Friday, the last day of Muni entrance exams, Special exam. Examiners give Kiel a final artifact, whose enchantment he doesn’t need to replicate but to just draw out. However, Kiel finds that the enchantment is too small and he can’t sense it clearly with his mana sense. While Kiel is stressing out, Elaru can feel his panic and wants to help him, however, the anti-cheating contract they had signed prevents them from communicating. So she comes up with an idea to break it as a part of her special exam and shocks the trio of old men with her ability. After breaking her contract she realizes that Kiel no longer needs her help and a backlash of Kiel’s actions hits her. After the appearance of the headmaster Eruan Arite, she finally manages to break away from the trio of shameless old men, leaving the classroom. She meets up with Kiel and he tells her about what happened to him earlier.
Episode 146 – Hope
“Then you don’t have any Aethernea that I know of.” Elaru shrugged helplessly. “If you have an Aethernea at all…”
Peeping Toms? Self-regenerating lizards? Trackogs?
…people driven to do strange things…?
And mind rapists…?
Kiel broke out in goosebumps. Forget it. Aethernea wielders are a bunch of weirdos… I certainly don’t belong in that group.
Misunderstanding Kiel’s strange look, Elaru reached out to pat his head in an attempt to console him. An action that looked very awkward considering that she was shorter than him and had to fully extend her arms to reach his head. “Divine gifts aren’t all that great. They are just as much of a curse as they are a gift.”
Kiel looked at the awkward way the redhead was patting him and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He didn’t even have the strength to move away at this point, lest she came up with another less acceptable way to ‘comfort him’. Of all her ways of showing affection, this was certainly the least touchy.
“You know, the majority of Aethernea wielders don’t survive the birth and majority of those that do, end up going insane and dying soon after. And that’s not even the curse I am talking about. What I mean is, divine magic is burdensome on both the body and the mind. Mortals weren’t meant to wield divine power. And there is no way to turn this tiring and maddening power off. Besides those lucky bastards with Aethernea of Life, the rest of us will probably not live past 60.”
Kiel didn’t respond. He even momentarily forgot that Elaru was still messing up his hair with her pats. Painful sourness swelled up within his chest. The idea that sometime in the future he might get to see Elaru die right in front of him was too unpleasant to think about. What surprised him the most was that the first thing he thought about wasn’t the fact that he would return back to his non-mage self if Elaru died.
What is this unbearable sense of loss?
…I guess there is some compassion left in me after all.
It must be that he no longer viewed Elaru as a stranger unrelated to him.
But then, what was she to him? A friend? A partner? A person he could rely on and be himself with?
Did the exact classification even matter? Kiel shook his head. “Then I better reach success in life before the age of 60.” He attempted to lighten the mood.
Elaru let out a humorless chuckle. “Papa often jokes that we power divine magic with our life. Like a candle flame that burns blindingly bright for a fleeting moment. I guess it is not far from the truth.”
She continued patting Kiel on the head, not realizing in the slightest that his eyebrow had started twitching violently. “Not to mention that it is a real mana drain. I mean, I don’t have mana issues, but the majority of Aethernea wielders do. The more powerful the gift, the more mana it leeches out of you.”
“How long do you intend to continue patting my head?!” Kiel could no longer sit still. With exaggerated movements and a sour expression, he dodged her pat. Enough is enough!
“Why would wielders have mana issues? Isn’t divine magic supposed to be able to consume any mana to power itself?” Kiel gazed at the redhead with narrowed eyes, his slim fingers trying to straighten out his ruffled hair.
“Aha!” Elaru raised her index finger victoriously, completely ignoring Kiel’s sulking. “It is! But it certainly won’t go out of its way to feed on some distant mana when there is a close and convenient alternative nearby.”
“So basically, it will continuously suck your mana and only search for alternative sources when you run dry?”
Kiel’s eyes flashed with realization followed by his eyebrows furrowing in thought. “Could it be the reason why I’m a non…?”
“Not likely.” Elaru cut him off. “IPOMQ sounds too lackluster to be a divine ability.”
Straight through the heart! Kiel felt like puking blood. Can you not be so direct?! I get it! I am not as special as you!
“I mean, there are many weird abilities out there, but the number of Aethernea can be counted on the fingers.” Elaru elaborated. “Just look at Tanyers, some of them have hair that is sensitive to mana so it moves on its own depending on their mood.”
You are comparing IPOMQ to unruly hair?! Are you making fun of me?! Kiel’s face turned black, his eyebrow twitching furiously. “Would it kill you to talk less?!”
Elaru stared at Kiel’s livid expression in utter speechless confusion.
“It is a pretty kickass ability.” She tried to appease the fuming boy next to her.
“What? IPOMQ?” Indeed, his face brightened up.
“No, the gravity-defying hair.” Aaaaand Kiel’s face turned even blacker, yet Elaru still continued: “I saw a scion of the Tanyer family battling a few times. That dude looks so kickass even if he is just standing there doing nothing.”
The next thing Elaru knew, as if the lightning struck from the clear skies, the iceblock next to her grabbed her soft cheek, pinching it viciously.
“Ouch, ouch, ouch!” She reflexively swatted Kiel’s arm away but her swat was too weak to rescue herself from her predicament. “Not the left cheek!” She protested, giving him a teary look full of grievance. “The mark…ouch!”
Seeing her flailing arms, drooping ears and aggrieved look that was an ultimate combination of cuteness and seductiveness, Kiel concluded that he had administered the appropriate punishment, and finally, regrettably, let go of her soft cheek.
Scion of the Tanyer family? An image of a handsome black-haired boy with lava colored glowing eyes popped up in Kiel’s mind. Was she referring to him? That guy indeed has a certain “cool” quality about him…
Kiel humphed grumpily and turned away to avoid looking at Elaru as she rubbed her red cheek with a pout that was too soul-stirring to be legal.
As Kiel looked towards the large clock above the exit of Muni ticking away the time to the release of exam results, he felt his mouth involuntarily curling upwards. That’s right. He was a man. Men didn’t bicker with women. They had other ways to make their point.
He almost snickered, thinking of all the ways he could punish the vixen when she provoked him in the future.
Suddenly, that lovely green grass and those white puffy clouds looked so much more pleasing to the eyes. Even the sunshine raining down seemed to glitter more brilliantly.
Yet, nothing could compare to the pure brilliance of the gentle smile blooming on the face of the girl next to him.
* * *
The eerie sea of white still spread as far as the eye could see as if taunting them.
Laica looked towards the horizon and swallowed down another fasting pill.
“I’ll never know how you alchemists managed to pack several days’ worth of calories into a sphere two centimeters in diameter.” She mumbled, casting Luki a side glance.
“As a matter of a fact…” Luki raised his index finger, yet before he could finish his words several glares stabbed into him from all sides, practically screaming don’t-you-dare-explain.
“Save your energy…” Aurel intervened. “We are running out of fasting pills.”
Enchanted to gradually melt in the stomach over several days, those large round pills were expensive calorie bombs that were among the essential Purge supplies. The outbreak of Ink had caused many areas of the forbidden zone to fall into lifeless desolation with no living being in sight, and as such, lack of food was to be expected.
Thus, Nelaira’s squad had been armed with a considerable amount of fasting pills. Alas, that large supply was now on the brink of running dry. Naturally, everyone’s nerves had been running tight lately.
Luki looked at his comrades helplessly and lowered his index finger with a pout. “I was going to say that I’m not really considered an alchemist… I specialize in healing, not making pills…”
“Pfft.” Laica burst out laughing, yet her usually infectious laugh only managed to evoke wry smiles in her comrades.
Nelaira shook her head, her eyes remained locked on the wayfinder in her hand the whole time. Recently, though the idea sounded near impossible, she had started to suspect that perhaps something was interfering with her wayfinder, leading them in circles.
She kept staring at that pocket-watch-like object yet she just couldn’t see any anomalies or signs of tampering. It never flickered or wavered. The large arrow on the round watch kept pointing towards the way they came from, towards its anchor in Purge Headquarters.
“We can’t go on for much longer.” Someone spoke up the same sentence that had been repeated countless times in the last few days.
“Should we just teleport back?” Another one added.
And thus, everyone felt obliged to offer up their opinion for the umpteenth time, turning the previously silent surroundings into a chaotic mess of voices.
Aurel didn’t join in the chaos, instead, he squinted his eyes, searching the horizon for something other than the sea of white.
“Hey…” He spoke up but his voice was drowned out by the crowd.
“Guys!” He spoke up louder this time, yet no one paid him any heed.
“I think I see something!” His voice turned hoarse from yelling, and this time, the entire group fell silent, their heads snapping around to look at the horizon.
Laica’s argel eyes zoomed in towards the distance before she excitedly jumped up. “I see something too! I see it too!”
“What is it? What do you see?” Nelaira finally looked up from her wayfinder, her black eyes glistening with hope.
“What’s that? Is that a mountain?”
“Holly baffamoot! Is this valley coming to an end?!”
“What valley? This place is an icy desert!”
Nelaira didn’t know who started it first, but soon almost the entire squad was woohooing like excited teenagers with toothy grins and their hands in the air. She didn’t hoot but her mouth nonetheless couldn’t help but reveal a large grin.
Laica couldn’t help but jump up and peck Aurel on his cheek. Following their exchange Luki opened his arms wide and looked at his mates expectantly, only to get a punch on the shoulder and a slap upside the head. “You think you are a hot babe?!” “Keep dreaming!”
The ten made plans to celebrate, made plans about what they were going to eat soon. They came up with one idea after the other about what they would do when they reached that mountain that was coming closer and closer with every step.
The festive mood was spreading through the air, elation seeping through everyone’s pores. Only another person who had been walking for weeks through an icy desert could understand the pure joy coming from their hearts at that moment.
Only a person who didn’t remember the last time they chewed something could imagine the joy of having a real meal.
Yet, their excitement didn’t even have the chance to settle down when a loud crack sounded behind them, followed by a sickening crunch.
As everyone’s head snapped around, their grins didn’t even have a chance to fade off their faces before they were confronted by the sight of a large black monstrosity emerging from beneath the ice, clamping its large jaws around the head of their comrade who had been guarding the rear.
A crunch of a head separating from its body, followed by a loud swallow.
And then a large black tongue came out to lick the crimson droplets from its gray teeth.
Black saliva trickled from in between its teeth down onto the floor, mixing with the pool of red blood spouting out of the now headless neck.
Just like a drop of Ink falling into water, the small black patch of ice branched out violently, spreading in all directions until it completely swallowed the red.
Coming up in the next episode:
The creature roared with berserk fury and changed its target. It lunged towards Nelaira with a speed that even an argel would have trouble keeping up with. The icicles in its path did little to slow it down.
“Nooo!” Laica’s eyes widened in horror.
“What are you doing?!”
“You don’t really expect me to trust the loyalty of a person who disobeyed direct orders?”