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971 Apprentice Tes

 Richard was caught in a complex mood-he didn't know if he made the right decision.

His decision was correct to a certain degree, as his group didn't face any more dangers from monsters and mercenaries due to the company of the group of strangers. Besides, the strangers seemed more sociable than he imagined. He thought that these powerful people would disregard lowly apprentices like them, but he was surprised that apart from the beautiful man who always put up an ice-cold expression, the other young ladies didn't seem to harbor any ill intention toward them.

But... They were just too powerful.

At that moment, the group arrived at a territory belonging to a certain monster lord. In order to protect its territory, the monster lord showed up to eradicate the visitors. It was an enormous nine-headed dragon lizard with a long body of five meters. But what astonished Richard was that no one launched any attacks. Instead, the young man stared coldly into the monster's eyes and after a few seconds, the monster fled with its tail tucked between its legs like a puppy.

Richard felt his head go numb. Even though he asked the strangers their intentions for entering the Deepest Labyrinth, he didn't receive any answers. Now, he could only hope that no conflicts would arise between their groups. If not, they would be crushed without a doubt, not to mention even taking the apprentice test.

But... Richard looked over his shoulder at this thought. In only half a day, his group had gotten along well with the strangers. Perhaps the main reason was because there weren't any troublesome characters in his group and everyone was easy to get along with. If not, he was highly confident that the petite young lady would annihilate the troublemaker.

Richard heaved a long sigh before shifting his gaze to the tall mountain through the lush forest. That was their destination: the entrance of the Deepest Labyrinth. According to plan, they should have arrived the day before if they weren't delayed by battle. Fortunately, they were still within the given time so... there shouldn't be any issues.

Richard knitted his brows. For some unknown reason, he had a bad hunch. As an elite among the apprentices, he constantly heard the reason for the change in the apprentice test from the mentors. In the past, the apprentice test had the apprentices form groups and explore for a period of time before receiving their evaluation. But this time, there was a relatively huge debate among the mentors. Rumor had it that the evaluation criteria wasn't uniform in the past, which led to unfair results. The modification to the apprentice test could standardize the apprentices' qualifications and make them compete from the same starting line. But... Richard felt that something was amiss because this obviously went against their 'Safety First' belief. Moreover, the test content was also baffling. In the past, it was deemed dangerous to just head into the Enchanted Forest. But this time, reaching the Enchanted Forest was only the first stage. Even though his group was composed of elite apprentices, they still couldn't possibly survive in the Deepest Labyrinth. Besides, two-thirds of the Mage Tower's elite apprentices sent for this test. Was it really necessary to take it this far?

But there was no meaning in considering this question any longer. Since they were here, they could only continue with their journey.

At the same time, in a campsite at the bottom of the mountain, a middle-aged man lifted his head and gazed at the sky. After comparing the sun and time, he knitted his brows.

"What time is it now?"

"11:25 a.m., Sir."

The young man, dressed as an apprentice, answered humbly. The middle-aged man frowned.

"Richard's help signal was fired yesterday afternoon, right?"

"Yes, Sir. It happened around 5:43 p.m. yesterday in the southeastern zone of the Enchanted Forest."

"It seems like they've faced some troubles. I wonder how they are doing now..."

The middle-aged man sighed and shook his head.

"How are the others doing?"

"Frey and Adella think that we should check on them. But Stewart and Hilla don't seem interested. The others are resting and waiting for orders." The young apprentice hesitated. "Frankly speaking, Sir, everyone is feeling rather worried that we have to pass through the Enchanted Forest and enter the Deepest Labyrinth."

"I know."

The middle-aged man waved his hand.

"I'm aware of that. In fact, I don't understand why the higher-ups approved this ridiculous proposal. But now, since you guys are here already, we don't have any more reasons to cancel the test. Fortunately, your mentors will be alongside you, so this seems like a good idea. Sigh... It just doesn't feel right for tragedies to happen before they even have the chance to enter the Deepest Labyrinth."

"Sir..."

"Alright, go and get prepared. If they haven't shown up by 12, I will conclude that Richard's team failed. Get the others ready. We will split into groups before entering the Deepest Labyrinth. This isn't an ordinary adventure so make sure they give their best!"

"Sir Gabe went to check on the teleportation door at the entrance of the Deepest Labyrinth. He said it's to ensure that the test will proceed without any issues."

"Hmph, he seems to take his work seriously. Alright, go off and let me have some peace."

"Yes, Sir."

The young apprentice spoke, before bowing politely and leaving the place.

At the next moment, the middle-aged man grimaced.

In fact, the new apprentice test caused quite a stir among the higher-ups, especially when two-thirds of the elite apprentices were involved. It could also be said that apart from the scholarly mages who weren't experts in battles, almost every mage of the new generation was sent here. This was an extremely risky move. Although coming to the Enchanted Forest could allow them to combine theory with practice and gain rich battle experience, mages weren't soldiers, after all. The elite apprentices were the core strength of the new generation, which the organization had spent massive amounts of time and money to groom.

It was due to this reason that many mentors objected to this absurd test. But most of them were low-level mentors. Even though they understood the apprentices best, they weren't in a position to make the call. They tried to request hiring mercenaries to ensure the safety of the apprentices but were rejected by the higher-ups with a dignified reason...

The new test format was for the sake of fairness.

Yes, it would ensure that the results were fair, but it was too dangerous!

As a result, the higher-ups gave in to the request to allow the three mentors to accompany the apprentices into the Deepest Labyrinth. However, they weren't allowed to assist the apprentices in getting through the Enchanted Forest. Everything should have been fine, but now...

Richard...

The middle-aged man sighed. Richard was one of his favorite students. He was smart, hardworking, and courageous. He would definitely be one of the core strengths in the future of the organization. But now... What else could the middle-aged man do apart from waiting for his arrival?

"Sir! Sir!"

At this moment, loud, shuffling footsteps disrupted his thoughts. He turned around with a frown and saw the young apprentice from before scampering toward him, raising both hands and yelling loudly.

"What's wrong? Why are you acting all panicky?"

"Richard, Sir! Richard's team has arrived!"

"What?!"

Upon looking at the familiar face of his mentor, Richard also couldn't quell his agitation, especially after the battle that almost took his life yesterday. Richard almost burst into tears at the sight of his companions and mentor. But he held back his emotions and went up to the middle-aged man, bowing respectfully.

"Richard and team reporting at the campsite, Sir Elliot."

"I'm glad to see you arriving here safely. I was worried when I saw your signal for help earlier on but it seems like you're fine. This is wonderful. But..."

Elliot revealed a gentle smile. Then, he shifted his gaze curiously to Rhode's group.

"... Who are they?"

"This was what happened, Sir Elliot..."

Richard showed a bitter smile.

While Richard explained what happened the day before, Rhode's group leisurely admired the scenery around them. Many apprentices were thrilled to see that Richard and his team had returned safely. Some of the female apprentices hugged and wept in joy while the male apprentices crowded around and caught up with one another.

"... This sure reminds me of a school outing, Rhode."

"Yeah..."

Rhode nodded and agreed with Canary. In fact, he couldn't help but recall the fun times he had with his classmates during outings. They were equally young, lively, and there was no difference except for the dangers in this world. After all, there weren't any monsters roaming around in the real world.

This was also why Rhode agreed to travel together with Richard's group. Perhaps he saw it as a chance to reminisce about the good times he had as a student.

"Tsk. School trips are the worst- always filthy and tiring. Besides, I still had to write the reflection journal after getting home. Who can stand it?"

But not everyone agreed with Canary and Rhode. At least, not Mini Bubble Gum.

"... Reflection journal...?"

Christie cocked her head to one side and asked. She had spent a lot of time with Mini Bubble Gum and gotten used to the strange nouns that came out of her.

"That's right, a reflection journal; something that I need to write my feelings about the trip in. What a joke. Isn't it good enough that I had fun for the trip? What's there to reflect about? Don't tell me that I can save the world from the outing?! You say, Christie, isn't it nuts?"

"You will only understand some things after you've grown up," Rhode said.

Canary and Rhode displayed bitter smiles. Indeed, they also had the same complaints as Mini Bubble Gum. But after they grew up and recalled the times, they realized that it wasn't actually that terrible as it became a unique part of one's memory.

"It doesn't matter to me since I can't grow up in this world, Leader."

Mini Bubble Gum pouted while Christie shifted her gaze between the 'adults' curiously. On the other hand, Bell stood behind her quietly but this time, there were also two elves around them. They were the elves Rhode rescued from the hunters earlier on. Perhaps since this was their first time being captured by humans, the elves were very wary of them. But for some unknown reason, they seemed more comfortable being with Rhode's group. As Rhode would be heading to the Deepest Labyrinth, he couldn't send the elves back to safety, so he decided to keep them with him since they wouldn't pose too much trouble. Besides, the two elves weren't entirely useless in battle. They were half-druid and half-ranger, so they would be safe as long as they were vigilant.

If they lost their lives, they could only blame it on their luck. Besides, it was better to die in the claws of monsters than lead the life of a slave.

Suddenly, a strange, hoarse voice sounded.

"Woah, I was wondering why the campsite's so busy. So you're back, Richard. I didn't expect you to make it back alive."

In an instant, the clamor stopped and Rhode turned to the voice. He saw a young man also dressed in an apprentice uniform, a wry smile plastered across his face. There were three other apprentices around him, but it seemed like they treated the young man as the leader of their pack. Richard's expression turned sullen.

"Yes, I'm still alive. And you are disappointed, aren't you, Stewart?"

"Haha, how can you say that?"

The young man named Stewart cackled.

"I've always been worried for you, Richard. I heard that your team has faced some troubles, but it seems like it was just a small issue. By the way, Richard."

Stewart turned around and squinted at Rhode's group.

"Who are those guys? This is the Mage Tower's campsite, so aren't you aware that outsiders are forbidden? I wonder how you mixed with those people. And don't forget your identity, Richard. You're a mage, not a mercenary. Don't mix around with those profane and crude people. They won't bring you any good."

Rhode watched silently with Canary standing beside him. Christie hid behind him with slightly knitted brows, gazing in displeasure at the young man. On the other hand, Richard grimaced and tried to stop a fight from happening. But it was too late.

"Richard, who is that bast*rd?"

A young lady widened her eyes and stared with an excited expression.