The sudden transition from semi-darkness to the blinding daylight had caught me off-guard, and my hand moved to shield my eyes from the intruding sunlight. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the new brightness, and everything seemed to come to life all of a sudden.
The opaque wooden walls around me had miraculously transformed into glass panels, permitting bright sunlight to wash its way into the hall. My eyes darted to the roof, noticing that it had also followed the example set by its two neighbouring walls. Moving my hand away from my face, I straightened my slumped form and peered ahead at the dazzling subject of everyone’s interest.
“Greetings, to Eyte and Miradi alike,” the ageing capasa’s voice boomed across the expansive hall. “I am principal Essitor Den-enald, and it is my pleasure to welcome one and all to this facility, the pride and joy of our race, the Academy,” he said cheerfully as he placed his hands around the podium. He was of average stature and slim build. A fist-length beard and a trimmed moustache decorated his seamed face, while his white ankle-length tunic fluttered as if it was riding a gentle breeze, radiating brightly enough to darken the seating area behind. The light cyan crescent-shaped crystals added to the enchantment of the robe and for a good length of time, I was lost in its beauty. The fact that the principal’s robe glowed so brightly even with the room bathing in sunlight made it all the more glorious. His well-groomed and silver shoulder-length hair gleamed in the sunlight as he placed thick hands around the platform for support.
“Of course, if there are any Vix in the hall, then we would kindly request you to leave. You are, unfortunately, past the age of learning I’m afraid,” the principal chuckled while making this statement, inviting muted laughter from the audience. The meaning, if there was any, was lost to me.
I cast another glance to my right and saw Luton and Moria on the row ahead of me, oblivious to my presence. I had spotted them a while ago, but hadn’t managed to reach out to them so far.
“I wodm… wouldn’t mind one of them robes,” Gallant chortled while folding his arms around his chest once again. I smiled with him, hoping both to put him at some ease and to calm my own jingly nerves. Gallant was older than me, 25, if I was to believe him, so he was still an Eyte just like me. His features were similar to Luton’s, albeit less defined, and I found myself comparing the two absent-mindedly. Both had high cheekbones forming a defined jawline, but Gallant’s features were noticeably less chiselled than my comrade’s who, despite living rough for years, was more fuller around the cheeks. Luton had worked his matt-black hair into braids, but Gallant had let them flow freely so that they raced down to his shoulders. His white thobe was decorated sparsely with a pattern consisting of two s’s, similar to the decoration on his hat. The side and chest pockets of his dress had a golden lining. I realised that my own were an emerald-green instead.
This was Gallant’s first year at the Academy as well, he had told me after our nervous acquaintance. His brother also studied here but he was in a higher year. Before I could enquire further, the principal had risen and an eerie silence had descended on the hall. There was a certain distinguishable aura around him which demanded respect. He had to be a century old at the least, probably much more, and so the nagging feeling gnawing at me since leaving Medicon had renewed in earnest once again: why was there no sense of pressure around these capasa, and especially in this hall which was filled with hundreds of Miradi, some of whom could probably give the hunters a run for their money? It didn’t make any sense, and it was ringing alarm bells in my head.
“To begin, congratulations are in order for our existing students who’ve managed to secure another year at the Academy. We hope that you’ll continue to exceed our expectations, author further works, give birth to more life-changing innovations and build a legacy worth following. Welcome back!” A loud ruckus of applause rolled through the hall and the principal clapped as enthusiastically as everyone else. Gallant, unfortunately, continued to clap for a second too long after the chorus had died down which earned him a handful of curious glances. He sank further in his seat.
“To our new entrants, we welcome you to the Academy, the one and only of its kind. Some even call it our legacy. We hope that in the exciting times that lie ahead of you, you will, perhaps, come to realise that the praise is not too far off,” the principal paused for a moment while looking down, as if to gather his thoughts, and then continued.
“Work hard, learn new skills, undertake exciting research, and most of all, enjoy your time here at the Academy. So let me extend our warmest greetings to you once again: welcome!” I joined the chorus of applause which seemed to have energised the muted audience once more. A group of capasas in the row ahead of me were chatting excitedly.
“Can you believe it? We’re finally here Ardos! I’m getting goosebumps,” the capasa ahead of me spoke to his companion on his right as he shuddered, as if to validate his confession. His companion, Ardos, also dressed in white, replied hastily without taking his eyes off the principal: “Me too!” Then, almost as an afterthought, he looked back to see me staring at him and I quickly smiled, not wanting to give out a bad vibe. He smiled back.
The principal allowed the momentum to linger for a few more moments before raising his right hand to indicate silence. “Before we move on, I would like to take a moment to explain the basic system here at the Academy, both for the benefit of the new and the old.
“The Academy is the de facto educational institution of its kind for our race. It has the most established facilities, valuable connections with industry leaders, but above all, a practical approach to learning. We want you to understand the why and the how, and then apply this knowledge in your research and practical labs.
“To put it bluntly, we take a direct approach to your learning. For those of you who are just starting out, you will find that here at the Academy we do things noticeably differently. There are very few actual taught lessons, so you will be spending most of your time in labs putting theory into practice, or out in the field putting knowledge to work. There will be much to see and learn in the days ahead. My advice to you is not to get overwhelmed. You are the clay of our race that we will hope to mould into future thinkers, innovators, and leaders. In essence, you are the future, and so long as you work hard, we will invest in you,” the principal said, before pausing for a few moments. A group of capasas to my left and across the divide were whispering amongst each other as they cast fleeting glances at Moria. I couldn’t make out what they were talking about.
“Now, Most of you will have read about the Academy in the informational package you received during your application. But for the benefit of those who haven’t, let us run a short demonstration. Hands beside your panels, please,” a panel slid out in front of the principal as he said this. Most of the students had already pulled their panels out, but Gallant was amongst the few who did this now at the instructions of the principal. I noticed that the crescent-shaped symbol had been replaced by a new set of 3 images. Gallant’s panel showed the same screen.
“Any idea what we’re supposed to do with this?” I asked Gallant quietly, not wanting to attract any attention to myself.
“Huh? Um… just wait I guess,” he replied as he placed his hands in his lap, looking around at the other students. I turned my attention back to my own panel.
“Families. We are a race proud on our heritage, our legacy, and our ancestry. Each one of us belongs to a family, some more known than others. Outside these walls, you may have experienced unsavoury behaviour and attitudes from individuals who claim to hail from families that control large swathes of land, or even whole Kingdoms. But let me state this, and let each of you take heed of this from the get-go: here at the Academy, we do not tolerate casteism. Here at the Academy, there is no difference between someone who hails from the Em-Hin and another individual who, by some tragedy, doesn’t even know his or her father. What differentiates you is you, not your lineage,” the principal surveyed the entire hall in that brief pause, as if daring someone to challenge him, and my admiration for the capasa grew. I could see where Dravon had gotten his charisma from.
“But, we do take pride in the legacy we leave behind, and so I may strike you as a bit of a hypocrite when I say that you will be part of a family here at the Academy, and you will take pride in this, but the concept is different. The family system here at the Academy is one of competition and betterment, and not one of spite and flamboyance. On the panels in front of you there are 3 crests, each representing one of the 3 cohorts of the Academy. Each one of you will belong to one of these 3 cohorts at the end of this day.” I glanced at my panel again as the principal took another pause. The 3 symbols were arranged in a line, and the distinct profiles of the animals in each depiction were clear at once.
“The Eagle’s Reach,” as the principle shouted this loudly, a high-pitched shriek boomed across the hall and I jolted, much to my dismay. Meanwhile, all the panels had zoomed in on the first of the 3 symbols and I noticed, much to my amazement, that the very same symbol had appeared on the roof and the walls of the hall as well. A golden eagle had claws atop a red ribbon and feathered wings outspread with its head and beak pointed down in a fierce and condescending posture. It looked primed and ready to strike at any moment. A ripple of murmurs spread through the hall.
“… whose house values are self-reliance, determination, and innovation. This is the cohort of visionaries, pioneers and innovators. Do you have a larger-than-life vision, or perhaps a reality-breaking concept? Are you the innovator who will help take our race to the next level? Are you, perhaps, the golden spark that will materialise into the next Majestica? If you have the idea and the determination but not the tools and resources, then this, is the legion for you!” The principal banged both of his fists lightly on the stand as he finished the sentence, and numerous excited but hushed conversations emerged around me.
I couldn’t help but tremor in excitement myself. The next Majestica? I looked dutifully at the primed eagle insignia again, and the powerful yet elegant eagle stared back. Somewhere in that abstract depiction, I saw a welcoming beacon.
“Sounds a bit much doesn’t it? ‘Sky-tearing vision, cloud-breaking execution’. I don’t think I’ll be putting my foot there in this lifetime,” Gallant said dismissively as I inspected the slogan under the eagle crest again. “We have to choose?” I asked Gallant.
“Sort of. We get to choose a cohort which we like, but then it’s up to the heads of the cohorts to decide if they accept us or not.”
“And if they don’t accept?”
“I suppose they just place you wherever takes their fancy. Not really sure how it all works, I only skimmed the prospectus. My older brother’s in the Stallion Knights so that’s where I’m probably going. You?” There was a hint of expectation in Gallant’s tone, and I smiled back at him in reassurance: “Yeh, I guess. But it sure has a punch to it, this Eagle’s cohort. I kind of like it. There is a sense of royalty to it don’t you think?” I replied gently. There was a fleeting look of surprise on Gallant’s face. “Really? Alright, you going to choose these lot then?” He asked inquisitively, but before I could answer, the panel zoomed out of the eagle to showcase the remaining 2 crests. Immediately after, the second symbol appeared. The hooting noise was calm and appealing where the previous sound had been harsh and intimidating.
“The Owl’s Gems, whose house values are enlightenment, resourcefulness and intellectual empowerment. Are you a thinker and problem solver? Are you intrigued by the many mysteries of life or gravitate towards the scientific fields of medicine and research? Do you have a particular craving for knowledge that just seems insatiable? Scholars, thinkers, medics, entrepreneurs, if your quest for knowledge has remained unfulfilled, then this is the cohort for you!”
The gold and creamy-white owl crest was simpler than the eagle’s insignia, with the horned owl sitting atop a shield which contained a padlocked door. The key to the door was hanging in the centre of the multi-coloured, gem-encrusted necklace around the owl’s neck.
“This one’s quite good don’t you think? ‘Harnessing Wisdom’. I’ve no idea what harnessing means though – do you? ” Gallant seemed to have taken the task of reciting the slogans of each cohort as his sworn duty.
“Not sure, I’m not that well-versed myself,” I replied earnestly. Regardless of his apparent shortcomings, I found Gallant’s company quite enjoyable. It was easy opening up to him. Almost too easy. I reminded myself to remain cautious. These were foreign lands after all. Enticing, but foreign nonetheless. I still had no idea about the exact purpose of these cohorts, but the build-up was exciting nonetheless. A galloping sound which was increasing in frequency and intensity and reverberating back and forth across the now darkened hall brought me out of my reverie.
Then the hoofs hit the ground hard as a creamy light flooded the hall all of a sudden and the galloping sound was replaced by an echoing neigh as the panels changed once again. A golden-brown horse was standing on its hind legs, leaning on a chiselled and indented shield for support. A silver armoured helm and torso were shown in the shield with two swords forming an ‘X’ over the torso and around the helm. Feathered wings extended from the outer edges of the shield and wormed their way up towards the horse in an arc. “And last but not the least, the Stallion Knights, the upholders of valour and chivalry, whose values are courage, justice, sacrifice and leadership. Are martial arts and combat your vibe? Do you dream of one day becoming a fearless Entim? Are you a treasured companion, fiercely loyal to your beliefs? Do you have what it takes to stand up for what you believe in, in the face of adversity, even when the odds are stacked against you? Warriors, protectors, defenders: this, is the cohort for you!” If the last murmuring outbreak was quiet and subdued, then this was the exact opposite. A chorus had erupted and the crowd almost swayed to the tune which seemed to bounce all across the hall:
“Valour… Honour… Justice, Valour… Honour… Justice,” and on and on it went. Gallant had joined in, of course, as he flashed me a cheesy grin. I decided against accepting the invitation but there was no denying that the mood in the hall was ecstatic, and soon the principal pressed for silence before, I suspect, things got out of control. Not surprisingly, Gallant made no remark about the slogan. There probably wasn’t any need after the chorus we just sang.
“These are the 3 cohorts of the Academy, each with specific capabilities and resources at their disposal, and those of you who are just starting out will be placed in one of them very soon. You have, of course, a say in the matter, and we will do our best to place you in the most suitable house. Whilst it is not crucial to choose the correct cohort, it would most certainly speed up your progress and development if you were surrounded by like-minded students. That is the whole purpose of these cohorts. If you are still confused, however, then please do not worry. There will be ample time after the opening ceremony to get more information about each legion and see if you can enrol. Now, shall we move on?” Principal Essitor gestured towards one of the academy staff as he finished his speech and to my surprise, another familiar face stepped out of the darkness. Keos was still donning the same three piece suit I had seem him in at the Medicon as he made way to the centre, in front of the raised platform where principal Essitor was standing. Separating his legs slightly, Keos lowered his head and clenched his hands together in front of him.
“What’s going on?” I asked Gallant curiously as a deafening silence descended on the hall.
“He’s a neutraliser. Somebody’s coming, somebody really strong!” No sooner had Gallant finished his sentence, a loud popping sound filled the hall and I startled, unintentionally squeaking alongside many others. Immediately after, a swirling black hole appeared on top of the raised platform and three capasas seemed to appear out of thin air at once, slowly descending to the floor beneath and landing next to Keos, who for that matter, had started shaking slightly. Glistening beads of sweat were forming on his face as he started to waver.
“The Academy is honoured to have you here, Majestica Lariell,” the principal announced loudly with both arms extended as everyone in the hall stood immediately.
The Majestica, here, at the Academy? My legs trembled as I stood up with the rest of the students. There was no doubt that I felt awed and intimidated then, more-so than I ever had before in my life, but that’s not why was I was shaking.
I was shaking out of anger!