Majestic. No other word came close when it came to describing Zhandaria. As a child, I'd come with the Commander, but even now, the sprawling modern centres never failed to elicit a gasp.
The populations of the first few villages alone dwarfed the entirety of our native island, Subajura.
After thanking the shipman, we followed the Commander's instructions to reach the beginning of a long river to the capital city.
Although I'd expected most candidates today to be from the island, I must've been wrong. The sheer number of multilingual guides indicated there must've been a lot of foreign applicants as well.
"Should we go for one of the Bazuran boats?" Naomi tilted her head, probing for my approval.
"Nah, we may as well go for a native Rajanese speaker. The journey's going to be the same either way, and we may as well practice." I reasoned.
Despite having studied Rajanese to fluency years ago, our accents still exposed us as foreign. Naomi took a strange pride in her origin, but I was far more pragmatic.
"Alright, if you say so, but you're no fun. We're gonna be hearing Rajanese non-stop the rest of our lives, you know?!" Naomi protested, puffing her cheeks out to express her annoyance.
Not that I cared. She could feign annoyance to her heart's content, but I knew she'd follow my lead in the end.
Thinking back to our sparring earlier, I was under no delusion that I was stronger than her. We were equals in combat; no, if anything, she was the more talented fighter. In turn, I barely edged her out in academic studies.
With that in mind, I struggled to understand her dependence on me. I hoped that the experience of the Academy would help her become more independent.
As we stepped onto the boat, we were immediately greeted by a girl lounging against the back of it. With a
"Hey hey, are you guys here for the CMA exam?" The girl waved, her voice tinged with an accent. Dressed in shorts and a black top which rested low on her chest, the sunlight struck against her mostly bare skin to create a glowing appearance.
"That's right," I nodded, stretching my hand out to shake hers. "The name's Shinsato Katsuro, it's a pleasure to meet you."
At the gesture, both Naomi and the girl looked a little surprised. I shot Naomi a tiny glare, before returning to smile politely at the girl, who reciprocated the gesture.
"What a gentleman," She giggled, twirling a strand of her wavy black hair, "My name's Xiao Shuren, the pleasure's all mine."
With that gentle introduction, I was able to ascertain the origin of her accent.
I paused before the murmur, 'You're Akhmik?' was able to leave my lips. I'm sure she wouldn't care, but I didn't want to risk unnecessarily provoking a stranger.
Unfortunately, Xiao was a step ahead of me. "You look surprised. What, is an Akhmik signing up for the CMA so shocking? You sound Bazuran yourself, so what's up with judging me?" She asked, accusatory, and I instinctively brought my hands up to apologetically defend myself.
"I was thinking no such things, my apologies." I bowed my head, unwilling to start such a meaningless fight despite her malevolent expression.
"Sorry for my partner here, he can get a little ahead of himself. But trust me, no offence was intended!" Naomi cut in to defend me, and I sighed a breath of relief that it wasn't only me who thought she was overreacting.
"And who are you to interrupt? If I remember correctly, you didn't even introduce yourself. So how is it, you some sidekick?" Xiao taunted.
At that point, I could tell Naomi was a little annoyed, but I couldn't find it within me to feign anger.
"You know it wasn't meant badly, Xiao, so please drop it and accept our forgiveness," I spoke solemnly, disappointed by how my first encounter here had turned out.
"Mm, accept your forgiveness?" Xiao giggled, "Perhaps you should descend to your knees and bow first." With that, her eyes gleamed mischievously as she let out a long, hearty laugh to our confused faces.
"Damn, you guys are so gullible! I could barely hold in my laugh watching how serious you two got!" Xiao grinned, as I rolled my eyes and Naomi let out a sigh of relief.
"No offence was intended, no offence was intended!" Xiao mocked Naomi's apology as she continued to laugh, "Well yeah of course not, you didn't even say anything!" She guffawed, before realizing we weren't as involved in the joke as she was.
"Ah, my bad, maybe I took that a little too far... Anyways, it's good to meet you Ms Sidekick, what's your actual name?" Xiao shook her head as if to clear her mind of the seemingly comedic thoughts.
"Naomi Miyagawa..." Naomi replied, still dazed by Xiao's rapid change in expression.
"Ay, Naomi's a pretty name," Xiao murmured as I raised an eyebrow.
"Aw, thanks, I love your name as well!" Naomi grinned, easily pleased and without a remnant of the hurt and irritation she'd exhibited prior.
We talked for a little longer, and before we knew it, we'd arrived at the site of the Celestial Military Academy. Or, at least, that's what we were told.
Instead, we were delivered to an empty patch of deforested jungle and grassland.
Across the patch, there must've been over 350 students and still more were arriving. There were only 64 available spots, so the competition would be difficult.
We were not the only ones confused by our location. Looking left and right, I could see new batches of applicants coming via boat. But, alongside them, I could see an abundance of applicants who looked like they'd already been here for some time.
Looking back at the girls, both Naomi and Xiao looked puzzled so I figured the best bet would be to ask one of the surrounding students.
"Hey, does anyone know what's happening? We're a little late," I asked, aiming my question at a boy nearby, who was staring inquisitively at one of the tree trunks.
Spinning back at me, his eyes lit up as they made contact with mine. For some reason, I felt a little unnerved as he stared me up and down with piercing blue eyes.
"We haven't been told anything." He began, brushing his hands through his floppy white hair, which drooped into curtains.
Although I fully believed his statement, especially considering how clueless many of the other applicants looked, my eyes darted to the trunk beside him.
Stepping closer, I was able to make out a ring of four pins on the circle of the wood, with a small hole in the middle.
Weighing up my options, I considered if it was a simple test of bravery. Slamming my finger down into them and thus obtaining blood would be the best way of checking that strategy.
Still, I wasn't a brute. If that was the solution, then there wouldn't be so many people left bewildered.
I inspected each pin in turn, trying to distinguish any unique differences they may have. As I did so, I was conscious of the curious eyes that the white-haired boy fixed on me.
For a second, that gaze faded, and I utilized the opportunity to try to mask my actions. This was a competitive exam, so I didn't want to reveal the solutions without thinking.
I could hear the white-haired student whispering with Xiao, compounded by Naomi's annoyed shriek in reaction to being left out. I didn't let it distract me, though, running my hand along the top of the pin to judge for sharpness.
It wasn't sharp, but it could easily draw blood if the user attempted to make it do so. Proud of at least one observation, I attempted to sense any differences in markings or size of the pins.
However, they all appeared the same and thus I lifted my head to see how the others were doing. Most seemed similarly stumped, no pun intended, and those which were by the grass plains lacked any clear focus at all.
Looking to Naomi, Xiao and the white-haired student for feedback, I noticed Xiao had all but disappeared. Turning to ask the white-haired boy, he seemed to anticipate my question and answered for me.
"What I said to her is irrelevant, the main point is, she isn't here anymore."
Naomi looked similarly intrigued, but she didn't speak up as I considered the rest of the crowd - Xiao was absent, even from there. From my impression of her, she didn't exactly seem the type to give up, so did she qualify?
"Hey, Xiao? You there?" I called out, pausing for a second to test my theory. Then, with no response, I looked back to the white-haired boy.
"Out of curiosity, were there more people than the group assembled now?"
A grin spread across his face at my question, and he nodded, "Yeah, you guessed it; there's no secret passageway or hidden location. When someone solves this puzzle, they disappear."
At that, I was a little perturbed. Naomi appeared to feel the same way, though for different reasons.
"What, they disappear?! Entirely? Surely that can't be the work of the Invisibility Rune or the Spatial Manipulation Rune, so.. how do they do it?" Naomi asked, demonstrating her impressive knowledge of the runic stones as she did so.
The boy, who I'll hereafter refer to as the Mysterious Showoff because of the thick gold chain around his neck, looked off in thought for a second.
"It's not the work of runes." The Mysterious Showoff acknowledged her idea and agreed, looking impressed. Still, his laid-back attitude confirmed he knew more than he was letting on.
Ultimately though, that was a mystery I could save for later. Xiao had worked and disappeared within less than a minute, so clearly, the challenge wasn't too long-winded.
Returning my hands to the pins, I had an idea. "Hey, Naomi, did Xiao leave with anyone?"
Gazing at the pins herself, inspecting them closely, she nodded. "Mhmm, she approached a small group a distance away. But... I don't think she knew them very well."
"How big was the group?" I asked, although I already had an answer I hoped for in my mind.
"Hm, maybe 3 or 4 people? I couldn't tell," Naomi admitted, looking up at me as if to ask if I'd achieved a solution.
Staring at the pins for a second, I turned to the Mysterious Showoff for confirmation. Like I thought, he threw me a thumbs up with a cryptic smile.
"Yo, Kaya?" The Mysterious Showoff called out, and as if summoned, a tanned girl with green eyes and cerulean hair jumped behind him. Presumably, she'd been among the crowd, but I was a little shocked by how quickly she'd reacted to his call - Had this been planned?
"Oh, so you figured it out, Ruji? Proud of you." The girl called Kaya gave an affectionate smile as she stepped towards the tree trunk.
I would have to uncover more about those two later, but one step at a time. For now, I merely moved to place my finger against one of the pins, gesturing for Naomi to follow suit.
Soon, all four of us were crowded around the trunk. Naomi looked a little disheartened by the idea of what we were about to do, but I'd be damned if I let a little blood interfere with my goal.
"Gh..." Naomi winced as we all thrust our fingers down, the tiny pins piercing into our flesh in unison. For someone who suffered real injuries so often in mock combat, I expected a little more pain tolerance, but that train of thought quickly fell apart as the world around us fell apart.
The people around us vanished. Next, the tree trunks disappeared. And finally, the ground beneath us evaporated.
Blinking as if awoken from a dream, my eyes were immediately hit by the sight of large stone walls and a huge hall enclosed between them.
Alongside those walls, there was a stairway downward, a door outward and a small room enclosed within this wider hall.
There must've been around 400 or so students already gathered; Only a few were foreign, with many even donning outfits which exhibited their status as local Rajanese nobility.
Other than them, I noticed a familiar face among the crowd - Xiao was talking with some other students and threw me a friendly wave when I motioned to her.
Ha. It's easy to give a friendly wave, but not tell us the solution, huh? It is what it is.
In the very middle of all the students stood a tall, broad and muscular old man with a long white beard to complement the lion's mane his hair had grown into.
Sensing the presence of a new group, he turned to us with a broad, frightening grin. Walking with a cocky swagger, he paused before us.
Immediately, Kaya and the Mysterious Showoff bowed their heads. Naomi and I did not know who he was, but by the significant reaction he'd garnered and his position here, we realized he must be an important figure. Resultantly, we swiftly joined their bow.
Eying us up as if to determine our value, the man swung his head down in an approving nod.
"You look very athletic, all of you. An impressive bunch, for sure. The only question is, are you more impressive than the others here?"
Naomi moved to speak, but sensing it was a rhetorical question just in time, she cut herself off.
The elderly man seemed to notice, but did not say anything, merely staring with intensity.
"Well, only time will tell. My name is Professor Hugo Harada, and I'd advise that you memorise it. I will be your chief examiner today."
With that, he walked back to the centre of the room and snapped his fingers, as if to request utter silence. The request was immediately obliged, with all faces turning to him.
"Well, I think that's just enough students. I'm seeing some talent, some potential, and some trash for good measure. But... Only 64 of you 448 will have a chance to study here."
That was an extremely high number of applicants who had passed the first stage, and an extremely difficult ratio to qualify.
Naomi looked a little disconcerted, but Kaya and Ruji expressed no such concern. I was more aligned with the latter.
Of course, being the best out of seven talented candidates would be difficult. But compared to ending the war? This was less than a warm-up hurdle. I would make the top 64, without a doubt.
The old man moved to make a final comment, delivering the line which defined the start of my new life.
"Welcome, everyone, to the entrance examination for the Celestial Military Academy. Good luck... You'll need it."