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The brush glided across the snow-white paper, similar to a person snaking across the desert. Occasionally giving out the scraping sound of brush on paper; occasionally silent as it smoothly drifted past.
The Hall of Zhao Wen was to akin to being filled with mulberry trees, nurturing countless silkworms.
Chen Chang Sheng grasped his brush and earnestly answered the questions on the paper, his brush didn’t make any great movements, as he concentrated upon his writing, one stroke to one character, serious to the point of being rigid.
Due to being rigid, it looked nervous, but in reality he was feeling calm and unfettered; the countless works he had read since young, drifted across his mind, akin to leaves falling in the wind; seeing each question, he would choose one from amongst the falling leaves before writing down what was prescribed wherewithin. Questions that required greater consideration; those had yet to appear.
Having gone through a substantial portion of the questions, there had yet to be any that strayed outside the knowledge contained within the Scripture of The Way, the clergy who set the questions had yet to demonstrate knowledge beyond that of past forebears.
Gou Han Shi, who was situated nearby, lowered his brush and briefly massaged his wrist before continuing to answer the questions. His expression was calm and relaxed, akin to being back within the study at Li Mountain, revising and creating study notes.
The Hall of Zhao Wen was quiet within, only the sound of writing and the scuffling of scrolls could be heard, with the occasional cough arising from those who were nervous.
It was at this moment, that something unexpected occurred: someone handed in their paper early.
The one handing in was obviously not Gou Han Shi or Chen Chang Sheng; their brushes had only just landed upon paper and started writing; as the most hopeful examinees of the academic phase, wouldn’t they at least answer all the questions in their entirety?
It also wasn’t Xuan Yuan Po. Disqualification did not exist for the Academic Exam, thus, if this wasn’t your forte, you could just give up on this part of the exam; this was something Tang Thirty-Six had told him and was something many teachers or elders from the various schools and sects had also told their students or disciples.
The benefit of experience: if your results in the Martial and Duelling phases were to be exceptional, then even if you had no results in the academic phase, you could still enter within the Three Grades.
The handing in of papers early was something often seen for the Grand Examination, but for this year, people were still surprised: this was far too early.
The first person to hand in their paper was the youth Chen Chang Sheng had been keeping his eye on. This youth had not even read the questions, or more specifically, the moment the paper had been placed upon his desk, he left his seat and took it towards the seating area for examiners.
He had effectively abandoned the test.
In past years, though there were many people like Xuan Yuan Po who would give up on this academic phase based on the advice of their elders and teachers, they would at least take into consideration the prestige of the Imperial Court and Orthodoxy by enduring for an hour before handing in their paper.
Yet this youth, without an ounce of hesitation, had abandoned the test the moment it had started, showing of a lack of thought for human relations. Fellow examinees gazed at his back in shock, with some showing an expression of glee, evidently gloating over the idea that he would have left a bad impression upon the examiners.
That youth walked up to the seating area for examiners and placed down his answer paper.
That thick stack of papers was obviously blank.
The examiners that had been appointed by the Imperial Court and Orthodoxy all stared at the youth in silence, the atmosphere was a little awkward.
One of the examiners broke the silence and said, “you are certain that you wish to hand in your paper?”
The youth had delicate features, with a distinctive pair of brows that were very small and very flat, almost akin to looking at a straight line; strangely, this did not detract from his features, only giving the sense of someone that was cold and detached.
Upon hearing the question of the examiner, the youth continued to have an expressionless face, asking: “Not allowed?”
While saying those words, his eyebrows lightly twitched, showing some annoyance; it seems he disliked conversing with others.
His voice was cold like ice, the tone was flat like barren plains, spoken slowly, akin to having to throw out each word; it was as if he hadn’t spoken to anyone for a long time.
The clergy member lightly frowned, replying in a slightly unhappy tone, “According to the regulations of the Grand Examination, handing in your paper early is allowed, but…”
Not waiting for the clergy member to finish speaking, the youth said: “I’m handing it in.”
His words were still slow, the tone was still flat and his expression still cold. His intent was clear and firm: he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
The clergy member looked at the blank answer paper, but didn’t say anything else; another examiner harshly reprimanded him: “You’ve already lost your chance of entering the Second Grade, anyone that had any sense of shame would feel disgraced right now, but for you to act in such a gloating manner, just what have your teachers been teaching you?”
The youth remained expressionless and didn’t answer.
He did not have a teacher and had entered the Grand Examination in order to participate in the duels, he wanted to defeat everyone, especially that girl from White Emperor City, this was to affirm to himself that he was the strongest. As for the Imperial Court and Orthodoxy’s selection of first place upon the First Banner, this did not interest him.
Shortly after, someone took the youth and left the Hall of Zhao Wen, leaving for the site of the Martial Trial.
The hundreds of examinees that were left, looked at the disappearing figure of the youth with complicated feelings.
Gou Han Shi could vaguely deduce the identity of the youth; his expression became a little sombre.
Zhuang Huan Yu’s brow lightly twitched, his expression was still calm, but his eyes betrayed a sense of unease.
After an hour, examinees started handing in their papers.
These examinees were taken from the Hall of Zhao Wen and down the divine avenue, after walking for a long period of time, they arrived at the location for the Martial Trial: The Garden of Dawn.
The Garden of Dawn was a park located in the Eastern section of Li Palace, under the tranquil Spring season and clear scenery, greenery blanketed across like a sea of green. Countless trees dotted the landscape, birds could be heard chirping in the morning, flowing streams seen in twilight; the scene was extremely beautiful. With the remnants of Winter fading and the buds of Spring sprouting, the earth was still covered in hints of brown, yet this did nothing to detract from its allure.
What was the true purpose behind the Grand Examination?
Was it to help the Imperial Court and Orthodoxy acquire new talent? To set an appropriate barrier for entrance to the Mausoleum of Books? Its purpose did indeed coincide with these aims, but its true purpose was to identify and allow for the nurturing of true geniuses amongst the younger generations for the struggle against the demon race.
The individual battle strength of the demon race was far too strong, humans and yao could only rely upon numbers to make up for the difference, from a thousand years ago when it had first started, they had understood that it was only through nurturing more peerless experts, could they achieve a lasting advantage on the battlefield.
Upon the long path of cultivation, the Ethereal Opening realm was the most important hurdle that had to be passed.
By passing through this boundary, one would become a focal point of the human world, yet age was also an important consideration; an individual aged 30 who was in the late stage of the Meditation Realm was not as important an asset to the human world as someone aged 13 who was in the early stage of the Meditation Realm.
This was something easy to understand; even if you were to be able to reach the realm of Star Fusion at the age of 800 years, you would already be near the end of your time and will have no hope of entering higher realms of cultivation, what impact can you have in the war against the demon race?
Therefore, similar to the Rankings within Heaven, Earth and Humanity that were disseminated by the Council of Divine Ordinance, the Grand Examination focused upon the latent capability and talent of examinees: their future.
Talent and latent capability can be said to represent the same thing, but with the latter being more subjective; brought together, what is displayed will be their capability.
The Martial Trial was the phase that allowed for one to most directly achieve their goal using their own method.
For geniuses such as Xu You Rong and Luo Luo, their bloodline talent was something inborn, it wasn’t something that could be scrutinised, but its strength could be demonstrated. Firstly, the strength of divine sense, this decided the distance of one’s Fated Star and the short-term progress of cultivation. Secondly, the quantity of True Essence, this was related to the diligence and ability of the cultivator to perceive Heaven and Earth.
The examinees, under the guidance of leading Officials, crossed the Garden of Dawn and arrived at the easternmost region of Li Palace, they didn’t see the youth who had handed in his paper the earliest, only seeing a thicket of evergreens that were about the size of two people in height that had been trimmed tremendously straight. Some of the examinees that were from the Capital knew of the origins of these copious green woods; finally understanding that this year’s Martial Trial was this topic, they inadvertently let out a silent wail within their hearts.
Let us switch from these examinees who were currently in the Martial Trial and their current predicament, and instead return to the Academic Exam that was still ongoing within the Hall of Zhao Wen.
Some students currently had brush tips grinding against their teeth, faces pale, akin to being on the verge of fainting; some students, under the cold Spring air, had faces full of sweat and steam rising from their bodies, giving the current scene an indescribable sense of tension.
This year’s questions were too difficult, encompassing too broad a knowledge area and requiring too deep an understanding, far surpassing those of previous years. No matter how much they racked their brains, there was a limit to their endurance; there were constantly examinees who had lost in the battle against the question setters, handing in their answer papers early, followed by the sounds of crying emanating from the Hall of Zhao Wen.
An increasing number of gazes from the examiners and clergy fell upon Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng, yet it seemed as if they were unaware of these gazes; they continued on their answers, their brushes unceasing in their motion.
Through the passage of time, the Hall of Zhao Wen came to have just over ten people remaining, most of the positions had already been cleared, making the hall ever more empty, deserted. For those remaining, they had already given up on answering the last few questions and were beginning to check their answers for mistakes; Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng continued with answering the questions.
The early Spring Sun, rose from the horizon to a zenith, the numbers remaining in the Academic Exam increasingly dwindled, even Tian Hai Sheng Xue and the four scholars from Scholartree Manor had already handed in their answer papers; Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng continued to silently work on their answers, they had already reach the final page of the questions.
The examiners and clergy within the hall could not sit still any longer; one-by-one they left their seats, holding their tea as they approached the exam area; fearing that they might disturb the two of them, they didn’t get too close, but remained at a distance. Observing this scene that would rarely appear within the Grand Examination, none of them let out a single sound, yet their expressions became increasingly spectacular.
For these past years, no one had managed to answer all the questions in their entirety for the Academic Exam. The reason for this was due to the question setters being elderly clergy from Li Palace that concentrated on studying classics of The Way.
These elderly clergy members might have had unremarkable cultivation, and little in the way of political power, but a lifetime under books had given them vast knowledge and it had become customary for them to set the hardest possible questions for the last few as a proof of their worth; these questions would have been difficult even for the question setters to answer unassisted, let alone the examinees.
Gou Han Shi was renowned for having read the Scripture of The Way in its entirety; Chen Chang Sheng currently also had the same accolade; perhaps this had incurred the wrath of these elderly clergy members of Li Palace, causing this year’s questions to be far more difficult than usual, especially the last few questions, which were difficult and abstruse to the extreme, akin to wanting to humiliate Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng.
The examiners and clergy were well aware of this, seeing that both Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng had managed to reach the last page and would be able to answer all the questions in their entirety, they were naturally astounded.
Tian Hai Sheng Xue had already handed in his answers, and was standing by the doorway of the hall, he turned around to glance at the two who were currently still answering the questions and quietly frowned. As the most promising successor to the Tian Hai family, he had never let up on the demands he had set for himself, yet those last few questions were far too difficult; he didn’t understand how Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng could continue answering, was the gap in knowledge really that great?
The scholars from Scholartree Manor also handed in their papers, logically speaking, they should have felt suitably proud for this, but seeing the remaining two, calmly holding their brushes, they couldn’t bring themselves to feel this. They were not surprised with Gou Han Shi being able to continue for this long, he was renowned for his learning; but they were certain that Chen Chang Sheng would be unable to answer the last few questions and that he was currently just refusing to give up due to conceit, this caused their faces to inadvertently reveal a sneer of contempt.
An unknown amount of time passed.
Silence within the Hall of Zhao Wen was interrupted by the scuffling of a sleeve against tables and chairs; the sounds of discussion faintly began to rise, unable to be supressed any longer; it emanated from the eastern side.
Gou Han Shi had finished his answers, standing himself.
At almost the same time, from the western side, came the sound of table and chairs being moved, the sound of papers being tidied.
Gazes turned towards that direction, only seeing Chen Chang Sheng clasp his paper to his chest, preparing to hand it in.
Silence once again descended upon the hall.
Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng were separated by a distance of 30 odd metres (40 odd yards), they quietly observed each other, before lightly bowing and exchanging formal greetings.
This was the first time they had caught sight of each other since the first peal of the bell, though of course, they both knew that the other was present.
The Academic Exam has ended, the silencing array outside of the hall was dispersed and sounds came in like waves.
The masses that had come to see the Grand Examination were confined to a faraway location, yet their clamour could still be heard at the examination grounds, it did not take much to imagine how lively it currently was.
The masses who were here to participate in merriment already knew of the details to the Academic Exam, they knew that Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng were the last to hand in their papers and that they had actually managed to answer all the questions. This caused unbridled elation amongst them and calls of joy to arise; two youths that had read the Scripture of The Way in its entirety, handing in their papers at the same time, the image of this was just too captivating.
Gou Han Shi was famed across the world and the favourite for taking first place in the academic phase, he was deeply respected by everyone, but alas, he was also from the Southern Domain.
Chen Chang Sheng had managed to offend all the youths in the Capital due to his betrothal with Xu You Rong and the Autumn Rain incident, but he was indisputably from the Zhou Empire, in a time such as this, he had become a representative for the citizens of the Capital, a source of pride for the people of Zhou, causing some of the spectators to actually cheer for him.
Gou Han Shi and Chen Chang Sheng couldn’t clearly hear what was being said by the masses; they received towels from the attending deacons, soaked them in the basins provided and wiped their faces and hands. After cleansing themselves they followed the officials and left the Hall of Zhao Wen, this was clearly a privilege exclusive to the two.
Reaching the evergreen tree in front of the divine avenue, Gou Han Shi turned towards Chen Chang Sheng and asked: “The Zhou though ancient, its fate is as such. What did you think of this question?”