“However, as a final question, are there Akhmiks present today?” Professor Harada asked, his dull grey eyes scouting across the huge crowd.
The characteristic dark black and brown hair of the Akhmik population distinguished them. Therefore, I wondered if Professor Harada was partially blind. Still, the way he had immediately stormed across to us when we arrived in the room didn’t give off that impression.
As a wave of hands, perhaps around 40 or so, rose into the air, I noticed with curiosity that Xiao didn’t lift her hand. Still, this didn’t seem to concern me, so I took a second to breathe in, and consider the circumstances of how we were transported here.
Like Naomi and the Mysterious Showoff had suggested, the magic didn’t seem to be the work of runes. Even the highest level of Spatial Manipulation wouldn’t be sufficient to transfer so many of us so quickly.
So, how could it be? I could’ve hypothesized it was maybe a secret rune that we hadn’t heard about, but the nineteen runes were pretty famous. Of course, the 20th remained a mystery, but it was firmly on the side of the Shifters. Otherwise, we would’ve maintained a much stronger advantage even in the early stages of the war.
As I pondered that thought, I was interrupted by the sound of a cold, cruel kick.
Professor Harada had walked, slowly and methodically, towards a tall Akhmik boy. The applicant seemed confident, even cocky, but the scene was a little eerie as the Professor walked wordlessly towards him.
I’d been watching closely, wondering the purpose of the exercise, until the boy was sent flying backwards off his feet from a brutal kick to the stomach.
“Ugh?!” The boy yelled out, accompanied by the loud, painful sound of his back clashing against the rough stone ground.
“Mhm, there’s been a change of policy.” A smirk spread across Professor Harada’s face as many of the other students dropped their hands down.
One was a little too slow, though, and Professor Harada shot them a toying glare as if playing with his prey. The girl, whose brown pigtail swayed in fear, took a step back, but it was too late. Professor Harada slapped her across the face, causing her whole body to shudder as she staggered backwards.
“As per the latest Royal Decree, Akhmiks are no longer permitted to study at the Celestial Military Academy. Similarly, they are banned from working in the Military, Reclamation Teams and Scouting Teams. They're similarly barred from studying at the Celestial Academy of Natural and Social Sciences.”
The words were drawn out and enjoyed. I was sick to my stomach, and looking across at Naomi’s face, she was similarly angered by the policy. Naomi had always been righteous, and I could tell she was going to raise her hand.
Resultantly, I moved my hand up to squeeze her gently, encouraging her to stop. By the concerned faces of the Akhmik students, I doubted any of them would protest. After Professor Harada's brutal treatment of the first two, I couldn't blame them.
Therefore, even if Naomi protested, I wasn’t sure how much of a support base she could work with. More importantly, though, Naomi and I were both Bazuran. Although we were treated far better than the Akhmiks, there was no way a blatantly discriminatory man like the Professor would heed our opinions.
Looking across to Kaya, whose tanned skin revealed her foreign origin as likely Azurian, I got the same impression. She seemed like she wanted to speak, but knew better than to voice her thoughts.
“That policy is ridiculous.” A solitary challenger appeared.
With long, flowing purple hair and eyes burning with passion, a tall girl stepped forwards to face the Professor. For his part, he swivelled towards her with his fists raised, before dropping them to his side as he identified who he was talking to.
“Hm? Little miss, are you sure you want to be speaking? You might come from a noble family, but this is an Imperial policy. You wouldn’t want to endanger your family, would you?”
The conversation left a bitter taste in my mouth. Although the Commander had warned that Zhandaria and the CMA would be cruel, unforgiving places, even I was a little disconcerted. Blackmail in broad daylight?
“Whatever do you mean?” The girl rose to the challenge, forcing the burden of explanation back onto him. Matching his cockiness with a confidence of her own, she nodded - "I understand I'm merely an applicant, but I fail to see the benefit of that policy. Why discard so many talented, dedicated fighters when we need them more than ever, solely based on their accent?
She paused for emphasis, before slyly chuckling, “And if I remember correctly, aren’t you supposed to teach Ethics here? Seems a little ironic.”
Her heritage was clearly from nobility based on the conversation and her silky, battle-adjusted dress. Despite that, her attitude was the noblest thing about her.
I was torn. She was right that the discrimination was counter-productive and cruel, but it would at least eliminate part of the competition. I felt disrespectful for thinking that, but I have to do whatever I can to reach my goal of leading the army and winning this war.
Professor Harada did not respond for a second, breathing deeply as if to take it all in. I was genuinely curious how he would react, but instead of speaking, he went to strike the noble girl’s face.
Just like the others, she flew back and fell onto the ground.
Or, that was how it went in my head. In actuality, she grabbed his wrist and spun him around, kneeing him in the stomach to push him backwards.
There was a collective mixture of gasps and conversations among the crowd, and I feared the girl had put herself in a dangerous position. Upsetting someone malevolent, and with great authority over you in the next coming years, didn’t seem like the finest decision to me.
That being said, something was alluring about her determined attitude. A capable fighter, with a noble heritage, and a beautiful appearance - She was magical. She radiated a sense of powerful righteousness that I involuntarily smiled at.
To my surprise, Professor Harada did not retaliate. Instead, he merely brushed himself off for a second and gazed into the crowd.
“Alright.” He murmured, as if nothing had happened, “To begin the exam, please gather into a group of four and descend the stairs. Everyone who raised their hands, stay behind.” He nodded, reaching over to the girl he’d slapped and signing something with his fingers - As he finished, the girl vanished into thin air.
Everyone had already lowered their hands, but that didn't stop the Professor. He eradicated girl after girl, boy after boy until everyone who had raised their hand was gone.
He must’ve had a perfect memory - That skill alone was terrifying enough. But, he was able to sense trouble as well - He walked towards Xiao and a girl next to her, with long brown hair.
“Well, hello, ladies. You don’t seem like you’re from these parts, could you spare me with the knowledge of where you come from?” The Professor asked, his domineering attitude restored.
The brunette opened her lips but looked like she was going to fall over her words as Xiao interrupted her. “My name’s Koitana, and this here is Ann. We’re both Bazuran, born and raised in Tajaran, thus our accent.” She spoke clearly and without hesitation, to the point that her delivery even convinced me.
Opting to feign Tajaran as her homeland was a wise choice. It was big enough that it was understandable people came from there and small enough that it was unlikely the Professor had ever met anyone.
Sensing her confidence, the Professor set his sights on the more meek ‘Ann’. “Is that true? Your partner here doesn’t seem very Tajaran.”
To Ann’s credit and my surprise, she brushed off the comment with a small smile, “Is that so? I take great pride in my heritage, thank you very much..”
In the end, I could see her mind whirring a bit as she tried to maintain the faux confidence. Luckily, it seemed sufficient to convince Professor Harada as he focused on interrogating the others.
While Naomi and I had spent the entire time watching the Professor’s ordeal with Xiao and Ann, we were losing time. The crowd was dwindling as many of the other candidates had already assembled groups.
Like I’d expected, Kaya and the Mysterious Showoff were an exception. Like me, they’d watched the Professor with a cautious eye, but the Showoff seemed to be waiting for me to make a move.
“Alright, want to go as a four, then?” I offered. They were both athletic and the Showoff seemed to have figured out the puzzle before we even got there, so I had some faith in their competence as well.
“That totally works! My name’s Kali Yazura, it’s good to meet you,” Kaya, who I now knew to be Kali, gave me and Naomi a friendly punch on the shoulder as we nodded in return.
“I’m Katsuro, this is Naomi, we’re both from Subajura. And you?” I motioned for the Showoff, who I was most curious about.
“Yahruji.” He responded stoically, no longer seeming to test me as he beckoned us to follow him to the stairway. “This examination is a competition, so we can save the longer introductions for later. You guys ready?”
His words were reminiscent of the Commanders, and I resented my mental comparison of the great Miyagawa to this stranger. “We were born for this,” I nod, and Kali laughs as if it was a joke.
Naomi and I both shoot each other a glance, because I know it wasn’t and Naomi knows I never really joke in the first place.
Arriving at the top of the staircase, I lean forward to get a better view. It was pitch black downstairs, and it seemed like the stairs went on forever. We’d waited a while, so no other groups were directly ahead of us, but we hadn’t heard any screams which must count as a good sign.
Suddenly, I feel two hands on my back start to push as I twisted with surprise, only to be caught and pulled back. The assailant was none other than Xiao, who shot me a cold smirk.
“You should learn to keep your guard up,” She teased, surrounded by Ann and both a guy and girl I hadn’t seen before.
“He wouldn’t need to do that if someone hadn’t attacked him,” Naomi protested, but I brushed it off. Yahruji seemed to agree with my thought process.
“Let’s get going, there’s no time to waste,” He encouraged as we crept down the stairs, one at a time. I felt Naomi’s hand wrap around mine as we tiptoed closer and closer to our destination.
And there it was, the last step. Fortunately, I couldn’t sense anything wrong as we reached our destination. In front of us were a set of 20 doors.
All twenty were closed and locked shut, judging by the way an applicant from another team was fruitlessly gripping a handle.
The hall was genuinely gigantic, and thus I flicked my head to the left to see if the other walls had any other hints.
There were twenty doors on the left side. Twenty doors on the right. And another twenty at the back. At the back, there were tons of groups flooding through them, the door locking behind each as they stepped inside.
With that in mind, I hurriedly rushed our group to an open door on the left. I’d been way too over-confident, underestimating the fact that even a test of stupid bravery could contribute to our assessment. According to the logic of this test, if you were slow to descend the stairs, that meant you must be an incapable fighter.
I then wondered if that was a secondary goal of Professor Harada’s bullying of the Akhmik candidates. Even those who snuck past, like Xiao, would be delayed compared to their Rajanese, Bazuran and Azurian counterparts.
Still, there was no time to think. I gripped the handle of the door - There was no way of telling what was inside, and no time to expend thinking about how to test it safely.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t panicked, but I was forever aware of what was at stake. “You ready?” I asked, mimicking Yahruji. In this scenario, I could only trust the team if I knew I was leading them, so assuming the position of leader was a necessary step.
Fortunately, neither Yahruji nor Kali intervened as Naomi nodded.
I swung the door open.
Inside, it was pitch black, except for a clock, which began ticking down from ten.
Ten. Nine. Eight.
I reached into my pocket for a small stone I’d collected outside and threw it down on the floor.
Seven. Six. Five.
It landed with a small bounce, reassuringly, so I entered the room.
Four. Three. Two.
I ushered the others in after me, taking a sigh of relief as I felt for the walls.
The door swung shut.
And then I saw it.
On the other side of the room, masked by darkness, it lurked in wait.
As we clamoured over ourselves to find the walls and investigate the room, it stirred.
It opened its blood-red eyes.
It opened its sharp jaws.
And we could only assume it aimed to open us up next, as it leapt forward, signalling the first battle of my career at the Celestial Military Academy.