Walking out of the castle, I was assaulted by the bright sun and had to squint my eyes, the square didn't change at all since my last visit. This was a place I found last week, I started coming here to relax or to have some time alone, sometimes I also came with Lili, I would take Eina here once her detention was over.
The square was full of vegetation, it was no longer used due to an accident that happened a good ten years ago, everyone in the academy knew about it and I was no exception. Two students had a fight there, one that ended up with a casualty and a terrible scandal that almost led to a three-way war between three of the most influential families in Larn Empire.
I caught a whiff of flowers, many mixed scents were carried by the faint breeze that washed over this place. Smiling to myself, I skipped over the cracked tiles and crouched near a tall, light blue flower with many layered petals, gently bending it towards my nose and inhaling the pleasant fragrance.
There were many plants there, most were planted by the students as a memorial of what happened in the past. Grass grew from the cracks in the tiles, there were even some tall trees growing in the square. It was a relatively popular place for dates and other meetings, a lovely place to just appreciate the nature mixing with architecture.
Sighing in satisfaction, I trotted to a different plant, running my fingers through the soft foliage and loudly whistling an old song. Turning my head, I froze, a different student was there, watching me with a raised eyebrow and a faint smile on her face. It was a pretty girl with long silky black hair, her round upturned eyes were also black in color, crowned by short bushy eyebrows.
What took me off guard were her exotic features, high cheekbones, and delicate chin, small nose, and the jade white skin really reminded me of some people from my old world. She had a petite body and didn't look to be any taller than me but I couldn't be sure until she stood up. I wasn't sure about her figure because she was laying down but there was absolutely nothing happening in the chest area.
She was resting on a patch of grass with one knee bent and her dainty hands supporting her head, seven stars and four stripes glimmered on her shoulders, a really impressive achievement. Curiously, I have never seen her in the dormitory before, our schedules must have been very different.
My face burning, I said, "Sorry for making noise, I didn't know you were resting there."
Chuckling, she said, "Don't worry, it's rare to see someone appreciate the nature like that." Her silvery voice was weirdly deep for a lady. She added, "I am Valus, nice to meet you."
I nodded my head and slightly frowning at the name, replied, "Marie Penn, a pleasure to meet you."
Valus raised her eyebrows and said, "Oh, you are the person with the highest magical potential in the academy! I've actually wanted to meet you at some point, being the previous record holder and all."
"Wait," I said, "The previous record holder was..." I paused when the realization that the person in front of me was Valus Luzen whom Ciara mentioned before.
"Valus Luzen, that's me," Valus said, standing up and approaching me with an extended hand.
I grabbed the delicate hand and shook it. Confused, I muttered, "I've heard about you before but I thought you are a man."
"Oh, I am," Valus replied, a disarming smile on his face.
Wide-eyed, I automatically took a step back and scanned him from head to toes, Valus was barely any taller than me, with a delicate build but a rather androgynous frame.
He sighed and said, "I get that a lot."
Realizing I was gawking at him, I shook my head and apologized, "I am really sorry, that was very rude."
"It's fine, I assure you I am not a woman, and no, I don't like men." He said, rolling his eyes. Then, he asked, "What brings you to this garden?"
"My dad will come to pick me up, I am waiting for him," I replied, trying to keep eye contact and behave naturally.
Raising his eyebrows, Valus asked me, "Your father is a teacher?"
Before I could reply, a husky voice answered his question, "Not exactly."
I turned on my heel and grinned, waving to Nec, "You are quick!"
Chopsticks flew off his shoulder and perched on mine, meticulously regarding Valus, "You are aesthetic."
Half frowning, half confused, Valus replied, "Thanks, I guess?"
Nec chuckled and said to Valus, "Phenomenal stars ratio, boy. Once you graduate our academy will have birthed another potential Archmage."
Startled Valus replied, "Thank you, Sir, may I know your name?"
"Nec Divinus," Nec replied, and said to me, "Let's go, Marie. I have prepared something interesting for today!"
Clapping, I excitedly skipped to him and turned to the stunned Valus, "See you around!"
Jolted awake by my voice, he stammered, "S-see you!" He then said to Nec, "It's an honor to meet you, Sir!"
Nec nodded his head with a smile while I grabbed his arm, he said to Valus, "See you around, kid," And then snapped his fingers.
The world turned into a smudge and we appeared in his office, it was mostly the same except for one change; a large orb with many runes atop its surface was suspended near the ceiling.
"What's this?" I asked Nec, pulling on his sleeve and pointing at the orb.
"Crossroads," He replied, a mysterious smile on his face.
He waved his hand and the orb floated down, hovering just above the floor, it was spinning slowly, putting the beautiful shining runes on the display. I let go of Nec's arm and approached the orb, carefully regarding the runes without touching them.
"Oh!" I exclaimed after a moment and asked Nec, "How did you even cram so many coordinates into this thing?"
Nec approached me and ruffled my hair, he replied, "I am just that good. Wonderful job on recognizing it!"
"Thanks!" I said, grinning from ear to ear.
"I prepared it for us, took me an entire week of teleporting around!" Nec said, sighing.
Pouting, I said, "Don't overwork yourself."
"For you? I absolutely would!" Nec said, pinching my cheek.
"Alright," I squeezed out and grabbed his hand, "What are we going to do today?"
"Go right there," Nec said, pointing at a certain rune. "Chopsticks, you will stay there."
"As you wish. I shall wait for your triumphant return," Chopsticks said and flew off but not before affectionately pecking my ear.
Before I could say anything, Nec poked the rune with his finger, activating it.
Everything twisted into a whirlpool of colors, my body felt weightless for a few dragging seconds that might as well have been hours, disoriented, I clung to Nec's arm and squeezed my eyes shut. Suddenly, the gravity returned and I started falling, quite literally because there was no ground underneath my feet anymore.
I opened my eyes and gasped for air, digging my fingers into Nec's arm.
We were in the skies, a mountain range spread into every direction under us. Nec grabbed me out of the air and held me like a princess, I was scared out of my mind and with terrible vertigo, screeching, I grabbed his neck.
"Warn me next time! God almighty!" I screamed into his ear, my voice barely piercing through the whistling wind.
"I am so sorry!" Nec said and snapped his fingers, teleporting is below.
He carefully placed me on the ground, my knees were shaky and my heart was whistling madly, trying to jump out of my throat. I supported myself on Nec's arm and pursed my lips, shooting him a disapproving glance.
"I am so sorry, sweety!" Nec said, propping me up with his strong arms. "I completely forgot you can't fly!"
In a small voice, I said, "Please, just warn me next time." Looking at his distressed face, a warm feeling spread from my heart. Feeling a bit stupid, I hugged his arm.
Taken aback, he asked me, "What happened?"
Puffing my burning cheeks, I squeezed out, "Can't a daughter try showing some affection?"
I felt his body quiver, he caressed my head and in a voice thick with emotions replied, "Of course you can, sweety."
Letting go of his arm, I gave him a shy smile and looked around us, we were atop one of the mountains, the wind was mercilessly whipping my face. Squinting, I pulled up my collar to protect myself from the chilliness of this place, there wasn't any snow but it was still sufficiently cold to make me shudder.
Other than that, this place was a mostly unremarkable black and gray rocky landscape with only a single point of interest, a dilapidated ruin carved in the black rock that looked like an entrance to a tomb. Nec patted my shoulder and smiling, led me towards it.
Skipping over larger rocks, I asked Nec, "Where even is this place?"
"Dragonrock mountain range on the borders of Aural Empire," Nec explained and said, "As for that place ahead, it's an ancient dungeon."
Raising my eyebrow, I asked, "Is it dangerous?"
"A little bit, you will brave it today," Nec replied with an encouraging smile.
Getting jittery, I said," I am not sure if it's a good idea. I can barely cast a spell or two a-and I don't even know how to use my light in a fight."
Chuckling, Nec ruffled my hair and said, "I know you can do it, just be careful and use this."
He pulled out a shield and shortsword I have never seen before and handed me to them, curious, I took them and tried to recall what kind of item that was. Surprisingly, I had no idea what it was but upon closer inspection, it looked a bit like Lux Divus.
The blade was leaf-shaped, made of silvery metal with a single long fuller that connected with the empty runes on its surface. It had a small gold guard that curved upwards and the handle was designed perfectly for my little hands, I really liked how it felt in my hand.
The shield was also perfectly sized for me, it looked a bit like overlapping gold petals with a silver background, there was a small bulge in the middle, not dissimilar to regular flower cup. There were runes etched on both sides of the shield, perfectly mirrored.
"How weird, you made it?" I asked Nec, performing a test cut with the sword.
"Indeed, LD is too conspicuous, this should be a fine replacement and it synergizes with your elements," Nec said, pointing at the empty runes on their surfaces. "These runes don't have any energy within, instead, their purpose is to guide your Essence in a controlled way. Try it."
Mystified by his explanation, I took a deep breath and guided some Essence into the sword, trying to summon light. Sure enough, the handle swallowed it and the fuller, and then the runes lit up with faint gold light, giving the sword an exalted appearance. When I swung it, a golden trail was left in the air, an enchantingly beautiful arc.
"That's amazing, dad!" I said, recalling my Essence from the sword.
Nec's shoulder quivered and he said, "I am glad you like it!" He added, "You will need to experiment a bit, create your own spell models to fit it."
Sighing, I said, "I am not even a one-star student yet, Spell Modeling lessons are very hard."
"You will definitely create some amazing spells, for now, just improvise," Nec said, encouraging smile on his face.
"Okay!" I replied, fastening the shield on my left arm and sheathing the sword into it. "It's light like feathers! You enchanted it?"
"I sure did! While sheathed, their weight is less than one hundred grams, the blade won't ever rust and will always stay sharp. On top of that, both shield and the sword are also hydrophobic, blood and other fluids will instantly slide off them." Nec explained to me, a hint of pride in his voice.
"You really are amazing!" I said, excitedly testing the changing weight.
We stopped in front of the entrance, it was completely dark inside and sent shivers down my spine, I wasn't too confident about going in.
Seeing this, Nec placed his hand on my shoulder and said, "This is a little test I devised for you, as long as I am there you won't die."
"Okay," I said and asked, "What about that meditation thing you mentioned last time?"
"After this, I need to see how you react in stressful situations first," Nec seriously said.
Pursing my lips, I said in a small voice, "You know I get panic attacks, especially from lightning and confined spaces."
"I know you are brave enough to try, you can get out as soon as you feel bad," Nec reassured me.
"Alright. I will do it, only for you, " I said, not wanting to disappoint him.
Nec seriously nodded his head and stood to the side, I could see conflicting emotions in his eyes; worry, guilt and especially pride. This really gave me courage, I didn't have a strong panic attack in a long time anyway and I trusted Nec's judgment.
Taking a deep breath, I clenched my teeth and descended into darkness.