Darius buried his face in his hands, a feeling of impending doom creeping up on him.
“Look, Darius. Think of what you’ll get if you win. You’ll be able to do whatever you want. Trust me, if anything, this whole arrangement helps you more than it helps me. Drink?”
Darius stared at Lionel in disbelief. “No, I don’t want a drink! I want to keep my life, Lionel. Whatever this thing is, I’m not doing it. Go find someone else to die for you.”
“The thing is, you’re already in the system, and there’s really no turning back. Even if you run, they’d hunt you down, find you, and throw you in the pit anyway.”
At this point, Darius was hyperventilating. He was now completely certain that he was going to die tomorrow.
“I can tell what you’re thinking, and no, you’re not going to die tomorrow, well probably not. A lot more people survive than you’d think,” Lionel said curtly.
Darius could only sigh. “I don’t have a choice, do I?”
“Not anymore,” Lionel said frankly.
Darius took a deep breath. “You’re a real bastard, you know that? Alright, then.”
“In that case, the first test starts tomorrow. It’s held just outside the city at an academy called Ethereal Forge Academy. Since you don’t have anywhere to stay, the taxi can take you there immediately.”
Lionel stood up and walked out of the booth. In Darius’s mind, if Lionel hadn’t saved him the other day, he would’ve been dead anyway, so was this really that terrible?
Darius wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this. Trying his best to let go of his fear, he got up, grabbed his hammer and decided that if he wasn’t going to do what it took to make the most of it, then his life wouldn’t be worth living anyway.
He walked out of the booth uncertain of the future, but whatever it was, he felt prepared to face it. He confidently walked up the stairs and into the taxi.
“Take me to Ethereal Forge Academy.”
It dinged and flew off as fast as ever. It took several minutes for Darius to realize that where he was going wasn’t in the city at all as the taxi soared over the great wall, leaving it far behind.
Outside the wall were open, green fields along with several small, scattered villages. Three of the four nighttime moons had risen now, casting a pale silver glow over the land.
The academy must have been quite far from the city because even with the sphere’s incredible speed, it still took about half an hour to arrive.
Darius was surprised by the academy’s immense size. A gigantic dome covered in some sort of transparent material several kilometers in diameter and hundreds of stories high, it was several times larger than the guild. The material parted for the pod, almost as if it were sentient. Darius marveled at the sight. As the pod descended and ground to a halt, Darius stood in front of two armed guards in some sort of courtyard in front of a large building the size of a palace. The dome was simply too large, more of a city than an academy, with a myriad of different buildings inside that Darius barely registered.
“Lord Darius?” One of the guards asked. Darius was rather surprised by the respectful tone in the guard’s voice as he nodded his head, unused to being spoken to in such a way.
“Welcome to the Ethereal Forge Academy. Right this way, Sir.” A door slid open between the two guards, and Darius followed. The dome itself consisted of hundreds of circular floors stacked on top of each other. Darius was immediately met with another set of doors as the one they had just entered through sealed shut. “We will now escort you to your room. There, you will wait for further instructions.”
As he said this, they stumbled. From the sinking feeling in his stomach, Darius realized they had walked into an elevator. “Your room is on the hundred and eighty-second floor along with the other nobles,” one of the guards detailed as the elevator doors slide to reveal a corridor with several doors flaking it.
After walking through a long corridor for some time, they arrived at a single, large door that stood alone at the end of the hallway. “You will be staying in the royal suite, originally meant for prince Lionel and his brothers. Your royal substitute status authorizes you to gain access to the room.” As soon as Darius approached, the door slid open. Already, he was amazed by what he saw. Although the guards weren’t allowed to reveal it, they were annoyed about serving this simpleton as if he were of noble blood.
Darius entered the large, circular room. It was tastefully decorated with a large bed in the center and three other doorways, the rightmost one led to a bathroom while the other two led to the gym and indoor pool respectively.
“If you need anything, simply clap your hands twice and say what you would like. The room will deliver it to you.” With that, the two guards bowed and walked backward with their heads lowered. The door closed after them, leaving Darius to his own devices.
Immediately, Darius clapped his hands and announced, “Food.” Although he wasn’t hungry, it was the only thing he could think of. A table materialized in front of him loaded with more food than he had ever seen before, even exceeding the banquet Lionel had prepared for him. Clearly, his broad request had been met with a broad answer. Every kind of food they had had been served to him.
So, this is what it’s like to be royalty? He thought as he scanned the lavishly decorated room. It was all solid gold and silver as far as he could tell. Dropping his bag, he walked around the large, spacious room. It was around ten PM when he sat down on the bed, taking off his shoes before lying down.
He stared at the ceiling and thought about what would happen next. He felt exhausted and worn out by everything that had happened throughout the day, his thoughts flitting about before he succumbed to an uneasy sleep.
A young boy stood alone in a wide open field. Rather scrawny, dark-skinned with black hair, he looked like a wisp blowing with the wind. A bell rang from somewhere behind him. “Darius!” A woman’s voice screamed.
The boy looked back, not sure what was happening as the woman dashed to him, grabbing him by the arm as she dragged him back to a house that had appeared ahead. She yanked the door, almost throwing the boy in before slamming it shut behind herself.
“Where’s Dad?” The boy asked as he watched his panic-stricken mother barricade the doors. She was a pretty woman, not the most beautiful but she could turn a few heads. She looked at him for a moment, despair in her eyes before resuming her task. The woman walked up to Darius and said, “Listen to me, Darius. I need you to protect your sister. Can you do that for me?”
The young boy nodded as she pushed him into another room. A little girl, about six years old, sat alone in a corner, her cries drowned out by all the noises outside. There were several screams and intermittent cries for help. The young boy was at a loss for what to do when he heard a door slam open from outside the room. Darius heard a woman scream then cracks of broken bones ending with a dull thud as a body thumped against the door.
Darius could hear a distinct, bone-chilling hiss as the spirit charged towards the door. With a bang, it slammed into the door, blasting it open. A large, pale humanoid with a serpentine torso slithered into the room. Darius witnessed two gaping black holes where its eyes would be as it approached the little girl crouching in the corner directly by the door.
The humanoid head had no eyes, two slits for a nose and large, sharp fangs poking out a cavernous hole. The torso lacked no arms but trailed off into a snake-like tail. The young girl was far too scared to even make a sound, and so was Darius. The creature made its way toward her, hissing with malevolence, yet it did nothing, simply waiting there as if it were thinking for a moment when a pair of heavy footsteps resounded outside. Panicked, the creature immediately flicked its tail to pick the little girl up.
“Darius, help me,” She whimpered as the creature hissed once more, roping its tail around her. Darius wanted to help, but noticing the open door, he took his chance and fled the room. He passed a man who looked at Darius with a puzzled face but who immediately sprinted to save the girl Darius had abandoned whose screams echoed through the house.
The creature was using its powerful tail to literally squeeze the life out of her, breaking her bones in the process. As soon as the man was in striking distance, he thrust his sword through the creature. It dropped the girl and writhed on the ground. Unfortunately, he was too late: the girl was dead. Streaks of blood and tears stained her face. The sight of her corpse would haunt Darius for six years.
He woke up with a cold sweat, panting as his sister’s desperate cries echoed through his mind.
He glanced at the holographic clock floating in mid-air as it buzzed beside him on the bedside table. It was ten AM, and someone would soon come and retrieve him. Normally, the sight of it would have impressed him, but with his dream, or more accurately, the memory he had just experienced, the jarring racket shook him to his core. He waved his hand at the clock, knocking it to the ground and finally silencing it as he sat up, rattled by his dream.
He felt a deep sinking sensation when he remembered how aggrieved and alone he had felt the other day. His suffering had been nothing compared to his sister’s.