Chapter Cover

AUX 1 : Tessa Vivuk - Character Sheet (End of Ch. 30)

AUX 2 : Tolan Morndelen - Character Sheet (End of Ch. 30)

AUX 3 : H̵̱̎͌͜e̶̘̥͙͑̀̈́̈́i̷̺̤̊̋͘ ̸͍͍̠̲͂͛̃̀Z̷̳̑͋̏͘h̴̠͖͚͆̑̔͐a̶̪͎͎͐́͠ó̵̢̒͌ ̸̫̤̮͊̉͂̊-̴͖̿͝ ̵̢͚̌̒̈́͜C̶̢͇̞̣̾́h̸̖̖̦̪̑̔̉̋ã̶͇̲̯̣̽r̶͕̄̍͜ä̴͚͕͓́̾̃̎c̵̣͎͕̈́̔͐͘ͅẗ̸̤́e̶̦̝͓͇̿r̷̦̝̯̐ ̵̠̝͎̬́S̴͕̘̱̃̀̾h̴̛̗̬͜͝e̵̝̞̓̈́̽͛ę̵̞̪̆̈t̵̮͕̦̓

AUX 4 : T̶̬͍̳̳̫͐ơ̵̧̨̜͒͛̒r̸̢͖̥̤̝̟̂̈́͊́̓͝g̷͉̺̹̫͉̥͆̊̓̅r̴̛̺̪̳͖̔̎̿̕͜á̴̖̫ķ̵̨̮͎͎̼͛̈́̀̌̔̈́ ̵̼̱̙͑̑̈́͝͝-̸͓̝͌͝ ̶̨̢͕̦̞̩̿C̶̡̰̗̫̰͙̉͝h̶̛͍͉̞̘͍̣͊̃ä̴̪̍̊͒̂r̵̡̛̻̹̫͈̳̀̐̆̚͝à̶̖̺c̶̤̜͙̗̤̬̊͋̈ṭ̷̣̎̃̎̇͛͝è̴͚̮͜ͅͅr̶͖̦̣̺̝̪͗ ̴͇̳̗̳̾̔S̴̙̞̻͇͘ḥ̵̝͉̘͌́͛̿͋e̷̢̦̰̼̍e̴̩̓͌̑̔t̵̻̗͈͍̩̉̈́

Chapter 0 : The Hero and the Dragon

Chapter 1 : Dreams From Propaganda

Chapter 2 : Running Blind

Chapter 3 : Unmet Requisites

Chapter 4 : Not a Coincidence

Chapter 5 : Kneel to Fate

Chapter 6 : Saved and Sabotaged

Chapter 7 : Apprentice of Bastards

Chapter 8 : New Lessons to be Learned

Chapter 9 : Drilling in the Basics

Chapter 10 : Fanatic Extermination Preparation

Chapter 11 : A Few Moments Before Chaos

Chapter 12 : Never Wanted This

Chapter 13 : A Little Bit of Green

Chapter 14 : The Resistance

Chapter 15 : In Through the Front Door

Chapter 16 : Conversation Between Villains

Chapter 17 : Seeing What's to Come

Chapter 18 : Spark Amongst Flames

Chapter 19 : Everything Starts with a Big Bang

Chapter 20 : The Gun Goes Off

Chapter 21 : Miniboss Meeting

Chapter 22 : The Starting Light

Chapter 23 : A Convenient Opportunity

Chapter 24 : Unapologetically Breaking a Promise

Chapter 25 : No Rest for the Wicked

Chapter 26 : But It Was Me...

Chapter 27 : Second Verse Same as the First

Chapter 28 : Ritual

Chapter 29 : That Lesson Paid Off

Chapter 30 : 30. The End of the First Story

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Chapter No9:Drilling in the Basics

The sun peeked through the window, hitting Tessa in the face. Waking up with a grumble, she rubbed her eyes. Stretching for a moment before scratching her hair. Looking about the room, she noticed a package was where the books were with a note atop it. Tessa reached over and opened it. This is your new armor. Didn’t have the time to forge a new set for you myself, but got the best set available through a contact of mine. Wear it at all times while on missions and it’ll help keep you alive. Hei is waiting for you in Redbrick Park. Head there after you wake up. - T. Shifting her lower body to have her feet hit the floor at roughly the same time, Tessa slowly got out of bed and unwrapped her gift. It was a brand new set of riveted chainmail with padded cloth underneath. Her previous robes had also been incorporated slightly as a kind of tabard atop everything. Putting it on was easy enough, but it was heavier than she was used to. It clinked and tinked with every movement she made, but she felt protected. Or at least felt somewhat sturdier from the weight distributed across her body. Not what I’m used to, but now I know where my old clothes went. Wondering how she appeared with it on, Tessa found a hand mirror in the room and took a look at herself. Immediately, she noticed that Unity Academy’s insignias were gone. The symbol for Aeon remained emblazoned on the cloth over the chainmail’s chest and back, but Unity Academy’s marks on her shoulders now had some other symbol. It looked like a circle made from a broken chain and six inside. I guess that’s to mark me as their student? With her new armor on, she then looked for her staff but couldn’t find it anywhere in the room. It wasn’t anywhere from under the bed to hidden in a closet. Maybe I dropped it before I was taken here? Losing her staff saddened Tessa. It was a gift from the Academy to mark her graduation. It wasn’t any more useful when compared to other staves, but it was a representation of her accomplishment. Hopefully, I can find it. Letting out a depressed sigh, she took in a deep breath and prepared herself for the lesson ahead of her. Redbrick Park, was it? Time to get moving. Turning to the infirmary’s door, she put her hand on the door’s knob and left to find the park. Quickly navigating, with a bit of direction from GC, she made her way through the Adventurers’ Guild and out the back entrance. To Tessa’s surprise, this side of the building was rather plain in contrast to the dark and dreary way she entered the building. Sunlight warmed her as fresh air hit her in the face. People walked to and fro in the street while grass, flowers, homes, and other expected parts of a city bordered the cobblestone road. It reminded her of how was when she was there and she couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick. But the feeling faded away as quickly as it had appeared. Now to find the park. Tessa pulled out a piece of paper with some basic directions on it from GC. However, it didn’t help that Tessa wasn’t familiar with the different street names. Thankfully, the guards she approached for directions were much more helpful. But along the way, she noticed that her body didn’t hurt anymore. She still felt stiff and sluggish, but otherwise fine. I wonder… She poked where the injury was, and a brief shock of pain ran across her body. Immediately regretting her decision, she nearly cursed through grit teeth at her own stupidity. “Yep. Still hurts.” Thankfully, the pain quickly subsided. At least Tessa now knew she’d be able to walk around, as Torgrak predicted. Continuing down the road and around the occasional corner, she arrived at the edge of Redbrick Park. Though it looked more like a miniature forest than anything else. There was a thicket of trees and bushes, along with freshly grown grass all over the ground. The only thing dividing the park into sections was the red clay brick walkway that lead further in. The name is a bit more literal than I expected. Birds chirped here and there in the trees as she entered. A squirrel even giving her a funny look, cocking its head and staring at her for a brief moment before scurrying up into the branches of a tree. Tessa wandered about before coming to a clearing surrounded by benches and a birdbath in the center. “Good morning, child.” Quickly whirling around to the voice, she faced Hei. He was in a more casual attire. His armor and cloak replaced with a purple button-up shirt, straight black slacks, and a pair of ballroom dance shoes. Though the shirt had its top most buttons undone while the collar barely hid a kiss mark. Odd attire for training… Hei stood up from his seat and tossed a piece of fruit to her. Yet his movements didn’t allow for a single fold of his clothes to make even the slightest rustle. “A bit of breakfast before we begin.” Taking out a piece of fruit for himself, he quickly bit into and ate it before her. Tessa stared at Hei, stunned for a moment, taking a moment to process things. “Ah, yes. Thank you.” Taking a bite of the fruit, it was oddly satisfying for how small it was. It was not much bigger than her fist and tasted tropical and sweet. Though her tongue burned a bit after eating the whole thing. With the fruits eaten, Hei began walking to the center of the clearing and Tessa followed curiously. Once there, he spun around on his heel. Taking a relaxed pose with one hand on his hip. “Tell me. How much do you know about casting spells and miracles?” Remembering Torgrak’s way of asking questions, she was uncertain of how to answer. “May I ask what you mean specifically?” Hei asked, “Well, you must know what the elements are, correct?” Tessa answered, “Yes. There are the four base elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Then there are the dualities: light and darkness. As well as the composite elements: lightning, ice, nature, metal, force, and null.” Hei smirked, seemingly glad about something, but Tessa couldn’t tell for sure. With how comfortable it looked upon his face, she wondered if Hei ever did more than smirk. Hei continued his questions. “And what of their properties?” Tessa replied, “Fire is the most destructive of the base elements, making it the most powerful. Air is the fastest, allowing spells and miracles of its type to be cast the quickest. Water is flexible and able to alter itself to affect multiple targets with the least amount of strain on the caster. Earth is resilient and sturdy, allowing it the most stability during use at the cost of speed.” “Correct. What of the dualities?” “Light holds the greatest ability to empower and enhance others’ abilities, allowing the caster to bestow their strengths upon others. While darkness does the opposite by weakening its victims or draining them of their abilities.” “All textbook answers, not bad. Though, how well do you understand force and null?'“ “Force is raw elemental energy, and thus doesn’t hold any strengths or weaknesses. Null, however, I… know little about. It was only ever mentioned in passing, nor demonstrated to me, so I don’t understand it very well. Information on null spells and miracles was also sparse at best.” “That is as I expected. Null-type spells and miracles are quite rare.” “May I ask what a null-type spell or miracle is?” “Of course. Null is a generalized element. It’s used to describe a spell or miracle that doesn’t fall into any other category. I assume you may have heard of such things in stories or tales before?” Tessa’s face scrunched slightly. She remembered one spell she’d heard of. Though she wondered if it was one that was even possible. “Well. I don’t know if it would count, but I think I remember reading about something like a ‘time stopping miracle’ in a book. Would such a thing count?” “It would.” “Does that mean there are spells and miracles that can affect time?” Hei shrugged, “Can’t say for certain, but it would be considered a null-type. Other examples would be things like telekinesis or gravity-affecting spells.” “I see… Will I ever encounter such things?” Hei chuckled, “Soon? No. But given you want to be a Hero, the chances increase with time.” Tessa grew slightly concerned. The idea that she might end up fighting an opponent who has such an overwhelming advantage frightened her slightly. “Is there a way to counter such abilities?” “Yes.” “Really?!” “All spells and miracles have basic weaknesses that you must learn to identify and exploit. If you can do that, no mage or miracle worker will ever overwhelm you.” “Okay… What are the weaknesses, then?” “Do you know what spell components are?” “Aren’t those necessary ingredients to cast a spell?” “Yes, but also no. Spells and miracles must use at least one of three basic components to be cast: the somatic, the verbal, and or the material.” “How are those weaknesses?” “Let’s start with the one you mentioned. The material component. Barring tools like arcane focuses, there are spells that require specific ingredients to be cast, correct?” “Yes, but I still don’t follow.” Hei rolled his eyes. Then, bending down, he picked up a leaf and held it up between his index finger and thumb. “Let’s assume that I am going to cast a spell that requires this leaf. And in this scenario, you want to prevent that from happening. Knowing that I require this leaf, how could you prevent me from casting the spell?” “I don’t…” Tessa immediately stopped her words dead in their tracks. The wheels in her head starting to turn. Tessa blurted out, “I could burn it!” Her quick change from confusion to an answer surprised Hei. “Correct.” Suddenly, a phantasmal clapping surrounded the two. Tessa looked around her, wondering where it was coming from. Was the forest somehow alive and congratulating her? Hei didn’t seem to flinch, so maybe it was all just in her head. “Though you could also knock it out of my hand or steal it before I have the chance to use it.” “I see…” “Let’s discuss the verbal component next. To start with, how often do you let out a chant or some kind of phrase before casting a spell?” Tessa thought to herself for a moment before realizing that it was a considerably regular occurrence. “It isn’t something I noticed until now, but it is something I do often. But may I ask a question?” “Of course.” “This isn’t something I’ve wondered about before, but what is the purpose of the verbal component?” Hei’s smirk turned from a smirk to a grin at her question. “You’re starting to catch on, I see. The verbal component is mostly a means of helping your imagination shape the spell you wish to create. As an example, the spell fireball is fairly self-explanatory, correct?” “Yes. It is a ball of fire.” “And because of its simplicity, your mind can quickly put the pieces together and cast the spell with relative ease. However, if it were a more abstract spell or miracle, your mind could get confused and cast it incorrectly, if at all. If you were to cast a miracle with only the word ‘sanctuary’, how many questions would pop into mind?” Tessa gave it some thought for a moment. At first, she imagined a kind of dome of light, but quickly paused as she wondered what the purpose of the sanctuary would be. And the more she thought about it, the more the idea began branching off into other ideas. Tessa responded, “More than I would like.” “And thus is why long chants exist as a verbal component. With that said, I assume you understand how to take advantage of this weakness?” Tessa thought to herself and believed the answer was likely just as simple as the last. Yet she couldn’t figure out a straight answer this time around. She felt a bit embarrassed at how she couldn’t come up with an answer after having figured out the last one. “I… don’t know how I would.” Hei’s grin slowly changed back to a smirk, but continued into more of a straight line bordering on a slight frown. “That’s disappointing, but not unexpected. The most common means of exploiting a verbal chant is force.” “‘Force’? Like a shove or punch?” “Exactly. There aren’t many who can maintain focus after a punch to the face, let alone other methods of physical harm.” “Are there any… less lethal methods?” “There are. One method is overwhelming the caster’s ability to focus or concentrate, such as with a deafening noise. You could also cut out their tongue. Or cast something like silence.” Tessa shivered at the thought of harming someone so brutally, or even having something like that done to her. However, she was glad that there’s a spell that seems capable of handling the matter quickly and perhaps peacefully. But her brow furrowed while trying to remember if the spell Hei mentioned existed. “What is silence?” Hei mumbled, “Right. They made it into a null spell…” Tessa raised an eyebrow, wondering what he said. Hei’s words were too quiet to hear, but she wondered if it was of any importance. Hei quickly moved on from the topic. “Forget about it for now. All that matters is that you understand how to interrupt the verbal component, understood?” Tessa found Hei’s dismiss of the topic unexpected, but had a feeling he would not elaborate further. “Uh, yes.” “Let’s move on to the last component, the somatic. Do you know what it is?” “Uh…” Tessa wasn’t sure how to answer. She didn’t know what “somatic” meant, but tried to use what she’d just learned to take an educated guess. The material component was straightforward, while the verbal component was something she had done but never realized its importance. Tessa thought, Maybe it’s something similar to the latter? What’s something I do but never took notice of before? She tried to remember all the time she’d spent practicing her miracles, both when alone and with professors. Is it… the gestures? I remember how every time there was a practical lesson, we always had to take a kind of position or such. Is it that? Tessa guessed, “Is it a gesture?” Hei’s smirk returned. “Close, but not entirely. The somatic component is, mostly, a two-part requirement.” Tessa felt a little giddy at how she wasn’t far from the mark. Her eyes gleaming a bit. “So, if gestures are only half, what’s the other piece?” “Vision.” “‘Vision’?” “You wouldn’t blindly shoot an arrow or throw a knife if you could help it, would you?” “No, not particularly.” “So, would you do the same with your miracles?” “Oh.” The gears in Tessa’s head began moving again. “Ohhhhh. I understand now. Though, how can you interrupt either of these? Excluding… permanent damage.” “Of the two, gestures are the more difficult to deal with. In most cases, spells and miracles have fairly simple movements. Such as pointing at a target or kneeling in prayer. However, there are some spells that require specific movements of the fingers, hands, or body.” Tessa drew an assumption, “And if someone were to learn what those specific movements are, they could intervene and interrupt the casting. Correct?” “Yes. Though such specific movements are rarely required of most spells or miracles, so it’s unlikely you’ll have to concern yourself with it too often. It is also much easier if you focus on an opponent’s ability to see than their hand movements. What are some methods you believe are possible?” Tessa put a hand to her chin as she thought. The first thing that came to mind, reluctantly, was to do something similar to Hei’s suggestion of cutting out the tongue; destroying the eyes. But Hei had also mentioned other methods that were a less than lethal attack on the senses, or the use of a spell. “You could… blindfold them? Or maybe use a bright light to blind them for a moment?” “Those are methods that can work. You could also throw sand or dirt in their eyes, or hide behind a physical object to prevent them from seeing you. Spells are also an option, such as darkness or blind, and can be a more lasting effect.” Tessa lightly nodded, somewhat understanding what Hei meant. “I see. But does restricting a person’s ability to see really affect the casting of spells so much? Even if it isn’t the best idea, couldn’t they still cast the spell and potentially hit you?” “In some situations, yes. However, when on missions, both you and the target are rarely in single combat situations. Which means you could end up hitting your allies with a damaging spell, or hit an enemy with an empowering one.” Tessa’s eyes drifted to the ground as she processed Hei’s lesson. “There are also spells and miracles that require seeing your target to cast them. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way of determining whether or not it’s a necessary requirement.” Tessa's brow dropped in confusion. “If it can’t always prevent the spell from being cast, is it worth the effort to blind them in the first place?” Hei chuckled, “Always. If your opponent can’t see you, even if only for a moment, that gives you the opportunity to strike without them knowing what you’re doing. This also applies to melee combat, but we’ll get to that later.” His lesson seemed sensible, and fairly easy for her to digest. This information came across as surprisingly useful. Not only for defending herself, but to also know what her own weaknesses are. Excitedly, Tessa nodded and wondered what she’d learn next. “Understood, mist-… Hei. But I have one question.” “Yes?” “If something prevented or interrupted any of these required components, what would happen if someone forcibly cast the spell anyway?” Hei’s smirk grew back into a grin. “An excellent question, child. The answer is that one of a few things could happen. The spell could fail and fizzle out, resulting in nothing happening. It could also misfire and hit an undesired target. Said someone could even end up casting a different spell by accident. But worst of all, it may implode first before exploding in the caster's face.” “May I ask another question?” “Of course.” “Does interrupting or preventing certain components allow you to predict how the spell will fail?” “Another great question. It is possible to predict the result, to a degree. Preventing any of the components will cause the spell to fail and fizzle. However, this also depends on two other factors. The first is how powerful of the spell is when interrupted. The second is if the caster wants to force it regardless of restraints or interruptions.” Tessa tried to assume connections between what she’d learned. “So, the more powerful a spell, the greater risk it has when interrupted to misfire or self-destruct?” “Correct. And the risk increases further when forced. Though that is a given. We’ll cover this more when we begin combat training. But for now…” Hei clapped his hands together, closing the topic at hand. “Let’s move on from the lecture and into actual training.” “What will we be doing?” “Nothing too complex. Mostly a basic means of condensing and tempering your ability to be a conduit for your miracles.” “A… ‘conduit’? What’s that?” Hei spoke under his breath, “That’s a surprise. Guess her vocabulary isn’t as extensive as expected.” “Did you say something…?” “Think of it like a gemstone put on display in a jeweler’s shop. Your god’s energy is like the spotlight put underneath the gemstone to display its brilliance. And the brighter and more brilliant the stone shines, the more it reflects your ability to output more of their power.” “I think I follow…” “What I’ll be doing is giving you the tools to refine said proverbial gemstone.” The analogy now made sense to her. “Oh… okay. So, what’s the first step?” “First is this…” Hei put his left hand into his pants’ pocket and took out a small orb. Inside it, a small tornado spun wildly. Winds whipping about inside. Tessa stared at it in wonder, admiring its magical beauty. “What is it?” “An affinity tester.” “Why do we need to test my affinity? I already know what it is.” Hei’s left eyebrow immediately shot up. Tessa, however, was unquestioningly confident in what she believed herself to be. She confidently said, “I’m a light-type!” Hei’s eyebrow lowered back to its normal position, but his eyes half-closed. “You are a light-type?” “Yes! When I was of age, the priests in Solis had every child’s elemental affinity tested. Some kids were fire-type, some were air-type. A couple were water or earth-type. And I was one of the few ones blessed with the light-type.” A brief silence fell between the two before Hei broke it. “Right. Well, if you are a light-type, then this orb should shine as brightly as your faith in your god.” However, Tessa was fervent in saying that she was a light-type and continued to deny picking up the orb. “But that’s unnecessary,” Tessa said with an unflinching smile, “I’m a light-type. The priest who performed the examination stated it himself while my parents and I were in the chapel. No follower of Aeon would lie about something so important.” Hei’s face became obviously annoyed at Tessa’s blissful dismissal of the topic at hand. “Very well then.” He turned his back to Tessa, then threw the small orb over his shoulder. “Catch.” Tessa, believing the orb to be of great value, scrambled to catch the orb. But the moment it fell into her hands, it let out a vivid pinkish, purply glow. The tornados present when Hei held it now turned into a densely packed cube of raw arcane energy, slowly spinning on one of its corners. Turning back to face her, Hei’s face was unsurprised. “A light-type, was it?” Tessa gave a chuckle and denied the results before her. “Yes, I am. My apologies, but maybe your tester is malfunctioning. Maybe when you threw it, I damaged it when I caught it?” Hei was silent for a moment. He looks at Tessa, then at the orb, and finally back at her. Taking it out of her hands, he addressed her. “Yes. The orb must be the one malfunctioning here.” Returning the tester to his pocket, he huffed and muttered something about “indoctrinated fools” and “burning down the church”. His right hand pressed against his forehead and dragged down hard before taking a breath in and moving on. “Well then. Let’s get to training. To do this, I’d like you to take a comfortable sitting position.” Tessa did as Hei asked of her. Sitting with her legs crossed and her hands resting on her knees. “Okay… what next? Will I be meditating?” Hei replied dismissively, “No, nothing so relaxing. I want you to conjure an orb of light.” “That seems… simple enough. Very well.” Tessa wasn’t sure of what Hei was going to have her do, but he had to know what he was doing. Right? Maybe this is just a test and I’ll move on to something more difficult when he realizes how proficient I am in using the light! Torgrak showed himself to be much more intelligent than he appeared to be. So Hei must be the same. Perhaps I’ll learn a new miracle or some kind of special trick about light-type miracles I didn’t know before! Hei started walking towards a fruit tree as Tessa held the orb of light in her hands. “Okay… what next?” “Maintain the orb.” “Is… that it?” Hei picked another of the fruits he’d eaten just moments before and moved to lounge on the nearest bench. “That’s it.” His response caught Tessa off-guard. “This seems a bit too simple. Is there no kind of special technique or such I can do to improve myself?” Taking a seat on a bench before taking a bite of the fruit. “Right now, your connection with the light element is unstable and unfocused. While you may have practiced your miracles more than others, you were never taught a means of improving the connection between yourself and your god. So that’s what we’re going to be doing today.” “Okay… that sounds easy enough. How long do I have to maintain it?” Hei then took out a small mechanical device from his pocket. Twisting the knob on the front all the way to the number “10”, he set it down on the ground and relaxed on the bench. “Until this thing makes a loud and jarring noise. If you can maintain it the entire time, you will have completed this part of your training.” “And… how long is that going to take?” “Don’t worry about that and just focus. Because every time you fail to maintain the orb, I’ll be resetting it.” “Is this all we’re doing today?” “Yes. Now let’s see you make use of your god given affinity in action.” Tessa couldn’t help but feel like she was being looked down on, or that this wasn’t really a lesson and instead just a test. She was convinced that Hei was more competent than he appeared, and that he needed to see what she was capable of before moving to the more incredible things. Staring at the floating orb of light before her, she was determined to pass this test with flying colors. This shouldn’t be too hard. * * * * * Sweat dripped down from Tessa’s face and hands. Some beaded up on the tip of her nose before falling off and hitting her lap. She wasn’t sure how long it had been now, but her head now felt light and her muscles ached. A tingling feeling ran down from her neck, along her spine, and down her arms to her fingers. Why is this so hard…? The orb that she kept alight in her hands began to dim and flicker. Gritting her teeth, she tried hold on for a moment longer. Her ears pounding slightly as she was hitting her limit again. C’mon, I’m not done yet…! Tessa closed her eyes, hoping it’d help her focus and maintain it for a bit longer. But even holding her breath was futile as the orb broke into several small wisps of light and disappeared. Gasping for breath, Tessa leaned back while her arms supported her. “Wow. You sure are a sight to behold. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone fail this training five times in a row, let alone ten. I wonder how long your streak will be.” Turning her head to face Hei, she glared at him but couldn’t come up with a retort. “I know you’re a genuine light-type, but let me know when you’re done so we can work on your actual natural abilities.” Letting her back fall onto the ground, she laid there and stared at the sky. Wondering if she was even half-way done. How is this so difficult? Summoning the orb is simple. And I’ve done so many other things at the Academy. But why is this so much harder than when I was learning miracles? Tessa took deep breaths as she recovered her stamina. She found it hard to believe that she’d already failed ten times, but each attempt was only two to three minutes at best so far. Just how much more was there to go? Leaning her head back to look at her “mentor”, she watched as he yawned and relaxed as he pleased. Acting as though he were a black cat stretching and lazing about in the sun. Tessa asked, “Is this training actually going to help me at all? I don’t feel any different.” Hei scoffed, “If you can’t complete this training, you’ll never even set foot at the starting line for your dream. Let alone drag yourself along its road.” “But this seems pointless. When would I need to maintain my focus on a spell for so long?” she complained. Hei sat up from his relaxed position. “Have you ever been in a fight before?” Tessa was about to respond when he elaborated further. “And I don’t mean the catastrophe that was your first mission. I mean an actual fight where you never knew when it would end and have to endure until the end.” She replied hesitantly, “No… I haven’t.” “Then there’s part of the reason why you’re undergoing this training. Your body isn’t used to being a conduit for more than short bursts, so we’re developing it so you can access more power for longer periods of time.” “I see…” “Thankfully, you have forced yourself into being able to control the element at a proficient level. I can’t say for certain how you developed this, but I’m guessing it’s from all you did before arriving here.” This news was surprising to her. She was glad to know that this training wasn’t pointless, but knowing how hard she practiced at the Academy was helping her right now made her genuinely happy. Tessa asked, “If I didn’t have the control over light that I do right now, how much longer would this training be?” She was curious to know how much of a difference her training made. Though she expected it wasn’t much. “One week.” “A week?!” “Yes.” “Why would it take so long normally?!” “The duality elements, light and dark, are not normally accessible to most people. Usually, most people gain access to them through becoming priests, forming pacts, or other such connections with other divine beings or creatures of the desired element. And even if you have a natural talent for either of the dualities, they’re still very difficult to train in.” Tessa was about to ask a question, but paused. She wanted to accuse him of not know what he was talking about, but that felt wrong to do. Especially when she’d already gone through something similar with Torgrak. Letting her head cool a bit, she asked Hei how he understood so much about the light and dark elements. “May I ask how you know so much about the dualities?” Hei relaxed a bit, resting one arm behind the bench while holding the other out. “While I am an air-type as determined by Fate, it is not what I specialize in. Similar yet opposite to you, I wield the opposing duality: darkness. And because of how I wanted to train in darkness rather than follow my natural talent, I had to undergo the training that you’re doing now.” At the mention of the element, Hei summons a black orb into his hand. Strings of darkness fall and stretch out from the center, but orbit around the orb before returning to it. Tessa stared curiously at Hei, slightly stunned to know that she’s undergoing the same training he did in the past. Sitting up and turning to face her mentor, she wanted to know more. “I’m doing the same training as you did?” “Well… not exactly. In contrast to you, I didn’t have a mentor. So I spent a lot of my time experimenting and brute-forcing my training. What I’m having you do now is a refinement of what I underwent long ago.” Hei sharing how this method is one of his own creation fascinated Tessa. “How long did it take to refine it? And is it the only way for me to improve?” “It’s hard to say just how long it took. I lost count after a hundred and sixty-three years. But I spent that time learning how other people trained in their elements and culminated my research into as efficient of a method as I could. Which is what you’re undergoing now. As for if this is the only way, it isn’t. There are other means, but they won’t be as quick as you desire.” “So this is the fastest way for me to progress…” Tessa’s right hand came up to her chin as she thought about it. She was a bit bewildered by how Hei was giving her access to such a refined method of training herself. “You mentioned learning from other elements. If they were to use your method, would they have to do what I am now?” “Yes, and no. Unlike the dualities, the primary elements would require slightly different methods. Fire would require you to keep a flame constantly burning. Water needs to be kept in an infinite flow without interruption. Air must keep a contained storm from going out of control or stopping. And earth must be kept from compressing itself into stone.” Tessa’s eyes couldn’t help but shine as her mind accepted all of this new knowledge. The different means of training in each element fascinated her. “What of darkness, force, or null?” Hei let the orb in his hand disappear. “Force is strange. To establish a solid connection with the element, you would need to compress raw arcane energy into a sphere over the allotted time. However, you cannot allow it to compress too quickly. Otherwise, it may cause an accidental detonation and blow up in your face.” Hei paused for a moment, crossing one leg over the other before continuing. “Null, on the other hand, cannot be trained by any well-known method. Not even mine.” “Why?” “Null-type spells and miracles are very rare and often very powerful. Because of this, they’re kept under lock and key. And those that do have access are often forbidden from using them outside of emergencies.” “Is there any way to tell if someone can cast a null-type?” “Not really. However, you can often assume that powerful organizations and families keep at least a few null-type spells and miracles close at hand. But other than that, it’s next to impossible without seeing for yourself. Even I have only seen a handful of them between both mortals and monsters.” “I see…” Tessa’s mind couldn’t help but happily absorb even more of Hei’s knowledge. Back in Unity Academy, her professors either skipped past these two elements or quickly mentioned them before never bringing either up again. But here, learning with Hei as her mentor, it felt as though she’d only been smelling roses or keeping her head in the clouds. Suddenly, the world of spells and miracles grew to include so much more. “Oh! And what of darkness? You didn’t explain that one yet.” “Ah, yes. My element.” Uncrossing his legs, Hei got up and walked around in search of a tree with a sizeable shadow. Once he found one, he stopped in front of it and gestured for Tessa to come over. Standing up and dusting herself off, she walked over and curiously watched as Hei continued. “Darkness isn’t as straightforward as the others because of its more control-oriented nature. To develop a solid connection with the darkness element, one must be able to create, maintain, and perform with shadow puppets.” Pointing with his left index finger at the shadow and then out into the light, Tessa watched as the shadow stretched out and took on a fairly simple appearance. It looked like a very simplified caricature of a man with two arms at its side. With a subtle move of his fingers, Hei had the puppet wave to Tessa. How cute! She couldn’t resist waving back, forgetting that it was a manipulation of shadows. “I’ll also show the coming phases of your training while we’re at it. Once you’ve got the first part of your training done, you’ll then have to learn how to control it.” With a quick snap of his fingers, Hei now had the puppet playing a silent trumpet. Even having it change playing from the left to the right and back seamlessly. Tessa stared in awe at how easily he could control it. “Once that’s done, it’s a matter of expanding the number that you can summon and control.” Raising his other hand, Hei made two other shadow-musicians join the performance. One beat a drum while the other played a violin. “And after that is just a matter of expanding how much you can summon, control, and manipulate separately while doing it all at the same time.” Hei focused his gaze on the puppets and began tapping his toe to a rhythm. Drawing forth an entire orchestra of shadow puppets. Even raising the curtain on a stage to reveal two more. “And a five, six, seven, eight…” On cue, the orchestra began playing while the two puppets on stage dance. However, Hei took it a step further and Tessa could hear the orchestra play within her head. All the while, nothing seemed to change around her. The birds didn’t stop chirping and the wind still whistled through the leaves. She watched in pure awe at how advanced Hei’s control was. It was like a dream for her to witness it, and now Tessa wanted to achieve something even remotely similar. As soon as the play had begun, it ended. The dancers and musicians took a bow while the curtain fell, and it all sunk back into the shadow of the tree and Hei lowered his hands. Letting them sink to his sides as he began walking back to the bench to relax. Tessa, however, stood there stunned for a moment before abruptly asking a question. “Is what you just showed something I could achieve with light?” Hei sat on the bench, crossing his legs once again. “Literally? No. Can you achieve the same level of control? Yes.” “And I’m guessing there are no shortcuts in this training?” Hei laughed, “You’re already on the shortest path. Trying to skip ahead would be like playing with fire.” “I understand.” Tessa gave both of her cheeks a hard slap before returning to the center of the park and sitting back down. Putting her hands back out in front of her, she started again. I will do this. No matter how many tries it takes. Hei winded the device back up and watched as she summoned forth the orb again. Grinning as he watched, though couldn’t help yawning for a moment. And as time passed, Tessa failed time and time again. However, the time that elapsed between each failure grew. It was very slow but steady progress. Then Torgrak appeared. He entered the park from the same side the Tessa did and stopped at Hei’s side. “Good day ta ya, fazher of all bastards.” “And same to you, the avaricious butcher. Has our next mission been determined?” Torgrak nodded, “Aye.” The dwarf handed over a sealed folder to Hei. Taking it in hand, Hei broke the seal and previewed the contents before quickly closing it. Getting up, Hei walked to Tessa’s side just as she failed her most recent attempt. Placing the wind-up contraption beside her. Tessa looked up at Hei, wondering what was going on. “Going somewhere, Hei?” “Only for a moment. Just need to discuss something with our mad dwarf for a moment. Just wind the device back to zero after every failed attempt while I’m gone.” “Understood. I’ll keep trying while you two handle things.” “Very good. Be back soon.” With that, Hei and Torgrak walked off down the path before turning off it and into a thicker part of the park’s treeline. Once isolated, Torgrak pulled out a small device of his own. Pressing a button on the top, he tossed it to the ground as a small barrier now surrounded the two. With that, Hei took out the documents and began looking them over. Torgrak asked, “So vhat’s the task zhis time?” Hei grinned, “An extermination mission. Seems a cult has made itself known out in Crimsonvale and taken over the town.” “Vhat kind of idiots are ve dealing vith zhis time?” “Minions of Nencog. And seeing that they’ve taken over the town, their leader is relatively powerful.” “Relative ta vhat?” “To the shackled? Very. To us, probably won’t take more than a day at most.” Torgrak chuckled, “Are zhey zhat much of a handful? Or do ya just vant ta take yer time?” Hei scoffed, “No, nothing so playful. We just have to keep in mind our new apprentice.” Torgrak laughed heartily. “Ah, yes. How could I forget?” Hei kept reading over the documents, scanning over maps and reports the Adventurers’ Guild received as part of the request. Torgrak asked, “Anyvay. Know anyzhing about zhese Nencog minions?” “A few things, but not much. First, it’s rare for them to take over a village, let alone a town. Usually they just burn it all down, sacrificing their victims all at once to their god.” “Speaking from experience?” “A bit. I joined one cult of Nencog a hundred or so years back, but got kicked out. They were mad at me for ‘killing their leader’, or something along those lines. I can’t remember exactly. The ones who took over Crimsonvale could be from the same group, but it could easily be another.” “Got any ozher fun facts to share?” “I can say with certainty that it’s also rare for Nencog’s followers to be organized at all. Being a god of chaos, he tends not to care who kills what. He only cares that it’s happening and prefers it to happen for as long as possible. However…” Hei put his hand to chis chain as he read over one document. “Remember somezhing useful, soul devourer?” “According to one report, it seems the cult has gotten rather quiet as of recent. Could be that they’re aiming to summon an avatar.” “An avatar?” Torgrak grinned through his bushy beard, “Haven’t fought one of zhose in a vhile. Sounds like a good time. Anyzhing else of importance?” Hei flipped through a couple of other papers that were included. “A resistance group, highly prejudice religious zealots, failed attempts by spies to infiltrate the city, blah blah blah… Oh?” “Somezhing pique yer interest?” “Seems Crimsonvale has been determined too far gone by the lord presiding over the territory it’s in. Due to the number of failed attempts to infiltrate the city, the lord wants it all swept under the rug as quickly as possible. We’re authorized to kill on sight.” Torgrak let out an evil cackle. His hands clasped together as he mischievously rubs them against each other. “How generous. It’s hard to control myself vhen I’m having fun.” “And here’s some more good news. ‘Should the city be determined too high risk and reclamation impossible, the destruction of Crimsonvale is preferable to allowing even one cultist escape extermination.’” “Rare to be given permission ta destroy a city. I’ll celebrate da occasion vith da first firing of my newest creation.” “Made another of those eyesores, have you?” “Aye, but haven’t had a big enough target to test it on until now.” Hei put the documents away with an annoyed huff. Handing everything back to Torgrak. “Let’s also use this as a means for the child to get some experience fighting other humanoids. We’ll have to use less than lethal force while she’s present. She’s not much of one for the ‘unsavory’ parts of quests just yet.” Torgrak nudged his elbow into Hei’s side while grinning. “Don’t tell me you’re not looking forvard to killing entire families again.” Hei shrugged, “More like I don’t think I’ll get the chance. We’ll be so busy with our mission that we’ll have to outsource the fun part.” “Aye, zhat is unfortunate. By zha vay. Vhen do ya zhink she’ll be able ta take her first life? Vouldn’t an accidental kill speed zhings up for us?” (Yes, that is unfortunate. By the way. When do you think she’ll be able to take her first life? Wouldn’t an accidental kill speed things up for us?) “Can’t say at the moment, but it’ll likely be a while. If she’s put in a tight spot, she might do it. However, she could end up refusing to, even at the bitter end. As for an accidental kill, that could end up setting us back and I’d rather not delay things more.” “And vhat of her memories? She doesn’t seem to recall encountering us.” “I censored them before she awoke in the infirmary. The memories from that day still exist. But unless she forces them to the surface of her mind, the spell I used will keep her from remembering the more… delicate details.” Hei’s eyes narrowed as his grin turned into an evil smile. “Can’t risk sabotaging our plan to turn her into… what was it you called our kind?” Torgrak chuckled, “Fateless. At least it’s better zhan da name ya came up vith.” “But ‘apostate’ is so much more regal. Guess a dwarf who plays in the dirt all day wouldn’t understand.” The two laughed to themselves. “How about a little bet, leaf licker?” “Oh? And the terms?” “Whoever gets snapped at by da girl first gets five gold pieces.” “And you think I’ll lose?” “Heh! I got a better shot zhan ya, even vith yer silver tongue.” “Alright. You’ve got a deal.” The two gave each other a firm handshake. “May the better unshackled existence win.” “Aye. I plan ta.” * * * * * Tessa struggled to focus on the orb she held in front of her. The device next to her ticking away while her head pounded. She grit her teeth as hard as she could, putting her everything into maintaining it, but this was as far as she could go for now. Quickly, the orb began dimming and turned unstable. C’mon! Just… a bit… longer…! She gathered as much strength as she could, but there was nothing left. The palms of her hands felt scorched and her muscles began feeling like pins and needles were being stuck in and pulled out repeatedly. This was as far as she could go for now. With an explosion of light, the orb scattered into a shower of shimmering shards. Flopping onto her back and letting her legs fully extend, she stared at the sky and watched the clouds go by. I’m spent… Turning her head to see how far she made it this time. It continued ticking, but she had at made it to the half-way mark this time. Five? Looking back at the sky, she sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. And just as she did, Hei returned. “Done already?” Opening her eyes, she saw her mentor standing right above her. “I’m… at my limit.” Tessa tried to move, but her body demanded a break. Right now, she was stuck on the ground. “As expected, but you got further than I expected you to.” Taking hold of Tessa by her arm, he helped her back to her feet. Then, taking out a small vial of something, he popped the top and handed it to her. “Drink this.” Tessa took it, but was hesitant to ingest it after what Torgrak did to her the last time. “What is it?” “Something to help you recover your stamina and to prevent your muscles from chaining you to the bed tomorrow.” She shot Hei a hesitant look, but quickly downed it. The texture was nothing to write home about, being somewhere between snot and viscous slime. But it did taste of a sour and citric fruit pie filling. Once it was down, Tessa passed the vial back, and Hei pocketed it. “Alright. Your training for today is over. Now you just need to rest up for tomorrow.” “Okay… but I don’t have anywhere to stay. I could find lodging at an inn or something, I guess?” “Don’t worry about that. Since you’re our student, we provided you with some lodgings ourselves.” Hei then pulled out something that looked like a combination of a wooden bookmark and a punch card. “I pulled a few strings with a contact of mine and got you a room all to yourself. There’s no bathroom or such amenities, but there are publicly available place within walking distance.” The sudden kind gesture caught Tessa off-guard. She half-expected her mentors to have her sleep out on the streets or fend for herself. “Thank you! I… I don’t know what to say…” “Don’t worry about it and just rest up. There’s still much ahead of you, so rest up while you can. Outside of missions, you’ll be spending every three days training with us and get one day off.” “I… I understand.” A determined look flared up in Tessa’s eyes. She wasn’t sure how she felt about her mentors exactly, but they at least seemed to look out for her. Whether it’s a good or bad thing was likely never to be determined until much later in the future. “But… may I ask where exactly the place I’m staying is at? I’m still not familiar with the city’s layout.” “Head to the Residential District and hold out the piece of wood out. It’ll show which direction to go, where the building it is, and what room is yours. You should be able to figure it out from there.” Turning around to leave, Hei waved to her before putting his hand in his pocket and walking away before she had any questions to ask. Uncertain of what to do, Tessa quickly bowed and graciously thanked Hei. “Th-thank you very much, Hei!” Now left to her own devices, Tessa held the piece of wood in her hand. Guess I’ll go find the place now. Much like with finding Redbrick Park, Tessa asked for help from a couple guards along the way before entering the Residential District. Hei said this thing would help me figure out where to go. Do I just hold it up or point it in a direction or…? On its own, the thing glowed with light at the top. At the moment, it was yellow. Does that mean I’m close? Turning in one direction, it quickly changed to red. And upon turning in the other direction, it turned back to yellow and then green. I guess I go this way? Navigating the streets of the district, Tessa slowly made her way. Turning at corners when the light changed back to yellow and kept following the light when it returned to green. It took a bit of time, but eventually she found herself at the doorstep of a kind of dormitory. It was considerably smaller than the one she stayed in at Unity Academy, but Tessa felt a kind of comfort from it. I guess this is the place. At the front door, there was a slot in the door frame. Assuming what she had to do, she put the piece of wood into it. Sucked through to the other side, the door’s lock clicked and swung open. Stepping inside, she noticed that there wasn’t a receptionist or front desk. Perhaps any staff for the building were elsewhere. Now inside, the door slowly closed behind her and locked. Turning around, Tessa saw her key and took it. Once again, the light shone, and she climbed up the building’s stairs to the second floor. And with a bit more walking, the light guided her to the door of room 205. Again, the door had a slot, and she did the same thing as before. It clicked, but didn’t open on its own. Turning the handle, she walked into her assigned room. Walking into her room, she noticed it was roughly half the size of the dorm room she shared with Sylvie. It already had a bed with sheets, a blanket, and two pillows. There was also a small closet, nightstand, table, two chairs, and a window that looked eastward. It wasn’t the nicest room she’d ever been in, but it was something she could call home for now. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she felt she could genuinely relax for the first time. It was only midday, and she was exhausted. Falling back onto it, her eyes instinctively closed. All she wanted to do right now was relax. And soon enough, Tessa was out like a light. The ceiling being the last thing she remembered before the darkness took over.