Chapter 11 – Disciple of the Wind Dragon
You do not pass.
The wind blew gently, ruffling his hair. Seti's ears were ringing as he played back what he had just heard in his mind, like a broken vinyl record. He had expected to pass. He was an exceptional tier one. The Wind Dragon, one of the strongest living mafian mancers, chose him as his sole disciple. He was capable of amplifying emotions and casting powerful spells for a limited duration. Yet, despite the planets aligning, the judges rejected him before a proper case could be made. Should he reveal his secrets and show off what he could do?
No. Keeping some cards close to his chest was important. But how important would that be if he couldn't go to Prestige Academy? What about the champion business that the Noblesse had called for?
"Now that we've completed the judging of our three finalists, let's watch some interviews with the rest! Let's listen to Ivan again…"
An uncomfortable silence. The crowd started to murmur.
" ...It appears we may be experiencing technical difficulties. Please standby."
The three judges shuffled their papers and prepared to leave. Shepherd Christella looked up from the table and noticed Seti still standing in place.
"Please make your way to the building." She indicated to the side. "Someone will guide you to your interview room."
It was at this moment Seti remembered Faulkner's words.
So fight. Fight past every obstacle and force your way into the mancer world.
And so he would.
"I challenge you to a holmgang," Seti said. "If I pass, let me attend Prestige."
The effect was slow. At first, she ignored him entirely as she readied to leave. The crowd quieted down one at a time. Several people echoed the spoken word—holmgang. The other two judges, Abigail and Tumgar, turned to look at him.
"We're back and we have a new development! Seti, a tier one wind adept, has just issued a holmgang against a Shepherd! A tier six crafter! Is he trying to overturn the judges' decision?"
"How ridiculous," Shepherd Christella said. "Go to your interview and begone."
Seti shrugged. This time, he gave a smug grin. "I'm just a tier one. How could I possibly be arrogant enough to challenge you, right? But maybe you'd like to see if me beating that elemental was a fluke."
He amplified her arrogance.
"Your taunts won't sway me. I will not accept a holmgang so easily."
Her arrogance was definitely amplified, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
"Now wait just a moment," Tumgar said. "If there's a holmgang, I want to see, in person, just how it was that my elemental was defeated."
Christella scoffed. "Don't entertain him. The exam was not to see if the contestants could undo your creations."
"If it was, I could've taken out several of them," Seti said. "At once."
"What a taunt! What a challenge! But is this any different from a child throwing a tantrum? Who would be willing to put him in his place?"
Tumgar seemed to take that as a personal insult. He widened his shoulders, making himself larger. "Not one, but two lower echelon mancers disassembled my elementals. Why not have them both enter a holmgang?"
Abigail took the opportunity. She spoke before Christella could complain.
"It's possible." Abigail turned to the Shepherd. "Holmgangs between students can occur outside the academy, and can be recorded by Prestige staff."
"He is not a student." Shepherd Christella scowled. "And I won't arbiter the duel."
Abigail took out her phone and started tinkering with it. A tense moment. "Here we go. Holmgang between Lance and Soka. Soka was permitted attendance as a result. It's only been once, but there is a precedent."
"I will not arbiter it," the Shepherd said again.
Abigail smiled. "You don't have to. I'm with the student council, remember? I have authority to arbiter."
Christella glared at Seti, who flashed a toothy innocent smile.
"This holmgang won't determine his attendance," Christella said spitefully. "We'll re-review things after the duel."
"Good enough for me," Tumgar said in his gruff voice. "Marty, summon Tyronn of the Sentinel guild."
"What an unbelievable turn of events! Will a tier one wind adept really holmgang against a tier three crafter? Has a tier one ever holmganged before? Someone get me that data."
Seti wanted to laugh. The crowd started to go crazy. He couldn't tell if they were laughing or jeering. His father was in the crowd as well—what face did he have right now? What about Elder Poe and Dora? Did they feel hopeful that he'd win?
A moment later, several shouts tore through the voices.
"Hey, you itch, why'd we have to come back?"
"These baboons can't think for themselves."
"Isn't he be the one tier?"
The commentator's voice echoed throughout the plateau. "And here he is! Tyronn!"
Tyronn stepped into visual range. The man had his hands in his baggy pockets. He walked forward with a strut.
"Challenging me? Who you be? Why you think you can fight me?"
Shepherd Christella responded. "This first tier failed the judging. He wants to holmgang you as another means to measure his skill. You can decline the fight. There's no benefit for you."
"That's not true," Abigail said immediately. "All holmgangs outside of school would still reflect on your record. I'm quite certain no other first year has had a holmgang yet. You'd be number one."
Tyronn slouched his shoulders and sized up Seti. "Tier one?"
"I beat an earth elemental, just like you," Seti said.
"Oho." He straightened his back and held up his right arm. With a turn, a drill appeared, covering that arm. It spun.
"I'll assume that's his acceptance." Abigail walked forward to stand between them. Marty walked to the judge's table and lifted it away from Seti's visual range. "Per holmgang tradition, please state your victory condition."
Tyronn lifted up his drill-arm. "Victory when he be pinned and at the vitals."
When she motioned to Seti next, he spoke. "I approve. My victory condition would be when my Aerial Slash hits him."
"That is not an accomplishment," Shepherd Christella said. "You may as well have said you would blow air on him. It would be non-consequential."
Seti had a few choice words he wanted to say to her, but if she wanted something more…
"If you need proof of my strength, then what if my Aerial Slash makes him bleed?"
"Aerial Slash?" Abigail turned to the Shepherd. "Is that safe?"
"A recreational spell," she said. "No aeromancer specializes in it. I'll remarry my ex if he could even make a scratch."
No aeromancer specialized in it, she says. None, except for the strongest one. Seti's version wouldn't be as strong as Faulkner's, but it should be enough to make the man bleed. He only had one opportunity.
"I know a pretty good counselor—maybe he could help you with your new marriage," Seti said.
Tyronn gave his approval. The commentator drew their attention. "The holmgang is in effect! Seti of the first tier will face off against Tyronn, the third tier crafter. It should be noted that both contestants had each defeated an earth elemental in the maze. How did Seti beat it? We don't know! And just for the record, while tier one adepts have participated in holmgangs in the past, it was never on an official mancer-versus-mancer condition like we have now. A historical first! It shouldn't be surprising though, as first tiered adepts can't cast spells. How is this possible!?"
Abigail raised up her hand and dropped it. "Commence!"
The judges backed away from the holmgang.
Tyronn stepped back and thrusted his drill-arm into the ground, throwing dirt around. He was nearly halfway out of Seti's omniview.
Seti readied his mana marble. He had never used Aerial Slash before, so this would be experimental. Of course, it wasn't his only weapon.
"Hey, Tyronn," Seti called out. "Why are you backing away? Scared of a tier one spell? How embarrassing."
A crowd of voices shouted behind Tyronn at the taunt. They called Seti a few choice words and said that Tyronn could withstand any hit. His circle of friends were a bit lacking in the thinking department. Seti thought to amplify the man's arrogance, but then Tyronn silently clicked his tongue.
Seti had a distinct impression that the drill-crafter wanted to take the holmgang seriously, but to take a tier one seriously was a bit of a social blow. Tyronn had, thus far, kept a blank face. Suddenly, he let out a sigh, then made his face into something not entirely unlike an angry wolf's. He used his free hand to pound at his chest.
"Free shot. Show me you strength, and I show you me."
Tyronn's groupies cheered. Seti was absolutely certain he had not used his niche. Peer pressure was a heck of a drug. He grinned as he inhaled his last mana marble. His body revved. It awakened to the mana it so desperately desired. His focus sharpened. Calm controlled him.
With Aerial Slash in mind, Seti raised one finger straight to the sky. Faulkner had taught him various levels of power with this spell. Each finger acted like its own tier, and each tier had different waves of strength. Seti debated using two fingers, but a single one should suffice if he cast the spell with enough sharpness. Because this was somewhat of an experiment for Seti, and without knowing how strong his divine mode would make his slash, going above one finger might be too much risk.
He weaved his air. The omniview shrunk considerably—almost double what him casting Air Step took. Tyronn was no longer visible to him, but Seti trusted the man's arrogance to remain in place.
He swung his finger down.
A single cut of air propelled forward, slicing through the distance. It continued until it reached the end of the omniview, when something unexpected happened. Seti could still see the Aerial Slash in the voided dark area beyond his omniview. It vanished approximately where Tyronn had stood.
A gasp. Thump. Silence.
"He killed him!"
Abigail ran through the omniview towards Tyronn and disappeared again. Seti froze. He did what? With his divine mode on, he could focus on every sound and voice. People were freaking out. What happened? He took a step forward to look at Tyronn when he was intercepted. Shepherd Christella leapt forward at Seti and slid her hands together.
A phasm catcher appeared around his neck. The surrounding circle had spikes pointed inwards, pressing into his skin. The Shepherd held the attached pole with steady hands. A flick in either direction would have the spikes pierce either Seti's neck, or his throat.
"We need a vivamancer!" Abigail called from the darkness. "Get Douglas! Marty—call Douglas!"
"I… I… We will be temporarily halting this broadcast. Please stay tuned."
"What have you done?" Shepherd Christella whispered.
He didn't know. He couldn't see. What happened to Tyronn? Aerial Slash—what did it do? Did it really cut deep? But he only used one finger! More footsteps. Hushed talking. Divine mode ended. A deathly silence. If only his omniview could reach out just a few more feet!
"Wound closed." A voice came from Tyronn's direction. "Unconscious from shock. Class two blood loss. His body can recover from that on its own. He'll live."
A unified sigh took the atmosphere.
Shepherd Christella turned the catcher a fraction. The spikes pressed deeper into Seti's neck.
"As for you," she said, "I will be detaining you under my authority as a Shepherd."
Seti couldn't speak; a spike pinned his throat. Each swallow came with a pinch of pain. He wanted to see what happened to Tyronn. How bad was it?
Tyronn's people started to shout. Vulgar words were thrown at Seti. They demanded an execution. A bit overreactive, that.
Then, a voice from the crowd.
"He broke no law."
The Shepherd turned her head to the direction of the voice. Seti's first thought it might be Elder Poe and then thought maybe it was his father. But the man's voice didn't match anyone he knew.
"Are you blind? Just look at what happened," Christella growled.
"I am capable of sight, yes." The man walked into the shortened omniview. He was a good-looking man, and he wore a sweater vest over his buttoned dress shirt. One could say it was almost geeky, except for the part where his clothes fit flush against his well-toned, athletic body. (Was everyone so fit?) His wavy hair covered half of his face, styled similarly like model on the cover of a magazine. All in all, it was quite fashionable.
"Prefect," Seti heard Abigail say.
Seti racked his brain trying to remember if he knew the Prefect title from anywhere. He came up short.
"If you're capable of sight, then tell me how he didn't break the holmgang," Shepherd Christella said.
The Prefect's facial expression was stoic. "The tier one adept claimed he would use Aerial Slash to make the man bleed. The man has bled. That was the victory condition. Therefore, victory has been attained. Shall I spell it out even further?"
"Nonsense!" Shepherd Christella tightened her grip on the catcher. "Yes, he literally completed what he said he would do, but a near fatality? He can't possibly be a first tiered mancer! This requires an investigation."
Seti wanted to call bullcrap on that, but the catcher prevented him.
"Near fatality?" The Prefect raised a brow. "He wanted the victory condition to be a simple hit of the spell, but you wouldn't have it and egged for something more. He deceived no one. You underestimated him. The holmgang tradition remains unbroken. Release him."
"Arbiter!" Shepherd Christella called out. "Say your ruling!"
The Prefect shrugged. "I could countermand her, but I trust my classmate."
Both the Shepherd and the Prefect looked over in Abigail's direction. Seti heard a stutter, and then finally, "Victory conditions have been met. Seti has won the holmgang."
The Shepherd glared at the Prefect. She released the catcher, which Seti thought would make the spikes impale him, but had vanished instead. Seti rubbed at his neck while stealing a peek at the Prefect. Who was this man?
"Welcome back! Apologies for the delay. We had an unexpected turn of events unfold here. An infamous man has appeared as well," the commentator whispered to someone "...maybe I shouldn't have said that publicly." He continued "Our onsite vivamancer has mended Tyronn! He'll have a full recovery, but I have been informed that he will carry a long scar across his chest, unless he visits a specialist. As for the holmgang, the arbiter has declared a victor. Seti, the first tiered mancer, has—"
The ground shook. A wave of heat enveloped Seti. His ears rang, slowly replaced by shouts.
"Get me water!" Abigail yelled as she took off in a sprint. Shepherd Christella was right behind her. They ran towards the adobe building.
It was hectic. People were shouting over each other. Orders could be heard, one after another.
"Where are we supposed to get water?"
"Move the pack back!"
"The water was in the building!"
"The crowd should be evacuated to the cave!"
"Phones aren't working!"
Seti stood awkwardly as he heard people running all over the place. He had no idea what was happening. The Prefect frowned as he strode towards the commotion, leaving his omniview. Elder Poe and Dora entered, just as he exited.
"What's happening?" Seti asked.
"The building is on fire," Elder Poe answered.
More shouts for water. He wondered how big the blaze was to feel heat at this distance. His father stepped into view, but stopped at the edge of it. He said and did nothing.
"There're people inside," Seti said. That included Ivan, Libby, and Mindy. He turned to the elder. "Can't we do something?"
"What do you propose?"
Abigail's shout interrupted them. "I need more! Stop messing around and get me more water! Then, get the damn porta potty!"
It was hard to grasp exactly what was happening. Based on what Seti was hearing, people were dangerously disorganized. Some were coughing from the smoke. Others shouted for any working phone, but they were all still inoperable.
"This is pathetic. Everyone is running around with their heads cut off," Seti's father said. He pointed to the distance. "You! Get over here. Yes, you, with the stupid haircut. Go get that Shepherd and have her come here. I have a solution for her communication problem."
The person his father ordered ran through his omniview. Seti recognized him as a member of Tyronn's squad. He had a mullet with one side shaved. He had been insulted and still obeyed orders. Under normal circumstances, Seti doubted the man would ever listen to his father, but this was a crisis.
It didn't take long for Shepherd Christella to approach his father. She panted and held a hollow rope in her hand. A hose? Was it a phasm one or a real one? Seti got an answer when it vanished on the spot. She didn't give the rest of them a glance.
"You have a solution for the phone disruption? You're an electromancer?" She eyed him up and down.
His father shook his head. "I am not. I am Jacob Tutt, owner of Event Horizon. And it isn't the phones I'm interested in; it would be your armguard."
The Shepherd looked down at her armguard. It was a piece of metal that covered half her arm. The communication device of the Shepherds, not unlike Faulkner's electronic bracelet. "We need a phone fixed now. But if you aren't an electromancer, then you'll have to excuse me—"
"You are not excused," he said sternly, pausing her in her tracks. "And you'd do well to listen to your co-judge. Did she not say non-mancers could save the day? Electromancy disruption doesn't disable your armguard…it only weakens it. I can calibrate it to bypass any basic interference, allowing you to reach several miles further out. It should be enough to call in for help."
His father had quite a commanding presence. Seti couldn't even do that with his niche's help. Shepherd Christella flicked the armguard at several spots until it came off. She handed it over and looked at everyone else daringly. She was upset about something.
Dora ignored the exchange entirely and instead kept her focus on the fire. She had her mouth wide open while she looked at the source of the heat. She seemed more amazed than concerned. Elder Poe remained content to stroke his beard.
"I hope you don't take long," she said. "The building is going to burn down with everyone inside if we're not quick enough."
Elder Poe spoke up. "Seti, do you agree with her assessment?"
A lesson? Now?
"Well…" Seti faced the direction of the building.
He couldn't see it as his omniview didn't extend that far, and the radius was a few feet smaller than it usually was, considering the spells Seti used today. If he could see, what would he notice? He remembered that the building was cool on the inside because of its underlying material. What material was it, again? Then…it clicked.
"It's an adobe building, made by geomancers. It isn't flammable." Seti knew he got the right answer.
"Weird," Dora said. "How is it on fire, then?"
"How, indeed?" Elder Poe asked. "Seti, can you tell us?"
"Seriously, what's with the lesson during a crisis? Shouldn't we try to help? I mean, aren't you—" Seti stopped. "You're an aeromancer, right? Can't you suffocate the flames?"
"Running in without thinking is liable to get you killed," Elder Poe said. "Think about the circumstances. How is a non-flammable building on fire?"
Shepherd Christella looked at the two of them in confusion. Seti took comfort that either she didn't know, or she didn't consider the underlying circumstances. But he couldn't blame her; the underlying cause wouldn't be something people considered until after the crisis ended. Elder Poe thought it was important to know now; therefore, Seti would have to figure out why.
If a non-flammable thing started on fire, what would cause it? Gas on the object? Extreme heat that burns things anyway? Or maybe he had to think along the lines of mancers…
"It's mancer made," Seti said. "Specifically, Ivan—the fire adept who can burn anything."
Elder Poe nodded. The Shepherd's eyes widened as she looked at the building. Knowing the cause changed things. It meant a second hostile force could be present.
"It's smoky, too," Dora said with a hop.
Seti's father motioned to the armguard and said something to the Shepherd, which was lost in the noise. Shepherd Christella rubbed her hands together. When she parted her hands, a disfigured screwdriver appeared. His father took it and continued the work on the armguard.
Dora had said smoke was a thing… "Suffocation is going to be a real problem too," Seti said as he looked back at Elder Poe, who nodded. "So what's the problem? Why can't you put out the flames?"
"Unfortunately, my mana is nearly spent," Elder Poe said, giving the Shepherd a slight glance.
That... didn't make sense. Seti figured Elder Poe was at least around the same level as Elder Narn. Was he making that claim to hide who he was? To hide that they were the Serio family?
Seti leaned towards the elder to whisper to him, doing his best to avoid arousing any suspicion if anybody was watching. "I don't understand."
"The exile," Elder Poe whispered back.
Ah. The exile that Faulkner had placed on the Serio family. Whatever else this exile entailed, it included keeping themselves out of everyone's business, which meant not assisting in this crisis. A building burned before them and they wouldn't help.
They didn't include Seti Tutt. His last name wasn't Serio, yet.
"I'm going to help," Seti said.
Elder Poe hummed to himself. "What is it that you want to do?"
"If smoke suffocation is a thing, I can filter that out," Seti said.
"You can filter air at tier one?" Shepherd Christella asked. "How do you still have mana left? First tiers shouldn't even be capable of casting spells, let alone do what you're claiming."
Seti shrugged, but he didn't reply. He turned to each person to see if they had anything to say. His father met his gaze, but otherwise said nothing and continued to focus on the armguard. Dora wasn't listening to any of it. Elder Poe nodded in such a way so that nobody around would notice, except for Seti.
That was his permission to go. Seti strutted towards the building. A new stench filled the air. It was the smell of urine, the kind of which every public bathroom had. Porta potties had been dragged over and knocked sideways, spilling some of their contents out. The heat increased, but not to the point of it being unbearable. Seti watched as people ran here and there. Finally, the building appeared within his vision's range. Smoke spewed out of a glassless window, but he saw no visible fire. Someone ran with a bucket of water, careful not to spill the contents.
He followed them until they stopped. The water from the bucket lumped into a single ball and floated out. It hovered through the air. Abigail appeared. She stretched out her hand and the water ball enveloped around her wrist. It took form and lengthened out like a long sword attached to the skin. There wasn't a single ripple or a drop of water wasted. She pointed the solid hydro-blade at the building and it launched forward, leaving behind a bangle of water around her wrist. Mist sprayed in his face. The water missile returned to re-attach itself, recoiling her arm when it did so. It had slightly less volume. Abigail repeated the process. She fired, over and over until the water ran out.
She panted and wiped the sweat from her brow. The water bucket carrier had run off to refill somewhere.
"Two more potties here!" Someone shouted.
Abigail hunched and rested her hands on her knees. She looked off to the distance when she finally noticed Seti.
"What are you doing here?" Abigail asked.
"I can filter smoke out to make the air breathable," Seti said. "Can we use that somehow?"
"Nice!" She stood up straight and breathed a sigh of relief. "I can douse us in water to fight against the heat—it should last just long enough to get us to the water room. Are you positive you can filter out the smoke? That's a lot of smoke."
The two looked at each other. She was likely debating whether she should put her faith in a tier one adept. But at the same time, he exceeded her expectations at every moment thus far. Seti knew what she wanted to do and decided to give her a push. Just as he was about to amplify her trust, she answered.
"Okay, follow me." Abigail led him away. A porta potty was knocked down just as they walked by. A fresh stench filled the air. Seti began to filter the air around his face, so he wouldn't have to deal with the foul smell. Even after he had done that, a slight odor remained. They continued until they came across Tumgar and several of his guild members, who were kneeling down and had their hands overlapping one another. They had used that same posture when they were controlling the earth elementals during the exam.
"I don't understand," Tumgar was saying. "How are you losing contact?"
One of the geomancers shook his head. "I don't know. It's the same thing that happened when that Seti kid messed one of them up."
Tumgar saw Abigail and Seti approach. The guild master filled them in.
"We're rescuing those that we can with our elementals, but they're randomly losing contact. We can't keep sending them in if they're constantly breaking."
"Why not just make more?" Seti asked.
"It takes an hour to make one," Tumgar replied. "Time isn't a resource we have. People will die of suffocation by then."
An hour to make one elemental? That put some perspective on Shanna. She could make a titan-class geo-hand in a matter of moments, and that alone was larger than these standard-class ones.
Abigail filled Tumgar in regarding Seti's desire to help. Filtering the smoke would allow people to walk into the building and help rescue people trapped within. When Abigail and Tumgar discussed which route to take, Seti set his thoughts on the earth elemental problem. If they were crumbling at random moments it was likely they lost contact with the ground. His Air Step was one way to do that, but was there another?
"Libby could be in on it," Seti said suddenly.
"In on what?" Abigail asked.
"Our current working theory is that Ivan set the building on fire. Libby could be using her geo-float spell to disable the elementals."
Tumgar scowled. "By the lightless! Why would they do that? Are they that upset?"
It was understandable to a degree. Seti felt the judging method was unfair, and this was only his first attempt at the exam. But colluding to harm all these people? That was plain psychotic.
Tumgar and Abigail had come to an agreement on an action plan. Tumgar gave orders to his guild members to have them round off to the other side and use their geomancies to create additional exits for the people stuck within. The Guild Master was loud and equally direct. He proclaimed he would assist in opening some ceilings to exhaust some of the smoke, then he would meet Abigail and Seti near their exit. By then, Abigail and Seti should have found the main water room.
"I can take care of the fire in one fell swoop once we get the water," Abigail said confidently.
Tumgar and his guild members took off. Abigail and Seti ran in the other direction. Shepherd Christella joined them while fumbling her armguard into place.
"I can't be much help here—my specialty is creating polearm-styled weapons on demand!" Christella said loudly over the noise. "My armguard is rebooting with new configs. I'm going to a higher altitude to call for backup!"
"Got it! Tumgar and I have a plan for the water room," Abigail said. "We'll do what we can!"
Shepherd Christella tapped Seti's shoulder to get his attention. "Good luck!" She ran out of view.
Abigail led Seti towards a fallen porta potty. She began to flick her fingers around, which made all the liquid from the stall clump together and rise off the ground.
"Whoa—gross!" Seti jumped back involuntarily. "What are you going to do with...that!?"
"Like I said before, I'll have to soak us to fend off the heat." Abigail moved her hands around and the ball of liquid split into two smaller spheres. While Seti couldn't see what color it was, it wasn't exactly hard to guess. "We'll dash into the water room and from there I can take care of the rest."
"How about we just wait for that water bucket person to come back, yeah?"
She looked as if she wanted to slap him. "This is a crisis and that's what you're concerned with?"
That was probably her best attempt to make Seti feel shame. He absolutely did not feel any shame.
The urine ball floated before her. Seti had never seen such a frightening thing in his life. He was willing to do many things to save people, but this one might have tipped the scale. Being soaked in pee was not his idea of heroic.
"There has got to be another way," Seti said.
"We're wasting time here!" Abigail said as she readied her unspeakably evil ball of urine. "This is the only way to fight off the heat until we get to the water room."
Then, like a glorious voice that came to redeem them, a man spoke. "No, there is another way."
The Prestige Prefect walked up to them. His hands were in his pockets and his eyes lazily scanned the area. He was nonchalant.
"What do you mean?" Abigail asked.
"The fire on the south path has started again," he said. "This is a Fire Web spell. Everything you've done until now has been futile. The web needs to be cut off from the center. As a pyromancer, I can do that. I'll go in with Seti. Alone."
The urine ball dropped slightly. "Prefect? You would go? But didn't you say…?"
He held up his hand. "I'll go with him, alone. Seti—walk with me."
Abigail watched them walk off. The Prefect had a long stride. Seti matched the man's pace.
"I feel like I should thank you, Prefect," Seti said. They stopped before an open doorway. Smoke spilled out from the ceiling.
"You can call me Toby. These flames were created by a mancer," Toby said. "To stop this from getting worse, all we would need to do is cut the core. Are you ready?"
Seti nodded. The Prefect walked into the building and he followed behind. His air began to work through the smoke immediately. Most of it was slowly accumulating near the floor and rising towards the ceiling. His omniview was distorted and patchy given the fewer number of air particles in the room.
Toby held out a hand, doing his part by keeping the heat in check. Surprisingly, it was cooler in the building with the Prefect than it had been outside. The air filtering had also helped, allowing them both to breathe without coughing. However, the smell of smoke wasn't fully removed. The shouts outside faded, reminding Seti of when he had entered the maze.
The smoke began to thicken, making it harder for Seti to filter it. They slowed their pace for him to work. Their shoes made noises on the sticky ground. Other than the smoke, no evidence of fire entered the omniview. A pile of rocks littered the hallway. It was an earth elemental that had broken apart. Next to it was a chunk of dirt that had been removed from the ground. That was the proof Seti needed to confirm Libby's involvement. She had used her geo-floating skill to disconnect the elemental, but was she really that upset to cause all this? The Prefect stepped over it without hesitation. Seti wondered for a moment how the Prefect could see, considering all of the smoke.
Just before the hallway opened to a room, Seti saw someone lying on the ground. It was an elderly lady...the same one that gave him a cup of water before the exam. He knelt next to her and checked if she was still breathing.
"She's still alive," Seti said. "Must have crawled here. We can carry her out."
"Leave her." Toby walked past him, towards the room.
Seti tensed up for a bit. "She's still alive."
"Others are alive as well. She's old and will likely die, regardless of any assistance we offer. We have the chance to help those who need it now." The Prefect motioned to the room before them. He wanted them to enter.
Seti wouldn't have it. "Sorry, but she gave me water." He placed his hands under her legs and shoulders to lift her from the ground. The elderly lady was light, but carrying her was cumbersome, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't help but carry her in an awkward fashion. He walked back to the entrance with her in tow. The Prefect stayed where he was. That man would soon have trouble breathing if he didn't follow.
At the entrance, Tumgar saw Seti with the old lady and rushed over. When the wind adept was freed from the burden, he turned to return into the building when Toby stepped out. In his hand was a water container, which he tossed to the ground. It bounced a few times before it stopped in midair, and then floated higher. The water began to shape eerily. The container bent as the water struck out several times until finally cracking. The water poured out and rushed out of Seti's omniview.
"Tumgar, send your elementals in after us," Toby said as he coughed into his sleeve. "We cannot keep coming out here with each find."
Tumgar nodded and beckoned to someone. The Prefect started for the building. Seti turned to do the same when Tumgar called out.
"Help put an end this and I'll change my vote," Tumgar said.
"I don't need your bribe to help people," Seti said coldly.
To Seti, he was not acting any differently now than he was during the exam. Yet, Tumgar was singing a different tune. But worse than all of that, Seti still hoped Tumgar would change his vote and that the failed exam would be forgotten. The idle thought turned his stomach.
Toby and Seti entered the building again. Neither of them said anything until they reached the area where they found the old lady. The room beyond had been the location of the water container that the Prefect found.
In the middle of the room was a body.
Seti approached it. Male, maybe in his forties? The texture of his arms and part of his neck was rigid and rather bumpy. He wore no shirt.
"As a pyromancer, I've seen my share of burned bodies, but you don't seem disturbed," Toby said.
Ah, so the rigid texture was burnt skin. Seeing this with his omniview might have removed some of the horrors that the eyes should have witnessed. One of the short and stubby earth elementals lugged its feet into the room. Trusting the elemental would take care of the body, the two of them left.
One path had been cut off by a collapsed ceiling. They took another route when Seti lost visibility of the ground. It was like a hole had opened up and took the hallway, replaced by beads that threw up smoke. The Prefect held out his hand and the flames that adorned the area vanished, allowing Seti's omniview to see the ground again. They approached the other side of the collapsed ceiling.
Three were flat on the ground, a fourth was partly under the rubble, and the fifth sat up against the wall. None of them had the burnt texture on their skin, but the area was full of smoke. The fifth one wore a Prestige uniform. She was the technician that Seti remembered seeing. It wasn't long ago when she had been doing her electromancy stuff. Now, she wasn't doing anything.
The Prefect walked up to her. She looked as if she was only sleeping, but she had no breath. Toby knelt down and placed his hand on her head.
"She was a dutiful person," Toby said. "Treated everyone equally, and was kind when she did speak up."
Seti couldn't see the sown name on her uniform and didn't want to split his focus to look while he was filtering the smoke. Toby stood and walked away from her. Seti followed him once again. Apologizing didn't seem to cut it, but not saying anything also seemed wrong. This wasn't an accidental death, or death by old age... It was murder. How could someone console another over that?
"You knew her?" Seti asked.
Seti once knew someone named Kimberly, back when he was younger. She had been kind as well, and good with technology. A small thought wondered if they were the same person.
"Her death was recent," Toby said, interrupting his thoughts.
Well, yeah, anyone who died in the building would have been recent. Unless he meant…
"You think she was alive when we helped the old lady?" Seti asked.
"I don't know."
Seti wasn't sure what to think about that. Neither of them knew if Kimberly had been alive during the old lady's rescue. They would only be placing undue guilt on themselves if they assumed otherwise. Maybe if his perception was large enough to see the entire building at once, then he could make decisions on who to save and who to let die. That was a depressing thought.
"You think I was wrong for saving that old lady," Seti said. It wasn't a question.
"Do you think you're wrong?"
"No. We're supposed to save those before us, aren't we?"
"It's unlawful to ignore her, I agree. But do the laws apply to us here?" The Prefect diminished another path of fire that had blocked their way.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Seti asked.
Toby stopped to properly face him. "We could do whatever we please in here, and no one could prove otherwise. Our word versus speculation. I do not think a man's character is truly known until moments like this. If someone believes those of old age shouldn't have priority over the younger, or that they're a burden to our society, then that old lady was dead the moment they walked by. Who could say any different?" He paused, and then leaned closer to Seti. "Many people hate the families. Villainize them. I wouldn't trust everyone so easily, especially in an environment like this."
Seti's eyes widened. Toby knew he was with the family. But how? Had he recognized Elder Poe?
"I speak hypothetically, of course." The Prefect turned to walk down the hallway. "Teaming up with someone and trusting them to have your back when you're considered an enemy to most...is a peculiar situation. Come, the room ahead will let me access much of the building's flames."
Seti stood in place for a moment longer. He wasn't sure if he had just received an indirect threat or a "friendly reminder." But he was sure that he wanted to stick together with Toby. A desire increased from within, willing him to be with another person.
Seti decided to follow. They stood before a room that had a table in the middle, which poured out smoke. It was getting so thick that he thought his air filtering wouldn't be enough. That was when the pyromancer showed off.
Toby raised a hand. A void appeared before it and shot towards the table. It hit and consumed everything. Seti felt a blast of air knock him back a step. A supernova, except without any heat. Everything in the room ceased to exist—including Seti's air. When the void vanished, he could see inside again. The table, and most of the smoke, no longer existed. Not even ashes remained.
"The heck was that?" Seti asked.
"Fireball. My version." The Prefect entered the room and looked around. His arms stretched out to the walls and held their position. His eyes closed. He had said this room would allow him to access most of the building's flames.
The Prefect had talked about people villainizing the mafia. Seti noted that he had not expressed an opinion of it himself. "What do you think about the mafia?" Seti asked.
"I have an interest in laws," he said without opening his eyes. "It fascinates me."
That wasn't an answer. Seti decided to put words into the Prefect's mouth to get a better response. "So you...distrust them because they don't follow the guild laws?"
"On the contrary, I enjoy the compromise. We come together to make up lines to govern us and assume everyone would obey. And there are so many unique ways to do it. We have the council and the families. The other major nations have a matriarch, a pharaoh, and the paladins. We put up with one another and trust the compromise."
Seti knew where Toby was going with this. "Some think the United Accords were broken."
The Prefect lowered his arms and opened his eyes. Was he already done? All of the fire in the building was gone?
"Yes, the Sun Dragon's death. Thus, a question arises: what shall happen when our laws are no longer trusted? Are we doomed to chaos? Or will we evolve? Come, I have found our enemies."
The Prefect guided the way. The smoke thinned to the point where filtering required no thought. This pyromancer was an interesting man; Seti couldn't say he disliked his train of thought.
They walked to a collapsed doorway, so Seti thought they would backtrack. The Prefect motioned to him. They crouched near the rubble and heard voices.
"Just put up more fire then, you retard." It was Libby's voice.
Seti's air worked its way through the rubble, giving him visibility of the room. His omniview had shrunk to roughly a seven-foot radius, which was enough to see most of a room if he had stood in the middle. However, from his current location, he would only see about half.
"I c-can't," Ivan said. "My mana is almost empty."
Ivan paced back and forth, breathing heavily. He was biting his thumbnail. Libby rocked on her chair, her hands relaxing on the back of her head. A rock formation stood near the edge of the omniview; it looked similar to…
Seti leaned towards Toby and whispered. "The elementals—they weren't destroyed. Libby somehow took control of one. Maybe more."
"How did all of your fire disappear anyway? Are you betraying me?" Libby asked. "Don't forget—you need me to avoid the blame."
"No!" Ivan shouted. "I d-don't know what's happening. I need to think!"
Toby tapped Seti on the shoulder. "It's time."
They both stood and backed away from the debris so the pyromancer could do his thing. With a hand gesture, a pillar of fire erupted atop the debris. Seti's air around that spot had vanished instantly, but his vision in the room remained. It was like he had two smaller omniviews at work.
"Oh, someone's here," Libby said calmly.
The omniview in the room shrank to nothing. The Prefect gestured again, causing the pillar to disappear. The rubble that had blocked their path was gone. Both of them entered the room.
"No! No!" Ivan backed against the wall.
"Seti!" A woman's voice from the corner.
Seti's omniview took to the room, revealing everything within a seven-foot radius. Three earth elementals guarded the opposite corner, where Mindy and two other people sat. Mindy held tight to a canister as if it was for dear life. Her eyes widened when she saw him. The other two hostages were two older people, a man and a woman, maybe in their fifties. They held onto Mindy. Her parents.
"Stay back!" Libby ordered. The earth elementals marched in a line to the center of the room, blocking their path.
"How curious," Toby said. "How did you commandeer these geo-elementals from the guild master?"
"Heh!" Libby stood next to Ivan. "What do I get if I told you?"
"On second thought, I'm not that interested. You broke the law. The outcome won't change."
"We'll see," Libby sneered.
"Libby. Ivan." Seti addressed them. "Why? Why did you do this?"
Ivan shivered. "It d-doesn't matter, does it? W-we're going to j-jail, right?"
"Executed, more like," said Mindy's father.
Libby started to laugh hysterically. One of the earth elementals punched the ground to puncture it. Seti pushed the calm emotion on her and the laughter quickly stopped. Her eyes were still wide with madness.
"Libby, dispel the elementals," Seti tried.
His omniview picked up cracks appearing on the ground behind him. It slowly raised from the ground. Libby waved with her hand once and the chunk of ground flew forward. Mindy shouted from her corner, but that was unnecessary. Seti dodged the projectile without looking at it, letting it collide on the opposite wall. The earth elementals took a step forward.
"They cannot be reasoned with." The Prefect walked forward. "Champion, watch and judge."
The Prefect had already proved he was a capable pyromancer. Now they would see how he dealt with elementals… Wait—what did he say? Champion?
"Screw all of you," Libby said. "I'm the only one that can judge me!"
Toby ignored her. He raised both of his hands and made something amazing happen. The temperature of the room dropped significantly. Three pillars of fire appeared in front of each elemental. The flames shaped and took form. They gained arms. A head. A blaze of flames came from their eyes and ears. Legs did not appear; instead, it was a singularly embodied fire, like a genie's lower half. It floated midair and was a foot taller than Seti.
Three fire elementals stood against the three earth elementals.
The last set of events made Seti reconsider Toby's identity. It just didn't make sense. Who was this mysterious pyromancer? Not only did the man knew about the champions, but… his name…his name was Toby. Toby… Toby? Seti felt like slapping himself on the forehead. Prefect wasn't the man's real title—it was only his Prestige one! On a national scale, perhaps even a global one, Toby was known as something else. He was the one that set the secret board game, causing a select few to scramble in response to his request for champions.
Tobias Vescio. The younger brother of the Sun Dragon. He was the Noblesse. King of the mafia. The boss of bosses. The war between the families and the Shepherds had not started because he simply did not yet give the order.
"You can't use elementals—it's illegal!" Ivan said as he back further into the wall, if that was possible.
"This is fun," Libby said. "We should introduce—"
"Silence," Tobias cut her off.
The earth elementals raised their fists in unison to inflict the first blow. Each fire elemental caught it as if their flaming hands were solid, then used their free hands to grip the opponents' heads. A rupture of flame showered down upon the earth elementals' bodies. They struggled to break free, but couldn't. They melted in place by the sheer power of the inferno. The room was still cold, despite the heat they all should have felt.
When the battle, if it could called that, had concluded, all that remained of the earth elementals was a lump of molten rock. The fire elementals floated in midair at the center of the room, unmoving.
Libby wildly waved her arms. She ripped a chunk of ground out with her geomancy and lunged it at the fire elemental. It hit and bounced back, falling to the ground. The elemental floated forward, gripped both of her hands, and threw her down to pin her to the ground.
She struggled at first, but then smiled. "Buy me dinner first."
It did not burn her. The second elemental floated toward Ivan, who whimpered in his corner. It took hold without burning him.
Tobias reached out to the third elemental and let his hand pass through the body. "What should we do? Would we be wrong to execute them, as that gentleman suggested? What merit would there be in letting them live? They've taken the life of my classmate, and no explanation would undo that."
"You're right, it wouldn't undo it," Seti agreed. "But when the law is broken, sometimes a hammer is the wrong tool. Delicate situations need a delicate response. We need to know why this happened to prevent future incidents, otherwise, we'll just be the oppressors, Noblesse."
A faint smile appeared and quickly vanished on Tobias' face. "Oppression and then revolution." He nodded. "Well spoken. I would be interested in seeing how things play out this year."
Mindy and her parents stood and walked towards the room entrance. They circled Mindy and hugged her tightly. The mother and daughter started crying and the father's shoulders shook softly, like he was laughing silently. Seti tried to imagine his parents acting with physical affection, but just couldn't make his father do such a thing, even in his imagination. It just seemed completely impossible and detached from reality.
When Mindy broke free, she opened her canister and weaved out water. It wrapped around her hand, and she touched Seti's brow.
"You're dirty." Mindy went for his cheeks next. It was wet, but no water residue remained after she finished. "You know what? I think I'm okay with being a teacher."
Tobias waited patiently. When Mindy was satisfied, Seti walked to the two captured mancers.
"Let's hear it," Seti said. "Why did you do this?"
Libby looked around the room and wiggled under the fire elemental. She looked for the opportunity to attack, but she would not be granted one. Seti pushed more calm on her, which seemed to help as she relaxed her muscles.
"Yeah, okay, I'll tell you. You'll enjoy this."
And so Libby told them her story and her plans. She explained how her niche worked, how she stole the elementals, and why going to jail wouldn't matter to her. When she finished, she laughed hysterically.
Tobias turned to Seti, asking the question he had asked before, this time silently. The Noblesse wanted to know if Seti would change his answer about letting Libby live. Seti wouldn't say it aloud, but in some way, he understood Libby, even if her actions were abhorrent. He wondered what that meant for the future.
The building had changed drastically when they navigated through. The ceiling was opened in several places, letting a breeze swoop in. The walls were dripping with water, and the floor was soaked. Tumgar and Abigail had succeeded in doing their part.
Everyone came out of the building, one at a time. Mindy and her parents were in front. Ivan wobbled after each step, his eyes downcast and empty. Libby didn't need anyone to force her forward, as she happily skipped and jumped ahead. Tobias and Seti were last.
He heard a gasp from a group of people before he saw them. There was no more shouting or orders being given. The reigning chaos had passed. A line of corpses lie covered in a blanket. People crowded around them. Some cried, while others stared off in space. Abigail sat next to one of the victims and held its hand. With his omniview under the blanket, he could see it belonged to Kimberly.
Next to one of the corpses was someone in a Shepherd outfit. Well, not exactly. The outfit had small differences to the real thing. This one had a shorter collar and different designs. If Seti had to guess, it would be the Lamb's outfit. The woman who wore it had her hair in a ponytail and… Cassie?
Cassie Carter, former student at Lambsgard University, and the one who used a geas on Seti, was wearing the Lamb's outfit. She had originally been expelled to start the process to join the Shepherds, which also landed her admission as a student to Prestige. She sat next to the deceased elderly lady—the same one from earlier that Seti had saved. Cassie looked up as they passed. She had recognized him. She only parted her mouth a little, but otherwise, she didn't make any commotion to indicate that they knew each other.
They stopped walking when two Shepherds stood before them.
Cyrus and Christella.
He had last seen Shepherd Cyrus at the Maybell Mall. Seti had expected to see Cyrus sometime today, as Faulkner promised him they could do the geas scan procedure on him.
Tobias brought Libby forward, while Ivan followed automatically. The Noblesse explained who was responsible and what they saw within, with no mention of Libby's plans. The conversation was brief as Shepherd Christella rubbed her hands together to create phasm cuffs. She slapped them on the two adepts and hauled them away. Cassie the Lamb approached Mindy and her parents to take them elsewhere, leaving Tobias and Shepherd Cyrus to whisper to one another. The cameraman of the exam came into view, recording everything. He approached Seti.
"What an amazing display of bravery. Do you think people would see you as exceptional after today's events?"
Seti glowered. "Why should I care what others think? Get lost."
The cameraman persisted. "Please, just one quote! Were you aware that you teamed up with a member of the families? Tell me about overcoming that fear for the sake of the masses!"
The dissonance of his attitude compared to the atmosphere put Seti off. To add insult to injury, the man portrayed the families in a negative light. All for a story.
Seti would give him a story.
"My master is to thank for that," Seti baited.
"And who is your master?"
Abigail caught the end of that question. She tilted her head in confusion. Shepherd Cyrus frowned, which contrasted Tobias' smile. The cameraman focused on the first tiered wind adept, unaware of the reaction he would receive.
"I am Seti Serio, disciple of the Wind Dragon. The world's unequivocal strongest tier one mancer."