Chapter 177: Greying Glimpse
“Next! Cadet Grey, no surname. Please step onto the platform,” said the male researcher with the immaculate lab coat on the other side of the glass.
The researcher’s half-closed eyes never left his clipboard. “Please place your dominant hand on the globe and wait for further instructions.”
I did as instructed while broadening my shoulders and puffing out my chest—as if my posture was going to somehow help me on this test.
“Now, Cadet Grey, the globe is a sensor that will measure your ki level. Please imbue your ki into the sensor until you are given the signal to stop.”
Taking a deep breath, I siphoned the ki out of my sternum and let it flow up and through my right arm into the glass sphere. My ki, which was being measured inside the sensor, looked like droplets of ink inside water. Swirling and expanding inside, I saw the researchers jot down notes with looks of disappointment.
Barely a minute had passed and I was already sweating profusely, my hand trembling on top of the globe.
“You may stop,” the same researcher notified through the intercom, his voice sounding even less impressed than it had in the beginning. “Please proceed to the training grounds for the final part of your assessment.”
I walked out of the door I had come in through, taking a peek back as the researchers discussed my score behind their glass window. The one that had given me the instructions let out a sigh and shook his head.
Walking through the brightly-lit corridor, I stopped at the back of a line that had formed from cadets waiting their turn for the final portion of the assessment.
“Hey… do you know what the last test will be?” The large, bulky young man in front of me in line asked nervously.
“We went through tests that measured our mental acuity, physical strength and just now our ki. Just by process of elimination, this last one can only be <i>that</i>.”
The muscular teen’s eyes lit up in realization before he grinned smugly. “Oh…<i> that!</i> Haha! I’m good at <i>that</i>.”
I let out a small laugh in amusement at the simpleton’s change in attitude. It was the same for me—I was also good at <i>that</i>.
The line started moving again and we filed into a large auditorium with a ceiling at least a hundred feet high. There were already a fair amount of cadets gathered in designated locations with an instructor leading each group. My eyes scanned the area in hopes of finding Nico or Cecilia, but I couldn’t find either of them.
There was also an instructor at the front of our line, guiding each of the new cadets to a different group. The instructor pointed to his right at a crowd of nervous cadets near the far corner and the bulky boy in front of me confidently swaggered to his assigned group.
“Cadet Grey, no surname,” the instructor read.
I stifled the urge to scowl every time a faculty member pointed out the fact that I had no family name. Why did that matter here?
“Proceed to Group 4C halfway to the far left corner of the auditorium. The floor is marked for your convenience,” the instructor said, pointing to the appropriate location.
I gave him a curt nod and walked to my group, which was a hodgepodge of approximately a dozen men and women of all different sizes and builds. A petite girl that looked around my age stood confidently with her arms crossed. She purposely leaked traces of her ki so everyone around her could feel it. A toned boy with neatly cropped hair stood tall with an arrogant smirk. Judging by the crest pinned to his chest pocket, he was from a military family. No doubt he was raised to be a prominent member of the military—perhaps even a contender to challenge the spot for king.
Amidst the group was our instructor—a heavyset man that looked to be in his forties with a mustache better groomed than his thinning hair.
“Cadet Grey?” the instructor asked with a raised brow as he read off his clipboard.
“Yes, sir,” I nodded respectfully. No point in being brusque with the man responsible for determining my stature inside this military academy.
“Okay! Looks like everyone’s here then,” he said, tucking his clipboard in his armpit and clasping his hands. “Hello everyone. You may all refer to me as Instructor Gredge. Before we begin, I’d like to say a few words.”
The cadets in our group shuffled around him in a circle so everyone could see.
“As many of you might’ve guessed, this last portion of the entry exam will be practical combat. I have every one of this group’s ki level results here and, while I will not disclose anyone’s ki level, I’ll tell you now that they all differ. Part of practical combat means that you will not always have the luxury of being able to fight someone with the same level of ki as you. Sometimes you will be lucky and be faced with an opponent that can barely strengthen his fist—”
A few cadets in our group snickered at that.<span class=”Apple-converted-space”> </span>
“Other times, you will come across situations where the opponent has a much larger ki pool than you do,” the instructor continued, holding up his clipboard once more. “Regardless, you will be judged on your ability to adapt accordingly and most importantly, prevail.”
We exchanged glances amongst our group before a scrawny teen that looked a few years older than me raised his arm and spoke. “Are the rumors that cadets can die during this test true?”
Instructor Gredge scratched his beard. “Highly unlikely. The weapons here are blunted and softened. Also, I’ll be carefully monitoring the fights and intervene when necessary.”
There were a few cadets in the group that were still anxious despite the instructor’s reassurance. I couldn’t blame them. The difference in ki levels made a huge difference in strength and agility—enough that even a softened weapon could be deadly.
The instructor cleared his throat to get our attention. “As all of you know, the entry exam is important in determining and securing a cadet’s future in this academy. Those who do well here will be well supported by the academy and be given resources to further their skills while those who fail will be neglected and eventually expelled. It’s unfair but that’s also the way of life. I’d ask if any of you have any questions but we’re short on time so let’s begin.”
Our plump instructor waved his hand, motioning for some of the stray cadets in our group to get out of the way. He then dug out a key from his pocket and inserted it into the wall. That was when I noticed the faint seams in the ground.
The wall slid open to reveal a weapon rack, while at the same time, panes of glass-like material erected from the thin seams in the ground. Within seconds, an area of roughly thirty square feet was enclosed by the clear walls that rose dozens of feet high.
“First up will be Cadet Janice Creskit against Cadet Twain Burr. Pick out a weapon of your choice and enter the arena.” Instructor Gredge motioned at the door and the panes slid open.
The small-framed girl that was flaunting her ki picked out a blunted spear while the scrawny teen that had just asked the instructor whether it was possible to die carefully handled a shield and sword. The two of them followed the instructor inside the enclosed area, the panes closing behind him.
“Glancing blows will be ignored and I will judge whether or not the match will stop or not. Until then, fight to your heart’s content.” Our instructor placed himself in between Janice and the anxious Twain. “Begin!”
Twain jumped back and immediately fell into a defensive stance, holding his fiberglass shield up while keeping his blunted sword close to his body.
Janice, on the other hand, lunged at her opponent. A muted thud resounded as her spear clashed with Twain’s shield, but she didn’t relent. With no regard for her safety, she let loose a wild set of thrusts, pushing back Twain with each one.
The petite girl lashed out like a cat, quick and agile but too emotional. Twain, although his knitted brows showed uncertainty, seemed to have caught on to this when he timed his next block to parry away Janice’s spear.
She staggered just a step, but that was all Twain needed. He quickly swung his sword and hit her square in the shoulder. I expected her to writhe in pain or at least recoil, but despite the direct hit, a translucent layer of ki protected Janice’s shoulder.
With a smug grin plastered on Cadet Janice’s face, she smacked away Twain’s sword with her hand and tackled him with the same shoulder that had just received the hit. Twain buckled. Janice followed up by swiping her weapon at Twain’s legs, sweeping him off his feet—literally.
The scrawny teen fell to the floor and just before Janice brought down the head of her spear into Twain’s face, Instructor Gredge intercepted.
“Match over. Both cadets return to the rest of the group,” he said unceremoniously, letting go of the spear.
There was a moment of silence as our instructor jotted a few things onto his clipboard while Twain and Janice walked out of the arena.
“As this is an exam and not a class, we will not be debriefing the happenings of this match. You may choose to speculate amongst yourselves. In the meantime, Cadet Grey and Cadet Vlair of House Ambrose, please pick out a weapon from the rack and come.”
Murmurs resounded from our group upon hearing the name ‘Ambrose.’
The toned, good-looking boy that looked just around my age walked over to Janice.
“May I use the spear?” he asked, holding his hand out.
The girl that had just fought like a feral cat suddenly turned tame as she handed him the blunted spear. “S-Sure.”
I picked out a sword about half the width of the one that Twain had used before walking into the enclosed area.
“That’s it, Cadet Grey?” Vlair asked with a raised brow. “The sword you chose is usually paired with a brace or another sword.”
I shook my head. “I’m fine like this.”
“Suit yourself,” Vlair said with a shrug.
“Begin.” Instructor Gredge signaled with a wave of his clipboard.
Unlike Janice, Vlair took on a much more neutral stance with his spear. I wasn’t all too familiar with forms for the particular weapon but just on instinct alone, I knew he was much better trained with the weapon than Janice was.
I tightened my grip around my weapon but kept the blade low. Vlair’s eyes narrowed, almost as if he was insulted that I hadn’t taken a proper stance.
With a scoff, my opponent dashed forward. His weapon became a blur but my body knew where it was going to be. I dodged his first thrust with just the slightest twitch of my head and I ducked underneath the quick swipe that followed after.
The following minute continued with Vlair unable to land a single hit on me. I knew that a single hit would probably be the end of me for this duel but I had to save my limited ki for when I could actually attack. Meanwhile, Vlair had a consistent aura of ki enveloping his body and weapon which was impressive. The previous cadets were able to protect themselves with ki to a certain extent, Janice more so than Twain, but to be able to extend his ki into his weapon at our age was something that came with both talent and hard work.
His blunted spear whistled past my cheek with practiced precision but I allowed my body to do its work. His movements were blurred and he seemed to be using a technique that bent and curved his spear for a wider range of attacks, but he was still slow—at least to me. Unlike the attackers that tried to kidnap Cecilia, he lacked the fear-inducing ferocity that they had.
Despite growing used to this sensation over the years, it was still odd the way my body moved seamlessly with my thoughts. I knew this was an unfair skill to have but I saw it more as evening out the playing field for my ever-shallow ki pool.
As Mr. Ambrose kept attacking, his precise combination of attacks soon became laced with emotions. Frustration and impatience took over, dulling his attacks and leaving his body more open. I took advantage of that fact and went in. Strengthening the ball of my foot with ki, I dashed forward after redirecting his spear up so his ribs were exposed on his right side.
I swung my sword, hitting him cleanly just below his armpit. Vlair’s body reeled from the impact but I could tell by the sensation just now that it didn’t do much because of the rich layer of ki protecting him.
“Enough. Match over,” Instructor Gredge declared.
“What? That hit barely tickled! I can still fight!” Vlair retorted, anger in his eyes.
“There is no victory in these matches, Cadet Ambrose. I have seen enough from both of you, which is why I’m concluding this match,” our instructor said, annoyance evident in his tone.
He glanced at me. “I disagree that you’ve seen enough. The kid just landed a lucky blow.”
Instructor Gredge shook his head. “The lucky blow was made <i>after </i>you failed to land a single hit for exactly a minute and eight seconds. Now before you are docked even more points, please make your way out of the arena so the other cadets can have a chance.”
Vlair stared daggers at both me and our instructor but walked out after tossing his spear on the ground.
The exams ended soon after, giving the cadets some time to rest and eat while the results board was uploaded.
“Is this seat taken? Of course it isn’t,” a familiar voice asked and answered from behind. Nico nudged me with his elbow before sitting down across from me, his hands carrying the same tray of food that I had received and was currently eating from. Cecilia followed close behind, shooting me a smile before she sat down next to Nico.
I ignored Nico’s little tease, swallowing my steamed vegetables before asking, “How did your guys’ tests go? Did the amulet work?”
Cecilia held up her right hand to show me the little coin-sized pin in the center of her palm. “It worked like a charm. Judging by the testers’ reaction, I was probably somewhere around average, to not-significantly-above-average.”
“I should’ve named the amulet the not-significantly-above-average ki displayer!” Nico chuckled as he pointed his fork at me. “I told you it’d work.”
I respected Nico’s resilience and ability to adapt. Nico was undoubtedly affected by Headmaster Wilbeck’s death, but he didn’t let that get to him for long. He bounced back and pushed us—especially me—to keep working toward a goal. I know that oftentimes, he jokes to cover his emotions but I think that his wittiness was much needed in our group.
I nodded. “I’m glad it did… although I still think it would’ve been best if you two went into a regular school. It’s not too late I thi—”
“And I told you that we’re sticking together,” Nico cut in. His eyes flickered with intensity for a moment but then loosened. “Besides, this place has a research facility and several workshops available to the engineering department students.”
“Nico’s right,” Cecilia chimed in, fiddling with but not really eating her food. “We all have things we can learn by being here.”
“Fine, but we have to be careful.” I lowered my voice and scooted closer to my friends. “We don’t know exactly what group or organization was after Cecilia.”
“You’re worrying too much,” Nico dismissed. “The new ki restrainer that I built should last long enough for me to scrounge around for a few parts here and make a more stable one.”
We talked for a bit longer but our eyes kept shifting back to the large clock above the kitchen. It wasn’t just us—everyone was anxious for the announcement.
Nico pushed away his tray of food. “Well I can’t eat any more of this rat turd. Want to just head to the board now?”
“Sure,” I said. “We might be able to get a better spot.”
We made our way out of the hall and back outside. The sun shined brightly overhead but, with only buildings and artificial trees and shrubs surrounding us, the academy felt stifling.
“Are the engineering cadets separated into divisions as well?” I asked Nico on our way.
My friend swayed his head side to side. “Yes and no. We, the more <i>intellectual </i>cadets, still have to use ki to create tools and gadgets so there is priority given to those who have a large ki pool, but it’s not as heavily weighed as you martial cadets. I’ll either be placed in first division, which is the fast track, or second division.”
“I wish it was that simple for us,” Cecilia sighed. “Why is it that martial cadets have divisions that go all the way down to five?”
Nico shrugged. “The way of life. Anyway, I hope you two get into the same division if not the same class. That way, Grey, you can mess up any boy who comes too close to Cecilia.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. Nico said it lightly but I could tell he was embarrassed at his words. Even after all these years, Nico still hasn’t said anything about his feelings for Cecilia.
By the time we arrived at the large courtyard where the board would be updated, there was already a large crowd of cadets trying to inch as close to the board as possible.
“Looks like everyone here had the same idea as us,” Cecilia muttered.
“No choice but to plow through,” Nico said as he pushed me forward. “Lead the way, cadet!”
After ten minutes of squeezing through hundreds of cadets, we made it close enough to the board where we could read the large words being loaded up onto the screen.
“Nico, your bottom lip is bleeding!” Cecilia exclaimed. “Did you get hit?”
“Alas, I did not come out unscathed after taking a stray elbow to my face in order to protect you!” Nico said dramatically.
I shook my head. “Nico chews his lip when he’s nervous, frustrated, concentrating or all of the above. He probably bit down too hard.”
Nico clicked his tongue. “Smartass.”
Just then, the screen flickered and lit up. Words—names and numbers—appeared on the screen in rows. The cadets behind us pushed us forward as they all tried to get as close as possible to find their names.
I found Nico’s fairly easily. He was placed in division one, class one—the highest tier. I saw Vlair Ambrose’s name next; he was division one class five of the martial cadet list, meaning he had barely made it to first division. Cecilia’s name came into view next but the restrained squeal of delight she had let out told me she had found her name as well.
I looked down, searching for my name, but my heart sank the lower my line of sight fell since the lower the name appeared, the lower their division and class was. Cecilia’s name had appeared fairly early since she had been placed in division two, class four, but by the time I found my name, I knew my goal of excelling in the academy and getting strong enough to find and take down the people or group that killed Headmaster Wilbeck was going to be much harder than I thought.
I mumbled my name and division, saying it over and over just in case I had read wrong. “Grey. Division four, class one.”
<span class=”s1″><b>ARTHUR LEYWIN</b></span>
My eyes crept open to see the familiar ceiling of my room back in the floating castle. I was thankful that I hadn’t experienced another nightmare, but this dream still left an incredibly bitter taste in my mouth.
“Time to get up, Syl”—I stopped myself, remembering that my bond was in the medical ward of the castle.
Yesterday seemed more like a dream than the dream that I actually just had. Fortunately, the journey back was only to the nearest major city that had a teleportation gate. Several soldiers had to help carry Sylvie from the site of our battle through the gate, but she was able to safely make it back and get treated.
I wasn’t able to see Mica at all since she had been taken into custody for questioning. Varay and Bairon had gone to meet with the dwarven lance in case she chose to fight back but she came back here willingly. By the time I had come back here midday, Rahdeas had already been placed into one of the cells to be interrogated at a later time along with Uto.
Staring outside as I stood in the shower, I realized that it was early morning, which meant that I had slept through the rest of the day and through the night. My body still felt sluggish and hot from backlash but sleeping for over eighteen hours seemed to have done wonders for me.
As I got out of the shower, I heard footsteps stopping in front of my room. The person didn’t even have the chance to knock when I called out, “Who is it?”
An unfamiliar woman’s voice sounded from the other side of the door. “General Arthur. I was given instructions to help you get ready and escort you to the meeting hall.”
Looking down at my dripping body covered in scars, I suddenly felt uncomfortable at the thought of someone staring at them. The scars on my neck and left hand the witch-like retainer had left me with were the worst, but they were just two of many that littered my body. Mana and Sylvie’s dragon will helped my recovery rate tremendously, but it just meant that scars formed faster to seal the wounds, not make skin pearly new.
“I’m almost done so wait outside for just a minute,” I said, hurriedly putting on trousers and a tunic with a high collar before covering my hands with thin gloves. It wasn’t necessary to hide my scars since the traitors had been captured, but I felt better doing so.
Making sure Dawn’s Ballad was safely inside my dimension ring along with Uto’s severed horns, I readied my mind for the endless strategic meetings and questionings soon to come.