From the bottom of my heart, thank you to my patrons: Morpheaus, and RTB <3 <3 <3
Become a patron too and read up to FOUR chapters ahead!: https://www.patreon.com/trashwithglasses
“Young master! The assassins told me that the boy-!”, the magician with bags under his eyes, the one from Arapaima’s group who explained to me the basics of the Wind Cave, stormed into the room.
He fell in silence noticing the carnage of both his companions and the agents from The School. Then, his eyes fell on me, as my stone boots dissolved.
“It’s dead”, I explained, deadpan, nodding toward the disgusting pile of flesh and scales on the ground.
It was hard for me to believe that Arapaima had become the fish monster, and I’d seen it with my own eyes. I thought the one bearing the glowing spear wouldn’t trust me, but, instead, he walked closer to the “cadaver”, understanding, looking more tired than in grief.
“It’s said that the depths of this cave are connected to the higher world. Nowadays, miracles may be rare outside, but here? The Gods may very well still generously give their blessings… and punishments, as they once did while walking among us, not many generations ago.”
Crouching before the “corpse” of his boss, he scooped some of the flesh and stored it away in a bag.
“I knew it would end up like this. Everyone did”, sighing, he got back up and said something unintelligible, but clearly humbly. His native language? Then, he seemed to repeat himself: “Thank you, stranger. I’ll make sure to teach my people the story of this disaster. And may it never happen again.”
“Are you going away?”, I asked.
“Yes. Our land is far, far away from here. Young master came to this place, initially, for the good of our people, following the steps of his father, our deceased great leader… But he was quickly corrupted. Greed passed to control him… And we didn’t do a thing to stop it. A mistake that won’t be repeated. Excuse me now”, the magician with dark bags under his eyes was about to leave the room, when he turned once again to me: “Oh. And I’m sorry for kicking you when you were asleep”, unimpeded, he walked away.
I didn’t really regret killing the fishman. But, somehow, that didn’t feel like a victory either.
“…Well, Arapaima’s problem is solved, I think?”, the green-haired girl, looking less purple now that she could breathe, got up, and started looking after her men, who started to recover their consciousness.
“Yeah. But what about this boy?”, the man with a mohican was still staring daggers at me.
“What about me?”, I was confused.
“Don’t play stupid, you just used half a dozen powerful magics, and continuously! There’s no way you’re just a random apprentice candidate! Tell us right now: who are you?!”
“Skyblue, Of The Coyote Clan”, were any of the magics I used considered a big deal?
“We already know that”, the mohican man facepalmed.
“That’s enough, Dam”, at this point, the surviving School agents were paying close attention to the discussion. “He saved our lives, and hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“…Technically not”, the man with the mohican threw me a disgusted side glance. “If he didn’t send us here to get ambushed on purpose. If he didn’t let that man be painfully split in half on purpose. You saw it, captain Mari! He could have used his power at any moment to have helped us, but he left many die… and the sadism he exhibited when he killed Arapaima isn’t normal.”
The surviving agents seemed to notice the bloody remains of Arapaima beside me only them, And they frowned.
I retreated one step back.
Again? Was I really seeing my hopes slipping away in between my fingers? No food, no shelter, corruption, betrayal, and then, ostracism. My city experience. My second dream. My second failure.
“Don’t be childish, Dam!”, Mari screamed, frowning. “The man saves your life, and that’s how you react?! Shame on you!”, her words had immediate effect on her subordinates, and they passed to stare to the ground. Sighing, she told me: “Coyote, thank you for everything. I keep my promise and make sure you’ll be allowed to make an offering and try to get into the Bear Mountain. Good luck.”
Thinking back at the creature I killed inside the cave, I couldn’t even comprehend why I hesitated before? Sure, it may have been Arapaima before, but then it wasn’t anymore. It had become a violent, dangerous monster somehow. My present self I could destroy thousands of them without feeling a thing, I knew it.
“I changed again, didn’t I?”, I whispered to myself. “Still, I’m no monster. I will never kill a person”, I promised… And, somehow, it felt like wishful thinking.
I started green stone fish sculpture Arapaima gave me as an offering before, hoping that it would still work. It was just like that Mari girl said. Luck. I would need it, if the test really had anything to do with your value, that is.
Yes, the day had come: it was the Selection Festival.
The streets were even more crowded than normal, and people looked high-spirited, the many different buildings each erected decorations of their own tradition, and many people gathered around them to pray, or animatedly talk, eat, and drink.
I wasn’t that excited, but more like nervous. Nevertheless, I walked to the forest beyond the city, to wait for the announcement of the start of the festival, and try one more time to get into The School.
There were hundreds of people all around the forest; some paced back and forth, skittish, and some stood perfectly still, carrying little girls on their shoulders? Some sleeping?!
When I made eye contact with the man named “Ursus”, with who I traveled to the Wind Cave before, his gaze was piercing and uncomfortable to bare, so I focused on the grass field between the forest and the Bear Mountain. To my surprise, then I could somehow see some kind of magic in the field, as if a blanket of power covered all of it, and not only vaguely feel power anymore. Was that because I broke a second link of the tattoo?
Finally, the ground started to shake, and in the distance, the huge mouth-gate of the Bear Mountain started to move, to open. The magical drawings around the eye-sockets shone brightly, and from the fire in the nose-hole, fireballs were shot into the skies, and exploded magnificently. When the gate was completely open, and the fireworks stopped, it seemed it was finally time.
At once, everyone in the woods took a step forward, and into the grass plain. Like many others, I closed my eyes, lowered my head, and raised my hands in a prayer.
Wait, how did you pray?
“Uh… I know that, right now, I’m not the best magician, or even person for that matter. But I’m willing to change. To get better. So… Please, accept and guide me? Gods… or spirits, or something?”, I monologued in my head.
And, to my surprise, something answered:
“Uh?!”, Once I opened my eyes, I had already crossed the entirety of the grass field. “Who was that…?” I asked myself, seeing no one around. Had my prayer been answered? Another question to my ever-growing pile of them. “That’s why I’m here in the first place. To look for answers”, I turned back to the entrance of The School.
Many new students commemorated their acceptance ahead, and cheerful seniors guided them inside, and to my back, an equal number of people got engulfed in blue light, and teleported back to the forest, and their families and friends waited to comfort them.
Determined, I stepped into the gaping skeletal jaw-gate of the Bear Mountain.