"Woah, Naomi, you were totally amazing!” Kali beamed as she pat Naomi on the back. Naomi, for her part, took it in stride as she twirled her hair like a princess.
“Don’t say too much or it’ll go to her head,” I grumbled, albeit she had a right to grow an ego after her triumph. She was daring and I had been wrong to underestimate her just for her injury, especially after growing up to know how skilled she was.
“You jealous that I’m getting all the praise and you’re not?” Naomi punched me on the shoulder with a teasing tone as I rolled my eyes.
“Just watch and see, I’ll one-up you on the next one,” I accepted her challenge. I was working my hardest to qualify anyway, so winning an additional bet on top of that was a bonus.
Stepping closer to the tunnel, all the teams amalgamated into a crowd of about 40 as we prepared ourselves for whatever new tribulation would appear.
“We should take a breath, first. I know you’re all excited, but it’s important to stay calm,” Yahruji reprimanded as we lingered at the entrance of the passageway. “If the stakes are continuing to rise, as the theme so far, then we don’t know what horrors await.”
And correct he was, for the next challenge was the most horrible yet - A written examination?!
Just kidding. Academics and examinations were my specialities, and thus I nearly yawned as I explored the new room.
The examination room was far more comfortable than the others. With affectionate, gentle orange lighting and a complete absence of antagonistic monsters, it was a perfect change of pace.
Lining up desk by desk, the applicants assembled with a mixture of reactions.
“A written test? Waah, how is this meant to help our fighting?” Complained a dopey looking boy with floppy brown hair, and I had to resist the desire to insult him. Seriously though, what kind of question was that? How could you effectively fight an opponent if you knew nothing about them?
“Mm, I’m not sure if my grammar’s good enough for this,” Kali murmured apprehensively.
“Oh, are you not fully literate in Rajanese?” I asked, because her spoken language was flawless.
“Right on the money - I picked it up through practice with speakers, not through formal training, so I’m not as familiar with writing.” She began, and I think she must’ve misinterpreted my nod as one of judgement as she quickly shook her head, “I’m not an idiot, though! It’s my third language, so give a girl a break…” Kali sighed, prompting a hearty laugh from Yahruji.
“Now why exactly are you laughing?” Kali turned on him, raising her eyebrows like an executioner. “Remind me again Ruji, how many languages do you speak?”
That wiped the smirk off Yahruji’s face, and he clicked his fingers. “Anyway, enough time wasting, let’s get prepared..”
“Such a cop-out, how classic,” Kali complained, laughing as she sat on the nearest desk. In turn, Naomi, Yahruji and I sat down.
The first pages were blank, and I was tempted to flip the pages early as there were no examiners present. However, that idea swiftly escaped my mind as I heard a loud wince in pain behind me.
Gazing back, I saw a set of pages had exploded in the boy’s hands - He jumped from his desk to avoid the flames, but they seemed concealed in the charred pages as he looked down in shock.
“What… What the hell am I meant to do now?” He asked, to no one in particular, with a sour expression.
As if to answer his prayers, the female Summoner from earlier entered the room. With a generous bust disguised by her cloak, long blonde hair and popping blue eyes, I focused my gaze on my desk to avoid any distracting thoughts. Well, that and an inevitable scolding from Naomi.
“Welcome to the Third Official Stage of the CMA Entrance Examination, otherwise known as the Examination stage.” She said, and I don’t think I was the only one who felt they could’ve perhaps come up with a more creative name to avoid the repetition.
“From now, you have thirty-five minutes to complete the written examination on your papers. I’d advise you to spend 20 minutes on the first section, 10 minutes on the second section and five minutes on the final section. Anyone who talks or attempts to cheat will be disqualified on sight, with no excuses. Good luck.”
With that, she waved her hand, announcing the beginning of the examination. I could hear the applicant with the burned papers calling out to ask her a question before stepping towards her at the front of the room.
I then heard a rough slap, followed by an empty silence, and flicked my eyes back to my paper. The first few questions were a breeze - I’d spent the vast majority of my childhood days either sparring or studying with Naomi, so the first marks were automatic.
I answered questions on key figures from the Human-Shifter War, older historical facts about the world before the Shifter invasion, techniques of cultivation, and assigning different skills to their linked rune. Ultimately, I was confident I’d scored perfectly in the first section.
The second section required a longer, extended written response. It was a short essay, and I felt myself wondering how Kali would fare. Though I didn’t know her too well, I hoped she’d succeed. This part of the test was undoubtedly partially designed to be another barrier to block off foreign applicants.
The title was, “To what extent should hunting the Condemned Children be considered the greatest priority in the war effort?”
It was an interesting title and one that naturally led itself to a balanced argument. On one hand, it was irresponsible to ignore the huge hordes of current Shifters which roamed the planet. However, it could be more convincingly argued that it was important to tackle the Condemned Children first to stop the flow of future Shifters into our realm.
I was fairly proud of my narrative, with the ultimate conclusion that it was more important to tackle the roots of the issue than its symptoms.
Finally, the third section. With only five marks, one per minute, I had expected it to be easy. However, I was completely lost.
“Considering the dimensions of an average Azurian longsword, what would be the iron requirements of a 5-man Azurian division?”
That was completely incomprehensible. There was no way that could’ve been expected knowledge, and yet the next three questions were equally ridiculous.
The final question was completely random, too - It asked for the name of the Professor judging them, but they hadn’t worn a name badge or anything of the sort, nor introduced themself, so it was completely pointless.
I gulped, tempted to see if the other candidates were struggling the same way, but I resisted the urge to prevent myself from coming across as cheating.
Instead, I stared dully at my paper, searching my mind for anything I could use as a hint. The dimensions of an Azurian longsword…? I considered comparing its size in my mind to a Subajuran dagger, but it was useless. Not only would it be a grossly inaccurate estimate, but I had no idea how much iron each one needed for production.
Shaking my head, I prepared to scribble down a random guess when I heard a quiet noise.
“800 khar,” The voice whispered, and I looked down to find it. I couldn’t make it out clearly, but then I saw it; a tiny, feline creature the size of a spider. From its shadowy appearance, it was clearly a Shifter.
I was tempted to crush it there and then, or alert the Professor, but I paused. It spoke in Rajanese, a human language, and what it had said was a little mysterious.
As if to emphasise its right to life, the Shifter continued, “It’s 800 khar. The next answers are Noble Rajamuku, Ryouzan Kamio, Xuan Yazhua and Dr Amuri Senang.”
I carefully pried my eyes away from the bug-like cat, trying my best not to arouse suspicion as I compared his responses to the questions. The answers seemed to be in the right format, and it would’ve been hard to randomly make up numbers that fit. Specifically, I recalled hearing the name Xuan Yazhua before and so I felt confident they were right in that question at least.
Not to mention the name 'Ryouzan Kamio'. That name would be scarred into my mind for the rest of my life.
I was running out of time, so I transcribed the answers of the Shifter. His voice was gentle and warm, befitting his cat demeanour, adding more to my confusion as I wrote, “Why are you helping me?”.
My plan assumed he was able to read, considering he was able to produce answers, and luckily that was a correct assumption. “Hm, just think of it as a favour. I owe you one, that’s all.” He murmured, and I think tried to smile, though his body was far too small to make it out.
I didn’t know if I could trust him, but I had no choice as the Professor called for us to stop writing. After haphazardly scribbling to cover my messages to the Shifter, I dropped my pen.
Clapping her hands, the Professor garnered the attention of the entire body before nodding. “Well done, everyone. As I’m sure a lot of you are probably curious, my name is Dr Senang. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
So the Shifter was right. I wasn’t sure if I was surprised, but I was grateful nonetheless.
“I have to go for now, but please bear this in mind. Your next challenge will be the final one, an Obstacle Course. In one part, you will be faced with a choice to go left or right. Make sure you pick left.” The Shifter said, before jumping off my desk. I attempted to follow it with my gaze, but it was as if it had entirely disappeared.
My attention was returned to my papers in front of me for a second as they produced a gentle green glow.
“These papers have been marked by the ‘Conditional Designation’ rune, and thus are self-marking. Anyone who scored under 50% will have their papers burned.”
My eyes flicked across the room at Xiao, Ann, the Fang Team and my team before locking eyes with Naomi. By the confident grin on her face, I wasn’t too worried for her.
All at once, I heard a series of explosions like that of a firework. Across the classroom, ten or so examinations had burst into self-contained eruptions. The candidates looked angry, disappointed or upset, but they knew it was too late.
I could tell some of them were planning to protest, but it only took one look at the boy from earlier to prevent them from doing so. The boy who’d tried to cheat earlier was lying in a ball next to the Professor, having been knocked unconscious by merely one brutal slap.
Turning her head away from them, the Professor snapped her fingers.
“Congratulations on those of you who passed! Those who didn’t, stay behind. Everyone else, feel free to walk on to that door beside me, for your final challenge: An Obstacle Course!” She smiled enthusiastically, as the never-hesitant crowd surged towards the door.
Everyone I had recognized had passed, which I was glad about, but I was not thinking about that.
No, as I stepped through the door with my hint in mind, my mind was consumed by the mystery of the talking Shifter and the ‘favour’ he owed me for.