A guard stood beside the gate, leaning against it while daydreaming. He looked short compared to the gate which towered over and caged in the students of the Academy. The falling snow didn’t pile up on the gate, instead melting as the stone pillars radiated heat. It was a functional and necessary trait of the gate so that it could operate even in the winter. If snow were to pile up, the gate would be rendered inoperable.
As Kazu and Mel neared the gate from inside, the guard noticed them, putting his hand up to order a halt. It was the same guard that tried to ‘kill’ Kazu when he first entered the academy. A small grin formed on Kazu’s lips as he continued walking.
The guard didn’t expect Kazu to keep his pace. “Student, stop!”
Kazu stopped at the guard’s palm and said, “Anything wrong officer?”
“Uuuu… why is he stopping us?” Mel asked.
“You… you’re from last week.” The guard looked at Kazu from down to up. “I see. Forgive me the other day student. You must get a lot of reactions like that because of your…”
“Nn, it’s fine, it’s fine,” Kazu shrugged. “So, why’re you stopping us?”
“Students are not allowed to leave the academy until classes are over,” The guard answered. “I hope you understand what I mean… I’ll lose my job, you know?”
“We’re not leaving.” Mel smirked. “We’re stepping outside temporarily to eat more lunch.”
“Wha…” The guard’s eyes widen in dumbfound. “That- that... is this girl serious?”
“Look,” Kazu leaned on the guard’s shoulder, “We all know this rule is dumb. It’s not like we’ll tell anyone you let us through, right?”
“M-my job still remains.” The guard stumbled on his words. “Hehe… unless you bring me something from outside. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. How ‘bout it?”
All three grinned. It was fortunate that Kazu had not judged the guard based on his first impression. If he had, he would have not been able to make friends with such a useful friend. From the way the guard spoke, Kazu knew he didn’t care as much as the job as he said he did.
“By the way, I’m Kazu and the girl here is Mel,” Kazu said.
“Call me Steve.” A sparkle formed in Steve’s eyes. “There’s a tavern just a couple blocks south. Once you come back from your midday snack or lunch or whatever it is, just bring me a pack of the steamed buns from there.”
“A tavern... Oh you mean Yonders Tav? The Roseful Academy is a block away from that place… can’t say I can complain though,” Kazu mumbled.
“Isn’t that more convenient for you?” Mel asked.
“Hm, what's that?” Kazu shot back.
“Oh I don’t know… it's not like I didn’t know you wanted to use this as an excuse to check up on your cute little sisters.” Mel’s words hit the exact mark and her smirk oozed confidence.
Kazu couldn’t help but step back a little. Of course that was his reason to go through all of this trouble. He wanted to know how they were doing even if only half of the day passed by. But with his worries came along some logic; he knew of the blatant discrimination in this world. Ene and Lene being different might be subjected to it, especially during lunch time.
“Gu- Alright. What’s it matter? Let’s go. And stop reading my mind!” Kazu barked.
“I’d like to open the gate for you guys but… the principal will notice it.” The guard forced a smile. “Maybe you can climb it?”
“It’s fine, no need to open the gate.” Kazu patted the guard’s shoulder. “Mel, ready?”
“Yup, let’s go! Food!” Mel drooled looking at the top of the gate.
Wing gathered below Kazu and Mel. It swirled into a vortex, creating an entrancing scene of whirling snow.
Steve couldn’t help but cover his face from the gusts originating from the two. It was his first time seeing a wind mage taking flight, and he didn’t know the wind that wind mages produced would be this violent. Suddenly, a loud bang hit the bare pavement of the path and the two rocketed up 3 stories then landing at the other side of the gate.
The skill Kazu and Mel used was not the normal skill a wind mage would use. Kazu realized it during their training and encounters with adventurers that wind mages were able to fly, unlike other type of mages. After he asked Mel about it, she taught him her special method of flight.
Her method was fundamentally different from the wind mages they encountered. She taught him to use the wind like a rocket instead of something that’ll levitate your body. Although the method was more violent, it allowed the user to be faster, and more efficient. However, precision only came with practice.
Walking down a couple of snow filled blocks, the Roseful Academy’s building filled Kazu’s view. Much to his surprise, children were already leaving the academy, and parents were anxiously waiting to see their children after their first day. The older students of the academy walked side by side heading in different directions with their cliques.
Ene and Lene came out with bright faces just in time as Kazu spotted Sene and Brett. A small sigh of relief escaped his breath when he saw their expressions.
“Kazuuu, what about the food? Uuu…” Mel cried.
“We’ll get to that later.” Kazu dragged Mel. “Stop resisting will ya?!”
“Nyaaaah! But the food! Lunch hour is almost over!” Mel bawled, dropping on the snow to let Kazu drag her limp body.
“That’s it.” Kazu picked her up in a princess carry.
“Fine fine fine! I’ll walk. Uuuu….” Mel dropped down from Kazu’s arms.
“Oh, Kazu. Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” Brett called them over as soon as he noticed them.
“Well, it’s not like I have class. We were placed in Class U after all,” Kazu replied.
“Brother is skipping class. That’s bad right mom!” Ene shouted. Lene slowly shook her head, disapproving of Kazu’s tardiness.
“That’s right Ene, and you too Lene. Don’t become bad girls and skip classes. Your brother is a bad influence hehe.” Brett added.
Rolling his eyes, Kazu knelt down to meet the eye level of the two young girls. “You see, brother is just protecting a grumpy blond lady. There’s really no reason for me to be in class anyways.”
“Kazu. Even then, you shouldn’t skip classes should you?” Sene scolded, “There are lots of people who want to go to the Royal Academy, but they can’t. Think about how lucky you are compared to them.”
“Heehee, Sene’s got you there.” Mel eyes laughed along with her snicker.
“Tch, this is your fault. Damn glutton,” Kazu retorted.
“Gyah?!~ I’m not fat!” Mel yelled.
“Alright, calm down everyone. Since you’re hungry anyways, let’s all go to a restaurant.” Sene held both Ene and Lene by their hands to lead the way.
The family arrived in a restaurant just across the tavern Steve requested the buns from. They sat in a rectangle table. Sene sat in between Lene and Ene to give them both equal attention. Brett, Kazu, and Mel sat at the other side of the table.
“Lene,” Kazu called, “Everything good in school?”
She nodded with excitement as she swung her legs back and forth sitting down. The food Lene ate wasn’t what the others ate. Her food consisted of an assortment of leaves that grew near the pond of East Gate. Most of the restaurants started carrying the dish just for water spirits after they heard of Lene’s appearance. It would have been odd if her presence in the city didn’t cause a stir in people’s minds. The people believe that being visited by a water spirit was good luck so they started carrying edible foods for water spirits.
Lene’s gaze turned to her right, looking at Ene. “Mom! Lene says she wants to eat some of the seafood.”
“Oh. That’s not good Lene.” Sene tilted her head. “This is considered junk food for water spirits… you’re still growing and need to eat healthily.”
A few bubbles propped up Lene’s transparent body. Her disappointment can be seen through it.
“That’s right, Lene.” Kazu smiled. “If you eat healthy now and grow strong, you can start accompanying me in exploring.”
Lene’s hesitation faded and quickly ate her dish. She wanted to grow quickly to be beside Kazu who she admired ever since she were an egg. His promising words filled up her motivation to the brim.
When Kazu saw this, the images of Lene being beside him as they explore this world became something he longed for. He also didn’t want to let Lleya down, but that was a minor part of what he felt. In truth, he felt a strange attachment to Lene, like a father to a daughter. It was a different type of attachment compared to his relationship with Mel. He wanted to nurture Lene while he wanted to love and be beside Mel.
“Kazu, how’s your first day?” Brett interrupted.
“Hah! Kazu beat up someone. Nyahahaha. Aren’t you proud!?” Mel exclaimed.
“Kazu!” Sene’s eyes furrowed. “I knew it… I shouldn’t have let you gone to school. I’m a terrible mother! Brett! Scold your child!”
“Hooo, how big was he? What was his face like?” Brett joked, but when he saw Sene raising up her knife, he quickly changed his expression and said, “Oi, Kazu. That’s not nice. Uhh… go run laps around the house.”
Brett gave up trying to find a punishment and his expression became serious, “That’s for the mission right?”
“Aah. It is,” Kazu nodded. “The girl I’m protecting is more bothersome than I thought.”
“I didn’t think it would be a walk in the park if a heroic-rank requested a mission from you.” The grim on Brett’s face became darker. “Most likely, this isn’t a simple bodyguard request. Otherwise, Sage or someone more known than you would’ve taken up the job.”
“I was suspicious of that too,” Kazu added, “Mel you felt it too right? Whenever we’re near Riona, I would feel like dozens of eyes are watching us.”
“That Riona girl, her last name is Rye right?” Brett asked.
“Yeah. A week ago, I saw her walking down the South Gate road. That was near our house,” Kazu commented.
“Well of course. The Rye family owns a large patch of land,” Brett crossed his arms. “They’re one of the only producers of high grade alchemy ingredients. Though I don’t know what happens inside their walls…”
“Makes sense, but that doesn’t explain her attitude… I feel like she just keeps working or learning like a… a programmed robot,” Kazu said.
“A robot?” Brett and Sene looked at him with wide eyes hoping for an explanation. Being in an age where technology has yet to exist, of course none of them would know what a robot is.
“Its uh… Oi, Mel.” Kazu nudged.
“A golem! Stupid Kazu!” Mel shouted, some food fell from her mouth as she was stuffing herself full.
“That’s a weird comparison you’re using…” Sene tilted her head. “You mean she’s does everything like a zombie?”
Kazu’s eyes narrowed at Sene. He knew what zombies were and even fought against them numbering in hundreds. “No no no, not like a zombie. She’s angry all the time so she’s more like a golem following the master’s orders. Right?”
“That’s right! She’s a girl full of boiling water!” Mel added.
“Well, if it’s like that, don’t involve yourself too personally with her.” Brett scratched his head. “But going back, you said you feel like being watched when you’re around her?”
“Yeah, and I know the cold stares I get aren’t from the students either. They’re further, like they’re looking at us from above,” Kazu whispered in a low voice.
“Brett.” Sene focused her eyes on her husband. “Let’s go to Sage. Tell her to cancel his mission right now. You heard what Kazu said right? Its dangerous. This is too much for our son who just turned eighteen!”
“Sene, I understand that,” Brett’s eyes turned back to Kazu, “But it depends on what he wants.”
“Mom, thanks for worrying. I think I-”
“-Kazu! I know you want to protect her, but this is more than that right now,” Sene voice trembled, “There’s a war going on in the north right now and you don’t know so… it doesn’t matter! We’ll go to Sage after this and cancel!”
After Kazu had disappeared that day a year ago, Sene almost fell into depression. She didn’t want it to happen again and she knew those things watching her son were people like Sage, planning their schemes every step of the way. In Dragonweild, her whole family died by their invisible hands; only she managed to escape.
“Sene, I think you know it’s not our choice.” Brett sighed. “Kazu is a grown man now, eighteen years old, just a year away from his coming of age. You already know Kazu won’t leave this alone too right?”
“But… but… it's dangerous. What if-”
“Trust me a little, mom.” Kazu cut off Sene. The smile on his face radiated confidence and a warmth that seemed to seep into Sene’s heart. “Besides, with my partner, I think we’ll be able to endure any hardships we face.”
Sene took a deep breath to fully calm herself down. “Is this what you really want?” she asked.
“Yeah. Let me do it,” Kazu affirmed.
The moon hovered above, and the dim light on the gate gave poor visibility in the snowy weather. The sudden appearance of a boy and girl falling from the sky shocked Steven, causing him to trip backwards. However, when they handed him the familiar boxed package, he took it with eager hands.
Kazu and Mel chuckled at his innocent joy and headed for the dorms, chatting along the way. When they entered, an angry looking man blocked their passage inward.
“Hi?” Kazu forced a smile.
The man was over two meters tall, resembling the muscular ogres back in the dungeon without all the disgusting additions. His muscles still formed silhouettes outside his slightly loose leather clothing and the broad shoulders enshrouded the two of them. On his chest, he wore a name plate saying “Dorm Master, Elck.”
“You two, students of the academy?” Elck inquired. His low pitched voice caused the air to shake.
“Yes… we are,” Kazu answered. “Is there a problem?”
“Sshhh, Kazu. That’s rude.” Mel whispered. “We are students! So let us pass… oh guardian!”
“Hmph. Who are you calling guardian,” Elck muttered. “Where are your badges?”
“Badges?” Mel slightly glanced at Kazu then turn back to Elck.“Oh guardian! We know not of these badges you speak of!”
“Stop calling me guardian!” Elck yelled and his eyes became red. “You need to have your badges, otherwise I won’t know which room you have.”
“Oh Guardian!” Mel held both of her hands in prayer. “Forgive us for we do not have these badges!”
“You’re… you- you’re making fun of me!” Tears fell from the Elck’s eyes much to Kazu and Mel’s dismay. They did think such a muscular and big man would cry at Mel’s joke. “Go away! You’re probably not students anyways!”
“Nnn!?” Mel stepped back a bit. “I didn’t do anything! I really thought he was a guardian, Kazu!”
“Jeez, how did it even end up like this?!” Kazu panicked as he looked at the giant crying. “Aaah, what do we do? What do we do?!”
Suddenly, the door behind them opened.
““We didn’t do anything!””
Jay stepped in the scene, wide eyed as he carefully tried to decode the scene. Elck, who was crying, was in fetal position with pathetic cries for his mom. Mel, behind the counter of the dorm master, was scrummaging through the cupboards looking for something. The third culprit, Kazu, was behind the door trying to hide from Jay.
“Don’t worry, I understand what happened.” Jay sighed. “You don’t have your badges so I bet Mel tried to plead to Elck, albeit in a mocking tone, to let you pass through so he ended up crying. Of course you guys panicked and now we’re in this situation. Correct?”
“Tha-that’s amazing. How’d you do that?” Kazu forced a smile. “Here to help by any chance?”
“Unfortunately, I am.” Jay shook his head in exasperation. “Here, your mother left this by the gate for you.”
Jay handed over the familiar envelope to Kazu. It contained the invitation letter and a diamond shaped badge with one vertical line. “You really should thoroughly read your letters. And here, for your partner.”
Jay left a badge on the counter, the same one Kazu received. “Now, let’s get you registered for a room. Just tell Elck, by my order, that you’re allowed to share a room. Of course, you guys can still go to different rooms, but that’s your choice.”
Kazu nodded, “Thanks…”
Leaving immediately after giving Kazu and Mel their acquired identifications, Jay again left with a sigh. He didn’t want to get involved too much with the duo, it would prove to be more bothersome in the future should he get close to them early on. Especially because they were connected to Sage, whom he thought was the most bothersome figure in all of Austere, even more so than the shadowy character of Yuli Aramod.
After Elck calmed down, he registered them in the same room. Mel apologized for her words and they found Elck to be a really kind and timid man, almost to a fault. Kazu, in particular, had a slight dissonance in his mind on his impression of Elck. He was big, a polar opposite of his personality.
“A gentle giant, huh,” Kazu mumbled.
“He is, isn’t he?” Mel opened their room, immediately jumping on the bed. “So sooooft. This is like a hotel.”
Entering the room as well, Kazu looked at everything in the room. The tidiness surprised him and he couldn’t help mutter the same thing Mel said, “Like a hotel…”
“Mel, try opening the window,” Kazu said.
“Muu, it’s cold outside. Why open it?” Mel rebelled.
“My suspicion still stands. Someone was watching us during the fight with the gorilla.It’s best if we secure the whole academy’s perimeter,” Kazu whispered.
At first, Mel brushed off Kazu’s suspicion. But as she thought about it more, she also didn’t like being watched by people who hid behind a wall. They had spent a year together training and she was the one that taught him to be cautious whenever he felt the presence of a stare.
Kazu felt uneasy if he didn’t do this during those times. He couldn’t let it go,even more so now as it became his mission. “Mel, let’s go.”
“Ok,” Mel responded.
Stealth (9) activated
Both of them flew out the window with and Kazu expanded his awareness to its maximum. A number of students still roamed around the campus, but no one could see the two, several meters above the ground. They checked every corner of the school, forming their own mental map of the academy.
“Kazuuuu, how long are we going to do this for?” Mel groaned.
“Just a while longer, there’s one more building we haven’t checked.” Kazu pointed at the highest point of the academy tower.
Gliding over to the roof of the tower, he expanded his awareness to reach inside. The images of everyone in the room became clear and even their dialogue was as if Kazu was beside them. It was thanks to his skill Awareness which had reached maximum level some time ago. Relying on his heightened awareness, Kazu became party to the happenings within the room.
A man and Sage stood in front of a sculpture. The crystal white stone had been chiseled into the figure of a woman holding up a basin. However, the water wasn’t transparent; It showed the images of the scenes before and after Kazu’s fight with Gorn.
“Sage, this kid, where is he from?” The man’s hand bled, from his nails had dug through the rough skin of his palm. Sage stopped him from interfering with the bullying of the student named Gorn Igg.
“Ask Philip Nemean.” Sage smirked. “Do not worry about your niece. I have taken the liberty of setting someone up beside her, as you can see. Now do you understand, Yuli Aramod?”
“Hmph. You’ve always been cunning.” Yuli’s eyes furrowed. “Next time this happens, I’ll fix the child myself. Alfred.”
The gray haired man walked up with his head down. “You called…?”
“Expel Gorn Igg and the rest of his siblings. Insects like them don’t deserve to be in my Academy,” Yuli commanded.
“Sir Yuli, please refrain from that decision. The Igg family is one of the major Earth families in Asteria. It could be-”
“Alfred, are you so nearsighted that you couldn’t see what the Igg brat did over the last year?” Yuli interrogated him.
Alfred did not answer his question. It was true he didn’t know, but the strength of Igg’s family scared Alfred. Wouldn’t they pin the blame of their children’s expulsion on him? Alfred was more concerned over his own life and family.
“That insect crippled some of the most talented last year. Just like what we saw right now. He was prepared to cripple my niece!” Yuli slammed his fist on the marble basin. “If I wasn’t so tolerant, I would’ve killed his whole family. Hmph.”
“Oh Yuli Aramod. You are shortsighted yourself.” Sage added, “It’s fine to expel him. But that would just bring vengeance. Just kill the brat’s father. That will teach him.”
The bewitching smile appeared on Sage’s lips. Yuli knew he’d dug himself a grave and now Sage was having him lie in it. “Alright. I’ll bite. But I’ll pin the blame on you if things turn for the worse.”
Yuli disappeared, leaving Sage and Alfred alone.
“Philip!” Sage shouted. “Philip Nemean!”
The door creaked open. Philip came through the door with an irritated expression and said, “What?”
“Prepare a carriage. We’ll leave for Iapetus immediately.” Sage giggled at his frumpiness. She gave a sly glance above, crossing gazes with Kazu through the ceiling.
Philip grumbled, following Sage out the door. Once she left, Alfred took a deep breath now that the pressure has been lifted off his shoulders.
Thanks for reading!
Thanks to SilentComfort for the editing/proofreading!