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Chapter 10 – Fair Judgement

The tunnel descended into an open room, which was small enough that Seti could see everything inside all at once. Five paths appeared to branch out of the room. As Seti raised his hand to touch the short ceiling, which felt cool and rough, he noticed a lumpy line on the ceiling that veined throughout the cave into each branching path. Seti concluded that it must be an electromancy-made camera, covered with a plastic or metal casing. This thought was cut abruptly short by an ice cold draft, which made the hairs on Seti's back stand on end. It almost seemed like the only source of heat were the four flaming torches spread out against the wall.

The eight other contestants had separated into groups of two or three, with the exception of Tyronn, who was by himself. Some members hugged themselves to fend off the chill. The commentator spoke overhead, his voice echoing.

"Now that we've had a chance to see all of our contestants, let's see what we can learn about them! Please watch this interview from our star, Ivan Girvin! –Hello, I'm Ivan Girvin, a tier four fire adept. This is my second year and sixth overall attempt at the Exceptions exam."

"Holy crap, Ivan!" one guy, James, said as he turned to another. "Six times? You know there's a point when your application just gets thrown out because you suck too much."

Ivan was the fire adept that had created fire between his hands as a demonstration when the commentator called his name. He was younger than Seti.

"As embarrassing as that is—check out the tier one over there." The woman, Libby, pointed at Seti.

James laughed. "Seriously... tier one? Who did you sleep with to get the recommendation?"

Seti said nothing. People had their phones out and pointed them around the room. At first, he thought they were making video recordings, but later realized that they were using them as flashlights. It made sense as this was a cave; the room had to be dark, lit only by the four torches he noticed earlier. Not that it mattered to him; his omniview cared not for the light in the world.

Ivan spoke. "As the most experienced person here—"

"Don't say that like it's a good thing," Libby inserted.

"—I can tell you that working together is our best bet." He finished without missing a beat.

They started talking over each other.

"I'm not even here for Prestige," James said. "Get enough publicity with the right guilds and that'll be enough to land me a job."

"Good for you, but some of us actually have a chance," Libby snorted.

"Guys!" Ivan said loudly. "There's no light beyond here. There are nine of us, but only four torches. We're supposed to work together."

"Uhh—hello?" Libby held up her phone. "Some of us can clearly afford light?"

"This is why you need my experience. Just wait and see how long your phone will last down there. I bet they got an electromancer from Prestige somewhere above to mess it up." Ivan's smug face was the opposite reflection Libby's disgusted look.

"There was one," Seti said. "A technician. Prestige student. Saw her in the building."

The contestants started talking amongst themselves again. Tyronn crouched down, unnaturally silent. The interview video above was still playing. Ivan was trying his hardest to unite the people, but few were swayed. That might be in part due to Libby freely arguing with him, though she offered no real merits as to why. Seti wondered if this was the time to use his emotional niche, but didn't know what to do with it.

"So here's the breakdown," Ivan said. "This whole thing is like that Maze Maker incident. Those five heroes worked together to help evacuate the randoms. The dolls are the randoms. The elementals we'll run across are supposed to represent a primal, I'm guessing. My fire can burn anything, regardless of material, so I can help fight them off. It also doubles as a light if something happens to our torches. The drill guy over there could also help fight off the elementals by—"

"Don't count me, oval face," Tyronn said. "I go by me self. I work with no one."

Ivan's face was oval on further inspection.

He flustered. "D-dude! You have to understand—we're expected to work together to pass!"

"I pass anyway." Tyronn looked away to end the conversation.

Ivan turned back to the others and continued. He asked everyone to share their mancy. Excluding Tyronn, everyone complied. Seti was surprised by how forthright they were with the information. Faulkner had driven the point home to keep the cards close to his chest; he said that it would help fight off multiple people at once, simply because they wouldn't know the best way to handle him.

Everyone, except for Seti and Tyronn, were tier four adepts. That meant they each had the mana to use one big spell, if they knew how. They explained what they could do and what their restrictions were. Tyronn, who had been acting bored up until now, was listening with keen ears. Likewise, Seti made a note of each person's ability as well, because knowing potential friends could be just as important as knowing probable enemies.

Ivan the fire adept could set anything on fire if he physically touched it, and could spread that fire the longer the contact remained. Libby was an earth adept that could stabilize floating ground for a short period of time. Another girl, Mindy, was a water adept who could recollect water that soaked into the ground if she was fast enough. She reached for her utility belt to demonstrate, but then froze.

"My canister!" She shrieked. "I left it in the building—oh my goodness! How am I supposed to do anything without my water?!"

She was the clumsy one.

Strangely, none of them had any interesting niches. Seti thought that since they were recommended, they would at least have something of value. Then again, Lambsgard University had recommended Aiden simply because he was the only tier four at the school. None of them had any mind-blowing skills that Prestige would be interested in. Actually, when he thought about it, these exams weren't the best way to determine someone's skill in the first place. Some would stand out more than others through sheer circumstantial conveniences.

That could be why Prestige allowed three failures a year. But even so, what was Prestige looking for? Was it really just teamwork? From a corporate standpoint, they wouldn't gain anything by allowing people into the school just because they could work together as a team. They would want someone very exceptional; someone that stood out.

Ah. Seti came up with a theory.

The reason they picked Blue Castle. The style of the exams they had set up. Those were clues in itself. The corporate world was a heartless place, and Prestige was no exception. The Maze Makers were regarded as heroes because of what they've done—but were they really exceptional? Maybe he was cruel for thinking so, but he was willing to bet no one thought they were very special, even until the moment they died. When it came to battling primals, dying so that others could live wasn't remarkable. What was truly impressive, and what Prestige likely wanted, were people that could stand out on their own. It may be that this exam wasn't only about teamwork, if they even considered that at all. Sure, in reality, if they were really in a situation where lives were at stake, they should work together...but that's not what was needed right now.

"And what about you?" Ivan asked Seti. "What can you do?"

Libby scoffed. "Seriously? He's just a tier one. He'll only be dead weight if we bring him with us."

Seti decided to respond. "My wind, if done right, can be used to replace an air conditioner during a hot summer day."

They all looked at him in silence. It might have been Seti's imagination, but he could have sworn he saw Tyronn subtly nod.

Ivan turned back to the others and pitched his case again. Seti decided he would help convince them—with his niche. He amplified their desire to work together. Humans were herd creatures; everyone had some inkling to be with someone else. All he had to do was increase it while Ivan spoke. They would work together and rescue as many dolls as they could, but then they would fail the exam.

Tyronn was still crouched down. Seti used his niche on the man, but he only rubbed at his nose. Either it didn't affect him, or it did and he simply dismissed it.

"Now that we've met our contestants and our judges, let's review the rules! The contestants may do whatever they can to rescue the dolls—except murder! Damaged dolls will be taken into account at the time of review. If an earth elemental catches a contestant to the point where they are immobile, they'll be out of commission until the end of the exam. But does that mean they automatically fail? You tell me! If things get too rocky and they want out, all they would have to do is remove their wristband. Contestants— Are you ready!? Three, two, one—go!"

Tyronn stood and grabbed the torch behind him. He casually walked off into one of the tunnels. Two of the other contestants paired up and took the second torch and left. Ivan, Libby, Mindy, and two others took the last two torches.

"Oh look! Ivan starts out right away trying to convince the others." The voice above changed. "–I can tell you that working together is our best bet!" Blared Ivan's voice overhead. That would've been their earlier conversation. It seemed nothing was private in this cave.

"Come with us," Ivan said, as he stood straighter after hearing himself above. "There are no more torches, and I promise you that all cell phones will stop working."

"Not interested," Seti said. With no torch in hand and no cell phone out to create a light, he walked forward into a tunnel.

The commentator's voice began to dim and muffle the further Seti walked. After a while, the only sounds that remained were his footsteps and his breathing. The further Seti went, the cooler the damp, cool air became, causing goosebumps and a rather uncomfortable shiver that chilled him down to his bones.

Seti stopped and strained his ears for anything that might be out of place, but nothing drew his attention. It wasn't long until passageways began to open up every few feet. Nothing indicated which direction would be the best, so he arbitrarily picked his route. Upon further examination, the lumped line Seti noticed before stretched against the corners where the ceiling met the wall. As he kept on walking, he wondered how the camera would see him if he had no torch for light. When he turned the corner, Seti spied a doll resting against the wall. It was as tall as his forearm was long and it quickly became apparent that if he found too many, they would be too cumbersome to carry.

"I'm going to name you little Dora," Seti said as he placed the doll under his armpit.

A low rumble. Then, the ear piercing, screeching sound of rock grinding against rock echoed from every direction. The earth elementals had arrived. It was impossible to tell if one was nearby due to all of the noise. If only his visibility could extend beyond his eleven-foot range. Seti thought how amazing it'd be if one day he could see the entire maze at once with his omniview.

He walked on. A distant scream echoed in the tunnels. Someone must have run into an elemental.

"This is the stuff of nightmares," Seti mumbled.

The constant grinding noises made Seti flinch every now and then. If both Seti and Ivan's hunch was correct, then these elementals were supposed to represent primals. Thinking about it, Seti had another advantage that the others probably didn't consider—primals only attacked at night, as they had no eyes and thus didn't need light to see. Because of this, they were commonly referred to as lightless. Assuming all of this was true, then navigating the tunnels with only torches would act to represent limited visibility during a real attack, but in Seti's case, it didn't matter.

What did matter was that Seti was the only one wandering with no light source. He wondered if the judges would guess he had unique perception. He wouldn't tell them the truth. He would just wander aimlessly to throw them off and keep them guessing. Faulkner had said to feign weakness where he had strength, after all.

Crack! The sound came from the ceiling. Maybe it was Seti's imagination, but there was something there that he didn't seem to recall sensing before—a relatively small crevice. He knew geomancers were good enough to prevent the cave from collapsing, but this felt ominous. Just as he was about to turn to go another direction…

Cccrrrrrraaaaaaaaaack!

This obviously wasn't some old crack that randomly started to collapse; it was fresh! It began to spread, and with it, the ceiling began to give way. Seti quickly sprinted in the other direction to try to outrun the fissure as it attempted to swallow him. He focused intently on the ceiling as he ran with his omniview… Too intently! He stumbled and flew towards the floor. Little Dora nearly escaped. The ground reverberated against his palms. Shattered rocks flung into visual range. A cave in! Seti slipped as he rushed away. The crack stopped spreading. He managed to get away. Breathing heavily, he considered checking out the source, but decided he liked living instead. He exhaled slowly as he walked along a different path.

Why the heck didn't the geomancers stop the collapse? Couldn't they feel it? See it? He took a deep breath. They wouldn't let anyone die in this exam. They had everything under control. Hopefully.

Seti's omniview revealed an obtuse hiding spot, roughly one-foot high, which would have been nigh invisible if a torch user wasn't closely watching their feet or randomly tripped over it. A doll lay hidden within. He wondered if he would get bonus points for finding this one, he thought with a smirk. He squished the second doll (little Eddie) next to little Dora, disallowing free movement of his right arm.

A new noise could be heard up ahead. It was quite different from the annoying sound of rock scraping on rock; like someone accidentally scuffed their shoe. Seti stopped. The noise stopped as well.

"Um," a woman's voice called out. "You wouldn't happen to be an elemental, would you?"

"Sure am," Seti replied. "Sculpted into a masterpiece."

Her figure inched into view with a torch held out in one hand and a doll in the other. She looked almost pixelated as her torch consumed some of his air. Redoubling his concentration and focus made the particles dodge around the flame, revealing the girl to be Mindy, one of the people that teamed up with Ivan and Libby. Her headwrap headband was slightly wet with sweat, which she wiped off with her doll. Considering the maze's cool temperature, that sweat was either from anxiety or, more likely, a leisurely sprint.

"Thank goodness... you're human! These rock noises are freaking me out." Mindy tugged at her bellybutton-high pants.

"You're that girl that tripped on the hole outside, during the name introductions. You also forgot your water canister," Seti said.

"Please don't remind me." She flinched when someone shouted a distance away. "I'm Mindy. You?"

"Seti. Where's your team?"

"Libby backstabbed us—not literally. Those elementals surrounded us, so she used people like shields. Goodness, it was freaky. Not as freaky as you, standing in the dark like it's nothing. How do you see?"

"My cell phone," Seti lied automatically. "But it doesn't work now." He didn't know if they had actually stopped working or not, but it was the first thing that came to mind.

"Ivan said they would stop working," Mindy said.

Since she came from the path ahead, he walked back until another pathway opened. She looked around before trudging behind him.

"Well, don't mind me not trusting the guy who took the exam six times."

And Seti made a note to not trust Mindy, either. Her persona screamed vulnerable and "please protect me," but that was exactly why he should guard himself against her. He strained his brain to remember how the announcer introduced her. Did he say she was a water adept? He couldn't recall. Would a real water user forget their canister? Wasn't that the same thing as going outside naked?

Since Mindy had the torch, he gestured for her to lead the way. He half expected her to offer it to him, so that he would lead instead, but she didn't. Maybe she didn't want to part with her only light source.

Honestly, he gave thanks to his omniview. Her figure as a woman wasn't bad, and her face was agreeable. While the fashion she sported was odd to Seti, some people could make anything work. However, the distinct lack of seeing color to bring all of these features together made it difficult to be taken in by the illustrious charms of the opposite sex. Nevertheless, if circumstances were a bit different, it would be easy for Seti to fall for her and put her before him, but this was simply something he wasn't willing to do.

A bump in the ceiling appeared at the edge of Seti's omniview. He wasn't sure what it was. Mindy didn't notice it as she kept walking forward. In order to assess the situation, he let his air get a feel around him to see what it was. The lump connected with another bump, which stretched out along the maze wall. Touching each side were thin humps that looked an awful lot like hands…

Seti grabbed Mindy and pulled her back as the elemental dropped down atop where their heads were seconds before.

Screech!

The geo-hands ripped at the wall as it came down. Mindy screamed. It was inches short of snatching her. She took off running. Her doll fell, forgotten and alone.

Seti picked it up as he ran, nearly tripping over himself. One mana marble came up to his nose. It was ready to be used. Luckily, the elemental was out of view, unable to keep up. However, Mindy also vanished from his sight as well.

"No-no-no-no!" She chanted with each step somewhere ahead.

At least she was loud enough for him to trail her.

Mindy finally stopped running to catch her breath. She flinched when Seti came up to her.

"Gone?" Mindy huffed. Sweat dripped from her brow. He gave her back the doll she had dropped. She whispered an apology to it.

"Yeah," Seti said. His two mana marbles were yet unused, ready for the next trap.

Even though the elemental was out of view, it was abundantly clear that it was still following them due to its obnoxious sound. While the elemental was slower and could be outrun, the problem was that they could easily pull off surprise attacks and entrap them if they weren't careful. They walked with that extra caution.

Seti took a deep breath and listened to his surroundings. No amount of air seemed to satisfy his lungs, despite running only for a relatively short distance. Then, it hit him—it was the thin air. Seti had previously relied on Elder Poe to normalize it, but now that he was alone, he would have to do it himself. He concentrated and weaved some. He did the same for Mindy, who was also out of breath.

There were still many things Seti didn't know about the elemental that left him asking more questions than he had answers for, as he didn't get a chance to take a good look at it. Did it have spikes on it? Perhaps, but it could also have just been his projection. How did they work? Did they have a mind of their own, or did the geomancers see what they saw and possibly even controlled them? Perhaps it was through perception, like what the Earth Dragon could do. No, probably not, as Faulkner had considered Shanna skilled, and his standards were quite high.

Little Dora and Eddie were still tucked under his arm. How long had he been down here already? Seti pulled out his cell phone and clicked a button to announce the time, but nothing happened. The Prestige electromancer must have done something to shut down their devices.

Crap! He had forgotten already that he told Mindy his phone was his light source and that it stopped working. Had his phone responded, she would've known he lied. He took note that he would need to practice his acting.

"I hate those stupid rock things," Mindy said as she wiped away more sweat with the doll in her hand.

He had been walking aimlessly, but only found two dolls. If his omniview could go further than eleven feet, this would have been the easiest task. Instead, he was trapped down here with earth elementals just waiting to lock him down.

Another scream could be heard in the distance. His heart quickened. He wanted to laugh at it and ask why it was so worried. Well, he could understand; he didn't know a way out and primal-like creatures were out to get him. Fortunately, he had the cure for his anxiety. He used his niche to amplify his calm and his heart returned to normal.

"Squeak, squeak, squeak," Mindy whispered.

"What are you doing?" Seti asked.

"I'm trying to pretend these noises are mice. It makes them seem cuter."

He stopped to give her a look. Everyone had their own calming methods, it seemed. "How many exams have you taken so far?"

"This is my first!" She said with a bounce to her voice. "Although I heard no one ever passes their first exam, like it's a ritual to fail."

It would be problematic if they didn't pass people on their first exam, and it bothered him how much it made sense that they should reject the first application. The contestant would have three chances per year at different locations. Prestige would want to see how they did in other environments. Seti bit the bottom of his lip.

They continued on until lumps of rock appeared into view. Seti was about to take off running when he noticed something. It was a fallen earth elemental. The head was crudely shaped, edged out like clay, and its body was thick and rough. Several spikes came out of its back. Rock debris littered the area, coming from the arms and legs. A large hole had been drilled through the center.

"Tyronn," Seti said.

"Wow! A third tier beat an elemental? He's going to be famous."

Mindy crept close and kicked a lump of rock with her foot. Seti was sure that the earth elemental was out for the count, but not so sure that he would bet his exam on it. He kept his distance until she was satisfied with her poking.

"It has legs," Seti said as soon as he realized something.

"Of course, silly. How else are they going to move?"

They could move, yes, but they also received a weakness as a result. Faulkner mentioned that a walking earth elemental might be cool, but they were easily defeated. A geo-elemental required constant contact with the ground to exist, so maybe he could do something against them.

They turned back, not wanting to risk stepping over the dead pile of rocks. He was sure that Mindy thought he was being paranoid, but it was a stupid risk to take. The tunnel began to split into two again when they heard a scream coming from one, so they took the other. How many people were eliminated from the exam by now?

As they walked on, the tunnel began to slope upward. This likely meant they were heading towards an entrance again. It was as much a relief as it was worrisome, as he had barely accomplished anything, much to the chagrin of his two dolls expecting more company.

The tunnel opened a new path. A lonely doll lay seated at the entrance of the new passageway. It was inviting them. Seti stood before the doll and faced down the tunnel it guarded. He could continue walking up the slope, but something made him feel like he wouldn't have the freedom to pass freely.

"You know that doll just screams trap, right?" Mindy held the torch out before her to see deeper into the tunnel.

"I'm going to go further down, but I think the exit is that way." He pointed up the slope.

Mindy looked longingly at the indicated path and then turned back to him. "We should leave together."

Seti bent down to pick up the guard doll. He now had three. With Mindy's doll, they totaled four. Would that be impressive enough to pass, or would they dock points because he ignored the obvious trap? Or rather, not a trap, but—

"If this was real life, then this guard doll is a child asking for help," Seti said. "Which means we only have one option."

And, according to Elder Poe's riddle, having one option meant having none.

Seti walked to Mindy and handed her his three dolls.

"W-wait!" She stammered. "We only have one torch, and there's probably an elemental over there!"

Seti fake-coughed and spoke in a deep voice. "Take these cute children to safety. I shall save the lost child, who is incapable of escaping on its own. Trust me."

Mindy giggled. "Don't die, Mr. Shepherd."

Oh, crap.

He watched her until she was out of his visibility range, and then walked into the tunnel.

Crap! Crap! Crap!

He was probably being recorded now, so when people wanted to know what type of person the disciple of the Wind Dragon was, they would see that. Seti sighed. What persona did he want everyone to see, anyway? Would he be a stoic mafian mancer? The sarcastic liar? Maybe acting wasn't for him.

The passageway did not split, and no other tunnels branched out. It was long and straight. The lined vein on the wall changed into a void that licked air. It was on fire. The flame didn't spread anywhere except where the camera was. This control meant a fire adept was at work. Smoke crept up to the ceiling, slowly spreading. It wasn't enough to be a concern.

Seti followed the fire line when someone called out ahead of him.

"H-hey! Get this thing off of me!"

He was silent until he could see someone pinned to the wall. A spiked blanket covered the oval-faced person who had merged with the wall.

"Hello, Ivan," Seti said.

"Am I glad to see someone!" Ivan said. "You know how stalker-ish you look, walking through the tunnel with no light? How do you even see? Actually, nevermind that! Can you get this thing off of me?"

Two other dolls were on the floor. Seti picked them up and squished them under his right arm. No one else was in the area, although Seti found it odd that the ceiling had two parallel cracks perpendicular to the walls. This was yet another thing he wouldn't have noticed without his omniview.

"How do you propose I do that?" Seti asked.

Ivan squirmed under the earth blanket. "I don't know. You wouldn't happen to know some air spell that can break me free?"

Seti shook his head. "So let me guess...you were abandoned by your group the moment an elemental appeared."

"Yeah, those cowards," Ivan spat. "I can set these things on fire, but they didn't get destroyed as easily as I hoped."

"Gee, I wonder why. They're earth elementals. Just because you can set things on fire doesn't mean it'll burn to ash." Seti kept an ear out to listen for a potential ambush. His omniview noticed Ivan's finger pressing against the wall, where a line of fire split off to cover the cameras.

"Man, I can help fight primals. Real primals, not this fake crap!" Ivan twisted under the rock blanket. "I just need to be given a chance. I can help...really!"

"Seems like you've had several chances. Sometimes life just sucks."

Something felt off about the parallel cracks on the ceiling. Seti didn't know what to make of his thoughts, but his instinct told him to be cautious. He just knew it.

Suddenly, the ceiling came alive and began to writhe. By the time Seti figured out what was happening, it was too late. A large slab of earth dropped from the ceiling, where the cracks had been, blocking his path forward. Then, from the route he came from, the sound of rock grinding on rock edged closer and closer.

Ivan laughed. "Yeah, you're right—sometimes life does suck!"

The elemental in the distance was slow. It didn't need to be fast to catch its trapped prey.

"You might as well lay down and make yourself comfortable," he said. "You won't be able to run past it. Trust me—I tried."

The earth elemental stepped into view. It was a short thing and looked to be only about three feet tall. Where it might have had a weakness in its height, it more than made up for in its frame. It was sturdy and full figured with spikes protruding from its back. Any intimidation ended there, however. Its back hunched over as it scraped its two feet across the ground. The arms, which were as long as the body was tall, stretched out wide to touch the walls. Also, its head was comically small. It was obvious that no primal looked like that, given how laughably disfigured it was compared to the real thing. More bewildered than anything, Seti readied one of his mana marbles as the strange creature stopped. The two faced off.

Earth elementals needed constant contact with the ground or they would break apart. Seti figured all he had to do was make it go airborne for only a split second. What would work best here? Aerial Slash? That's what Faulkner used to slice off the finger of Shanna's giant geo-hand. Doubt began to set in. Even with Seti's divine mode, would he have that same level of grit?

"We're about to spend a lot of time together," Ivan said.

Seti placed each of his two dolls on Ivan's left and right shoulder. Then, he thought back to his combat lessons with Melvin and readied his combat stance.

"Well," Seti started, "I think it's time to witness what it really means to be exceptional. Let me show you what the world's strongest tier one can do."

"I'm getting ready to say 'I told you so.'"

Nine feet out. The earth elemental moved. It raised its foot and dropped forward.

Seti inhaled one of his mana marbles. It felt as if time slowed down. While he wasn't really a mythical chronomancer and literally slowing time down, it was more accurate to say that his mind and body became sharper and more attuned. He breathed out slowly and zoned in.

Eight feet. The run wasn't a run, but a fast paced wobble. One foot touched the ground at all times. Its hands never stopped scratching the wall, either.

Seven feet. Seti focused on its feet.

Six feet. It was getting a bit too close for comfort now.

Five feet. Its path was systematic. Seti knew exactly where one foot would land. He used the Air Step spell. His visual range shrunk. An air brick appeared slightly above the ground. The elemental stepped on it and wobbled its other foot off the ground.

The elemental didn't break apart.

Four feet. It reached its hands out to grab him.

Hands! Light-footed, Seti stepped backward and formed a second Air Step on the ground. It stepped on it again. He pivoted his heel and stepped out of the way as its momentum threw it forward, breaking apart into chunks and slamming into the wall that trapped him. The tunnel echoed with its rumble. Then silence.

"W-what?" Ivan's mouth was open. "What did you do? What happened? Why did it break apart?"

Seti undid both of his Air Steps. He almost lost simply because he focused on the feet without realizing it had contact with the arms. Divine mode still hadn't run out. Funny enough, he almost wanted another elemental to appear. Considering how quickly he undid the Air Steps, he estimated he had about half a minute left, if not more. He walked to Ivan and tapped him on the cheek.

He took a step back and examined the geo-blanket. Ivan's hands were free to move around, but otherwise, he was almost completely strapped to the wall like an infant in a car seat. Seti pulled on one side of the melted elemental, testing its durability. No luck. The other side wasn't any different. None of the spells in his repertoire would be useful. Air Step can't be moved once placed. Aerial Slash was a definite no go, too, because if it was strong enough to rip through rock, then it would rip through Ivan as well (barring innate defenses), and Seti wasn't confident on it's grit, anyways.

There was one spell that would work: Wind Claw, Faulkner's signature move. But there was a major problem with it...the secret behind Wind Claw's strength was that it wasn't one spell, but three. It required a specific air ratio for each one, and if Seti wanted to use it, he would experience a significant drop in the range of his vision.

Divine mode ended. He was disappointed with how distasteful regular air tasted, but that lasted only a moment before his body got used to it. Seti still had another mana marble left, but decided he wouldn't use it for Ivan. Using three spells at once and controlling the ratio behind them would shorten the time on his divine mode by a significant amount. He then would have to cut through the rock with an unknown time limit, which would reduce his visual range drastically regardless of success.

After taking the dolls from the man's shoulders, he began walking away.

"Wait!" Ivan called out. "Help me out! Get me out of this thing!"

Seti walked on. "If this scenario was real life, you'd be the dead Shepherd who protected those two children." He raised up the dolls. "You'll be remembered as a hero! "

"That's not funny! H-hey! Get back here!"

He ignored Ivan. Even if Seti used his last mana marble, the cost for helping Ivan would be too great. He reached the tunnel that sloped upwards. Seti followed the path and dimly heard the commentator above.

"James struggled to the last! That's the end of that makeshift team. Samuel doesn't know it yet, but he's surrounded on all sides. Say goodbye to the next target."

The slope evened out when he saw an opening to a room. He had arrived where they had begun.

"You're not dead!" Mindy rushed forward and grabbed his arms. "And you got two dolls!"

Several people occupied the room. A man attended Libby, who had a cut lip and torn jeans at the knee. Two dolls rested on her lap. Tyronn sat with his back at the corner. His eyes were closed and his arms crossed. One doll for him. Mindy beamed at Seti, and it caught him off guard. She had no reason to act so cutesy now that the maze was over.

Five others knelt against the entrance tunnels of the maze. They wore uniformed clothing, different from Prestige or what the Shepherds would wear. Their eyes were shut and their hands overlapped one another on the ground as if they were giving CPR to the dirt. They must be the geomancers controlling the earth elementals.

"Can you see in the dark?" Libby asked. She grimaced as the attendant padded a wet cloth to her scraped knee.

Seti shook his head. "No, I asked an elemental for directions. What do we do with these?" He raised up his dolls.

The medic attending Libby answered. "Marty will take them once we conclude the event." He also wore the same uniform as the five geomancers. Seti recalled the announcer mentioning a freelance guild helping with the exam. Vaguely Competent was the guild name. Maybe all of the uniformed mancers were part of it.

Seti joined Mindy as she slumped against a wall. Her four dolls sat next to her. She wanted to offer back the three he gave her, but the medic said the count had already been tallied. Everything was recorded, so the judges likely already knew the details behind every event that had transpired. He listened to the commentator. They hadn't mentioned him once yet. Time passed. It became apparent that no other contender would return on their own terms. Finally, as the show came to a close, the geomancers each stood and stretched.

One pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt and spoke to it. "Marty, we've closed most of the paths and released the caught ones. They'll be here shortly. Over."

True to his word, the others arrived one at a time. Ivan was the first. He refused to meet anyone's eye but had quite the angry expression. This would be his sixth failed exam.

Once everyone gathered, the guy with the utility belt, Marty, came down with a cameraman following behind. He described what would happen next. Those that didn't escape the maze would go to the building right away for interviews and those that had escaped would be judged publically before having their own post exam interview. When he finished, he collected the dolls and led them above ground. The crowd greeted them with cheers. Everyone squinted to block out the sun until their eyes adjusted, so Seti played along and did the same. He wondered if his blind eyes would get damaged if he did otherwise.

"Bruises and cuts—and hurt pride! We welcome back our contestants. In a few minutes, we will begin our judging. Please stay tuned!"

Seti couldn't see anyone outside his visibility, which had shrunk down to roughly nine feet. He still had one mana marble left and silently kicked himself for not using it to put himself in a more advantageous position.

They were split into two groups. Those the earth elementals caught went to the geo-building. That left Seti, Tyronn, Libby, and Mindy to remain standing in a line. The cameraman circled around them.

Shepherd Christella walked up to them and exchanged whispered words with Tyronn. Seti couldn't hear what they said, but by the end, Tyronn left the group and walked away with the Shepherd. Seemed like the four contestants were now down to three.

Marty led them again until they stood before a table. Two of the three chairs were occupied until Shepherd Christella joined them. So it was the Shepherd sitting in the middle, that one Prestige student named Abigail, and a third person Seti had not met. That man wore the same outfit as the geomancers and had a thick beard.

"Thank you all for staying with us. We have now arrived at the end of the show. Our three judges, Shepherd Christella, Prestige Student Council Treasurer Abigail—that's a mouthful—and Guild Master Tumgar will be taking over from here!"

"Congratulations!" Abigail said. "The three of you managed to work the maze without being caught. You're hereby submitted for official judging. Our format is simple. Guild Master Tumgar will focus solely on your navigation of the maze and the doll rescue. Shepherd Christella will focus on your encounters with the elementals. And I will explain why you will or will not fit into Prestige. Let's do this alphabetically, shall we? Libby, please step forward."

Libby did so.

Guild Master Tumgar spoke with a gruff voice. "It's important to know your way around in the dark. Wasting time backtracking from dead ends could cost lives. Ultimately, Libby, you were cornered several times and used your party members as bait to escape, even to the point of collapsing a part of the ceiling. That could have been dangerous if another contestant was in the area."

Another contestant was in the area. Namely, Seti.

Libby scoffed. "Realistically, our phones would work. Primals aren't electromancers."

Shepherd Christella replied. "Maybe not, but these exams were meant to put you in a position of limitation. You sacrificed your teammates, and worst yet, your dolls. You learned the dolls were a tracking method and used that to survive. As someone told you in the maze, it's a cowardly act."

Libby pursed her lips, but said nothing.

"As for me," Abigail leaned forward in her chair. "I found it exceptional how you used your geomancy. Being capable of temporary geo-flight is impressive. The Rescue Guilds might have an interest in nurturing your skills and helping you realize your potential. Not to mention learning about the tracking method in the first place was quite clever." Libby rolled her eyes. Abigail seemed to catch it as an edge appeared in her tone. "As for Prestige Academy, we do not think the benefits you have outweigh the deficiency of the fourth tier. It is a no from me."

The other two judges also declared a no.

"This exam is stupid!" Libby steamed. "It doesn't even show off what I can really do. I'm never going to be in a spot where this'll be relevant."

That sounded an awful lot like what Ivan had said.

"None of the Maze Makers thought that." Abigail folded her hands on the table. She said nothing else.

The crowd exploded in oohs. Libby clicked her tongue and walked away. Next up was Mindy.

Tumgar complimented her spatial awareness. She never took the same path twice, which allowed her to avoid capture. Her memory was praised, and her bravery commended, as she was the last to leave Ivan.

The bravery comment made Seti think about her running away in fear and dropping her doll. Odd that they didn't mention that.

"Decent navigation memory, but that pales when noting your forgotten canister," Christella said. Mindy made herself as small as possible. "You were defenseless for the duration of the entire exam and failed to discover another means to use your mancy. It is impossible for anyone to give you a high score."

"I disagree," Abigail said. "Navigating the maze without using her mancy once, and succeeding with the rescue of four dolls, is quite the feat. Anyone else would have been trapped."

"Yes and no," the Shepherd said. "She only found one doll but was given the other three. She didn't find those."

"She was entrusted with the other three. In a moment of crisis, it's not always the mancers that save the day," Abigail said.

"Wait, do my ears deceive?" Shepherd Christella turned to Abigail. "You would pass someone who didn't use their mancy once?"

"I did not say that," Abigail said. "But we should give credit where it's due. Let's switch topics. Mindy, I found it quite cute how you squeaked away your anxiousness."

The crowd laughed. Seti had to remind himself that it wasn't a sitcom track.

"Yes, it helped me calm down," Mindy said.

"A foolish notion," Shepherd Christella said. "Surrounding sounds are meant to be used for your benefit. Replacing those sounds with your own was a poor move."

"Always so snippy." Abigail side-eyed the Shepherd. "It may be a poor move from a mancer's perspective, yes, but it would've been a great one for a teacher to calm her trapped students. You remember Brenda? This is similar to that."

"Then she should apply to be a teacher, not Prestige Academy."

Abigail whispered under her breath. "Most people don't take the exam for Prestige."

The debate ended and all three gave a no. Mindy left rather bouncily for someone who failed her exam.

"Seti," Tumgar said. "I'll be honest and say I'm not sure what happened. We had no visibility of you throughout the exam until you ran into Mindy." He turned to the side. "Was that a technical difficulty on our end?"

"No, it wasn't," Seti said. He had contemplated how much he should reveal about his omniview. In the end, he decided to be vague and to act. "I'm good with dark places, so there wasn't a need for me to have light."

Seti used his niche. He amplified amazement on each judge.

"Indeed, you are." Tumgar nodded. He rubbed his nose. "Some dolls you found were hidden in a hole made by my geomancers. It would've been invisible to torchlight. Would that be part of your 'good with dark places'? At tier one?"

"Something like that," Seti said.

"As impressive as that is, the navigation portion had nothing noteworthy. Based on your mapping, we would guess you made your choices arbitrarily," Tumgar said.

"I suppose?" Seti said. "What else should I have done? There wasn't a pattern to the maze."

"Except there was," Shepherd Christella said. She sniffed once. "The maze followed the Hammington Layout Style. It's a popular map if you've studied them."

"That's not a reasonable thing for someone to know," Seti said, getting annoyed.

Shepherd Christella gave a smug grin. "Maze Maker Amy Thorn knew. But you're right, the average person wouldn't know. To know would have been...exceptional."

"Just as it would be exceptional for an infant to drive a car," Seti replied. "That's textbook knowledge, taught to those who may need to know one day. Hence, why Amy Thorn knew. I should not be barred entrance to Prestige for that."

"And you won't be." Abigail finally spoke. "We're simply noting what's exceptional and what isn't. I'm curious to learn about the fallen elemental." She turned to Tumgar. "What happened there? Did a tier one really beat your baby?"

Tumgar huffed and folded his arms. "Of course not. He knew earth elementals needed contact with the ground for the mana flow. He broke that contact. Although it's hard to say how, as the cameras only saw the fire."

"Elementals need to touch the ground?" Abigail looked at the Shepherd. "I didn't know that."

"Only the geo-elementals do," Shepherd Christella said. "It's not really common knowledge as elementals only exist with approval from the association. False primal reports would be rampant otherwise."

Seti hummed to draw their attention. "So, what you're saying is, that was...exceptional."

The crowd laughed. Abigail smiled.

However, Tumgar wasn't satisfied. "All he did was cut off the contact somehow. That's not exceptional."

"At tier one, though?" Abigail asked.

"Aha! That's the thing! Tier one." Tumgar sat up in his chair. "That's how you know it's a trick. No first tier can beat an elemental, let alone anything else."

"That's more than what any of us thought he could do. Myself included." Abigail flipped through some papers before her. "I'm interested."

"So he knew how to beat an elemental, big deal." Tumgar didn't budge.

This whole situation reeked of insincerity. He was denounced for not knowing something, but when he did know something, it wasn't anything special. It was as if they had decided their judgement prior to the exams.

"It doesn't matter in either case," the Shepherd said. "Elementals and primals are different. Finding the weakness of a geo-elemental does not help against primals. It's a no from me."

"And a no from me," Tumgar said instantly.

Seti was about to speak but stopped himself. What garbage! Was it really set that no person could pass the exams on their first try? Their judging methods were nonsensical as well. It almost seemed like they could find something wrong with anyone taking the exam, and then use that as a reason to reject them.

"I am curious to know what more he can do," Abigail said.

"Aren't we all," Shepherd Christella said. "But that's not the judging criteria. We're not supposed to be curious—we're supposed to know."

"A bit hypocritical, aren't we?" Seti said before he could stop himself. The crowd oohed at that.

The Shepherd slowly turned her head back to him. "Pray tell, what do you mean by that?"

"Isn't the leader of the Shepherds a divine? I don't think anyone here knows what she can fully do," Seti said.

"When you're capable of soloing a primal, we'll let you off the hook."

Another oooh! Even if they wanted to know Seti's secret, it wasn't something he would divulge. The Shepherds may want to know every detail about a mancer's capabilities, but Faulkner's persistence to be vague had more weight.

Abigail frowned as she tapped her finger on the table. As a last-ditch effort, Seti used his niche on her again, amplifying her curiosity.

"Before he departed with Mindy, he purposely went to Ivan while thinking it was a trap," she said. "You don't do that unless you're confident."

"He failed to rescue Ivan," the Shepherd replied.

Seti amplified Abigail's aggression. She pressed her legs together and pursed her lips. Was she holding her tongue? Oh well, some people would have self control and dismiss his—

"And Amy Thorn failed to rescue some too. But why aren't we focusing on the accomplishments?"

Nevermind. Abigail succumbed.

She continued. "A tier one did rescue two dolls and destroyed the elemental—something only one other person did, and he passed the exam."

"Abigail." The Shepherd hissed quietly. "We already voted. Now vote."

The two women stared at each other. Seti could almost hear the cat noises.

"I vote yes." She sighed, and then mustered the best smile she could under the circumstances. "Unfortunately, the majority has spoken. Seti of Lambsgard University—you do not pass."

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About the author

Gelifyal

Bio: I work full time at a bank and write during free time on the weekdays.


Aeromancer is the first time I've ever let the public read a story I've come up with. Please leave a comment if you enjoy it!

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