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Chapter 12 – A Champion's Cause

History tended to be embellished in a way to invoke awe. Nobody wanted to dig up information and then present it to little acclaim. So when talks of the Second Age ending with the divines waging war, it was told as if every person felt the world shake.

This was not the case.

The majority lived their lives normally during that period. They weren't directly affected by the war, despite the constant news coverage on the matter. They worked, they ate, they went to the park, and they enjoyed themselves in many other ways. And yet, a renewed anxiety arrived the moment new reports came in. It was then when they felt involved.

The same was true for the events surrounding the mafian Dragons or the Shepherd's Octets. People drank in the information, waiting for the next big news.

The scene at the plateau had quieted down in the aftermath of the crisis. Some were in a stupor, unable to come to terms with the events that had transpired. A crisis was something that always happened to someone else, never them. Despite primal sieges, which were viewed more like a natural disaster, many only knew peace. Those that were not kept moving and helped with the cleanup.

The cameraman went silent. Abigail, who was still with the line of bodies, looked as if she was just slapped. Tobias and Shepherd Cyrus gave Seti their full attention. Some of the crowd heard, but the information didn't quite sink in for all of them yet. It was the ripple that had disturbed the calm waters; the warning of a coming storm.

Shepherd Cyrus approached Seti. He created his phasm barrier around his arm and grabbed the camera. With his powerful hands, he crushed it.

"Hey! What are you doing?" The cameraman shouted. He examined the destroyed tool. "That's expensive!"

"Leave us," Shepherd Cyrus said. The cameraman whined a bit until the Shepherd promised him reimbursement. "Seti, please come to the cave with us."

Abigail stood from her spot before they could leave. "I'm coming, too."

"Stay," Cyrus ordered.

"I'm coming," she defied.

"This is official Shepherd business, and partially the reason why I'm in the area."

"You knew the Wind Dragon had a disciple? And said nothing?"

"The Serio boss himself said otherwise. Speaking out in the open is unwise. Abigail, stay here to—"

"Kim is dead." Abigail's voice was hollow. She took a step into the Shepherd's personal space. She had to look up at the taller man. "I'm coming."

Even Seti would have a hard time rebuffing her. Cyrus pulled her to the side, where they whispered fervently.

Seizing this opportunity, Tobias made his way to Seti to exchange words.

"Will you attend the summit tonight?" Tobias asked.

Seti wasn't even aware it was an option for him to attend. Tobias was referring to the meeting of the bosses that Faulkner had mentioned. Faulkner intended to announce Seti's discipleship there, but that would no longer be a surprise to Tobias.

"Probably not," Seti said. If Faulkner had wanted him there, he likely would have said something earlier.

"A shame. A decision will be made tonight that may affect you, but it's hard to know for certain," Tobias said. "Let's speak again in the near future."

Tobias left when Cyrus and Abigail returned. It turned out that Cyrus had relented to her and decided to bring her along. The Shepherd had the two of them follow him.

Cyrus pulled up the sleeve of his tailcoat to reveal his electronic armguard. He spoke to it. "Chris, meet me in the cave."

Near the cave entrance was Cassie, who was examining Mindy and her parents. Others lined up against the wall—some were wrapped in bandages, while others just rested. It felt cooler here, like the sun's heat had been blocked. Cassie looked at the Shepherd inquisitively, but Cyrus only shook his head. She remained with the patients.

The three entered the cave and made their way to the exam's starting room. It was empty of anything, except for the four torches on the wall. A moment later, Shepherd Christella came in, followed by three others—Elder Poe, Dora, and Seti's father.

"Mr. Tutt," Cyrus said.

His father only nodded in acknowledgement.

"There's talk above," Shepherd Christella said. "The Serio family is here? Someone mentioned that the Wind Dragon has a disciple."

"That's what I want to confirm. Faulkner told me he has no disciple," Cyrus said.

Seti raised a finger. "Technically, it was Shanna that said that. Faulkner didn't confirm nor deny anything."

"Oh, divines," Abigail whispered. "You really do know them, don't you?"

"Why is that so amazing?" Seti asked. "Tobias Vescio attends Prestige, and he's the king of the families."

"But Tobias isn't a Dragon!" Abigail replied in an animated stir.

Cyrus, for whatever reason, wasn't so easily convinced of Seti's status. "Faulkner went on record stating he would not accept just anyone as his disciple. The person he picks would have to be an exceptional mancer."

Seti shrugged. "I'm here at the Exceptions exam, aren't I?"

"Wait—you?" Christella's face twisted to utter disbelief.

"Poe, can you confirm that he is, in fact, Faulkner's disciple?" Cyrus asked.

"No need. Seti, show him the coin," Elder Poe said.

Oh right, the coin. Faulkner had given him a coin before he left the Blue Castle. It was proof that he was acknowledged as his disciple. Maybe it would be better to think of the coin as a small medallion of sorts? Seti took out his wallet and revealed the coin he stuffed within. Shepherd Christella took it and examined the engravings on it. There was a serpent in the shape of a S on one side, and a chair on the other.

"We need a geomancer to confirm," Christella said. She turned to leave when Seti called out.

"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," Seti said. "Faulkner told me that if someone tried to take that coin, I should kill them."

The temperature of the room dropped further. Seti had meant that in a joking way, but the pitch in his voice didn't change the way he wanted it to. Maybe it was the result of the smoke that he breathed in earlier. An awkward pause. Then, Shepherd Christella firmly pressed the coin back into his hand.

"You think your Aerial Slash would work on me?" She narrowed her eyes.

"I only used one finger that last time," Seti said with a shrug.

Cyrus took the coin from Seti and examined it himself. He returned it after a brief moment. Seti wondered if his father or Abigail wanted to take a look, but neither seemed inclined to step forward. Dora started to hop and tried to touch the ceiling. As everybody's interest in his coin dwindled, he put it away.

"Today's report is going to be painfully long," Christella groaned as she pinched the bridge of her nose.

"So you've confirmed who I am…what now?" Seti asked.

"I would like to know why Faulkner picked you, a tier one," Cyrus said. "And how you can do what you can."

"Not happening," Seti said immediately. "I asked you myself if you could get an aeromancer to teach me, but I'm pretty sure your words were, and I quote... 'they wouldn't even do it as a favor to me.' The only thing you were interested in at the time was that whole geas business."

Christella replied for Cyrus. "Aren't you being a bit unreasonable? No one in their right mind would train someone who shouldn't even be capable of casting spells."

The audacity of what she just said. The words flowed from Seti's mouth without a filter. "You have no right to tell me I'm unreasonable. Your judging system is nonsensical. You never intended to pass me in the first place. What a world to live in, where the Wind Dragon approves of someone, but a Shepherd is so short sighted they can't see past their own nose. You may want a viva to check that out."

"There's more to the exam than our judging," Christella rebuked. "We interview the contestants and send out their profile to our contributors to have a say. People rarely pass the initial judging."

It was only then Seti remembered he could calm himself with his niche. Unfortunately, when he felt like lashing out, he had no desire to even attempt calming down. A shame swept over him, and it extended further when he saw his father step forward.

"Everyone here has verified my son's status, have they not?" His father asked. "Then your business here has been concluded. Please leave. I would have a word with him. In private."

It was eerie to see everyone obey his father without complaint. Abigail was the first to leave. Everyone but Shepherd Christella followed suit. When they were out of earshot, she spoke.

"Tumgar apparently said if you played a major role in resolving the crisis and that he would change his vote. Congratulations, I suppose."

After she said that, she left the father and son alone in the room. The last time Seti spoke to his father was before the exam, and his last words were in regards to what would happen should he fail. Thanks to what Christella had just said, they now knew that he indeed would attend Prestige. He didn't feel like jumping for joy or anything, however, as he had exhausted most of his emotional outlets.

"So, this is your career choice?" His father asked.

"Career isn't the word I'd use," Seti said. "I would think it's more of a lifestyle. You know, with my last name changing to Serio and all."

"You'll always be a Tutt. What future goals do you have? What is it you want to do? Will you be able to support a family?"

Seti had to steel himself with the barrage of questions. His goals were simple at this stage—he wanted to participate in the champion business at Prestige, and he wanted to see what information the academy had on necromancy.

"You know, I've always wanted to be an aeromancer," Seti said.

"Wind mage," his father corrected. "You've always wanted to be a wind mage, but that's not a real thing. And to be an aeromancer requires the fifth tier, which is something you're simply not capable of."

"I'm not capable of many things, Dad, but I'll become an Aeromancer."

The demeanor his father held had shifted slightly. It was so subtle that Seti thought he may have imagined it. It looked like his muscles may have relaxed a tiny bit.

Seti had a strange feeling. For once, he felt like he was speaking to his father as an equal. He didn't use his niche, did he? No, Seti was speaking from his heart and his resolve was stronger than ever.

His father replied. "As your father, I don't like it. As a businessman that had invested in you, I despise it even more so. But...as a man?" He paused and took a step forward. Seti, unsure what his father was about to do, had to resist the urge to retreat back. His father raised a hand, but slowly dropped it at his side and stepped back once more. "Nobody believed I could take my company off the ground when I was your age. It takes conviction." Another pause. "Tell Sydria she needs to visit."

After his father said that, he left the maze, leaving Seti to stand alone in his thoughts.

**Break**

An electromancer arrived on site. She was from Blossom, another freelance guild in the area. Her job was to restore all communication devices to working order. She walked around with her long scarf nearly touching the ground, despite having it wrapped around both of her arms and around her neck several times. Her eyelashes were ridiculously long as well. A remark or two freely left her tongue about how thoughtless the last technician was to do a hard and broad disable. Abigail wouldn't have any of it, as she told the electromancer to work for her pay without comment. After some static flowed between the electromancer's hands to and fro, she declared everything fixed.

A connection to the outside world was finally restored. People began calling out with their phones. Some cried. Others were emotionally detached. It was easy to tell who was directly affected by the crisis. The two Shepherds started to dismiss people after briefly interviewing them and quickly jotting a few notes down.

Seti sat alone along the cliffside. He was glad that Elder Poe and Dora were off somewhere else, so he could comb through his thoughts. It might have been immature of him to think so, but he figured some people might approach him to call him a hero or something. No one did. He didn't know if that was because they knew he was the Wind Dragon's disciple, or because no one was in the mood for it.

He coughed. Even after filtering out most of the smoke, he still felt a bit nauseated. Water might help with the affliction, but there likely wasn't enough to go around. Abigail might offer him a great big ol' ball of urine from a porta potty and tell him to just deal with it. The very thought made him shiver. Seti weaved the air around him to breathe in easier, helping lessen his scratchy throat.

Someone finally did approach him. Her braided twin tails looped around and were clipped just above the ear. It was so distinctively unique that Seti recognized her for it.

"Hi!" She beamed. "Vivian. Private journalist. Favor-for-favor?"

"You have too much energy," Seti said, feeling drained just talking to her.

Vivian smiled. "You did us a favor by helping everyone, now let me do you one. Do you want anything? Back massage? A drink? Foot rub? Exclusive interview?"

Seti laughed. "Water, please."

She nodded and turned to leave, but stopped. "I would like to learn more about you one day. I'd be curious to see where you fit in. I'll send for someone with water—someone you'll appreciate!"

Vivian left and a moment later someone else approached him, holding a canister of water. Mindy.

"Heya." She knelt on the ground before him and offered him the canister with a smile. "Cool-hair lady told me to get you water. We'll be leaving pretty soon. How you doing?"

He gulped a few drags of water, soothing the discomfort. He then wondered how clean the water was. Wasn't this the same canister she used to clean his face? "I should be asking you that. How're you? Got a long drive ahead?"

Mindy shrugged. "Few hours. I live in Westhaven."

"Lambsgard here."

"That's funny," she said. "A mafioso living in place called Lambsgard."

It was Seti's turn to shrug. "You don't care that I'm with the mafia?"

"A silly question—you helped me a lot today. Anyway!" She pulled out her phone. "Let's keep in touch?"

They exchanged numbers. She commented on his phone verbalizing the letters back to him, to which he replied by saying that his screen sometimes stopped working. The lie came out fluently enough that she didn't question it. When she heard him put her first name in, she suggested that he change it to an alias to prevent enemies of the mafia from coming after her. She was joking, of course, but Seti nodded and said he would add her as Hole Girl. From his point-of-view, that name referred to when she tripped on the hole right before the exam. But to her, knowing it could be taken in an entirely perverted way, she play-struggled to get the phone from his hands. They ultimately settled to have it simply say Mindy.

She hugged him and left. He knew she was attracted to him in some way and wondered which part appealed to her. It definitely wasn't the power aspect. Seti suspected it was a result of the suspense or thrill she felt today. Thrill may be a poor word choice. The concept was similar to bringing a date to a haunted house or a theme park; the date would feel good during the event and confuse the cause, resulting in romantic feelings. And twice now he appeared to her during comparable events—once in the maze when she was alone, and once again in the burning building.

It ultimately didn't matter, as she lived hours away and wouldn't attend Prestige. Their only communication would be through the phone, and he wasn't the type of person to do long distance relationships. So, she would just be a friend.

A group of people arrived at Blue Castle once the crowd thinned out. The detective team. A detective can get a reading on the traces left by mancers after a conflict, and could somehow connect it back to a specific person. It was like hunting for DNA, but with mana. Seti wondered if he could do something like that one day, with his own ability to sense mana.

Four people entered his seven-foot omniview at the same time. It was Elder Poe, Dora, Cyrus, and Cassie. Seti stood to greet them.

"Hello, Seti!" Cassie said. "I see you've acquired quite the identity since I last saw you."

Seti looked her up and down. "You're one to talk. You're already a Lamb?"

She twirled in place, as if she was wearing a dress. The tail end of her tailcoat was shorter than the Shepherd's version. "Isn't it great? People treat me like a hero, asking me how many primals I've fought. I tell them a dozen."

"As much as I would love for both of you to catch up, we must talk about the geas business," Shepherd Cyrus said. "Natalie of Benediction and Cassie are the ones who will perform the test. If there is a concern with Cassie participating, as she's the original culprit, know that she'll only be shadowing Natalie and not actually partaking in the—"

"Meh, it's just Cassie." Seti interrupted. Cassie raised her brow. "Besides, if she does anything too crazy, we have Dora here."

"Both Dora and I will represent the Serio family," Elder Poe said.

Cassie stretched out her hand to Dora, who eagerly took and shook it. They both nodded with serious expressions.

"Unfortunately, we won't be able to do it today," Cyrus said.

"Huh? Why not?" Seti asked.

"The plan was to meet with Natalie when she arrived in town, but with recent events…" Cyrus trailed off.

"My aeronite, he means," Cassie said. "I'm only a tier three, and this whole fiasco, while fun, took a good chunk of my mana. I also used some yesterday and it didn't fully charge this morning, so here we are. Can't have me shadow if I don't got the goods for it."

Her mana not charging after a night's sleep was similar to Seti's mana marbles in that it only gave him one recharge per day. It was going to suck to play catch up on a daily basis.

As they were not able to perform the test that day, they discussed the next best course of action. Staying in the Blue Castle area was one option, and Cyrus said that the Shepherds would cover all the fees that came with it. Elder Poe suggested they go to New Vox. With Seti's approval to attend Prestige, he would need to set up his residency anyways, especially with the academy starting in a little over a week.

Seti and Cassie stood off to the side, watching Elder Poe and Cyrus discuss the plan. Dora was using her finger to draw on the ground.

"I take it you're still blind as a bat?" Cassie asked.

He wondered how he should respond. Cassie was one of the few people who knew about his ailment, and rarer still, the knowledge of Dream Eater.

The awkward pause continued. She must have read his hesitation. "You're still thinking about what to say? It must mean you are."

"What about you, my dear little Lamb?" Seti asked to change the subject. "Last time I saw Cyrus, he was with another Lamb. Did you replace her? What's her name, again? I think it started with an R."

Cassie made gagging noises. "Let's not talk about her."

For whatever reason, Seti liked this other Lamb more.

Cassie described the Lamb-Shepherd relationship. Shepherds were allowed pupils, who were known as Lambs. Sometimes the Shepherd selected them personally, while other times, the Lamb would be assigned to a pre-established team. The idea was to prepare the Lamb to become a future Shepherd.

"But that's boring stuff. Let's talk about you! I still can't believe you passed," Cassie said.

"I don't suck that bad," Seti said.

"That's not what I meant. Aiden said everyone usually fails because they're actually looking for a special combo, like a mancer who could do something so awesome that they want to snatch them up before anyone else can."

"I see. And a tier one who can cast spells, while impressive, doesn't give them something they can't get anywhere else," Seti finished.

"Yeah," she said. "Aiden's pretty pissed, knowing he only got in because of me. But a win's a win. He shouldn't complain. Maybe you got in because you're a Dragonspawn."

"Nah, my discipleship wasn't the reason," Seti said. "Tumgar, one of the judges, changed his vote before people here knew who I was. Even if he didn't, it would be poor taste to not pass me after everything I did. Bad publicity."

"They'll have bad publicity now, anyways. Two contestants attacking and killing people? I can appreciate the craziness."

"Ah, actually, it was just one," Seti said. Cassie looked at him in confusion, so he continued. "Libby's 'plan', if you want to call it that, wasn't a real plan at all. She wanted to go to jail while causing as much drama as possible. Her niche was mana disruption, or mana infusion...however you want to put it. She was able to trigger Ivan's big spell without his consent, and take over the earth elementals once she got a feel for them."

Seti told her the rest of the story, as Libby had told him. Ivan's big spell, known as Fire Web, was activated and he couldn't undo it. It was like the fire was his, but had a slight variation to make it feel foreign. Libby's niche allowed her to trigger other people's spells if she knew what she was looking for. Seti pictured it like an earthquake to the victim's mana. Ivan, terrified of what his spell had done, feared the consequences. Not thinking straight, he obeyed Libby's stronger personality, hoping it would be like a light in the dark tunnel.

"And why would she do that?" Cassie asked.

Seti had thought about what Libby had said. When the fire elementals pinned her down, she had poured out her plans and her thoughts. Her only objective was a simple one: she wanted someone to appreciate and use her mancy. She didn't want the Rescue Guilds to nurture her; she wanted to fight. At the end of the day, Libby wanted her niche to be used aggressively—something she felt wouldn't happen. Attending Prestige was her last chance to show off in a supervised environment. Her dilemma was this: why have a mancy if she couldn't use it in its entirety?

"That's stupid," Cassie said after he finished. "She's a fourth tier, and she can do decent things with her goods. Geomancers have it nice, always being needed. Her life was set."

"You don't understand," Seti said.

"Wow." She raised her hands. "I can't believe you're actually defending her."

"I am not," Seti said sternly. "Understanding someone, and justifying them, are two completely different things. She was wrong, but I know where she's coming from. And you of all people should understand, too."

She pursed her lips. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Seti explained it to her. "Some people have a desire to be utilized—to be satisfied. We both know what it's like to be a 'Libby', to want our talents put to use. You with your geas. Me with…anything mancy related. Otherwise, we'd start to suffocate from the inside out."

It would spread like a cancer and affect other aspects of their life. Even food would start to taste differently. Seti understood this well, as it was his very own desire to be a mancer that was shut down in the exact the same way. Just as Cassie had said Libby had her life set, others had told Seti that he had his life set with his father's business. But that was wrong. Seti started to feel isolated, like it was the world versus him. Except he had Sydria. Did Libby have anyone at all?

As weird as it may sound, Seti considered the situation a bit like love. Marrying into a good family would make someone set for life, but if there was no love present, then it would begin to gradually ruin all the aspects of their life and consume them. In the same way, having a life that didn't match what a person had wanted to do deep down in their heart of hearts was like a marriage without love. With all of that in mind, Seti could understand Libby, even if her actions were detestable.

"But I wouldn't go off and kill people," Cassie said.

"You would forcefully place your geas on them, though," Seti replied.

Cassie didn't respond back.

Seti didn't linger on those words. "So she wanted to go out with a bang to draw as much attention as possible. Make people ask questions. To make her point."

"And what was her point?"

"That she wants to have a place in the world. For all of her."

Seti expected Cassie to ask why Libby never tried to do things normally, but she never did. It could be that she finally could relate to Libby in that field. Cassie wanted geas' to be used. That was not something people were willing to entertain anymore.

"It'll only make people distrust mancers and weird specializations even more," Cassie said.

He shrugged. "Maybe. She's confident that she won't remain in jail for long. She thinks that the Shepherds will recruit and train her for their benefit."

"That's something I can agree with, finally," Cassie said.

"You do? Why?" While Seti understood Libby's actions, he couldn't make reason of the Shepherd's releasing her. People had died today, and he couldn't see how anyone would be okay with her walking free.

"You forget one big thing." Cassie motioned to herself. "People would freak if they knew about me. Practicing geas' on myself? Using one on you and getting a slap on the wrist? Not to mention that when I healed some peeps here, I had more fun poking around in each person than I felt—what's the word? Benevolent? Yeah, that."

"I remember you being kinder back at school."

"We all fake it 'til we're in the presence of friends," Cassie said.

"Friends? Us?" Seti gave her a look.

She slapped him on the back and grinned. "Anyone that lets me use a geas on them for free is a friend of mine."

He wiggled away from her hand to avoid physical contact. Cassie laughed. Seti brought his focus back to Libby and her apparent future release.

"So, about Libby...why would the Shepherd release her after everything she's done?" Seti asked.

"You're Dragonspawn now; you should know better than anyone," she said.

In the end, it came back to Shepherds versus the Mafia. Libby's niche was unique enough to cause serious damage to those unsuspecting. If the Shepherds really wanted to hurt the mafian families, who knew what lengths they would go through? Of course, as with all niches, there had to be some restrictions to what she could and couldn't do. Seti felt it was likely she needed the victim to be in contact with her mana-infused ground, and there would be a battle of her grit versus the opponent's. Or maybe her niche was similar to his own, where the victim's desire allowed a backdoor entry through the innate defense. It was all speculation, as he hadn't fought her. Yet.

Libby's niche made Seti consider the nature of niches in general. Each person had a mancy, and each mancy had a unique niche. Usually, these traits were simple and "logical", if one used that term rather loosely. Shanna's niche was easily defined: fast shaping of geomancy. Ivan had said he could set anything on fire, regardless of material (did that extend to water?). Mindy's water could apparently be recollected once it soaked into the ground. In short, these niches were almost passive in attribute, and affected the mancy directly.

Then, there were the "illogical" niches. Seti's emotion amplifier didn't really resonate with the attributes of wind. Libby's ability to set off other people's spells was ridiculous at first glance. Why were they the way they were? Where did niches come from? How could some of the more ridiculous ones be mapped? It seemed like these unique ones used the mancy to carry its effect and not the other way around.

This made him wonder what choice Tobias Vescio would have made in the building. The Noblesse might have killed Libby then and there to save himself from a future headache. But, then again, there were other eyewitnesses in the room, like Ivan and Mindy with her parents. Would he have killed them as well? Seti was reminded that he was part of a group known as the Mafia. He honestly didn't know what they were truly capable of.

Seti and Cassie were content to stand in silence while their spokespeople did their deliberating. He never considered her a friend, per se, and they rarely talked to each other back at school, but there was some connection he felt. He sensed Cassie felt the same. It was the result of both of them getting thrown into an entirely new world they weren't familiar with. At the very least, they understood one another at that level.

The Elder and the Shepherd came to an agreement. They would meet at New Vox tomorrow and go over details of the scan then. Seti could also familiarize himself with the area and prepare for Prestige. Dora was excited about the idea of being even further away from home, so it was settled. The groups started to separate.

"Don't have any nightmares about today!" Cassie called out. "These types of things aren't that unusual. We mancers are a bit wonky in the head!"

Cassie claiming that these events were common didn't sit well with Seti.

**Break**

New Vox was a coastal city. It would be another two-hour or so drive, allowing Seti a lot of time to think.

He couldn't help but ponder on Libby and her psychotic breakdown. It wasn't just because of the failed exam, but all the events in her life up until then. She was wrong in what she did, but there might've been an opportunity to prevent it from escalating. If the world was a little bit different, it could've been Seti, and not Libby, who went on that rampage.

But it wasn't only Libby who felt unsatisfied. Ivan expressed his dislike for the system. Even Cassie, who commented on Libby's opportunities, had stated her dissatisfaction with the geas laws. Heck, Seti even remembered Aiden's words before he smashed the table back at the university. Aiden had said that he needed to find a way to make a living with his mancy. All of them, Seti included, were legitimately, and rightfully frustrated.

Seti was just fortunate enough to have Faulkner and Henry pull him out.

That was what he could be champion of, Seti thought. Henry theorized that Tobias summoned the champions to represent those in power. But Faulkner had told Seti that he didn't care what his disciple stood for. In short, this meant Seti could come up with his own cause.

And so he did. Seti would not champion the weak mancers of the world, but those who were left out through the system or laws. Another Libby didn't need to happen.

After about an hour of driving, the butler commented on the current time and provided an electronic bracelet to Elder Poe. The elder pressed a button on the side twice.

"Master Faulkner Serio," Elder Poe said to the bracelet. It beeped once.

"Elder, my good sir!" Faulkner's voice emitted from the bracelet. "I take it the exam is over? How badly did our cute disciple cry when they failed him?"

"You knew they would fail me?" Seti asked.

Henry answered. "We knew. With the limitations of your niche, and by virtue of how the system works, we never expected you to pass the initial judging. Don't worry though, we'll make arrangements so you'll attend Prestige."

"You can be mad at Henry if you want," Faulkner said. "He was the one that said some nonsense about how fighting against adversity helps build character. Or did he say reveal character? If it was me, I would've told you to brag and make as much noise as you possibly could."

Shanna spoke. "Immature."

"Wait," Seti said. "It wouldn't have mattered what I did at the exam, no matter what? All this talk about me passing was just a ploy?"

"Yes," Faulkner said.

"No," Henry countered.

"If you could've just passed me without this stupid exam, then why was I sent here? Why pretend it was important?" Seti tightly gripped his legs.

"The exams are required toFaulkner, not another wordthey are required in order to send a candidate to Prestige. Let me explain." Henry took a breath. "I didn't want you to know that the exam results are also sent to the families, who can then pass the candidate and guarantee entry into Prestige. You're a new mancer without any familiarity of the real world. The more practical experiences you have, the better off you'll be."

Seti exaggerated a long and audible sigh. They only needed him to attend the exam so they could use his application to force him through. Henry was right to assume that he wouldn't have tried nearly as hard if he knew his success was all but guaranteed.

"I understand you're frustrated," Henry said. "But this did put you in the correct mindset. The life you're used to, relying on easy escapes, such as money, have likely become a habit for you. This was necessary."

Stupid counselors.

"That's what Henry says, but I'm all about cheating. I asked Shanna to help me show you the earth elemental's weakness to give you a little edge in your exam," Faulkner said.

"How did you know about the elementals?" Seti asked. "The details of the exam are supposed to be secret, so no one would have an unfair advantage."

"Secret-shmeetic. They needed the association's approval to get them going, so naturally they had to send word through the proper channels. Doesn't take a genius to connect the dots when the say-so went out for Blue Castle."

"I wasn't aware of that," Henry said with disapproval in his voice.

"He commanded me to remain silent," Shanna said.

"Why would I tell you?" Faulkner said to Henry. "You'd ruin the fun of helping him. Speaking of fun, we're all naked in the bath, in case you're wondering."

"Not true," Shanna corrected.

Faulkner's smile was heard in his voice. "Narn over here looks madly happy that we were interrupted. You know how he hates meetings. So, my wonderfully weak disciple, how depressed were you when you failed?"

"Hate to break the news to all of you, but I passed," Seti said.

Silence.

It was one of the few moments in life Seti knew he would enjoy forever.

"Okay, you win. How?" Faulkner asked.

"Oh, you know," Seti began and shrugged. "The basic stuff. Just cry enough and smother their pity emotion with the greatest niche ever and bam! I'm now a student at Prestige."

"I was worried how much Faulkner would rub off on you," Henry said.

"You say that like I'm a bad influence."

"Truthfully, though, I did take out an earth elemental, but even that wasn't enough," Seti said. "So I challenged a holmgang against the Shepherd there. Tier six crafter."

"You did what?" Henry asked. Faulkner laughed in the background.

"Naturally, she didn't accept, so I had to take out this other guy. Everyone freaked when I almost accidentally killed him. Small details. But then a building blew up, some lass took control of several elementals, and then Tobias Vescio appeared and we teamed up to solve the problem. It might be on the news later, I think. Oh, and everyone knows I'm a disciple now, so there's that."

Another moment of silence. Seti was grinning ear-to-ear.

Faulkner then laughed again. "That's one way to debut yourself to the world. Shame that Tobias was there. I guess I lose the element of surprise at the meeting tonight. Poe, did he know about Seti ahead of time?"

Elder Poe nodded. "Yes. I believe Miss Amicone told the Noblesse about your request in Maybell. When we arrived, he recognized me instantly."

"If the Lightning Dragon hears you call her Miss Amicone, she'll zap you across the ocean and make you land on a deserted island," Faulkner said.

"I'm concerned about the events Seti seemed to gloss over. The building blew up? A holmgang? Exactly what happened at the exam?" Henry asked.

Seti gave them an overview. The maze portion of the exam was the least interesting, so he skipped most of that and mentioned his attempts to overturn the judge's decision. He briefly spoke about Tumgar changing his mind after the crisis, and spent time on Tobias' comments within the building. Then, he brought up Libby and her thoughts.

Henry whispered something to Faulkner. A weird sound came over the bracelet, which Seti figured was them covering it with their hand. The conversation on the other side lengthened. It lasted for about five minutes. A wave of exhaustion took Seti while he waited.

"I don't think you're wrong to let this Libby live," Henry said when they returned. "And despite what Faulkner wants, we should encourage your decision. What about the geas situation?"

Seti let Elder Poe answer that portion of the conversation. Dora, still sitting in the front, sat in a sleeping position. It hadn't been long since they left Blue Castle, but something about road trips made one sleepy.

They didn't have much else to say once Elder Poe disclosed the plan. Henry promised to be in contact and ended the transmission. Seti started some molding exercises to pass the time. Henry had implied that Faulkner didn't want to encourage Seti's decision—maybe to give the wind adept free reign. It aligned with what Faulkner had said originally: that he simply wanted to see what Seti can become, regardless of the champion business.

Seti relived the events of the day, thinking about how he could have said things better, what cooler actions he could have taken, and so on. He recalled how his Aerial Slash was visible outside of his omniview, and how his omniview had effectively split into two when Tobias used his flame. Maybe Seti could do something with this knowledge.

His thoughts shifted. It would be a lie if he said he didn't imagine some moments where he impressed a few people; maybe some ladies. He should keep his delusions in check, lest he enjoy it too much.

Seti knew they were in New Vox once Dora practically had her face glued to the window. She was either looking at Prestige Academy or the abyss gate. He knew what both looked like from when he still had eyesight.

Prestige was located on top of a hill that oversaw the entire city. A lot of the area's design was purely cosmetic, to emphasize its standing. The academy grounds were massive as well. It reminded Seti of a five-leaf clover, where each leaf was a section meant for a specific mancer type. In the middle was a joint building for everyone to gather. Around the academy, geomancer's had carved up the ground to make it seem like an island, only accessible through several bridges. Surrounding the chasm was a peculiar blue hue, instead of the typical darkness one would expect. Electromancy. It gave the vibe of a floating island. The blue static would sometimes rise up and appear like a forcefield around the academy. It was so compact in the chasm that if someone were to fall, they would slow and eventually stop in midair, as if catching them.

Nearly opposite to Prestige, near the edge of the city, was a tear in reality and a crack in space-time. People called these Abyss Gates, which were thought to be an entryway into the world of the primals, or so Seti liked to think. He wondered what the other "realm" looked like.

They arrived and unpacked at a hotel. The butler made the transaction to pay for the room, but didn't use the Serio name. Interesting. Dora made a comment about wanting to stay at Novea's place, but Elder Poe said they couldn't. Exile and all that. The elder asked if Seti wanted his own personal room, which he accepted immediately. He couldn't imagine trying to keep up with Dora's energy in a confined place.

The upcoming schedule was simple. Tomorrow, they would meet up with Shepherd Cyrus and Cassie. After that, they would go to Prestige. It would be a busy day, so any rest he could get would be welcome.

Seti was in bed, molding the air around the room into shapes. It was evening, according to his phone. Late enough that he didn't want to do anything, but too early to give into his exhaustion. He was watching his shapes do their thing. Some of them weren't as efficient as they were originally. Others degraded one air particle at a time. With his perception, it was no problem to fix. He wondered if other aeromancers could see small details like that. Probably not.

He couldn't wait until he could use spells without mana marbles. Henry had said he would be capable of it one day. Divine mode was a crutch for now. But…if divine mode could cast stronger spells than what Seti could do, then what would happen once his grit caught up? Would it still act as if it was several tiers higher, or lose its effect entirely?

Seti felt a feeling of amazement wash over him. Doing everything he could do, was anyone else as capable? He took out an elemental, helped end a crisis, and many other things. It's a surprise the judges didn't just outright ask to shake his hand.

A feeling of aggression began to creep up inside him. How dare the judges reject him! He wished Shepherd Christella did accept his holmgang. He would've used his most powerful Aerial Slash to teach her a lesson. She deserved to… To…

Seti grabbed his head. What was going on? He breathed in calm air, to settle down, when—

A storm of emotion exploded within Seti. An emotion overload— Anger— Amazement— Spite— Everything was piling inside! The ambivalence—

He blacked out.

Seti's phone vibrated. He blinked a few times. Right…he was in the hotel. He pressed the phone's button to reveal that only a few minutes passed since his blackout, and that Mindy had sent him a text.

He sat up. What had just happened? All those emotions he felt just now—what was that? He breathed in and out a few times to settle in. After a quick think, he came up with a theory. The overload was a result of his niche. A backlash, if he thought of it like that. He hadn't experienced it before…or had he? A text to Henry would be important. Seti clicked on his phone and heard again that he had a text from Mindy. He played it.

"I'm home, unpacked, and got a cake to celebrate our rejection—exclamation point. Wish you were here. Use one of your cronies to fly over to help eat—exclamation point."

Seti smiled. Mindy was carefree. He spoke aloud as he typed out his text. "I actually passed. Some of us don't trip on holes."

"You passed—exclamation point—question mark. Congratz—exclamation point. Cheerful-smile. You deserve it. I think you're exceptional. Don't let the news get to you, they don't know anything—exclamation point—exclamation point."

Seti wondered if he could change the setting on the app so it wouldn't read the ending punctuation. Especially if Mindy used them so often.

"What's the news saying?" Seti asked as he typed.

"Not tellingexclamation point. Speak-no-evil."

He sat up, found the control to the TV, and flicked it on. If he thought texting was annoying, trying to find a news station while blind was even worse. He had to wait through commercials to confirm what channel he was on, and then change to the next one, repeating the process until he found the right one. Luckily, the fourth channel was the one he wanted. It was two people talking to each other.

"I believe Guild Master Tumgar is to blame. He should always reserve a large amount of mana if his own members can't do what he does."

"A bit unreasonable, I think," the second person said. "Look at it from his perspective: his members were the ones who would guide the elementals during the exam, so they couldn't be wasteful with their mana when constructing the geo-building. No one could have predicted what transpired."

The first person wouldn't have it. "It's his responsibility to be prepared for anything."

"There's no arguing that he saved a great many people! Roofs were opened at strategic locations, and new exits were formed."

"Tell that to the eight that died."

The discussion reminded Seti of the judging format. To some people, nothing was done right. Seti decided to name the reporters accordingly: the first one would be Negative Norbert, and the second person would be Positive Paul.

"But let's talk about the real news," Negative Norbert said. "The Aero Dragonspawn finally exists. Not only that, but he teamed up with the Pyro Dragonspawn during the Blue Castle attack."

"I heard a few things about that. Is it official? Was it confirmed?"

"It's on the Shepherd's report. The Aero Dragonspawn is officially a real thing—but get this! He's a tier one! A throwaway political piece for the families."

"I don't think he's a throwaway piece," Positive Paul said. "I heard he helped."

"What are you talking about? A tier one can't do anything. That's already been proven."

"My sources say—and my sources are credible—that he was the reason the crisis ended."

"And I heard—and my ears don't listen to nonsense—that Divine Bruno's ghost, may he rest in peace, rose from the ground like a geo-elemental. Can you believe that? I feel I should tell you I'm not being serious since you're so gullible."

"I find it hard to believe that the Wind Dragon would pick up a random adept that couldn't do anything. They tried to send him to Prestige Academy, after all."

"That reminds me! Everyone was asking if Tobias Vescio would attend Prestige again this year, now that he became the Noblesse. You'd think he would have too much on his plate."

Seti started to type out a text to Henry regarding the surge of emotions he had felt. He kept an ear out on the conversation in case the two reporters said anything interesting.

"Didn't he originally attend to help the relations between the families and the Guilds? That's what we need, now more than ever."

"There's one thing I can guarantee," Negative Norbert said. "And by guarantee, I mean absolutely guarantee: the Aero Dragonspawn will not attend Prestige Academy. They wouldn't allow a tier one."

"I don't disagree with you there. I noticed you calling Tobias by his old title. Shouldn't we call him the Sun Dragon already?"

"That'd be a mockery to the title. He might be Joneleth Vescio's younger brother, but he isn't at that level. I say no one should pick up that mantle until they can holmgang Spitfire to an equal match."

"We're getting off topic," Positive Paul said. "Back to the original question...should we be worried about the newest Dragonspawn?"

"Until we're allowed to see the recordings at Blue Castle, we can't say for certain. But I say no. A first tier isn't a threat to anyone. It's who he represents that's the threat. The Serio family is in exile by the Wind Dragon's declaration, but after this move, we can't help but wonder if we're on the eve of war. We'll learn soon enough when the summit concludes. Besides, why send his disciple to Prestige? Can a first tier learn anything at the academy? I think the whole thing is a distraction."

They didn't provide anything else worthwhile. Much of their speculation was limited to the idea that he couldn't attend Prestige, and that Faulkner picked him as a political piece. Neither was true. A few things they mentioned revealed the fact that either the Blue Castle camera feed never went live, or it was removed from viewership. Another thing he learned was that Tobias was a disciple as well, likely of the Sun Dragon, if common sense was any indicator.

Seti turned the TV off and laid back on the bed. His groggy eyes closed. Just as he was about to slip into slumber, a knock came from the door. He used his omniview to slide under the door to see who it was. Elder Poe.

"There's something you should listen to," Elder Poe said.

The elder guided Seti into the neighboring room. It consisted of two beds—one for Dora and one for the elder. Dora was watching TV; cartoons, by the sound of it. The butler wasn't anywhere nearby.

Dora complained when Elder Poe changed the channel to the news station (which was different from the one Seti was listening to). Trying to pre-empt her inevitable tantrum, Seti recommended she watch the TV in his room. She took off before Elder Poe could say otherwise.

Seti wasn't sure what the news people were talking about until they did a quick recap.

"For those just tuning in, we received word from Noblesse Tobias that he has an announcement to make. It will be happening live in a few moments. Please stay tuned."

"An announcement?" Seti looked at Elder Poe.

"The summit," he said. "I do not know what will be said, but it may affect us all."

"Should we be worried, Stephanie?"

"I don't think so. There's a lot of hear-say. Rumors are spreading about an official declaration of war. I don't think it'll come to that."

"But the Wind Dragon has returned, hasn't he? Isn't there word that he's returned with a disciple?"

"That's what our sources have been saying, but it's a bit hard to believe. The Serio family has been in exile, and all of a sudden there's a great influx of commotion. It may be a bit worrying to some."

"Well, what do you think would even prompt the Wind Dragon to not only come out of exile, but also adopt a Dragonspawn?"

"Perhaps we'll find out. We've received word that the Noblesse is about to address the public. Let's switch to the live feed."

Seti could hear chattering and clicks from cameras in the background. Then, the whispers went silent. He sure did miss being able to see what was on the screen. Two taps on the microphone. Tobias Vescio began to address the nation.

"Thank you all for showing up. I understand that there has been a lot of fear and uncertainty as of late and I would like to address it. A few months ago, my brother died during an A-Rank primal assault. We, the families, have felt that the investigation into this matter has been tampered with to obstruct justice. I have asked myself many times: why should the United Accords be upheld if both sides cannot come to an agreement? Despite this, we felt that threatening the continued peace and prosperity we hold dear with premature action would be detrimental to us all."

Tobias paused. It was silent except for the camera clicks.

"Thirty minutes ago, we concluded our summit and arrived at an agreement. We feel that the United Accords were broken during a primal attack. As such, we are obligated to disagree with this portion of the law. Effective immediately, the families will no longer assist either the Guilds or the Shepherds during a primal attack or siege, regardless of Rank level. This protest will remain until a champion resolution can be found."

The silence of the crowd ended. Reporters yelled out questions for the Noblesse, but he did not respond to any of it.

"They're ignoring the word champion," Seti said. "The reporters think he just used a synonym, but that's not true. It was a message to us."

Elder Poe nodded in agreement. Back at Blue Castle, Tobias had said a few things inside the burning building. If the United Accords were no longer trusted, he had asked if things would break down into chaos, or if they would evolve. The proclamation he just gave during this national address inched things toward the chaos bracket. Which likely meant…

Seti continued. "The protest will remain until a champion solution is found. He's handing the baton to us now: the champions."

But they didn't know what the victory conditions were. How would a champion win? The longer it took them to finish, the more mancers that would potentially die during an assault.

And Seti's mother was part of a guild that fought against the primals.

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A note from Gelifyal

This officially marks the end of the M/W/F update schedule!

Going forward, the release schedule will be on Monday almost-weekly (where the almost means I'll skip one week to catch up on the writing, which would likely happen every 3 chapters or so).


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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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