled, pulling my feet up into the saddle. The next few seconds passed by in slow motion. I saw the target, I knew the angle. Shifting my weight forward, I leapt out of my saddle and right at their target's back. He had heard me yell and was in the process of turning around, but I knew he didn't see it coming. I tackled the Duke out of his seat just a second before the arrow flew over our backs and buried itself into Aguni's shoulder. And then time started back up. Aguni screamed in pain and reared up, his front leg luckily looking still usable. Dismounting and drawing his sword, Kouji grabbed my horse's reins and looped them through his own in a loose knot before slapping his gilding into a run away from the erupting chaos. All around them students were dismounting and drawing their weapons.

Staring at me in shock from his new perch on the ground, Duke Ishida asked, "How'd you know?"

"I saw a glint in the trees," I replied, scrambling to my feet.

Everyone had seen the arrow, or heard of it from others if they didn't witness it personally, and all order had dissolved in the seconds following the sneak attack. People were running every direction all around me, and it took several seconds to locate the Prince. In the confusion he had been pushed and jostled several meters away, and in this mess I didn't want to leave him unguarded for any longer than necessary. It was obvious; the Duke had been targeted to eliminate the senior member of the test group and leave the Prince vulnerable. Kouji was their target.

Two blondes appeared at the ravenette's sides, the brothers shielding him from the mass swirling around them. Taichi reached them just a second before I did and took up a position in the defensive circle around my boyfriend. All around me I could see other students grouping up with friends or acquaintances, people they had trained with and knew how to fight beside. Through the breaks in the chaos as order started to be restored I could see figures appearing from the shadowed woods and coming at us quickly. I wasn't the only one who spotted them, and the clashes of metal on metal soon sounded from all directions around us. The whizzing of arrows overhead made my companions flinch, but experience told me from the sound that they were flying away from us, and looking up I saw a man fall from one of the trees ahead with an arrow buried in his neck. I wasn't sure how many archers they had, but considering they only fired the one arrow I guessed it wasn't many. Most likely they were ordered to bring no harm to the Prince, so their arrows were reserved for the Duke alone.

"We need to find Sora and Daisuke!" I shouted over the noise, unsheathing the jeweled hilt sword Kouji had given me for my birthday. Bringing it up I caught a downward blade aimed right at my head, locking hilts with my attacker. He was jumping back in an instant, though, as Taichi thrust his own sword at his chest. His movement was ill-timed, though, and he backed into the sword point of a second year who had just been parried away by one of his own comrades. I didn't have time to take more than half a second's note of the horror on my fellow student's face, though, for I needed to find my other two friends and get Kouji out of there before something bad happened. The battle would most likely disband quickly if there target left, and there were still too many people running around in panic to safely stay with the group.

"Takuya, there!" Takeru yelled by my ear to compete with the clamor surrounding us. Positioned back to back they were each fighting one adversary, and Daisuke was not ready to take on a battle trained opponent yet. He could defend himself well enough but couldn't seem to get enough of an advantage to attack back. Concern for her companion was tripping up Sora, as well, and rather than dispatching her foe she was simply stopping any of his attacks from connecting.

"We have to hurry," I commanded, grasping Kouji's hand tightly. Without hesitation, our three friends followed behind me as we ran.

Sora was more skilled than her opponent, that was for certain, but she was not as strong. Probably her biggest disadvantage in a fight was the fact that men typically had more muscle and were as such physically stronger than her. In a normal fight this wouldn't matter, but with the distraction of protecting her friend she found herself having trouble. She blocked a downward slice and directed it into the ground to her side and went to punch him in the face. Her timing was off and she aborted that plan at the last second, which is the only thing which gave her enough time to get her sword back up again for a second block. He leaned into his attack and pressed her back.

Daisuke wasn't doing any better. Having only had one year of formal training he was in no way prepared to take on a soldier. He barely managed to get his sword up each time to deflect the blows, but he still managed to get a few scratches on his arms and cheek. He also couldn't seem to regain his balance completely after that first hit, and he finally tumbled when Sora was shoved into him. His sword hitting the hard earth with a dull thud, the look on his face told that he knew what was coming next. He closed his eyes as his adversary raised his sword above his head, and waited for the blow that never came.

I wrapped my sword around the soldier's blade and directed it into the hard ground a foot from Daisuke's head. In the same movement I balled my fist and slammed it into his nose, making him release and hilt and stagger back away from his weapon. Before he could recover, I finished it by kicking just under his kneecap and making him fall into a kneel before slamming the hilt of my sword into the back of his head. Turning around I saw Kouji grab the cinnamon brunette's arm just as Yamato's weapon pierced the spine of the enemy attacking Sora. No more enemies were streaming from the forest by now, but we also only numbered double what they had and the chaos had risen up again. Through the bramble of swords and bodies and dust I could see different groups fighting. Some fifth years were taking on enemies alone, while others had one or more of their Page charges with them. Shouting and the clang of metal on metal rang out all around him, with the undertone of pained groans of those fallen. I could only hope that none of our own had taken a sword yet, or would take one period, but I knew battle could not be predicted, especially with so many inexperienced trainees in the mix. Our best chance at the moment was simply to get out of there.

"Follow me!" I hollered over the din, raising my sword in the air. Kouji nodded and stood by my side, weapon ready, and despite the fact they had more experience I found that Yamato, Taichi, and Sora were also looking to me to lead. I was about to take a step in the direction our enemy had come from when I spotted Duke Ishida through the dust. Our eyes locked for just a moment, and something in his expression told me he understood just what I was planning.

"Anyone who gets separated, regroup at the meeting point!" he yelled at the top of his lungs. Then the gap I had seen him through closed, and I spotted an armored man heading towards us. Slipping between two groups of people, all seven of us quickly vanished into the mix of blood, sweat, and dust and hurried towards the outer ring of combatants.

Reaching the edge of the battle, one last opponent stood in our way, and before he had a chance to react I steadied my sword against my stomach and charged into him, slicing deeply into his thigh and making him fall before breaking through the open field. Right on my heels were my six friends. "I know where we are," I stated simply as we headed for the trees. "I can get us to safety."

The symbol Takuya draws is the one on Ophanimon's egg in the series. Her aspect in the physical world in this story is a green-veined pearl, but stones like the one Takuya saw are most commonly used. Since the pearls themselves are difficult to find they are expensive, but the stones like the one Kouji bought him are a lot more easy to obtain and are priced more accordingly.

I hope the battle at the end was satisfactory to you guys. They really are one of the hardest pieces to write in a story. I tried to convey the disorder of it without being redundant, and if you have any comments or suggestions for me I'd be more than happy to take them on it.

As always reviews are luffed and appreciated, and I do no require them for the next installment in the series.