The void below was endless. I was lucky to have been born with good vision, but even the sharpest squinting of my eyes failed to produce even a single distinguishable feature in the pit below. Still, I knew I had to jump.
Looking up across the stairway, I assessed the other option one last time. Effectively, this dilemma was between the safer, slower option of the stairs or the faster, riskier option of the pit.
This was, naturally, a test. The issue was finding out what it was testing. On one hand, it could be a test of valour - If one was truly brave, they’d leap down the pit fast enough and gain time against those who took the stairs.
Alternatively, though, it could be a test of reasoning. Although the pit might theoretically be faster, it could also just be a trap. At the bottom of the darkness, there was no guarantee of a soft landing - In fact, it could be the CMA’s method of weeding out foolish candidates.
I had initially leaned towards the pit because I doubted they would want to cull any more candidates. Yes, my reservations regarding the CMA’s willingness to kill talented students had been diminished, but the cost-benefit analysis swayed heavier and heavier towards costs the further the applicant pool was whittled down.
Another main reason for that thought had been my perception of the stairs as the ‘Safe’ option. However, upon further thought, I may have been wrong. The steepness of the stairs, as well as their volume, would undoubtedly make their option a cardiovascular challenge and risky in its own right - One wrong step down a long stairway like that could have significantly disastrous consequences. If I remember correctly, a certain green-haired swordsman lost their childhood friend through a malevolent staircase.
Unluckily, or perhaps luckily, the idea of choice was an illusion. I have forced myself to ponder the options to provide some justification, but in reality, I was set on the pit from the beginning. I was in last place among the group, and this challenge had already proven to be a time trial in multiple ways, so the fast travel of the pit was the only real option.
And so… I jumped.
An icy breeze pushed back against me as I disappeared, free-falling into the abyss. Staying alert, I glanced around constantly for anything identifiable or distinguishable as the drop continued further and further.
Just how deep did it go? I’d been falling for a while, far longer than to have reached the floor of any human compound, and it felt like I was being swallowed whole. Surely this must be the end…?
And still, I fell. The more I thought about it, the more surreal this whole experience had been. The CMA had teleported us, somehow without the work of known runes, to a huge compound. We’d been forced to fight live Shifters and a gigantic Duobeast, crawl through a squeezing tunnel and jump down to our potential deaths.
It was nothing like I had expected. Fighting each other, or an examiner, sure. But beasts and summoned monsters? Although Naomi and I had experienced drill training for years, some of the other candidates had probably never even laid eyes on a Shifter.
This trial was hell. But I suppose it had been designed that way. And as if my thoughts had been heard, I made out something beneath me. A navy blue, moving force. Water.
Studded with jagged boulders and spinning haphazardly, it felt as if the water was taunting me as it waited to devour its next prey.
Soaring through the deep blue, I dived deeper and deeper into the lagoon I’d dropped into. The water was turbulent, with strong waves pushing rightward every few seconds. I was overcome by the strong, desperate urge to gasp for air. I wanted to. I had to. No, I needed to.
Yet I wouldn’t.
When in deep water, you’re fighting your instincts more than the water itself. With that in mind, I was tempted to float; letting the water guide me, hoping it would bring me to the surface before I was unable to restrain my breath any longer.
But I knew the challenge would never be so easy. I was deep under, and I wouldn’t be able to hold my breath much longer. I had to escape now, while I still had enough oxygen in my lungs to push, and a sufficiently clear mind to avoid surrendering to panic.
It was so dark that it was difficult to even see which direction was up. Remembering a small piece of advice the Commander had once given me, I released a small bit of air from my nostrils and mouth. Watching them closely, I figured out their direction of movement and steeled myself.
I sliced through the water with my left arm, driving it back as my right arm simultaneously made its mark. My arms and legs were already exhausted from the long crawl, but I pushed them even further. This whole challenge was designed to test and overcome limits, and I needed to pass the challenge.
Thrusting my streamlined body through the water, I drove my arms upward with a mixture of exasperation and anger. My chest heaved and my lungs began to burn once more as I tore through the lake like a bullet.
I threw my arm directly into a boulder. It smashed against it with a loud, painful crack as a wave of electric pain flooded my senses. It continued to quiver as I pulled away from the rock, running out of options - My only choice was to push harder with my left arm, giving my damaged right arm just enough time to recover before using it, even in its weakened state.
Continually releasing bubbles to check I was on target, I felt my body reach its true limit as I began to freeze up. Even just a single stroke was difficult, and yet I was being continually pushed back by the rough waves.
After a huge torrent of water submerged me deeper, I decided to make a final desperate effort. Keeping my eyes shut, I embraced the emptiness and kicked as fast as I could underwater, propelling myself to the surface.
As soon as I reached the top, I had to jump leftward to avoid another sharp rock, landing in a small unobstructed area in moments of serenity after the last wave.
I spluttered hard, recapturing my breath as I finally broke the surface. Making sure to keep treading water as I slowly drifted in the direction of the waves, I scoured my surroundings for an escape. Naturally, above me was the pit, but there was something else.
Just past the opening of the pit, there was a long rope hanging down with a large net behind it. Presumably, I’d have to pull myself out with that rope and leap to the net for safety. Seemed easy enough.
What a joke. The rope was a long distance away, and I was too tired to even push back against the strong waves blowing me in the opposite direction. I had honed my body to possess strong stamina back at home, and yet these waves battered me like I was nothing.
I felt like I was going to die here. I was all alone, with only the cold water for company, as I was brought closer and closer to unconsciousness.
But… I couldn’t give up.
There was no way that I could let myself fail here, let alone die. I wouldn’t be able to make it through the icy water, no doubt about it. My right arm hurt too much to strain it any further, and my left arm was exhausted.
However, my legs were a different story. Yes, they were tired. But they weren’t shattered like my arms. And in a case like this, better a weak shot than nothing at all.
I braced myself for the next wave, keeping my eye on the target - As I’d expected, I was carried along with the wave and thrown at a small boulder. Luckily, I had expected it and threw my legs out in front of me to minimize the damage. Using the momentum, I thrust my body forward like a seal to latch onto the top of the boulder and pull myself up with my left arm. My right arm coiled around it for support as I stepped onto the shaky surface of the boulder.
It was risky, but I had no choice. I leapt to the next rock, sighing heavily in relief at the successful landing. Compared to the malicious current, the boulders were the lesser of the two evils so I sprung from rock to rock.
It was surprisingly more efficient than I had expected, and I took great care to maintain my balance as I hopped onto the next boulder. I had gotten much closer to reaching the rope - Just two more jumps. It should’ve been easy enough since I’d jumped so many before.
It wasn’t. Landing on the penultimate rock, I could immediately tell it was unstable as it began to shake beneath my weight. Instinctively, I leapt forward to escape it and land on the final rock, but naturally, the boulder swung backwards in response, destroying the flow of my jump.
As a result, I landed just short of the final boulder, crashing roughly against it as I winced in pain. I tried to pull myself up, but I was ambushed by another wave as I slammed back into the penultimate rock. It felt like hope had been so close, just to slip away so easily.
Lunging forward with my head tilted slightly, I managed to hug the side of the final boulder. Jutting out of the azure water, it provided an ugly, messy sight to match its ugly, brutish nature. However, I could not hate it despite its evil as it was the only option I had left.
Using the same method as before, I swung my left arm upward and dragged my tired body towards the top. The first time, I was slammed back by a wave. The second time, my arm gave out before I reached the top.
But finally? I managed to make it, nearly convulsing in response to the shock of the cold water and the anguish brought by the sharp edges of the rocks. Still, this was no time for pity. My key was here.
As if reaching for the dove’s branch, I jumped one final time to grab onto the rope.
Looking down at the aquatic hell I’d escaped, I closed my eyes.
I’m sorry, Makuro, for overtaking you when we were both pushed over.
Ten years ago, the parents of Shinsato Katsuro were brutally killed by an army of demons known as Shifters. Now, at sixteen, Katsuro is determined to enter the Celestial Military Academy, begin training for the war effort and ultimately save humanity from this perpetual, brutal conflict between humans and Shifters.
With many different islands, cultures and factions to explore, Katsuro will have to work his hardest to unlock the truths behind the Runic stones, the Duobeast system and the Condemned Children, a special group of humans marked by the Prince of the Shifters before his mysterious disappearance.
Studying hard and working out every day for years, Shinsato and his childhood best friend Naomi are finally prepared to set off on their sacred mission.