There were several tents in front of the rock. People bustled about, talking, drinking and, in some cases, sparring with one another. The most prominent tents belonged to a group of people wearing black robes with a white swan emblazoned on their backs. They didn’t mingle with the other groups, preferring to talk to each other instead.
As we approached the site, a few gazes turned towards us but they didn’t linger for long. We weren’t suspicious in any way. Just another group of travelers waiting for the road to be cleared.
However, we quickly became the center of attention as, instead of setting up a tent, we walked up to the rock and started conversing in hushed tones.
“We sure about this?” asked Lily.
I scratched my head. “It’s the best choice we have, I’m afraid. And my Ability’s telling me that this is what we should do so…”
“But you don’t seem too sure,” she said.
“No, I’m not. It’ll attract a lot of attention and one of us will be severely restricted from now on. Which reminds me,” I said, turning to face Kai and Amy. “Who wants to do it?”
“Can’t be me,” said Amy. The rest of us nodded.
“I don’t want to,” said Lily.
“And I can’t afford to,” I said, eyeing Zoe who stared at me blankly before suddenly nodding.
“Well, I do everything around here anyway,” said Kai as he walked up to the rock and put his hands on it.
People started muttering but Kai ignored it. Someone walked out of the group of black robed people.
“Are you also an Earth mage? We have a couple of Earth mages too. We are working out a schedule for clearing up the road. If you like, you can join us in our tent and we can go over the details together,” said the black haired young woman who approached us.
“No, it’s okay. Just let me enjoy my few fleeting moments of fame,” said Kai as he waved his hands.
A huge hole appeared in the center of the rock as it crumbled. Kai waved his hands a few more times and the hole became deeper and deeper until it became a tunnel. He kept walking while waving his hands, causing the rock to crumble and cave-in in front of him but no debris fell on him at all.
Even if he hadn’t volunteered, I would have asked him to do it anyways. Since no one except for the Demon Lord and the Hero were supposed to be able to use all kinds of magic, anyone who used Earth magic in front of a crowd like this wouldn’t be able to use any other type of magic during our stay at the Academy.
And I needed to be able to use Dark magic at the Academy. Although people from all over the Alliance were accepted there, the administration heavily favored students from the Dark kingdom. If I wanted to make the most of my time there, I needed to be able to establish myself as a talented young Dark mage.
Amy was a Fire mage and using Fire magic in public would associate her with the Fire kingdom and, hence, the Holy Union. As such, she would attract way too much attention. We’d already decided that she wouldn’t reveal her magic at the Academy and would either go for the purely academic courses or not join any courses at all.
Zoe was also an Earth mage and we could have asked her to help out but her mana pool was too small for a task this size. We also didn’t want her to have to go through a mechanical process like this again, after all she’d been through in the factories.
Lily…I didn’t want her to do it because she didn’t know that only the Demon Lord and the Hero were supposed to be able to use all types of magic. I’d worked very hard to keep that information from her. I’d have to keep a close eye on her at the Academy. Couldn’t let her find out or she might start to suspect my identity. Then again, she’d inevitably find out. She was smart and I couldn’t hide the truth forever…but I could try to hide it for long enough.
And that left Kai. Although he, as far as we knew, couldn’t use Earth magic, his Ability could replicate the effects of basic Earth manipulation magic relatively easily. Of course, he’d told us that his power had limits and it would probably take some time before he could dig a stable tunnel through the rock but it was the best option we had.
Moreover, I personally wanted him to be restricted at the Academy – at least in public. My plan was nearing fruition and Kai was the biggest variable at the moment. I needed to contain him as much as I could.
“Stop, this is reckless! It’ll collapse on top of you!” shouted the black haired woman.
“It’s alright, he’s good at being reckless,” said Lily.
“Gerard, Tami, come help this fool out!” said the woman, signaling to the people who’d appeared from inside the tent.
“What’s all the commotion about, Perse?” said the tall man with stubble on his chin.
“Someone’s trying to dig his way to the other side, we need to drag him out before he kills himself!” she said.
“It’s his own fault isn’t it? No need to risk our own necks for him,” said the boy wearing a bandanna on his forehead.
“That’s true, but-”
“Stop worrying about him. He’ll be fine,” I said, turning to Zoe. “Pass the salt will you?”
She passed the salt.
“And why are you people having a snack when your friend is in such mortal danger?” she said, indignant.
“Because we’re hungry,” said Amy as she munched on a sandwich.
The black robed people stared at us blankly. The young woman pursed her lips and angrily stomped back into her tent. The tall man followed her, shooting us a short glance along the way. The teenage boy snorted and folded his hands behind his back before following them.
“Is it okay to attract so much attention?” asked Lily.
“We’ll stand out at the Academy no matter what we do. Kai said his rings should keep anyone from recognizing us so we should be alright,” I said. “In fact, having a bit of a reputation wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
The rock shuddered from time to time but the tunnel didn’t cave-in. Still, no one entered it, fearing that it would do so. Eventually, no more tremors ran through the rock and the crowd went silent. We finished our meal and packed everything up before walking into the tunnel.
We later heard that the crowd waited several hours before following us.
The rest of the journey was uneventful – something that most people couldn’t say about a journey through the infamous ‘Corridor.’ Most people crossed it in groups or with large caravans with hired guards and mercenaries. Although the rock we’d just passed had been abnormally large, it was quite common for debris to come flying out of the purple mists.
Worse still, monsters frequently attacked travelers along the Corridor, ambushing them by hiding in the thick forest undergrowth. That was why all the Inns had guards too.
Of course, we didn’t have to face any of that. We shot most of the debris with magic and Kai’s Ability took care of the monsters. In fact, it made me think about Kai’s Ability again.
How did it keep away monsters? Was he releasing some kind of pheromones or the scent of an insanely powerful monster. Perhaps a dragon? Or was he manipulating their minds into thinking that we weren’t prey?
I thought back to the encounter with VanDrake.
Yeah, the pieces are falling into place. His power is absurd, but I guess I already knew that. The only question is…who is he?
“Yes?” I said, turning around.
It was Kai.
We’d stopped at an Inn to use the toilets for a bit. Surprisingly, the toilets on Erath were pretty well developed. A combination of Earth, Water and Fire magic helped make the plumbing on Erath exceptional.
Magic is wonderful, isn’t it?
“There you go again!”
“What?” I said.
“You keep zoning out. In fact, you’ve been acting weird ever since we found you in the Wastes. Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”
He didn’t look convinced. Was that concern I could see on his face? I wasn’t used to seeing that emotion on his face.
In fact, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t seen a lot of emotions on his face. He’d only been angry a couple of times but other than that, he was always happy. It reminded me of something…
“And you did it again!” he said, breaking me out of my thoughts again.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Whatever. Oh, looks like the girls are out. How much farther do we have to go?” he asked.
Somehow, I got the feeling that he already knew. He turned away after all. Probably wasn’t listening.
Why was I noticing all of these things now?
“Oh, a few thousand years,” I said, in a serious tone.
“Great, let’s go.”
I sighed as I left the Inn.
We reached the Academy Town just as the sun started to set. It was a beautiful town, not unlike college towns on Earth. The town itself had a suburban feel to it as it lacked the city walls and castles most cities on Erath possessed but it’s buildings emanated an archaic air all their own.
The Academy’s gates were already closed so we couldn’t enter it until the next day. The town didn’t have a wall but there were a few guards standing on the road, checking everyone’s paperwork. We went through the security check the same way we always did – with Kai’s magic paper.
What’s with the paper anyways? How does it work?
How did it know what to show? Did it change to whatever Kai wanted it to or was it based on the target’s thoughts? Showing the target an officer they respect or someone they’d only heard about but never seen.
Or did it make up a completely fake persona for him? But then that couldn’t work unless he-
“Runir? Hey Runir!”
“What would you like to order?” asked Lily.
“Whatever you’re having,” I grumbled.
“Fine,” she said, turning to the waiter. “Bring him some of this.”
The waiter nodded and went away.
“Kai was right, you’re zoning out too much,” said Lily. “Is something wrong?”
“No, just, you know, planning for the morning and stuff. Have to get into the Academy, ace the exam, go to the shrine and- where are the others?”
“They left when you were staring at that glass of water. Went shopping for Zoe since she doesn’t have anything to wear. I’d have gone along too but someone had to look after you,” she said, with a sigh.
“Right, sorry. I’ve just been so caught up in all of this lately.”
“All of what?”
“You know, or well, you don’t know. You don’t know anything. Must be fun living in a world where everything around you isn’t screaming a conspiracy, isn’t shouting for you to uncover the truth before it’s too late. Isn’t-”
“Runir!” she shouted, causing the other people in the Inn to look over in concern.
“Sorry,” I said. “Just feeling a little. You know?”
“Er…yeah. Bitchy,” I said.
“That made no sense.”
“You’re the one who said it!”
We continued bickering as our food arrived. I complained when the waiter placed a bunch of bones in front of me but the waiter said that was what I had ordered.
“Lily, why did you-”
“It’s dog food. Perfect for someone feeling a little bitchy.”
I stared at her for a while, then I stared at the steaming pile of animal bones on my plate. And then, despite everything that I was grappling with in my head, I laughed.
“You’ve finally cracked, haven’t you?” she said, frowning. Clearly this hadn’t gone as planned.
“Yes.” I laughed. “I’m totally cracked. Cracked up, that is!”
Lily groaned and the other diners also looked at me in confusion. The waiter told me to quieten down but I dropped some money in his hand and got up.
“Come on, we need to go,” I said.
“What, did you really think we’d just pop by the world’s foremost educational institution and get in like we usually did? There’s an entrance exam you know? We need to prepare!” I said, pulling her out of the Inn.
“I don’t like this…”
“Right, I’ve heard the bookstores here are amazing. Ah, that one’s famous all across Erath! Let’s go…”
I dragged the struggling Hero into a bookstore and forced her to read up on Erathan history and geography all night.
I really was an evil Demon Lord after all!
We entered the Academy gates early next morning. We asked around for the principal’s office, but were told that he wasn’t in town. He’d met some unexpected difficulties while attending the Air kingdom’s Exhibition.
“That sucks but hey, could you tell us where to sign up for the entrance exams?” I asked.
“Sure, right up that hallway.”
We followed those directions and came upon a large, wooden door with a swan carved into it. We knocked on the door and were told to come in.
“Yes, how may I help you?” said a bespectacled old lady as she signed some papers.
There was a golden plaque on her desk that read: “Professor Morgianna Mehlin. Academy Dean.”
“We would like to enroll at your institution please,” said Amy.
We’d decided to let her do the talking this time. She could use the practice.
“Very well, we can administer the written examinations right now,” she said, reaching under her desk. “Please follow Galvin to Hall B.”
A middle aged man appeared and led us down several hallways. We passed several people along the way, most of whom wore the black robes with a white swan which was the official uniform of the Academy. Most of the people wearing something else were staff members and faculty, it seemed.
There was some crazy stuff too. A bunch of black robed students once ran into the hallway waving a flying black ball making disgusting noises. A girl ran crying out of the bathroom with her eyebrows sliding off of her face. We even saw a bearded professor crying while hugging what looked like a jar of human feces as he walked out of a room full of giggling students.
We finally reached the hall and sat down to take our exam. We were given papers and were warned that cheating was a crime punishable by death and since I’d read up on the legal code in the Dark kingdom, I knew it was true.
Of course, that wouldn’t stop us from doing it anyway.
Question: In what year did the fifteenth Holy War take place?
I knew the answer so I wrote it down.
As I wrote down the answer, I put my pen down and snuck a glance at Lily’s desk. She tapped the desk with her pen, seemingly contemplating a question, but then her eyes lit up and she started moving the pen over her paper.
However, the words that appeared on the paper didn’t follow her hand movement at all.
I sighed. Kai took the fun out of everything. I began writing the answers to the rest of the questions, sometimes letting the pen write an answer on its own when someone else answered a question before me.
I used that time to think.
How did these pens work? How did they copy my answer and how did they regurgitate it onto someone else’s paper? Kai used his Ability to make these pens work like this but this was ridiculous. He’d said there were limits to his Ability, but from what I could see so far, those limits were at best limits on the magnitude or strength of his Ability, not its versatility, and that thought was frightening. Or rather, the implications of him being able to do anything, to a certain degree, were terrifying.
If his magic paper and his ability to turn away monsters and maybe even this pen, worked on the basis of manipulating minds, then could he do the same to us? Could he control me or influence me without me even knowing about it?
What if he can read my mind? What if he was reading it right now? Did he hear what I just thought? Does he know that I’m onto him?
What will he do? What does he know? What should I do?
Calm down Runir. You need to gather more data. You need to test this out. Probe the extent of his Ability. He showed that he could barely influence Van Drake…or was he just pretending? Either way, you know he can make an ancient dragon walk into lava so he must be powerful.
What was his Ability called again…rewrite? If the name is any indication of what it does and if his limits are, at least, as high as I think they are, then I need to form contingencies and I need to form them fast.
But for now…stop thinking. Stop thinking. Stop thinking…
We turned in our answers several minutes before time was up – at different times of course – and went back to the Dean’s office. We were directed to another hall for our physical exams, but those didn’t involve the use of any magic and was based on physical fitness and health alone.
The Academy didn’t discriminate against people who couldn’t use magic at all, since they could still do well academically. They did require some sort of proof that we were from the Alliance, but Kai’s magic paper covered that.
And that’s how we managed to get admitted to the Academy. Even Zoe passed the exams since there was no age restriction. We were allowed to stay in the dorms but chose to stick to the Inn outside the Academy instead.
We left the black gates just as the sun set over the horizon and the gates slammed shut.