The surrounding fields had been razed and roads upturned, yet Zorin Academy itself stood alone and unscathed. A wall of earth had sprung up around its perimeters like a dense barrier and the only addition that seem to have impacted the institute’s cleanliness, were splotches of blood and entrails littering the broken southern gates.
Weary and exhausted, Master Hamin Quinz took one look at the carnage around himself and tiredly stepped through the gates. It had been a long day and the unfortunate passing of fools were the least of his worries.
Master Keral followed, nodding graciously to the attentive feline that had come to greet them. Unlike its usual coloration of dried moss, the cat was covered from head to tail in what could only be blood.
Upon entering, tears flooded his eyes and Master Zaele knelt down onto the academy grounds. His body still flushed with mana, he gently laid out the body of his mentor onto the grass as his emotions overtook him.
“Zaele…” Keral whispered, seeing the younger master’s anguish.
“Guh- they… none of them even recognized him!” Zaele lashed out, barely able to contain his voice. “He gave up his life for this city and yet none… not one of them even knew what he did. No one even recognized the sacrifice he made!” He bellowed, planting his forehead onto the ground beside the corpse of the deceased headmaster. “KUH! AaaaGuuaHHH!!!”
“Such was the grandmaster. Were he alive, he would not fault the common folks for their ignorance. You should know that by now.” Hamin chided, his face a stoic and inflexible mask.
Out of respect, they had personally carried the headmaster’s lifeless body all the way from the 1st ward, giving it a last glimpse of the city that it loved.
Yet with the happenings around the city, they were but another trio carrying their dead amongst thousands of others.
“There is still much to do. Gather yourself and show the old man that his sacrifice was not in vain. He deserves at least that much from us.” Hamin added.
“F-forgive me. I just… I just need a moment to-” The ground shuddered beneath him and Zaele immediately paused. Slowly turning around, Keral and Hamin were already looking past the gates and toward the horizon.
“W-what is…?” Keral’s inquiry trailed into nothingness and his already pale face turned even whiter.
Though incomparable to what appeared earlier that day, a vast concentration of mana had manifested in the direction of the 11th ward Mystiks guild.
From his position on the ground, “This feeling… it is the same…” Zaele cautiously eked out, his tormented expression now replaced with uncertain fear.
“Why? Why is this happening again?” Hamin questioned alongside them.
Unlike his calm appearance, his tone was vexed and filled with dread as if a bone chilling wind had just swept through him.
“Kuh!” Shaking his head, Hamin muttered a swift incantation and a thin veil of mana flashed briefly around his vicinity, then vanished into his body.
Without looking to Zaele or Keral, “We will grieve when I return.”
He dashed out of Zorin, not waiting for a response.
Full of desperation, a man’s voice resounded through the room.
“I know you can understand me! I’m begging you, please!”
Dazed and confused, the taste of blood filled his mouth as the voice continued. ‘W-what happened?’ Huin Xoras Ravon wordlessly questioned, having regained consciousness.
Spitting out the wad of blood congealing in his mouth, “Ughkuuu?!” He groaned in agony as a sharp pain pulsed angrily throughout his body. A burning pain, it ripped across his chest like someone had struck him with a large cudgel. ‘Father…’ The hole in his father’s chest quickly surfaced in his mind.
“Haaak-uhhh…” Taking deep breaths in an effort to stabilize himself, he slowly glanced around the area.
The cold against his back and the dimness of the poorly lit room easily revealed that he was still within the trial chamber and lying against the wall.
“Stop! I order you to stop!” The voice screamed.
An image of his sword slicing through Alzin Varath’s upper torso flashed into his mind and, “No… I- GAaaruurggg-!”
Huin immediately clenched his teeth as excruciating pain shot through his right arm. With an almost tearful gaze, he carefully looked down at himself.
Though his left arm was merely stinging, he could barely feel his right without biting down more pain. His sleeves were in strips and looking closer, there were deep and bloody gashes along his right forearm all the way up to his shoulder.
“Ugh! Ghaaa-” He groaned as the throbbing pain swept through his body again. Unable to move, he shakily refocused his unsteady vision toward the center of the room instead.
Troyle, the red headed guard was now standing where Alzin Varath had been. The man had his arms out and appeared to be pleading to someone within the room.
On their side of the table, none of the five mages were moving or saying anything. All of their eyes were in the direction of Alzin’s guard.
Aligning his gaze with theirs, Huin quickly spotted what they were looking at. The pain within his body seem to abruptly vanish.
Standing before the Varath guard and obscured by the walls of the chamber, was a silhouette even darker than night.
Pitch black and without features, an enormous amount of mana was emanating from it along with an overpowering sense of death.
‘It was real… it IS real…’ The thoughts corrected themselves in his mind as what transpired surged back into his memories.
The moment that he drew his sword, the red headed guard had also lunged at Alzin.
Along with the guard’s explosive movement, a torrent of mana had burst forth from beneath them, instantly blowing away the enchantment infused into his sword.
Like living threads, hundreds of dark fibers had caught his attack in midair and sliced apart his sword before driving themselves into his right arm.
Next thing he knew, his chest was burning and he was sailing across the room while gasping for air.
“In my son’s name, I beg of you. Please stop!” The guard helplessly cried out.
“… Our Warnings Go Unheeded… A Price Of Blood Must Be Paid.” A different voice crackled through the room. Cold and unnatural, it reverberated around the chamber as if originating from the very bricks lining the Crucible itself.
‘It speaks!’ The pain in his chest swelled even hotter, but Huin dared not look away.
“Please!” The Varath guard fearfully begged, not moving from the entity’s path. Hanging his head down, “Y-you have protected me again, and I am grateful. But p-please… please just leave it at that. I beg of you.” His voice was trembling. “These- these people here just wanted the truth and you have already p-proven our words. Please… if you kill any of them, I fear we will truly become enemies of this city.”
“An Inconsequential Fear.” The entity’s voice slowed into an ominous grating. “The Destruction Of This Ungrateful City… Is But A Simple Matter.”
Huin instinctively clutched his chest with his left hand. The burning pain seared through his body once more, yet all he could feel was the cold chill running down the back of his neck.
“No!” The guard shouted, holding his arms out fervently as if to hold back the entity. “No more! Please!”
“… So Be It.” The dark silhouette finally replied, and a number of black threads slowly unraveled themselves from the five mages. Surging back toward itself, the threads were absorbed into the dark creature’s main body. The sound of shifting sand vibrated through the air and the entity began dissolving, its featureless form slowly melting into what looked like sludge before vanishing into the floor.
As if their legs had gone limp, the mages all fell from their standing positions. Some stumbled to the floor in relief, while others fell back onto their seats in terror.
Sensing the overbearing pressure disappear, “Haaa… haaahahaha…” Huin painfully exhausted a laughter in defeat, having once again noticed the pain that was throbbing in his body.
“Y-you were right, father. Guh-!” He gripped at his chest again, ignoring the agony that came with each heartbeat.
The pieces were there all along. All he had to do, was watch and listen as his father had bade him to do. As his father would have done. “He- haaa… he was indeed the future of this city, but I… I am not so sure anymore. Not after what we’ve- what I have done…”
One of the mages cried out, finally noticing his sorry situation as his body slumped to the floor.
Freed from her shackles, Evelyn could do naught, but quietly stare at her trembling hands.
In the blink of an eye, the barrier she had hastily cast against Lord Ravon was swallowed up and before she could even react, the lord was flying across the room.
Thousands of black threads had pierced through the magically reinforced floor like a water spout, and were already swirling around the red headed guard like a shimmering cloak.
In awe of the explosive spectacle, she could not help but stare.
By the time the thought of shielding herself came into her mind, it was already too late as she had already been rendered powerless by its tendrils.
With the threads digging into her body, she had been unable to do anything but watch, as the entity congregated into a being of pitch black night before her very eyes.
An overpowering presence, the feeling from it was reminiscent of the unnatural darkness that had appeared throughout the city earlier that day. But unlike their foolish assumptions prior, they could not dismiss the phenomena as the doings of their enemies.
“This… this is not good. We must get him to the physicians. Quick, help me!”
One of the mage’s shaken voice undulated through the room, but Evelyn did not dare to look. Staring down at her own hands, her lips began quivering, “Aa… Asiran. Enzar- No. En- Enve- Enveratas, Z-za- El- No… no no no.” No matter how much she willed it, the simple fire incantation would not reveal itself to her. ‘W-why? Why?!’ Her mind screamed, unable to sense the flow of magic within her own body. ‘Why can’t I – Ugh!’
‘Our warnings go unheeded… Destruction… A Simple Matter.’
The words replayed themselves like a waterwheel, churning round and round, echoing clearly and dreadfully within the midst of her mind.
She quickly hid her face in her hands, covering her own frustration and weakness. “U-GUuuH!” Unable to hide from her own fears, the thought of death continued to loom over her, encompassing her from within as the truth became all too clear.
Had the Varath guard not pleaded for them, they all would have perished.
Should the entity turn its ire against Ferrent, even with all the current mages of the three wards, they would be unable to delay the city’s destruction.
The sound of the Crucible’s double doors slamming open resounded from downstairs, followed by the sound of shouting along with dozens of footsteps.
Feeling pathetic and doubtful of herself, she tiredly turned her attention to the two who were still standing across from her. The red headed guard Troyle, along with Lord Alzin Varath had yet to move from their side of the table.
On their faces were the same terrified expressions as her own.
Drained to the point where he wanted nothing more than to crawl into a dark corner and sleep, Master Hamin fleet footedly halted before one of the grand halls.
Behind him, a few other mages had also arrived. Looking haggard and singed with some panic on their faces but appearing to be in good health, they had undoubtedly returned to the guild for the same reason he did.
‘What happened?’ He wondered, stepping into the grand hall.
The upwelling of mana had disappeared before he even arrived, but no matter where he looked, the mages moving about were in a constant state of agitation. The only ones who did not look troubled, were their magicless assistants.
Not sticking around, he immediately made his way through the hall and toward the Crucible.
Spotting a mage three years his junior, “Byrthan.” Hamin greeted, seeing that the man was guarding the entrance to the black dome.
“L-Lord Quinz?!” The mage responded with a guarded yet surprised exuberance. “What are-” The man paused, eyeing him carefully. “… you too?”
“So you know why I’m here. What happened here?” He quickly countered.
The man looked around cautiously, then refocused his gaze onto Hamin. “I don’t know. It happened inside, and no one is saying anything.”
“What I do know, is that Lord Alzin Varath and his personal guard were brought inside earlier on quite the grievous charges.” The mage continued.
Hamin’s eyes widened at the news.
“His Lordship Huin Ravon came to us as well and was also led inside by Lady Evelyn. Then-” The mage hesitated momentarily before opening his mouth again, “Then that horrible feeling. Like being dragged under water with your legs and arms chained to a sinking boulder.” Byrthan averted his eyes away from Hamin’s. “None of us had dared to enter until it was gone…” The sound of defeat in the man’s voice was clear and obvious.
‘Huin Ravon?’ A tinge of curiosity assaulted his thoughts but, “What of those who were inside? Where is Lord Varath and his guard?” Hamin hastily queried, fearing for the worse.
“Lady Evelyn and the other mages should be in the Shattered Hall of Lys. As for his Lordship Huin Ravon, the lord has been taken to the Sapphire Room.”
“The Sapphire Room?” The guild’s resplendent room of healing surfaced in the corner of his mind. It was a place reserved only for those with the direst of conditions.
“He was quite badly injured.”
“Wha- no. Never mind. What of Varath and his guard?” Hamin repeated, dismissing the former.
“In the black cells.” Byrthan tentatively replied, taking a quick glance back at the double doors behind him. “They had insisted to stay in there for now.”
The tension in his tired body suddenly evaporated. “Haa…” Breathing a breath of relief and thankful that nothing had happened, “Any casualties?”
“Thankfully indeed…” He echoed, slouching forward to place his hands on his knees to keep himself from falling over.
“Lord Quinz, are you-”
“It’s okay. I am fine.” Holding one hand up, he halted the man’s help. “I will head to Shattered Hall. Take care, Byrthan.”
“You too, Lord Quinz.” The mage replied, giving him a curt bow as he turned away.
Filled with a number of work spaces and lounges separated only by waist high dividers, it was not hard to spot the green locks of the Lithius family as he entered the Shattered Hall.
Sitting alone in one of the open lounges, Evelyn was quietly staring at the snacks placed out before her. Appearing to be lost in her own thoughts, she did not look like she had much of an appetite. As he approached her, she immediately turned to face him and stood up.
“Master Hamin.” She greeted, calling him by his title before quickly lowering her head in respect. “What brought you? Would you care to join me?” There was an inflection in her usually clear and vibrant voice.
Though he could see that the invitation was merely a courtesy on her part, there were things that he needed to discuss with her.
“Thank you.” Nodding, Hamin stepped into the small open lounge.
Taking a seat on the cushioned divan across from Evelyn, he took a moment to observe her.
Though there was a time when she was his student, the woman before him was now as powerful as himself, if not stronger. Gifted as a member of the Lithius house, she had always been someone who attempted to rationalize everything internally, before voicing her own thoughts. It was a trait that had hampered her greatly during her early years at the academy, and one that had brought quite a bit of trouble to himself and the other masters.
A slow and stilted moment passed by them both, and like the old days, it sauntered by without a word.
Seeing her discomfort, “Are you alright?” He finally questioned.
“W-what do you mean?” An unnerved reply, as if she had been caught doing something untoward.
“Evelyn.” With a swift incantation, he erected a sound barrier around their small area. “I heard that you were inside the Crucible when it happened.” Without circling the issue, he immediately got to the root of why he was there. “What did you hear? What did you see?”
After another long silence, “We- we all thought it was a lie.” Evelyn finally answered, her voice barely above that of a whisper. “That a familiar, one capable of thrashing someone like Lord Torkux to the brink of death was… was impossible. That such a thing couldn’t exist… for no mage could possibly subdue such a spirit.” She gazed at her knees. “Lord Syndrig had claimed it to be an elaborate ruse. A tale fabricated by Lord Varath in order to buy time for their collaborators… h-how wrong we were…”
Listening to Evelyn, he could see that she was visibly shaken. There was even a bead of tear trickling down the left side of her face. “That is enough, Evelyn.”
“I was so terrified that I- I couldn’t do anything! I couldn’t even move…”
“Do not blame yourself.”
“What have we done, Master?” Evelyn lifted her head and her eyes were filled with doubts, fear, and shame. “What was that- that thing? What did we see?”
A child with hair of silver, standing like an irreproachable specter under the midnight sun.
Glowing eyes that pierced through flesh and spirit alike, flattening all that would stand before them.
An immeasurable strength that had easily forced a Malizur to his knees.
The fateful night vividly flashed before his eyes.
“… Some call it a monster.” Hamin carefully replied, looking back at Evelyn. “Others believe them to be portents of disaster.” He paused, recalling the headmaster’s words–of the promise they had all sworn to uphold ever since hearing the old man’s thoughts. “The deceased headmaster considered him a blessing. Someone who will bring change to this static and dying world.”
Upon his words, Evelyn’s eyes lit up in shock along with a mixture of emotions. “What. What did you just-”
“You heard correctly,” Taking a deep breath, Hamin composed himself on his seat, “Ferrent’s Malizur has passed away. The grandmaster died protecting this city.”
“Nn… nuuu- UguuuAHH!” Unable to compose herself, Evelyn lowered her face into her palms.
‘I am sorry.’ He silently apologized.
Not because of the day’s loss or her pain, but because of what was to come.
People had seen it and the whole city had felt it.
There was no way to contain such delicate information anymore.
The Mystiks guild itself will be forced to thoroughly investigate the entity’s existence, and should the truth be revealed, there will undoubtedly be more bloodshed.
‘You may do as you will, young Dvitus…’ The old man’s words from that inauspicious night echoed loudly in his ears and unable to deny it, Hamin quietly closed his tired eyes.
Alzin blankly stared at the ceiling of the cell as the day’s events continued to shuffle through his thoughts–carefully rearranging themselves in order.
A picturesque memory of the breakfast that had been cooked by his youngest daughter early that morning. His sharp jabbing remarks at his eldest daughter’s incessant protest of marriage. He closed his eyes, and he could almost feel the kiss he had shared with his wife before Troyle’s arrival. Even now, his legs could still feel the vibrations of their carriage as they made their way toward the royal ward.
Anger swelled from within him and Alzin irritably pushed himself up from the flimsy cot.
It was to be a day of reckoning. They had obtained written confessions speaking out against the Vatenger boy. There were even statements elaborating on the conspiracy that had cost two of his guards. Yet just like that, everything had gone to shit.
“My lord?” Troyle’s voice came from his right side and he turned to see that Troyle had also gotten up. “Can’t sleep?”
“Too much on my mind.” Alzin replied, keeping his irritation hidden.
They were in the black cells, and the two of them had been placed in the same cell as per his request. Though the chamber itself was fiercely lacking in accommodations, after the day they both had, it was a welcomed respite.
“For a place dubbed the black cells, it really isn’t as bad as I thought.” Troyle quipped, leaning his head back against the wall and staring up at the dim crystal lighting their cell.
Unable to bring himself to laugh at the half-hearted joke because of Troyle’s less than cheerful expression, Alzin hunched himself forward and stared at the floor between them.
“My lord. If we-”
“Troyle.” He interrupted, stopping Troyle’s words short. Calmly looking up at Troyle, “My family has an estate to the east of Losboros. It’s been with us for as long as anyone can remember, and it was where my father was born along with his before him.”
Confusion reared itself on Troyle’s face. “I… I faintly recall you mentioning something about the land that was bestowed upon your family. Is that it?”
“It is.” Alzin steadily replied. “Though I’ve only been there a few times, the land is good and could be suitable for farming if some of the trees are taken down. The manor might need some renovating but it has been routinely looked after, and should be habitable with plenty of living quarters.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Haaa…” Sighing deeply, “I don’t know if my family can live in this city anymore after what happened today.” Alzin paused and carefully considered his words. “My faith toward the crown has been wavering these days, and even if we are exonerated from these allegations, I fear the people will not put such things out of their minds. As you’ve surely seen for yourself, we nobles can be quite vindictive and irrational at times.” Taking another deep breath, “I will not deny the fact that I am an ambitious man. Were I not, I would not be where I am today. But that is no secret, and my ambitions have always been open for all to see should they wish. Yet, because of my family’s deficiencies, our lack of magical abilities, I have had to prove myself time and time again, only to be seen as lesser amongst my peers.”
“I tire of it, Troyle.” Alzin calmly stood up. Walking over to Troyle, he extended his right hand forward. “You are my protector, but first and foremost, you are my friend. Speaking as one man to another. If I were to leave Ferrent with my family, would you and yours come with us?”