A boy like Siel had no business being in the war academy, but there he was, packed into a room with the other recruits, wondering how he had gotten there. The academy was built on a small, harsh planet with raging fire storms and hail made of acid covering most of it, while forests of large mushroom-like structures made of diamond sheltered the surface in some places. The academy was built under one of these canopies, and this was where new recruits from all over the galaxy were trained to keep the peace between the warring species.
All of the recruits except for Siel were large, strong people, mostly men, who seemed to be a few years older than Siel. Even the women were bigger than he was, and all seemed to be battle-hardened, though they hadn’t been officially trained. Most came from Nefaros’s belt, a large colony of asteroids on the edge of the human empire that was constantly attacked by other species. They were people used to harsh conditions and to fighting for their lives.
Siel was not. He had been born on a peaceful planet in the sixth ring, not one of the wealthier planets, but not one under constant attack. He grew up with his older sister on a tobacco farm in the warmer part of the planet, keeping track of the seasons with the positions of two suns. Here, there was only one sun, and it was very odd to Siel, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
He remembered how he had come to attend the academy, a confusing tale. He had been working the farm, picking worms off of the tobacco leaves and dropping them unharmed into a bucket, when a small transport shuttle had landed by the house. He had run back to see three men in white and red uniforms, the uniform of the royal guard, talking to his sister, who looked distressed. As soon as the men saw him, they told him that he was going to attend the academy and train to become an imperial soldier. He had no choice in the matter. After a teary goodbye from his sister, he was shoved into the shuttle, carrying only his grandfather’s small leather pouch that never opened, and whisked away to the academy. He still didn’t know why. He was too afraid to ask.
Now, here he was, the weakest of the recruits, a boy who had never left his home, out on the third ring of the galaxy, wondering what he was doing here. He felt completely and utterly alone. On top of being the smallest, he was also the only one that didn’t know someone else here. He was saved from being silent in a sea of whispers when a soldier stepped up onto a podium in his red and black uniform, the uniforms of the imperial soldiers. A royal guardsman stood just behind him. A strange man with the look of the sea before a storm in a navy and black uniform stood on the other side. Though he was shorter than the other two, something about him made Siel feel like he was the most dangerous of the three.
“Welcome, recruits,” his voice was loud and strong, a commanding voice that left no room for doubt. “As you all know, you’ve been brought here as recruits for the empire. Through training, we will weed out the best of you for the royal guard, and the rest will become imperial soldiers. Being an imperial soldier is nothing to sneeze at, out on the front lines, fighting for the empire, keeping peace between the barbarians outside our borders that would destroy us all.” The royal guardsman stepped forward. “In the royal guard, you will be responsible for keeping order inside the empire. It’s a very important task, and only the top fifteen out of the two hundred in your class will be allowed to join.”
Someone shouted, “what about the Order?” Everyone turned to look at the offender, a giant of a boy with a long scar across his face. The man in the navy and black began to laugh, an eerie sound that sent a shiver down Siel’s spine. The man in navy and black stepped forward and said in a powerful voice, “there is only one potential candidate in your class for the Order of Reapers, and it is certainly not you, young man. Have some respect.” The giant frowned, his ears turning red, but he stayed silent. Siel had no idea what the Order was, or why it was so important, but he remained silent.
The imperial soldier stepped forward again. “I am Master Kenworth, one of the three headmasters of the academy. The royal guardsman is Master Aniston, and the,” Master Kenworth paused and gulped. He continued with great effort, as if the name itself might summon some horrible power. “The Reaper is Master Hitachiin. We will be watching over your progress, and know that we are always watching, so do your best all the time. We’ll now turn you over to Mistress Leviathan, who will be your dorm mother and who will personally supervise you class. You are to treat her with the utmost respect and do whatever she says. She is an ex-member of the royal guard, so know that any misbehavior will not be tolerated.”
The three stepped off the stage, and Siel caught the eye of Master Hitachiin. He felt frozen, until the Master gave him a strange smile and looked away, exiting with the other three. A strong-looking woman with a few scars and wiry blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun dressed in red stepped onto the stage. “I am Mistress Leviathan, your dorm mother and supervisor.” Her voice certainly did not tolerate any disrespect. “If you’ll all come with me, in three even lines, you’ll be assigned to a group and shown to your rooms. There will be eight to a group, with twenty five groups in all. Your group will become your family, and you will have to be close enough to work together in extreme situations. Think of it as your battalion. Your groups have already been chosen based on compatibility. Before we do that, however, I will lay down some rules that are not to be broken.”
She began to list off rules, and then went on to explain how the academy worked, mainly the schedules. They would receive their schedules at the beginning of the week, and would follow them to a tee. Tardiness was cause for punishment. A leaderboard was kept for each class. Five years were to be spent at the academy. Any individual that excelled would receive special training and treatment. Rewards were given for good behavior and hard work.
Then the Mistress led them out of the crowded room. Siel marched down the hallway with the others, in the right line, to a much larger auditorium where they were going to be split into groups. There were numbers on the floor, one to twenty five, where they were to stand with their groups when called.
Siel was the fourth to be called for group eight. There was a man and two women, one who looked like she wanted to kill him as he approached and the other who looked nice enough and made an effort to smile at him, but looked like she also might kill him. The man was the giant who had shouted earlier, and he refused to look at Siel. There were snickers in the crowd, and whispers of how small and soft he looked. Siel felt his ears burning as he stood with his group. There was one other woman called who was Siel’s size, but she had a wicked look about her and a scarred eye. The other two who joined them were men, one who was almost as big as the giant and just as mean, if not meaner, and another man, who was smaller than them but still big to Siel, who had glasses and a hardened look that was different from the others, though Siel couldn’t quite explain why. Then one more man joined them.
After the groups were separated, they were shown to rooms with eight bunks, two pairs on each wall, and two bathrooms, one for the men and one for the women. Siel took the bunk on the top left side where his last name was written on some masking tape, and the other women also chose the left side. Siel found several uniforms of the students, all grey, in a cubby hole in the wall. He took one and went into the bathroom, changing out of the farm clothes he was wearing and into them. He tucked his grandfather’s pouch under his shirt, hanging from his neck by a leather string. The uniform fit him perfectly, not too loose but loose enough to move. There were grey boots to wear, but he didn’t put those on yet.
He went back and leaned against the back wall while the others introduced themselves. “I’m Alicia,” the nicer girl said, “from planet Wry in the second ring.” She had brown hair, naturally golden skin, and sweet honey eyes. “Before I came here, I fought Quni infiltrators.” The Quni were a people of stealth, whom out of the other species most closely resembled humans.
“I’m Solomon,” the giant spoke. His hair was light brown, and his hazel eyes were harsh. “I’m from planet Nezumi in the first ring. Before I came here, I worked as a guard for an imperial weapon warehouse.” The others looked impressed. Siel began to feel smaller and smaller.
The wicked looking girl spoke up. She had blood red lips, pale skin covered in paler scars, and curly black hair that would not be tamed. “Marci, from the ice planet on the first ring.” She didn’t say anything else, but the others seemed to give off a new air of respect. Siel followed suit.
Another man spoke up. “Anders, from planet Magi in the second ring. I was a blacksmith.” He was blonde and kept his hair in a ponytail.
The third woman introduced herself. She looked like a younger version of the Mistress. “Caitlin, from planet Ilia, first ring. I fought Kiln invaders.” The Kiln were a vicious lizard-like species intent on destroying other forms of life.
The man with glasses and bright blue eyes spoke. “Urliel, from planet Nar of the first ring. I infiltrated imperial starships and sold the information.” A criminal, then. Siel looked at the last man, who seemed to know Urliel. “Amai, I’m his brother.” They had the same eyes and same square jaw.
Siel wanted to shrink away into nothingness when they turned to him. Alicia urged him to introduce himself. “S-Siel, from planet Yule, third ring. I was a tobacco farmer.” The others stared at him for a moment, and Marci started laughing. “No wonder you look so weak! Come, let me see your hands.” She grabbed his wrist and looked at his palm. Her hands were rough and callused, where his were soft, the only calluses being on the heel, where he held the tool used for harvesting. “A tobacco farmer! What are you doing here, boy?” She shoved him away roughly, and he stumbled.
The others gave off the same contempt, but they weren’t completely open about it. Urliel walked over to him, picking up his hands and examining them. “The only use you might have is a gentle touch. Not useful often, but something I doubt any of us possess. When we don’t need you, stay out of the way. I won’t be brought down on the leaderboard because of you. You’ll follow our orders, my orders, understand?” Urliel put himself in charge. Siel nodded. He got a bad feeling about this whole thing.
They were right. Why was he here?