Chapter 193: Broken Seal
I looked up at the row of judges peering down from their platform that overlooked the main stadium my opponent and I were currently on. Sitting in the middle of the row was a tall, shapely woman with blazing red hair that curled down her back. Two sharp eyes that would make even a wild lion flinch regarded me with interest as the rest of the judges murmured amongst themselves over the results of the match.
I thought to myself, what exactly there was to go over. My opponent, a Division Two candidate testing for a first division spot, was passed out behind me while the medics approached with a stretcher.
There was a sinking realization as the judges continued discussing that they might very well be determining whether to send me up or keep me at Division Three.
I could see Nico and Cecilia in corner of my eyes, waiting just as intently for the verdict as I had during my first competition while attending this academy—back when I still believed fair results could be achieved through hard work.
After what seemed like ages, a thin elderly man with a white mustache groomed a bit too meticulously—probably to compensate for his bald head—cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention. “Cadet Grey, no surname. While your match was impressive, especially your demonstration of martial arts, the poor level of utilization of your ki throughout the tournament made it clear that some basic fundamentals are clearly lacking and need to be thoroughly reviewed. Therefore, Cadet Grey will move up to Class One of the third division.”
I could feel my blood boil underneath my skin as I did all I could to suppress my rage. I clenched my fists, gnashed my teeth, curled my toes—anything to stop myself from lashing out at the judge and this entire academy system.
Just then, a roar of laughter echoed throughout the entire arena. My burning rage was instantly quelled as I looked up, dumbfounded, as the red-haired judge continued laughing heartily. It wasn’t only me that was shocked by her actions though. The rest of the judges whipped their head toward their colleague with expressions ranging from shock to anger to embarrassment.
The audience that had been quietly waiting for the results from this final round muttered amongst each other hoping to get some answers from the turn of events.
Finally, after the red-haired judge calmed down enough, she let out a sigh while wiping away a tear. “My apologies, I thought Judge Drem was pulling that kid’s leg by telling him he needed to ‘review his fundamentals’.”
At the mention of his name, the mustached judge—who I assume was Judge Drem—flushed red all the way the top of his shiny head. “Lady Vera. In the sanctity of the annual assessment duels, your behavior is unaccept—”
“No,” the red-haired woman that the judge referred eerily respectfully despite the gap in age, cut in flatly. “What’s unacceptable behavior, and embarrassingly pathetic, is this blatant attempt at holding that kid back because he’s not from a distinguished house.”
Clearly unprepared to be verbally assaulted by the woman, Judge Dem stammered what he hoped would be words. “Wha—How dare… I did no such—”
“Then how can you possibly justify Cadet Grey as being anything less than Division One?” Lady Vera interrupted again. At this point, I really hoped that this lady had either the strength or the backings to justify her blatant lack of respect for the older judge.
Judge Dem tried his best to gather his wits, letting out another cough. “Like I stated earlier, Cadet Grey’s ki utilization is lack—”
“Wrong,” she instantly cut off again, causing the older judge to practically fume in frustration and embarrassment. “The boy’s ki utilization is at least a step above even the Class Two students in Division One. What you call ‘lacking’ in ki utilization is actually him making up for his lower ki level to an almost impressive degree.”
The other judges sitting behind the panel were obviously lower in terms of rank than Judge Drem because the only thing that they’d been doing at this point was wordlessly shifting glances between Lady Vera, Judge Drem, and me.
“Lady Vera,” the old judge said through gritted teeth. “While I am grateful for your insight into the matter, I have been a judge for nearly twenty years now. Please reciprocate the respect that I’ve shown you by showing me the respect that I’ve earned in this field.”
Lady Vera thrummed her fingers on the panel she was sitting behind, contemplating for a moment before she nodded. “Fine. I’ll respect your verdict, Judge Drem.”
Before I even had the opportunity to be disappointed by this, though, Vera’s form flickered out of sight.
What in the—
She appeared above me and landed with a soft thud. Despite the fact that I had witnessed everything, I was still somehow doubtful that she’d just cleared the span of two stories as casually as I would step off a sidewalk.
“Kid. Like Judge Handlebars said, you’ll still be in Division Three, but what do you say about me becoming your personal mentor?”
I thought for a moment—I even turned to Nico and Cecilia to make sure what I was witnessing was real. I didn’t know who this woman was, but the way she held herself and the impressive movement skill she had used to clear the distance that most elite soldiers wouldn’t dare replicate made me take the risk.
Ignoring the aghast row of judges as well as the stunned crowd, I took her hand. “I accept your offer.”
I woke up on the floor with my hand stretched out in front of me, much like how my dream had ended. However, rather than Lady Vera’s seemingly fragile hand in my own, I was gripping tightly onto Uto’s horn.
The once obsidian stone that once glimmered like a sinister jewel now had cracks and splinters strewn across its dull gray exterior.
It took a moment of idle wondering of how I came to be in this position when I suddenly remembered. As if struck by a bolt of lightning, I shot up to my feet. I took in my surroundings for the first time since waking up, relieved that I was still in my room and that my room was relatively intact. Looking at the window, it was still nighttime, which meant I was unconscious only for a few hours.
Pulling my senses inward, I focused my attention on my mana core. My mana core that did not have the glimmering silver sheen that it once had, but instead radiated brightly like a white sun.
“I did it,” I muttered incredulously. I maintained concentration on my core for a few minutes, just taking in the new, alien feelings that came with my breakthrough. The paranoid part of me did it just to make sure that I wasn’t imagining things.
I wasn’t. I was now a white core mage.
Ecstatic, I sent a pulse of mana throughout my body. The flow of mana was seamless and near-instant. I hadn’t gotten the chance to read through the notebook that Alanis had written for me, but I had a feeling that she might have to update some of the readings.
Without stopping, I held out my hand—palm up—and began shaping the mana. I started out with something relatively easy, making a small orb of pure mana. This was the equivalent of stretching before a run.
After that, I proceeded into more complicated exercises. I enlarged the orb of mana and shrunk it as quickly as possible. Then I split the mana orb into two smaller ones. After I had about a dozen small mana orbs floating above my hand, I ignited some of them by coalescing fire affinity mana particles in the atmosphere while I froze another set of orbs and so on. By a few minutes into the exercise, I had several dozens of different elemental spheres all orbiting around my palm.
Throughout it all, I had a wide smile on my face that I only noticed after my cheeks began cramping.
There were hundreds of variations of these manipulation exercises all meant to help mages get better at organic magic—a term that had many names but all meant one thing: magic that did not need gestures or chants in order to cast.
Much of the magic that beginning classes in Xyrus Academy taught centered around stagnant magic, which were essentially spells limited in variations and uses in order to reproduce consistently and easily. The gestures and chants that so many mages used and still use today help in guiding their subconscious as they mold their mana into the spell that they want. The downside was that most of these gestures and chants basically told opponents, ‘hey, I’m going to throw a fireball at you.’ It was fairly easy for any decent mage to counter such stagnant magic.
The organic magic that I had so naturally grasped from an early age thanks to my understanding of mana from having lived a previous life, was much harder to cast and control. Every time I launched a blade of wind at my opponent with a simple swing of my arm, my brain was basically giving detailed instructions of the mana that I imbued into the spell in order to get the shape, size, speed, trajectory, angle, etc. all correct.
Breaking into white core stage wasn’t as awe-inspiring as I sort of hoped it would be, but it was definitely a huge step forward—more so than any of the previous breakthroughs into the next core stages.
My control and ‘finesse’ over mana had definitely been taken up a notch, almost as if the advancement into white core also affected my cognition.
I thought back to several instances in the past when the lances demonstrated some of their prowess in magic. Olfred’s ability to cast eerily lifelike golems of magma as well as Mica’s superb control over an abstract element like gravity were all reasons that supported my claim. Putting Alea aside, I’ve never had the chance to see Aya fight. Bairon was able to mold lightning into a giant spear that looked about as detailed as a masterfully crafted weapon, and just recently, I came face to face with Varay’s dragon made completely of ice.
Is this why all the lances are so skilled in manipulating mana? I thought, sighing. Another thought occurred to me as well. Flying. Usually, skilled flying meant constant attention to your body and mana output all the while having your attention on something else, like fighting.
That was why most mages didn’t fly even if they were able to—what use was flying when it took complete focus to sustain it and the mana expenditure wasn’t cheap.
If manipulating mana became this easy, then I could see how the lances were able to easily fly while casually talking to me or even casting spells. Eager to know what my limits were, I was tempted to immediately head down to the training room and test a few theories out—I was especially excited to activate Realmheart just to see what I could do. However, a sharp pain flared in my head, wrenching me out of my thoughts.
‘A-Arthur! Something’s happening…’
Sylvie’s voice rang in my head, but sounded muffled and distorted.
Sylvie? What’s wrong?
I called out to her several more times but didn’t get a response. Feelings of excitement and elation were immediately replaced by worry and fear as I headed down the flight of stairs to the small training room she had isolated herself in.
I turned the cold metal handle of the door, but it was locked. “Sylvie, I’m here! Can you hear me?”
I shook harder, hoping it was just jammed, but seeing as it wasn’t, I punched a hole near the knob, rendering the lock mechanism useless. Pushing open the door, I stepped inside only to stop completely in my track at the sight ahead.
Standing in the back of the dimly-lit room was a wide-eyed little girl in a simple black robe with two black unmistakable horns jutting out from the side of her head.
I thought I was seeing things at first. I blamed the poor lighting and the shadows cast by them for playing tricks on my eyes, but when I stepped closer and the girl looked up and we locked eyes, I knew.
“Sylvie? Is that you?”
The girl cracked open an uneasy smile, a trace of fear and excitement evident in her bright topaz eyes. “H-Hi, Arthur.”
The two of us stood there. Neither one of us knew what to do, what to say, how to react. I still couldn’t believe it. My eyes told me that I was seeing a girl that looked no older than eight or nine with long choppy hair that was the same pale wheat color as her draconic form’s underbelly; looking closely, her messy hair looked more like soft feathers than actual strands of hair.
Little of the girl’s small face was covered by her hair, since her bangs barely covered half of her forehead. Her round yellow eyes shifted uneasily under my scrutinizing gaze until she sent a mental transmission.
‘How long are you going to keep staring like that?’
Caught off guard, I flinched, but not by the words themselves but the emotions that were intertwined into them.
Unlike before, I could feel the emotions she was feeling while she communicated through my mind. Like now, how she felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, but at the same time excited and anxious. It was odd feeling foreign emotions through my brain; it was never like this before. At most, Sylvie could send one, extremely strong, emotion to me that felt more like she was telling me how she felt—it was never this… intimate, for lack of a better word.
“Sorry,” I said aloud. “I’m still digesting everything right now. What exactly happened?”
“After absorbing the retainer’s mana from the horn you gave me, I was able to finally break the seal that you and grandpa said that my mother placed on me to keep me hidden.” The disparity between her childish voice and her words threw me off, but I nodded in understanding.
“So by breaking the seal, you were able to unlock the human form that asuras were able to transform into?”
“Yeah,” she said, looking down at her small hands. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t had the chance to really study the changes in my body so I can’t tell you exactly what’s happening at this moment but—”
Sylvie abruptly lurched and staggered, nearly falling forward before she regained balance.
“Sylvie? You okay?” I asked, concerned.
Sylvie stood in place for a moment, frozen. I cautiously made my way to her, unable to even fathom what was wrong, when she slowly looked up.
When our eyes locked again this time, however, a chill ran down my spine. Her appearance was the same—nothing had changed—but her presence, her demeanor, her gaze were completely different. So much so that I had involuntarily stepped back from her.
‘Sylvie’ straightened herself, swaying her neck side to side as if she was stretching it.
“Ah, ah,” she said, clearing her throat. “You can hear me, yes?”
I raised a brow, not knowing how to answer.
“I’ll take that gesture as a yes,” she said dismissively.
“Who are you?” I asked, my eyes narrowing.
‘Sylvie’ smirked, an expression that looked unnatural on her face. “I’m grateful that you happened to be in the same room when the connection was finally established. It makes things so much easier.”
“Who. Are. You?” I repeated.
Her smirk widened to a smile. “Agrona.”