Chapter 25 - Academy Year 4 - What Lies Beneath
Two hours later, we are the first ones to arrive at the Arena. The obelisks are not here. We take the leather garments on the cart.
“I still can’t believe y’all used me…” Hiro says bitterly. “You’re not hidin’ anythin’ from me this time, are ya?”
“There’s nothing to hide here. This game doesn’t involve any tricks. You still remember the plan, right?” I ask.
“Yeah, we’ll charge in if it’s ‘Eliminate the King!’ My favorite kinda plan! They don’t stand a chance!” Hiro exclaims.
“We have the advantage on this game, so do not fuck this up,” Sitos says.
The other team arrives. Hiro walks in front of us, standing in front of the other team’s path.
“Hah! Didja see my amazin’ performance from last game? I basically won it for the team! It’s too bad ya underestimated me!” Hiro exclaims with his chest puffed out while pointing at them with a finger. “Whadaya hafta say to that, Hina?”
Hina and the rest of her team walk past Hiro as if he doesn’t exist. Hiro runs after them and yells, “Hey! Don’t ignore me! I’m asking ya what ya hafta say to that!”
Hina stops in front of me while the rest of their team head for the leather garments cart.
“That was a clever strategy. I didn’t think focusin’ the weak one would backfire on us,” Hina says. I smile.
“Weak?! Who’re ya callin’ weak?!” Hiro exclaims and happens to spit on the side of her face. Hina twists that side of her face a little, but she continues as if nothing has happened.
“I may be lazy, but I’m not stupid. I can read you like a book,” I respond.
She smiles and says, “We’ll see about that.”
With that, she makes her way toward the rest of her team. I cock an eyebrow. She’s not the least bit concerned about the game we’re playing?
“Hey, Hina! Hina Hina Hina Hina, Hina!” Hiro exclaims quickly as chases after her. I stop him with my sword as he reaches out with an arm.
“As your friend, I can’t let you embarrass yourself any further,” I say.
“Yes, whatever the hell you are doing, stop, please. Talk with your hammer, not your mouth,” Sitos adds.
Hiro grunts afterward and then says, “Fine… You hafta let me be the one to drive my body through that frail body of hers.”
“She’s all yours…” I say. I doubt you’ll even get a chance to…
“Well, it looks like both teams are here and ready,” a referee announces. “From what I understand, both teams have already played ‘Eliminate the King,’ so I will not be explaining the rules. We can start as soon as the Kings and Queens are decided.”
“I’ll be the Queen,” Marin answers, steps forward, takes the crown, and then puts it on her head.
“I will be the king,” one of the guys from the other team steps forward and then does the same.
He only has a buckler. This guy must be the Conjuration user. We go to our starting positions and then wait for the start of the battle. I clench both of my weapons in preparation.
“Fight!” Drugo leads the charge using formation Diamond as the start of the game is announced. Sitos and I follow by his side slightly behind him while Hiro follows directly behind Drugo. We form the shape of a diamond with our positioning. Marin and Luna follow not too far behind. Our opponents do not move.
“They aren’t moving… Should we fall back to plan B?” I ask while continuing to run in formation.
“No, they are planning something. Best not lose our advantage by waiting too long,” Sitos says. Several of them close their eyes. Their Archer shoots a rock into the air toward us. I close my eyes and continue to run at the same speed, all according to plan. The rock shatters and then light shines on my eyelids.
"My minions, I summon you!" their Conjurer exclaims. I knit my eyebrows.
What’d he just do? Light still shines on us after three seconds have passed. Footsteps close in on us from the front. Are they charging blindly at us?!
"Deflect version two!" Drugo shouts. I open my eyes, finding that the light rays in the air are only pointing toward us. Drugo redirects it toward the two charging at us. It’s the rapier girl and the big sword guy. They back off. There appear to be three boars behind them, but they’re different; its tusks are twice its normal size. Two seconds later, the rays of light disappear.
The boars charge at us with the two from earlier backing them up. Hina and her boyfriend appear to be doing nothing in the backline. The Archer slings another rock in the air. I keep my eyes open as I charge forward. Drugo points his shield toward the rock and shouts, ”Deflect version two!"
Mana envelops the front of Drugo’s shield. It stretches out from his shield, extending far enough to cover Sitos and me. The rock doesn’t shatter. It flies over us. I frown. So they’re trying to separate us…
The rock shatters behind us. The conjurer shouts, ”Enrage!"
The boars squeal loudly and run faster. Drugo is the first one to collide with a boar. I point my right elbow toward the one in front of me. ”Fireball!"
A ball of flames appears from my elbow that flies toward the boar. It explodes on its face, but it doesn’t slow down. I thrust my right blade toward the center of its head. The momentum of its charge pushes me slightly backward despite my own. Sitos exclaims, ”Volt thrust!"
The rapier girl has her weapon drawn back, preparing to thrust it in the next moment. I knit my eyebrows as she won’t reach me. It feels like something is coming, but I don’t move. Something pierces me like a pin through my right shoulder. I clench my teeth as the pain radiates around that point. What?!
I clench my right sword and then start pulling out my sword from the boar’s head. Another one of her thrusts is coming. ”Deflect version two!"
Drugo’s Mana extends outward, apparently protecting me from whatever the rapier girl is using against me. My eyes are on her weapon the entire time, but there’s nothing. There’s only one conclusion; Wind magic. Hiro’s in the air behind Drugo. He shouts, ”Water smash!"
I finally pull out my weapon from the boar’s head as Hiro smashes the boar in front of Drugo. Some water splashes out in all directions. The boar with a burnt face and hole in his head doesn’t stop charging at me. I break formation and jump backward. Their Heavy is swinging his large blade at Hiro, who is wide open.
"Flame wave!" Fire envelops his large sword. Drugo forces his shield in the air toward the direction of his attack. Simultaneously, he thrusts the boar in front of him with his sword. Hiro’s weapon is forced into the air, and then he falls backward. The Mana surrounding Drugo’s shield disappear as flames scatter toward the direction of impact. Some of it hits Sitos.
I ignore the boar in front of me as it will probably die regardless. I jump to the side before it hits me. I charge toward the rapier girl and point my right elbow toward her. ”Fireball!"
She avoids my ball of fire and then extends her arm back again. I put my blades in front of me, preparing to block the exact point she thrusts. She shouts, ”Air cut!"
She slashes her weapon in a horizontal line toward my face. I block it thinking that it’s a thrust, and I end up getting cut on both sides of my cheek with no damage in the middle of my face. I don’t stop running. She jumps backward and thrusts at me with additional attacks. I move my sword toward the trajectory of all of them though I only feel a force behind some of them. Damn, so annoying.
It looks like she’s about to jump backward in the next moment. Now!
I point my right elbow forward and shout, ”Fireball!"
She jumps backward in the same moment my fireball launches from my elbow. Suddenly, I find their sword user coming at me from my left side.
The moment an arrow appears between the heavy sword user and me, Marin shouts, ”Scatter!”
A dirt cloud appears around the arrow. He stops charging.
"Airburst!" the rapier girl blocks my fireball with her buckler. My magic disappears. Afterward, a small gust of air blows against my face. My magic did nothing to her. I jump back and then rejoin with the others. Their Archer has been flinging rocks at Sitos. I cock an eyebrow at Hina and her boyfriend who are still standing still.
“Those annoying boars are dead. Formation Diamond, hurry!” Sitos exclaims. We do as he says and charge forward in formation Diamond. Their Tank drops his shield on the ground with the back facing upward. The rapier girl runs forward toward my right while the heavy sword user runs to the left toward Sitos.
"Tidal wave!" A huge amount of water suddenly appears in succession in front of Hina. It starts from the bottom, quickly rising in height. It’s at least twice as tall as I am and spans a long distance. The water forms a wave and approaches us rapidly.
Holy shit… I stop running and gape at the incoming wave of water. I consider charging toward the rapier girl, but I figure she’ll push me back with her Wind magic.
“Friends, behind me!” Drugo exclaims. I stand behind Drugo, Hiro, and Sitos in that order. I figure Marin and Luna are behind me. ”Deflect version two!"
Mana covers the front of Drugo’s shield as he points it in front of him. He appears to be putting additional Mana into it beyond what comes out with his keyword. The wave of water collides with Drugo’s magic and doesn’t flow past it. However, some water leaks through the bottom, and the wave starts to fall on us from above.
"Barrier!” Drugo exclaims as he points his sword above him. A flat horizontal wall of Mana appears on the level of the tip of his sword. “Spread out! Get closer!”
We do as he says and split into two lines instead of one. Water rushes past us from every side. Our view is completely obscured by the water from every direction. Her Water Affinity is insane!
It sounds like something resounds above me and some water splash on me. Drugo’s magic is still in place. I turn around and then gape. Their Tank is drenched in water, but he has Marin’s crown in his open hand. He turns around and smiles.
“We lost…” I say.
“What’re ya… Whoa! How’d he-he has our crown!” Hiro exclaims. The rest of stay silent as the water from Hina’s magic finally pushes past us. It leaves a huge puddle of water behind us. In the distance, there’s an elliptical shield on the ground. I knit my eyebrows.
How’s that even possible…? I think of the possibility that he rode the wave on his shield when he dropped it on the ground before Hina’s magic started. But I toss that thought out as I know metal doesn’t float.
He laughs, walks away from us, and says, “Hina can use Wind magic too.”
“The winner is team two!” a referee announces.
“You did it, darling!”
“Damn!” Sitos interjects. “There’s a 50% chance that the next game is going to be ‘Hostage Extraction.’ We are going to be in deep shit in that narrow space with the shit she just pulled off.”
“Oh, shit! What if they take Drugo as their hostage?” Hiro asks.
“Don’t panic. We take Hina as our hostage,” I say.
“Oh, so it’s gonna be a cinch!” Hiro exclaims, suddenly confident.
“Don’t forget about their Archer,” Luna says. “The Underground’s the perfect place for him.”
“Oh… So we’re screwed…” Hiro says lethargically.
Drugo pats Hiro on the pack and says, “Well, don’t worry about it so much, Hiroster. We don’t know if we’ll be playing that game yet.”
“Your next game will take place in the Underground. We will meet at the front of the Academy entrance at 12 PM,” a referee announces as another one uses Healing magic on my injury. Hina smiles and waves toward us as her team leaves.
“There’s no point in sulking here. Let’s head back,” Drugo suggests. After the referee finishes the Healing magic, we head back to our home and then relax a little before going into discussion mode about possible plans and counters for ‘Hostage Extraction.’ We eat lunch before the destined time for the last game. We arrive at the front of the Academy where the other team is waiting, along with the referees.
“Let’s get this over with. Follow us, ya damn brats,” a referee says as he and four other referees start walking. Both teams follow. “Let’s see. Uhh... The game you’ll play is called… Shit, what was it again? ‘Watch your feet.’ That’s it.”
“’Watch your step.′ Why the hell did you even come here for, Gudar?”
“Vulwin, are ya tryin’ ta pick a fight with me here, eh? Why don’tcha explain this ta these shitty brats instead?”
“Stop yer yappin’ and explain the damn game already, dumbass,” a female referee says.
“Pff… Vulwin’s playthin’ getting’ cocky again...”
The female referee laughs. She moves closer to his face, strokes him on the cheek with a finger, and says, ”Aww… Don’t be so mad cuz I won’t sleep widja.”
His hand reaches for the sword on his waist. The referee leading the four behind him turns around and then says, “That’s enough out of you two. We’re on a job here. Explaining the game is your job, Gudar. Or did you beg me for this role because you knew Deona was coming?”
The female referee chuckles. What the hell’s wrong with these referees…?
Gudar relaxes his body and then says, “Ahem… In this game, each team will go through an identical obstacle course full of traps at the same time. The goal’s ta minimize your casualties while aimin’ fer a quick completion.”
We’re going in a different direction compared to the last time we went to the Underground setting. “Ya got two hours ta complete the course. Understand?”
I’m not completely sure about the rules, but I’m slightly intimidated by him, so I don’t ask. Hiro asks, “What’s the goal again? I don’t think I understand.”
“Didja hear that? He said yer explanation sucks!” the female referee asks and then giggles.
“Uhh…no, I didn’t say that…” Hiro mutters.
“Okay, I’ll explain it so even a brain-dead idiot like you can understand.” Hina and her team chuckle. “An arrow flyin’ atcha. Run. Magic flyin’ atcha. Move. Yer armor dead? Yer out. Lose too much blood? Yer out. Time limit. Two hours. Run fast. Team with less outs, end. Win. Both teams same. Faster team wins. Got it?”
During his explanation, one of the referees opens a locked door and then we head down the stairs. “Oh, okay… Um—”
"Uhh-umm-durr. What’s it ya wanna ask now? Spit it out.”
Hiro looks down for several seconds and then asks, “Wh-what should we do if we get out?”
“I dunno. If ya were dumb enough to get hit enough times in the first place, ya should probably keep movin’ and get struck by somethin’ else and drop dead. One less idiot in this world.”
“Words spoken by the idiot,” the female referee says. Someone clicks their tongue.
“In other words, just find a safe spot and one of us will come getcha. You’d best pray that it isn’t my job ta do that.” The referee in front turns to glare at Gudar. “Just kiddin’, of course. I won’t let any of ya die, probably.”
I muster my courage and gulp as we arrive at our destination. There appears to be a corridor on both ends of this room. Between them are two doors widely spaced apart. I figure that those are the entrances each team will take. I say, “I have a question.”
Gudar turns to face me with a cold expression like he’s telling me to hurry up. “Won’t teams that have played this game already have an advantage?”
He glances over at the other group and then smiles. “Nah, ya won’t hafta worry ’bout that. The course’s different in each round. I forgot ta mention. Ya aren’t allowed ta take any of yer weapons inside. Earth magic’s restricted. There’s yer shit armor over there.”
He points to the usual cart. “Hurry up and put it on so I can get this shit over with.”
We deposit our weapons on it, put on the leather garments, and then wait in front of the door on the left. I turn around to take a better look at the referee that was leading the four behind him and then knit my eyebrows. He seems familiar… Have I seen him before?
A shiver goes down my back as he turns to make eye contact with me. It feels like I’m suffocating. Luna asks, “What’s wrong, Kai?”
I turn toward her, still feeling a bit stiff and say, “It’s no-nothing. I just thought those referees are a bit strange…”
“Yeah! That Gudar guy was really mean to Hiro! He shouldn’t be here if he doesn’t wanna. Did Moria hire him?” Luna asks.
“Yeh, I was just askin’ a question! Why didja get special treatment, Kai?”
“Because he is not an idiot,” Sitos says.
“Don’t call me an idiot too, Sitos!” Hiro exclaims.
I put a hand over my face and shake my head. This feels awfully familiar…
“Yer two hours start now,” Gudar announces. Afterward, Hina’s team goes in their door. I turn to look at the referees again.
Why’re they all staring at me? So creepy.
“Kai, get your ass moving! We are losing time!” Sitos exclaims.
“Coming!” I reply and then follow my team. The door closes behind us. We arrive in a rectangular shaped room shortly after with the longer wall facing us.
It looks like a normal room made out of stone. The exit is at the upper right corner of the room. I walk a little forward, but I don’t go too far. There’s a space about two feet on the longer from the ground up to stand on. I poke my head out to the left, finding that it extends up to the opposing wall. The right side has no place to stand. I raise my right leg up and then stand on the small platform on my toes while leaning my weight forward. I put my hands on the wall to help balance as I slowly side step my way across.
“I see,” Sitos says. I make it to the end of this wall and then carefully change platforms onto the adjacent wall. Sitos is right on my tail with the others in pursuit. Hiro still hasn’t gotten on the platform yet.
“What’re y’all doin’? Let’s just walk across!” Hiro exclaims as he walks forward.
“Stop! Get back!” I yell. He walks across regardless. I gape with my jaws dropped as he walks to the exit. Nothing happens.
“See? What the hell are y’all doin’ over there? Y’all are thinkin’ too hard,” Hiro says. I sigh and then jump off. The others soon follow.
“Hiro, from now on don’t make decisions like that by yourself,” I say as I walk across the room.
“Hey, do you hear something?” Drugo asks. I stop to listen.
Hmm… There’s a sound, and it’s getting closer. It sounds almost like… Water suddenly bursts into the room from where we came from.
“Damn it Hiro! I knew it!” I exclaim as I run for the exit.
“This happened ’cause y’all were too slow!” Hiro exclaims as he runs farther ahead.
“Wait! Don’t go too far by yourself! Stop!” I shout and then lose sight of Hiro as he turns around the next corner. I soon catch up to him and find a flight of stairs. I run up the steps quickly in pursuit of Hiro. I knit my eyebrows. There are larger steps we can jump onto on the side of the stairs. It begins about a quarter of the way up. I climb on it the first chance I get. Hiro, your speed’s gonna screw us…
The others follow me. Drugo climbs on the other side of the steps. Marin is still running up the steps. The stairs suddenly turn into a 45-degree slant. Some water slides down the slant.
“Ah!” Marin interjects. Sitos and I grab different arms, and then we pull her up.
“Ahhh! Save me!” Hiro exclaims as he slides down back toward us. I bend down and then reach out while Sitos grabs onto my legs.
Damn, he’s too far! I consider diving down completely, but I drop that plan. Drugo’s reaching out to him. “Drugo don’t, you’ll fall too!”
He doesn’t stop. Eventually, Drugo grabs a hold of Hiro’s hand all while maintaining balance by holding onto the edge of the steps with his other hand. I sigh as he pulls him up. The water level decreases, eventually draining into the hole that’s at the bottom of the stairs. We make it to the top of the stairs. I punch Hiro in the back of the head.
“Ow!” Sitos kicks him in the leg.“Ow!”
Hiro gives Luna a sad look and exclaims, “Luna, they’re bein’ mean to me!”
Running to Luna… I shake my head.
Luna smiles and then kicks him in the other leg.
“Ow!” I laugh as Hiro falls on his ass.
“Stop running off by yourself! You’ll be good and work with us now, right?” Luna asks with a broad smile. I can feel murderous intent leaking out from her lips.
“I’ll be a good boy,” Hiro says. There are spiked balls swinging left and right in the next hallway. Bursts of fire are coming out of the floor and occasional gusts of wind blow on my face. Hiro walks toward the wall and says, “I’ll sit this one out and watch y’all get past this one.”
Something clicks near Hiro. “Whoa!”
What now…? The walls near Hiro are moving, revealing a passage. There’s a block pressed inward on the wall beside Hiro. I see. So there’re tricks like that too.
“Nice one. I will hold back my urge to punch you in the gut now,” Sitos says as he steps over Hiro into the passage. The rest of us follow.
“Hey, wait for me!” Hiro exclaims. We arrive in another rectangular room, except this time the longer ends of the wall are on the sides. The exit is on the other side. My eyes wander around the room. There isn’t anything that sticks out other than how the floor is divided into stone squares. I peek my head out around the corners for platforms, but there aren’t any.
“Friends, let me have a go at this one,” Drugo says as he walks in front of me. He takes baby steps into the room while closely following the right wall. He doesn’t fully put weight on his legs right away. Sometimes a stone lowers as his feet press down on the floor, but returns to normal positioning as he lifts them up again. I remember the locations of these problematic stone squares.
A click resounds as Drugo moves a leg forward but doesn’t touch the floor. A small fiery explosion erupts where Drugo stands while a flaming ball of fire appears on the other side of the wall. It flies toward him.
“Drugo!” several of us exclaim.
"Deflect!” Drugo shouts and then Mana envelops around his hands. He extends an arm out to his side. He punches the incoming ball of fire and reflects it to where it came from. It hits the wall and then scatters into nothing.
“Drugo, what happened?! Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m fine thanks to the armor. It looks like I might be out, though,” Drugo says as he rejoins us. “There was a thin wire there I didn’t see until I already tripped it. Be careful. I guess I’ll wait here for rescue.”
“I will take over,” Sitos says as he follows the path Drugo took. He slowly moves his leg in front of him before attempting to tap the floor. I follow behind him about five feet apart.
Hmm… I wonder if I can mark these somehow. I shoot out a thin burst of fire pointed at the problematic squares. It leaves behind a black burn mark. I point to the black mark and say, “Avoid the ones with the burn mark in the middle. You hear that, Hiro?”
“Got it,” he responds.
“Wire!” Sitos exclaims. I note his location while continuing to burn the ground with my magic.
I pay close attention to where Sitos stands when he warns us about a wire. I note it while continuing to burn the ground with my magic. I say, “Stop for a second, Sitos.”
I crouch down upon making it to the first wire and then purposely trip it. Two flaming balls of fire appear three feet up the wall where the wire connects to the wall. They collide with each other and then scatter into nothing. So it activates more than once.
I let out a burst of my Fire magic on the wall where the wire attaches to the wall. I get back up and then continue forward. We advance like this until all of us have reached the end of this room.
In the next room, there are two different passages. The one on the left has a circular path with flames coming out of the ceiling that rotates around the circle clockwise. The one on the other side is identical except the flames spin counter-clockwise. I say, “Hiro, you’re up. Run in and tell us if you find anything.”
“Yessir!” Hiro exclaims with a salute and then runs off.
I say, “Hey, wait for the…”
I frown and shake my head. Sitos says, “His legs move faster than his brain. He will be fine.”
Three seconds later, the flames reach the start again. There are no signs of Hiro coming back. 15 seconds later, his footsteps resound progressively louder. The flames are right on his tail, but he safely makes it back with two seconds to spare.
“That was close…” Hiro says as he looks behind him.
“Well, did you find anything?” I ask.
“No, the path just curved back here with no exit in sight.”
“Nope. Should I go in again?”
“That’s probably a good idea, but for god’s sake Hiro… Wait for the flames so that you’re chasing it, not being chased by it.”
“Oh, that’s genius! Okey-dokey, I’ll keep circlin’ around until I find somethin’!” he exclaims and then runs into the donut-shaped room again. I sigh.
“Well, I think I’m gonna try exploring the other way,” I say as I face the left passage.
“Okay, be careful!” Luna exclaims. I wait for the flames to reach the beginning of the way in, and then I chase after it. I bounce my eyes left and right between the outer and inner walls while sliding my hand on the inner wall. There’s a stone square sticking out on the wall ahead. I run over and then press it. It stays pressed in despite me not putting any pressure on it. Nothing changes around me. I continue running clockwise until I’ve made it back.
“How was it on that end?” Sitos asks.
“I found a button on the wall. I’m gonna go for a second lap here in a second to check for its effects,” I say and then face the left passage again. I wait for the flames to come back before chasing after it again. I run all the way up to the point where I found the button on the wall earlier. Huh? The button isn’t pressed in anymore.
I run up to it and then press it again before running back to the beginning. Sitos exclaims, “Kai, this is bad! Our idiot is missing!”
“What?! Did he get hit?”
“I do not know. The idiot did three laps without stopping and did not come back for a fourth. I am about to go check,” Sitos says and then runs off into the right passage. I knit my eyebrows.
I highly doubt he’d get hit… So what other explanation could there be? Rooms identical…counter-clockwise and clockwise…symmetrical…button that resets itself after a certain amount of time has passed… I raise my eyebrows.
“Did you figure something out, Kai?” Luna asks.
“Yeah, but I’m not sure. I need Sitos to check something for me.”
Sitos comes back and says, “I did not see him. Where the hell did that idiot go?”
“I think I might know the answer. Can you run in again?” I ask. “Try to stay on the other side long enough for me to get to the button I found earlier. I think something might open on your side.”
“I will be upset if you are just fucking with me, but I will trust you.” When the time is right, I run into the left room while chasing after the flames as usual. I make it to the button, press it, and then run back. Sitos arrives a little later. “You were right. Something opened in the upper right outer wall of the passage I was in. So that idiot ran off without us again…”
“We can’t be worrying about that idiot right now. There’s probably a button on your side too that opens my side. We’re gonna have to press them at the same time and run for the exit…”
“Yes, I saw the button. I propose we run in reverse to get the button, and then run forward to the door.”
“Well, only you and I can pull it off since the idiot is not here. I do not think the girls are fast enough for that.”
“Alright, we’ll try it. But don’t go in because we’re just trying if it’s possible.”
“Good luck, you two,” Marin says.
“Good luck!” I go back to the left room and wait for the flames. As soon as it glides by, I run in reverse. I quickly press the button and then run forward again in my fastest sprint. I make it around to the upper left corner of my room, but there is no exit. I barely get away from the flames by the time I get back to the starting line. “How was it, Kai?”
Sitos comes back. Breathing harder than usual, I answer, “It’s no good. There’s only one thing left to try, but it’s all or nothing.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” Sitos says.
“What do you mean?” Luna asks.
“It means…we’ll chase the flames, grab the button, and then run backward,” I explain. “We’ll be cutting it close, and there’s no turning back.”
“That does sound like the only way possible…but I don’t think Marin and I can do that.”
“Which is why we’ll repeat what we just did to get you two across. Sitos will run in reverse while you girls run into the left room. He can wait out the button as long as possible before pressing it. Right, Sitos?”
“Right. I will have to do it since you are too tired to continue.”
“No, I’m not tired! I’ve been running longer than you have so it’s only fair.”
“It’s okay, Kai. We understand,” Luna says as she pats me on the back. I frown and then sit against the wall before lying on the ground completely. I close my eyes. The girls giggle.
“You’re teasing him too much,” Marin says.
I get back up as the girls’ footsteps fade out. Several seconds later, Sitos comes back. I face the left passage and say, “I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“Wa-wait just a minute! Let us wait for the next lap.”
“What the hell? Who said that I was too tired so he had to take over…?” I shake my head.
Well, better safe than sorry…
We end up waiting for two laps before getting into our positions. I say, “I’ll see ya on the other side.”
“Right.” I sprint full speed forward as the flames pass by. I stick close to the inner wall to minimize the distance I have to run. I don’t slow down at all. As the button is in sight, I switch to moving straight toward it. I turn my body 90-degrees as I approach it. My hand collides with at full speed, and then I turn 90-degrees in the same direction while running back where I came from. My passage opens about a second later. I safely make it into the passage with less than five seconds to spare. The wall closes in the same amount of time. I sigh and then follow the passage down. I rejoin with the others.
“You did it!” Luna exclaims and pats me on the head while smiling.
“What about me?” Sitos asks as he points to himself.
“You did good too. By the way, Hiro already figured out this room.”
“He better have…after pulling that,” I say as I continue forward into the room. There’s a seven feet tall fence that stretches across the middle of the room, connecting to both walls. The ceiling is only about eight feet high on our half of the room, but in the area around the fence, the ceiling is around 15 feet high. There’s a vent-like surface in one area in front of the fence and on the wall adjacent to the short ceiling. “Care to explain?”
“Since y’all were too slow to…” I stare at Hiro while imaging that I’m strangling him. He laughs nervously before continuing, “Anyway… There’s a stone on the ground here that when you stand on…”
He stands on a stone square in the bottom right corner of this room. The stone stays in even after he steps off. “After about 15 seconds, a burst of air is released from this wall up here.”
He runs over and points to the wall adjacent to the short ceiling. “And then there’s this stone on the wall over in this corner of the room that releases a burst of air on the ground over there after about five seconds.”
He presses a stone button at the bottom left corner of the room. I say, “Sounds simple enough.”
“And before you ask… I’ve tried climbin’ the fence already. I got immediately zapped by electricity, and it pushed me away. I think I’m still in the game, though,” he explains with a smile on his face.
I wasn’t gonna ask… I sigh before saying, “Alright. Since you’re the fastest runner here, you’ll be the person that clears the fence last.”
We carefully time the buttons and launch over Luna, Marin, Sitos, and myself in that order. Now, Hiro has to make it over by himself.
This was a mistake… I skeptically raise one corner of my lips as Hiro fails miserably. He simply runs to the button on the bottom right and then immediately sprints to the other corner. After making his way to the vent on the ground, a draft of air blows him upward, but the other draft of air doesn’t come, and then he falls down.
“Ow!” he interjects as he falls for the eighth time.
“Let’s bet on how many more falls it takes until Hiro breaks his legs. I’ll go with three,” I say.
“I will go with two. I think I heard a crack that time,” Sitos says.
“Hey, that’s not funny! My legs are really gonna break at this rate!”
“Hey, Luna… Maybe you can use your magic…to help him across?” Marin asks.
“Oh, that’s a good idea, Marin! Okay, Hiro just try one more time!”
Oh, there was that option…
“Ugh…my legs…” Hiro mutters as he gets up. He presses the buttons in the same order before standing on the vent. A draft of air blows him up like before, only this time, a gust of wind propels him forward as he reaches the peak of height. “Ahhh!”
He’s traveling across faster than we were. His feet touches the ground and then he rolls a long distance forward. He’s lying flat on his back.
“Operation Launch Hiro Over, success!” Luna exclaims. I give him a look of pity and shake my head.
“Alright, moving on,” I say as I walk over Hiro’s lifeless body.
“Hey! Don’t leave me!” Hiro exclaims. I stop walking and briefly glance at him.
“Oh, you’re still alive. That’s good. Let’s go,” I say and then continue forward. We come across a room with two visible buttons on the wall in front of us. There’s a sheet of paper taped to the wall above each button.
Press this button to pass for free at the cost of one member. Press this button for a difficult path.
“Well, this is an easy choice,” I say.
“Agreed,” Sitos agrees.
“I know what y’all are thinkin’… Y’all can sacrifice me to move on,” Hiro says. I press the button for the difficult path and then the walls move, revealing a path. “Kai, what’re ya doin’?!”
“The goal’s to make it to the end with as many players as possible. Of course we’re not gonna sacrifice you,” I explain.
“Besides, it looks like we get to pass for free,” Sitos says as he walks through the path.
“What the hell? Did they mix up the signs?!”
“No… I think it was testing if we were willing to sacrifice a member,” I say as I follow Sitos. “It probably would’ve given us a hard path on the other route.”
Eventually, we come to a room with six different narrow paths widely spaced apart. Before looking at the piece of paper on the wall, I look into the third path, noticing that it’s a dead end.
The path will only open if only one player stands inside. After the path is opened, it is closed from behind. The two on the left are speed trials. The two in the middle are dexterity trials. The two on the right are finesse trials.
“I have a bad feeling about this one…” Sitos says.
“I’ll take the one on the left!” Hiro exclaims.
Oh, god… Now it’s up to luck. I take the path next to his. The walls resound as they move around on Hiro’s side. The wall behind me closes and then tiles move below me. I fall about eight feet down. The path is still narrow with the same width as a door. I go in. There several different ways to go. I pick the one on the right and then the path branches again. Is this a maze?
I pick an arbitrary direction and then come across a dead end. I run back, go in another path, find a button on the wall, and then press it. Something resounds in the distance, but I stay put. 20 seconds later, the same sound resounds in the distance as the button resets itself. I sigh. Here goes nothing…
I press the button and then run back where I came from. I try going on the straight path from the starting point instead of the right turn. It branches out again, but I don’t pick any direction. Ten seconds later, something resounds on my right. So it’s that way…
I return to the button, press it, and then follow the same path. This time I continue onward where I heard the sound from before. I run through and then find a straight path with six different ways to go this time. A moment later, something resounds behind me. I turn around. The path is closed, but I find a button nearby. I press it. The path opens up again. Should I check what was in the path I didn’t explore…?
I refrain and continue onward. It takes a while, but I start checking every path starting with the first one on the left. It branches out into two different paths, and I pick the one on the left. Something clicks under my feet as I run. A flaming ball of fire approaches me when I turn around to check. I point my right elbow in front of me.
My magic overpowers the one approaching me, but it loses its shape and disappears into the air before hitting the wall in the distance. I sigh. Now there’re traps in addition to this maze? What a pain.
I move on while exercising a little more caution in where I’m going. I set off some traps anyway, but I utilize every possible maneuver to avoid getting hit. I go through five different paths of the six in the beginning and find nothing. I sigh as I go into the last path on the right side. At the end, I find a button on the wall. Finally…
I press it and then run all the way back to the beginning, hoping that it opens the path there. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy…
I stand there while smiling. 15 seconds later, something resounds in one of the left branches. “Ugh!”
I run back to the button while gritting my teeth. I press the button and then run back. I pick an arbitrary left path to go in, and lady luck finally shines upon me. There’s a path open that wasn’t open before. I run across. The wall closes behind me five seconds later. I… I did it! Running in these narrow, short paths isn’t easy… I wonder if everyone else has to go through this too.
I follow the path ahead of me and then find a large room. There are five other paths that lead to this room. The one I came through is the second one from the right. There’s no one else here yet. I sigh and sit against the wall. How much longer’s this course…? I think it’s been over an hour now.
“I made it…” Marin comes out the path next to mine. She’s panting.
“Oh, good work. Did you have a maze too?”
“Oh, Kai… Maze…? Kind of…but there were…a lot of buttons…like…”
“Ah, you don’t have to explain.” Sitos comes out from the other end of the room and then falls on his knees. He has an arrow lodged in his left shoulder. I stand up and then run to him. “Sitos!”
“I am fine. I can handle this much,” Sitos says as he stands up. Some blood drips from a few cuts on his face and arms.
“God, what was in your trial…?” I ask.
“Arrows flying everywhere, spiked balls swinging like a pendulum, rotating blades—”
“Stop! I don’t need to hear any more. Now we’re just waiting for Hiro and Luna.”
“Luna will be fine, but Hiro…”
“It’s over!” Luna exclaims with her arms stretched above her head. “Oh, you guys made it too!”
Luna runs over to us and says, “Oh, Sitos. You’re injured. Are you gonna be okay?”
“Yes, I am fine.”
“Okay then. Where’s Hiro?”
“He hasn’t finished his trial yet. Maybe I should help him out because I’m the only one here who completed the same trial.”
“We should ditch him. We do not know if he is eliminated or not. It will not be much longer until the referees decide to eliminate me from the game.”
“That’s true…” I say as I walk further into the course. An uneasy feeling creeps inside me for some reason. I stop and then turn back. “I think I’m gonna go after all! I’ll be quick!”
“Wait, Kai!” Sitos exclaims. I ignore him and run into the first path from the right. I find a button that opens up the path inside the maze.
“Hiro! Where’re you?!” I yell as I run in random directions, finding that it’s a different maze.
“Kai! I’m over here!” Hiro exclaims from the left. I run over there and then find two different paths.
“Kai!” I knit my eyebrows. For a moment, I think his voice is coming from somewhere different than a few seconds ago. I shake my head and simply follow his voice.
I knit my eyebrows when I think I hear the direction of his voice from somewhere else. I shake my head and simply follow his voice. “Hiro!”
Is he getting farther away…? I stop moving and say, “Hiro, stop moving so I can find you! You’re going the wrong way!”
“Kai! I found the exit! It’s over here!” I knit my eyebrows.
What…? I make several turns following his voice. I find myself in a square-shaped room. I go in, but Hiro isn’t here. Where the hell’s this place…?
The room isn’t the room where we started, and this is clearly not the exit.“Hiro! Where’re you?!”
There is only silence. That’s strange… I know I heard Hiro’s voice in this direction…
Suddenly, the walls close behind where I came from. What the hell?!
Several possibilities run through my mind. The most probable one is that the referees made a mistake somewhere and left an empty room here. “Hey! Hello?! Is there a mistake here?”
There is no response. I frown and walk around the room. Something below my feet clicks. Oh, shit.
A flaming ball of fire appears in front of me. It looks bigger than the ones I previously encountered in this game. I point my right elbow in front of me. ”Fireball!"
My magic collides with the approaching ball of fire. I expect it to break through easily, but instead, the trap swallows up my fireball and heads toward me. What?!
"Ahh!" I scream as the flaming ball of fire ignites my upper body on fire. I drop to the ground and then roll back and forth as fast as I can across the room, not caring if more traps are set off. Eventually, the flames die out. I pant as I grimace from the pain. I lift up my head with my eyes focusing on my body. The leather garments and my shirt are completely burnt up. My skin looks pink and raw in some places. I lightly brush over some pink skin, resulting in pain radiating from that spot. I rest my head on the ground. Sitos and the others are gonna be disappointed when they see me like this…
Suddenly, another flaming ball of fire appears on the other side of the room. It flies toward me. What?! I didn’t set any traps off!
I quickly roll out of the way. I accidentally put weight on my tender spots, feeling pain radiating everywhere. ”SHIT!"
I quickly get up on my feet. “Hey! Help! I give up! Please, help!”
There’s only silence again. My eyes get slightly watery. I gulp. That fireball’s no joke… It must be made outta Rich Mana…
I start preparing my Mana to prepare a stronger version of my fireball, but there’s no time. Another flaming ball of fire appears that launches straight at me as if it knows where I am. I dodge it without a problem. Something resounds behind me. A path is opened. fDid someone hear me?
I walk into the passage that opened up. It is a narrow corridor that goes in one straight direction. Suddenly, the walls close in on me from behind me and in front. I’m completely trapped. I pound on a nearby wall and yell, “Hey! What the hell’s going on?!”
There is no answer again. Something horrifying appears in my mind. I gulp. What am I gonna do if more traps are set off…?
My heart stops for a moment as the same flaming ball of fire appears from the other side of the hallway. I grit my teeth as my heart pounds rapidly. Shit! I only have one option now!
I gather my Mana and then quickly bond my Fire affinity to it as I point my right palm forward. I shoot it immediately forward. It doesn’t have a shape, but it easily disperses the flaming ball of fire. My magic shoots all the way to the end and then scatters on the wall. It leaves behind a very dark mark on it. I use this time to prepare more careful instructions with my Mana. About 15 seconds later, another flaming ball of fire comes at me.
"Fireball!" I exclaim as I point my right palm in front of me. My usual shaped ball of fire comes out but bonded with my Mana. It overpowers the approaching fireball and then explodes into nothing on the other side of the wall. The dark mark now covers the center chunk of the opposing wall. I sigh. I need to find a way out of here before I run outta Mana…
I put my hands along the walls, feeling everywhere for any hidden buttons. There’s more Fire magic coming out from the opposing wall. I point my right palm forward. Alright, I’ll…
I gape. The Fire magic coming out is no longer a flaming ball of fire, but a stream of fire that’s steadily getting closer to me. It covers the entire height of the hallway. ”Fireball!"
I use my magic anyway. It swallows up the middle of the stream of fire and then explodes on the wall, but afterward, the stream of fire comes out from the wall and then continues where it left off. Shit, shit, shit, shit!
At this rate, I figure it will reach me in less than 30 seconds. My mind races. 15 seconds pass. There’s only one thing I haven’t tried that might work…
I put my right palm in front of me and crouch down. Please let this be a wall that stops the fire!
"Gate!" A dark-purple gooey thing appears in front of me that covers the entire width of the hallway from the ground up in the form of a vertical rectangle. I can stay in this position and stay safe from the incoming stream of fire. The fire approaches and goes through the gooey thing like it isn’t even there. Some of the heat reaches me, and then I leap back. My back is against the wall. I will be miserably burned to death in just a few seconds. I squeeze my eyes shut. My heart feels like it’s about to explode. Shit! Please work!
"Gate!" I exclaim but then realize something. I didn’t point my palm toward the incoming fire. I grit my teeth. I’m dead!
I squeeze myself in fetal position despite the pain. I open my eyes as the heat is only radiating above my head. I look up, finding something unbelievable. The second dark-purple gooey thing I created is at a 45-degree angle. The stream of fire doesn’t go through either of the gooey things I made, but some still go through near the top of the hallway where my purple thing doesn’t cover. I crawl forward a little to get a better view.
Suddenly, the stream of fire starts to shrivel back into the other direction. I widen my eyes as it retracts behind the second purple thing, leaving only some flames leaving the purple thing at a 45-degree angle. I raise my eyebrows and then look at the first purple thing. The stream of fire pulls back from the front of it. I turn back to the second gooey thing. No fire comes out of it. Holy…shit…
I stay on the ground as I stare blankly at the wall. I feel the urge to start reading the book Emdos gave me again. I look forward as something resounds. The exit is revealed at the end of the corridor. Is it…over…?
I get up slowly and then walk forward, stopping an inch in front of the first purple thing I made. I wonder how this works…
I gulp before lifting a leg across, but it feels like there isn’t a ground there at all even if I go lower than where my other foot stands. I cock an eyebrow as I retract my leg back. I creep closer to the gooey thing without going past it. I move my leg across in the air as if I’m going to take a step. I bend my body and head over to the other side. My leg is there, and then I walk across normally.
I turn back around to inspect it again. I look over it with my head and put my hand through it near the top. My hand doesn’t appear from the other side, but instead, it appears near the top of the second gooey thing in front of me. My hand is inverted. I slide my hand out by moving it upward. My hand disappears instantaneously from the second purple thing while my hand suddenly becomes visible past the first purple thing. I slide my hand back where it was, but it doesn’t appear back in the second purple thing.
Next, I stick my entire head through the purple thing in front of me. I look up, and the exit is in sight. I raise my arms up in the air. My arms are above the first purple thing in front of me. I move my arm down and slide it into the first purple thing as I tried with my hand a moment ago. Suddenly, my view changes, and I fall on the ground. The first purple thing divides my body in two, but it feels like it isn’t even there. What the hell…?
By the time I stand up, the two purple things fade into nothing. I knit my eyebrows for several seconds and then relax them. I raise my eyebrows as I remember I’m still playing a tournament. I hurry and run to the exit. I come across a room with the six exits where I was earlier. The stone wall closes behind me. I sigh. What the hell are the referees doing? How the hell was anyone supposed to have survived that?!
I slowly make my way to the next room. It’s an empty room with a random hole on the left side. I assume that the others have already solved the room, and I move forward. Eventually, voices are audible in the distance. The exit!
“I think I see Kai!” Hiro exclaims. “Hey—what the hell?!”
“Kai!” Luna exclaims.
“Kai, what the fuck happened to you?!” Sitos exclaims. My team rushes over, Drugo included.
“I do-don’t know… I was looking for Hiro and followed his voice and I found this huge room where these traps flung fireballs of Rich Mana class at me and then I was in this narrow hallway and the same thing happened and I was completely trapped when a stream of fire slowly filled up the room and…” I say quickly but stop. Luna grabs my hand and then lifts my arm up. Hina’s standing near me.
“And…what?” Hina asks. “How did you survive when a stream of fire filled up the room?”
She laughs and then exclaims, “If Kai’s out, that means we win!”
“Damn it, Kai! It’s all your fault! We woulda won if ya didn’t get lost and ran into a bunch of traps!” Hiro exclaims.
“Shit… If only you listened to me and did not run back for Hiro. He found his way out only a minute after you left,” Sitos says. All of his injuries are healed, the arrow no longer lodged in his arm.
“No! But I was following Hiro’s voice the entire time!”
“What? I don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout. Ya moved farther and farther away from me. I heard your voice. Then ya suddenly stopped respondin’. Didja hit your head somewhere and pass out? Maybe ya dreamed up everythin’,” Hiro says.
“Do not be a sore loser, Kai. Stop making up a fake story because you fucked up,” Sitos says.
“Hey! Why haven’t you announced us as the winner yet?” Hina asks. I find Moria standing with the other referees.
“Oh, yes, sorry about that. I was trying to figure out what happened to the five referees I assigned to this round. But I think that misunderstanding has mostly cleared up,” Moria explains as he walks closer to us. “Oh, Kai! What happened to you? Those injuries look serious… Hmm… This is troublesome… Why did you not stop Kai?”
He turns to a referee behind him. He’s the one that looks familiar to me. Calmly, he explains, “I lost track of him when he went into the maze to look for his friend. By the time I found him again, he was already in those injuries you see now. Since the exit was right there, I went ahead and came back.”
“Hmm…” Moria interjects.
“Hey, why’re ya actin’ all suspicious of us?” Gudar asks. “We’re simply emergency stand-ins like we told ya! We didn’t have much time ta know the ins and outs of this damn place!”
“No, I am not suspicious of you, but I am wondering why those five did not come to me. There were plenty of other referees on standby.”
“We dunno anythin’ ’bout that. Those five came ta our boss here, and he brought us four along with him.”
“I see. I will just have to ask those five if I see one of them again. Well, with that, team two is the winner!”
I filter out the cheering of the other team as I gulp. I think back to what happened to me. A dream…? No…that was definitely real…
“Don’t feel too bad, Kai. You should get your injuries treated,” Luna says as she lets go of my hand.
“Ri-right…” I hesitantly walk toward the referees.
“Wait!” Moria shouts and walks toward Hina’s team.
“Hina, turn around for a moment.” Moria examines her back for several seconds.
“What’s wrong, Teacher Moria?”
He sighs and then says, “I am afraid I am going to have to take back what I said. Your leather garments have run out of power. That means that your team only has three surviving members while team three has four surviving members. Team three is the winner!”
“What?! I never… That’s impossible!” Hina exclaims.
Her boyfriend exclaims, “Yeah! We were with her the whole…”
Moria turns to the referees again. Gudar says, “Don’t look at us. We tried our best.”
Moria sighs again. “Before I take back what I said again, I will need to examine all of you.”
With that, Moria examines the back of all the surviving players. He doesn’t find any errors with any other surviving player. “It looks like team three is the real winner.”
My team cheers, but I feel uneasy. Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. It’s Luna. “Isn’t that great, Kai?”
“Ye-yeah…” I look toward the referees again. Gudar is smiling.
“You should get treated. I think his name’s Vulwin. He’s the one standing on the left,” Luna says while pointing to him.
“Huh? Okay…” I walk toward him. The voices around me ring in my ears.
“I’ll get you fixed up.” He waves his hands around my upper body while releasing Rich Mana from his hands. The Mana turns into a faint green glow around my body. It feels soothing. “All done. You’re good to go.”
I feel myself all over. There’s no more pain. I head back to my team. Hiro is hopping from one leg to the other in front of Hina. “Hina! How’s it feel to lose to me? Huh, Hina? Hina, Hina!”
“Sh-shut up!” Hina shouts and then walks away with her head down. I find that she’s frowning as she looks back up, making eye contact with me. “Come here for a second.”
She invites me over with her hand. I go to her and ask, “What?”
“Isn’t there somethin’ suspicious going on with those referees? Maybe you’ll understand because no one believes you either. I swear… I didn’t get hit by anything,” she whispers.
“They are a little suspicious, but I don’t see any motive,” I whisper.
“Yeah but… I trust in myself. You do too, right?” I think back to the horrifying moments where I thought I would die and then shiver.
I gulp before saying, “Yeah… What’re you thinking?”
“Nothin’ right now… I’ll keep my eyes peeled out for them and ask some people.”
“Alright, I’ll do the same.”
“Good job on the win. It was a good fight,” she says in a normal voice. She holds a hand out and smiles.
“Thanks,” I say as I shake her hand and then go our separate ways. I guess she can kinda be cute too…
I shake my head. No, no, no….
“What were you two talking about?” Luna asks. I freeze up.
“Uh, you know… Normal things… We made amends.”
“That’s good! Fighting’s bad.”
“Oh, here are the keys to your new room. It’s room 1C,” Moria informs as he hands me the key. “Congratulations on your win. Your new weapons should be arriving there shortly.
Later, we go back to our room to move our baggage over. I open my closet, locate my backpack, and then open it. I find the book inside. It’s been over two years since I opened this… I really wanna read more of this as soon as I—
The door to my room bursts open. Hiro shouts, “Hey, Kai!”
I hurry and put the book back inside my backpack. “What’re ya doin’ crouched down there?”
I zip it up and then stand up while putting on the backpack. “Nothing, just grabbing my things.”
“Ya can do that later! Ya have the key to our new room! Let’s check it out now!”
“Alright, alright,” I say as I walk out of my room. I guess I can store this in my new room.
I follow Hiro out our current home, eventually joining with the others. We go down the hallway toward 1C. I take out the key and then open it. I grin. Whoa! Look at that massive couch!
I dive onto it with my entire body. “It’s so soft…”
“Kai, really?” Sitos asks. Everyone laughs. Someone closes the door.
“Hey, our new weapons just arrived! Whoa! Check out this new Platinum weapon!” Hiro exclaims as I melt deeper into the couch. Suddenly, a heavy weight falls on top of me. A sweet smell enters my nostrils and something soft presses against my back.
“Don’t hog the couch to yourself, Kai!” Luna exclaims.
“O-okay I’ll get off—”
Another heavy weight falls on top of me.
“Sitos, you’re too heavy for me…” Luna says next to my ear. Her breath blows against my ear. My heart is pounding. The weight suddenly increases in weight two more times.
“This is kinda fun,” Drugo says. My face is practically shoved into the couch at this point.
I can’t breathe…
“Hey! Why’re y’all ignorin’ me and leavin’ me out! Let me join too!”
“No… Hiro…” Sitos mutters. In my peripheral vision, Hiro spins around his new sledgehammer around his body. He trips. My heart skips a beat.
“Whoa!” Hiro interjects as the head of the hammer approaches my face.
Shit! I can’t move! Miraculously, Hiro changes the direction of it. A loud crash resounds near me as it drops to the floor. It sounds like he broke the floor.
“Oops…” Hiro mutters.
What do you mean, oops?! Breaking our floor the moment we walk in!
“Hey, Drugo. Can you get off me?” Marin asks. Hiro’s struggling to get his hammer out of the floor. The handle of it is pointed toward the couch.
“Sure, give me a second.” It feels like the weight is getting heavier instead. Meanwhile, Hiro’s ass is in my face as he continues to pull on his weapon. A crack resounds below me. My mind goes blank as I gulp. The sound of crackling continues at a rapid pace below me.
“Ahh!” all of us scream as the floor apparently breaks. We fall into the unknown darkness below us.