Chapter 179 – The Real Deal
The group followed the directions given by the Kroxy, updating their map along the way. At first they had been dubious if to trust its words, but after thinking about it for a while they decided it was worth giving it a shot.
“If Phillard really wanted to harm us, he would have done it while we were at our weakest.” Phloria pointed out, the other agreeing with her.
“Gods, I still can’t believe magical beasts can talk and reason just like us humans. If I had known that during the mock exam, I’m afraid I would have experienced the same hesitation I had at the start of the dungeon.”
Her words made the others think hard about their previous experience. Magical beasts were capable of using magic just like them, if not better, to fight tactically and to care for their teammates.
– “It’s been really stupid of me ignoring all the facts and let prejudice guide my reasoning.” Yurial thought. “Just because they have a different form, it doesn’t mean they are incapable of having feelings.
“I must talk about this matter with my father, he never mentioned this issue while discussing how to manage our grand duchy. Befriending them could be really profitable.”–
The further they progressed through the dungeon, the more crossroads they encountered. By using Life Vision, Lith could see that there were no more big life forms lurking in the other paths, just insects and what he hoped to be rats.
– “It seems that goblins and ogres were all we add to face.” Lith thought. “It makes sense if Yurial is right and the purpose of the exam was imparting practical experience about fighting humans. Any more would just be plain cruel.”–
Lith knew he was right when after the last turn Linjos’ amulet emitted a green glow, indicating that he was free from his role of supervisor, yet since they were still cautiously walking instead of being transported into the main hall, he was also wrong.
“I think that the test has yet to end, it’s just that my role has been changed from passive spectator to active player.” He explained to the others making them even more nervous.
Of all the reasons they could think of for allowing Lith to help them, not a single one did bode well.
The last cave was a big one. The ceiling was over ten metres (33′) high and the room was at least thirty metres (33 yards) long and twenty meters (22 yards) wide. On the other side of the cave there was visible a huge glowing door that seemed to be made of silver.
There were three humanoid figures near the exit, and the light was too dim to distinguish their features. They were bigger than goblins but smaller than ogres and that alone normally would boost the group’s confidence.
It was the first time they outnumbered their opponents and they had also the element of surprise. Knowing Linjos though, they assumed that the last opponents were bound to be the strongest.
“They have yet to notice us. We can snipe them all from here.” Yurial whispered, after the group had retreated back in the previous tunnel.
“I would love to.” Phloria replied with a sigh. “Have you considered how devious Linjos is, though? What if those are other students and not enemies? What if they are waiting for the door to open or serving as bait to see how reckless we are?
Maybe it’s just an impulse control test. Linjos made Lith join our team to make us overconfident and rush things. Is anyone able to identify them?”
At such distance and with so poor light, not even Lith could see much. According to Solus their physical condition was poor, and even if they had cyan cores, they hadn’t much mana left.
– “I wish I could share this information with the others. Phloria is probably right, this is just another damn test.”– Lith thought
At Phloria’s sign everyone activated a flying spell from their rings, to not make any noise while moving forward.
The group spread out with Phloria, Friya and Lith on the first line, while Quylla and Yurial stayed in the rear. The spacing between them was enough to help each other if the necessity arose, but also allowed them to scatter in case of attack.
Because of the cave’s dimensions it was possible to use fire magic, also if their opponents were capable of using magic, a single fireball or even a lightning could take them all out at once if they kept walking in a single line.
Soon they were close enough to recognize the three well dressed humans.
Phloria felt really proud of herself and couldn’t wait to boast in front of the others, when she and the other three received a pat on the shoulder with air magic from Lith, the convened sign for danger.
When they turned to look at him, he was repeatedly tapping his nose.
They suddenly remembered Phillard’s words. Linjos’ enemies were marked with a distinctive smell, and now they were close enough to be able to perceive it.
Lith was able to see Phloria’s expression freeze into a panicked one, while she and the others sweated bullets.
– “Phloria was right all along.” Lith thought. “Those three are still part of the test, but she has underestimated Linjos. He isn’t as devious as she believed, he is much worse. Linjos is testing their resolution and my self control at the same time.
If I am right, they are allowed to kill, while I am not.”–
Quylla’s line of thinking was very similar to Lith’s, yet she was on the verge of tears.
– “How could I have ever thought that killing someone is cool when Friya told me about Lith’s background check? I pictured him like a fairy tale hero, slaying monsters and criminals, but reality is different.
Taking a life is terrible, it leaves a void in your heart like your very soul is withering. Even if they are enemies of the Headmaster, I can’t kill them in cold blood. They did nothing to me, they may be innocent.”–
Becoming used killing in self defence and overcoming the trauma derived from killing humanoid beings were two entirely different matters. Not even by sleeping close to each other and keeping a light was enough to drive away the nightmares.
Killing someone of your own kin was the supreme moral taboo, just the idea was enough to send their minds into chaos.
The choice was taken off their hands when one of the three turned in their direction.
“Watch out!” She yelled. “Enemies incoming!”
The three had rough looking faces, they clearly lacked food and sleep for several days. Their fear was evident, making the group even more hesitant to attack. Being surrounded and outnumbered, the three attacked only using first magic, hoping to quickly beat such young opponents, before their remaining strength ran out.
Phloria and Friya hid behind their magically conjured shields, while Yurial and Quylla could only dodge. The three chose to use first magic not only because it didn’t require much mana, but also to prevent their opponents from casting spells.
One of the biggest differences between true and fake magic was that while true mages would consume mana only after conjuring their spells, a fake mage would spend it as the casting was initiated, so being interrupted resulted in a waste of mana.
The three were doomed nonetheless. They were disarmed, while Phloria’s group only needed one spell stored into their rings to kill them. The problem was they were unwilling to, even under such attack.
Lith sighed, realizing his role in that charade. He pumped his mana into the staff, activating its effects once more and sending six needle sized ice shards into the eyes of his enemies, blinding them.
The staff was an experimental hybrid between an enchanted item and an alchemical one.
It enhanced a mage’s focus and mana sensitivity allowing even fake mages to alter the trajectory of their spells after the cast, something usually only tier five magic could achieve.
In Lith’s case it granted him an extremely fine control over the mana flow, to the point of being able to hit even small targets with pinpoint accuracy. Of course everything came with a price and limitations.
The mana stone floating in the middle of crescent moon shaped end of the staff was a consumable. The more powerful the spell it focused, the faster it would lose its magical energies, making the staff useless until the gemstone was replaced.
They were quite expensive, hence why Lith had only used it with first magic.
Also the staff was incapable of focusing spirit magic or any spell above tier three, making its use limited.
The very moment the three were paralysed by pain and fear, Lith conjured a tier one lightning rendering them unconscious. He then proceeded to blindfold, gag and bind them to prevent even first magic from being used.
A clapping sound could be heard echoing through the cave, coming from a life sized hologram of Queen Sylpha that had appeared in the middle of the cave.
Everybody but Quylla recognized her and knelt down. No one missed such detail, making his noble friends wonder how could a commoner like Lith know the Queen.
“At ease, no need for formalities. Congratulations, you are the first group of students that managed to come so far. I commend your speed, your skill and most of all your humanity.” Her eye fell for a second on Lith, expressing approval.
Linjos walked through the silver door that opened without a noise carrying a blade in his hands.
“Sometimes though, humanity must be set aside for justice to be carried out. Take these three for example. Baron Lazot, who took part in a slave trade, destroying hundreds of lives before being caught red handed.”
She pointed to the young, handsome man that Lith had just finished tying up.
“Or mage Syalle, who bathed in the blood of newborn believing it would keep her young and fresh forever.” Sylpha was now pointing at the one that had spotted the group.
“And last, but not least, Duchess Hileo, who for trivial reasons wiped out entire villages. Not all humans are bad, but they aren’t all good either. This test is maybe the hardest in your young life, that’s why I’m here with you today.
Mages are the backbone of the Griffon Kingdom, and must be able to defend it from its enemies, from both outside and within its borders. Even when it comes at a huge personal cost.
Lady Quylla, considering your young age and your nature as a healer, I think it’s too early for you to face this hurdle. May our ancestors bless your path, you are free to go.”
Quylla ran away without turning back. Tears flowed from her eyes at the thought that no matter her decision, those people were already dead. She cried for them, but also for herself, realizing that she was leaving in that cave her childhood innocence.
“Mage Lith, you can leave too.” Sylpha didn’t give an explanation, but addressing a simple student with the title of Mage was more than enough for those present to understand how well the two knew each other.
Lith left without rushing, there was nothing he could do to help them this time.
Following the Queen’s voice, Linjos offered him the sword.
Yurial hesitated at first, but then took it from the hilt, plunging it into the Baron’s heart. He had recognized that sword on first sight, it was the Kingdom’s ceremonial blade used for public executions.
His father had used it countless times, and Yurial had been forced to spectate since he had accepted becoming the next heir.
“Your Kingdom thanks you for your sacrifice.” Sylpha gave him a small bow of respect, before Warping Yurial back in his room. She could tell by his face that he was about to cry, puke or both, and wanted to spare him doing it in front of others.
“Lady Phloria?” The sword floated in front of her.
“I’m sorry your Majesty, I can’t.” She fell on her knees, crying. Phloria remembered the day when she asked his father, Orion, how it felt killing the bad guys. Orion went to the kernel, handing her a puppy and a knife, asking her to kill it.
Even then, Phloria refused to do it, crying for her life.
“That’s how it feels. Every single time.” Orion said.
“When it stops hurting, it means you have become the bad guy.”
Sylpha warped her away too. There was no reason torturing such a young girl any further.
Friya knew Duchess Hileo very well. She had been her mother’s best friend as long as she could remember. Now she finally understood what they were always talking and laughing about, when they thought she couldn’t hear them.
– “The world sucks, people suck. First my mother, then Lady Ernas and now the Queen. No one really cares for me, I’m just a tool for their sick games. I’m the only one I can rely on.”– Friya thought while slashing down in an arc.
“Glory to the Kingdom.”
The Duchess head rolled on the floor, its tumbling echoing in the darkness of Friya’s heart.