Aren missed the time where he could wake up from a comfy mattress and to stretch out his arms with no worry. It was at least a thousand years ago where he once had such luxury. Since then, it was nothing but hay, heaps of sticks, dirt, and rocks. He let out an enormous yawn and lazily made his way to the living room. A familiar face was sitting on the couch and when he rubbed his eye to get a clearer picture, he realized it was Dickus who was there, reading a book titled “Mythical Tales of the Past.” The Lord turned around, closing the book, and spoke with a bright smile on his face.
“Ah, Aren dear, you are finally awake,” Dickus began. “It seems fatigue is not a concern for you.”
“Yeah, but what about a stalking clown roaming in this home? That’s creepy man…”
“I apologize: I was rather excited to see you after our debacle from yesterday. Here, I brought some new clothes for you to wear.” Dickus handed the apparel to Aren.
“These are the same clothes what the kids wear here. Not that special for ya?”
“This will help you blend in. You desire to remain hidden, so I am respecting your wishes.”
Aren scratched his head. “When you bring it up that way… Guess it’s a must.”
“The Academy staff were noted about a ‘special guest,’ so they won’t bother us for the day.” Dickus clasped his hands. “My, I am happy to give you the grand tour of the Academy! Come on, chop chop!”
Aren rolled his eye, going to the bedroom to change into the Academy attire. He came out wearing his satchel and wrapped his scarf on his neck. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
“Your scarf, dear hero. Please be a darling and leave it. You know why, yes?”
Aren lowered his eye. “Right… Gotta change my looks.”
“Don’t worry: I selected the housemaids tending your room. I ensure the safety of your items.”
From that point on, Aren explored the Academy in its entirety with Dickus, the Lord explaining the details in each section they went to. The school was large enough to accommodate over thirty-thousand students. There were hundreds of professors hired to teach the students from morning to afternoon, six days a week. Each pupil had to go to one of the two large buildings of the Academy: The Mystic or Armaments departments. The Mystic department taught the ways of magic and how to use mana efficiently, whereas the Armaments department educated the way of close-quarters combat. Where one would go depended on their enrollment: a mage would strictly go to Mystics, and a knight would learn in Armaments. There is an option to go both ways, though you must have the coin to do so or convince the administration with your talent.
In the back center between these departments was the main building, the Hall of Institution. Language Arts, History, Mathematics, and Science are taught in large lecture halls in this facility, hosting hundreds of students within. Consolers, financiers, and advisors are stationed here for any concerns regarding student wellbeing, scholarships, or owed payments.
At the center of the Academy were the Gardens. The area was decorated with a working fountain, iron benches, and various plants and trees for scenery. Students would relax there during their breaks. The large mess hall was nearby, providing three square meals daily for all until eight post-meridiem, and those wanting more would have to pay in either coin or food stamps, which were provided as prizes during school events. For those wanting to scrub away the dirt from their person, there are public baths available to all, regardless of social standing, from afternoon to midnight. The baths and mess hall were cleaned daily, whereas the Gardens were maintained on a weekly basis.
Dormitories were catered to all students. An extensive facility was made for the upper-class citizens with spaces fitting for their social standing. The lower to middle classes had buildings dedicated to their lodgings, though they were granted rooms large enough to hold a bed, cabinet, and a table. To upgrade to a larger space required one to go to the financiers directly.
There were extracurricular activities such as the fine arts, sports, and clubs the students may take part in. The dueling matches, in particular, were the most competitive of these activities, and each year, the Academy will host a competition. The winner and runners-up could join Damore’s most notable organizations, the famous being the Royal Knights.
All of this was shown and explained to Aren. The fact a single establishment can contribute many resources to achieve this much goodwill was astounding. It was almost afternoon when Dickus and Aren sat on a bench in the Gardens. The two were silent, watching the sun set below the horizon in front of them.
“So, what do you think?” Dickus asked. “Not all people can easily tour around Thyderalis’ most prestigious place of learning.”
“I admit, it’s a lot to take in. Education, meals, a place to sleep, and a public bath? Things like this were noble exclusive back then.” Aren let out a deep sigh. “It’s a wonderful sight to see. Looting a dragon’s lair would probably cover a small portion of costs to build and maintain this place.”
“Indeed. We spent most of our taxes here and to our military. Noble families such as mine spent our monetary gains for other reasons here, however.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Head Maester is in charge of all the education matters with her Executive Council to advise them. The High Lords of Damore secretly use this base for operations against our enemies. We have portals on the lower floors leading to key points in the kingdom. A small group can use it without revealing their location, hence only authorized personal can access it.”
“Using a place of peace and learning as a means to further your kingdom’s warmongering. You guys are really something else.”
“This is top secret information I am disclosing to you, dear hero. Another means to show my trust in you.”
“My lips are extra sealed. Speaking of top-secret information…” Aren leaned forward. “It’s been like a day since then, but something’s got me thinking about those Eadburts.”
“I would love to hear your insight. Tell me what is on your mind.”
“I don’t get it. They are rich enough to fund the Academy, hire mercenaries to protect Damorian villages, and guarantee the pay of Damore’s army. From that perspective, it seems like they are one’s saving Damore from falling apart. Despite all that, you, of all people, are asking me to take them down. The question is, why?”
“An analytical thought. I would be considered a traitor to reveal such intentions. However, am I wrong to have such reflections?”
“Um, yeah, which is why I’m kinda asking?”
Dickus flicked his hand and a small statue manifested upon his palm. He handed it to Aren, who surveyed it. Though it was chipped and worn, he could make of its structure: a symbol of a crescent moon with a sword piercing through it. As Aren’s hand glazed over the object, dark energy emanated from it.
“No way. This is a Dark Sigil! Well, it’s got the energy but… hmm, not fully powered yet. Seems like this was supposed to be finished, but someone stopped halfway.”
Dickus nodded. “Indeed. I am aware you are quite familiar with this statue, yes?”
Aren touched his chin. The Dark Sigil only had one affiliation: The Phantoms of Sargata. They were cultists of the Goddess of Chaos, sacrificing many lives, hoping to bring her to the world and destroy everything. In the old days, he fought hard to drive these people out of existence. These Sigils were used to bring demons from the Hellish Plane to the Mortal Realm through a ritual called the Awakening. If one Sigil was tainted with dark energy, it would mean the ritual was nearing its completion.
“This… is some serious business. Where did you find it?” Aren questioned.
“My agents encountered a mercenary group carrying suspicious cargo. The contents they were escorting were several stacks of weapons and, underneath the metal. The item in question.”
“How is it connected to the Eadburts?”
“A letter was addressed to the Head of House, stamped with an official seal.”
“Something like that could never go unnoticed. Did they figure out?”
“Gods, no. I am the prime suspect, but without any evidence, they will never come up with a case. After all, my agents never leave a trace behind.”
“Maybe they were looking for lost relics and they dug it up. You saying they are part of the Awakening is too far of a stretch. How can you be so sure? This is…” Aren was silent for a moment. He handed back the statue to Dickus, shaking his head in denial. “The Phantoms of Sargata were wiped out. The possibility of them coming back is, well, it ain’t impossible, but practically it is. Iskander and Jason erased almost all information about her and that godforsaken cult. It’s a shock to me even after all of that, they survive like the pitiful rats they are.”
“Ah, ‘The Big Three,’ or so the scholars call it.” Dickus chuckled. He spoke and moved theatrically. “King Jason of Oceanus, the legendary Lionhearted king. Iskander, the Saintly Conqueror, and you, Aren, the fabled hero of Thyderalis! Three heroes challenging the might of a fallen god. This is rather exciting to be in the presence—”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I can snuggle you up to bed and tell that story another time.” Aren got up, stretching his arms. “Anyway, that Eadburt thingy. You are going to need more proof to convince me.”
“Well, spending time with the world’s greatest hero made me slip my tongue a little,” Dickus said with a grin. “I am disclosing sensitive information out in the open, so I am afraid this is all I can muster. So, what say you?”
Aren sighed. “I got no choice but to hop in. Sigil’s active and I gotta find out who’s the one responsible for it. The Eadburts are the only clue to this, so I have to start with them. Mind if I see the note?”
“In my office, my dear.” Dickus stood up and tapped Aren’s shoulder for him to turn around. “But I am afraid it will happen in another time.”
A gang of nobles were walking across the Gardens, sneering and bickering at their fellow peers. A demihuman cat girl was walking by them, and one noble purposely bumped into her. Her heavy books fell to the floor, scattering all over the place. The group spoke in a demeaning matter, repeating the phrase “half-breed scum” while she picked up the books in silence. A familiar face approached the girl, helping her pick up the books.
“Hey… that kid. Wait, that’s Merlin!” Aren exclaimed.
Merlin smiled as he helped the girl up. “Hi. Do you need help with those books?”
The demihuman blushed. “N-No, I’m okay. Thank you.”
The girl bowed and hurried away as the gang of nobles surrounded Merlin. They stepped to the side as their leader approached the young mage with a cocky grin on his face. The wind howled as the young man’s blonde hair flourished. He narrowed his autumn brown eyes and spoke in a belittling matter.
“Well, well, Merlin Ambrosius. The Maester’s ‘little boy.’ Looks like you gain some confidence after your time in the Forest of Sorrows, huh?”
“Bral…” Merlin responded in a trembling tone. “I was just helping the girl you bumped into earlier. Anyway, I—”
“That girl bumped into me, you dimwit!” Bral grabbed Merlin’s shirt collar. “I heard the rumors: shadowy-like beasts going faster than the eye can see. There’s no way a person like you could survive even a day in there.”
“I-I was… just lucky.”
Bral laughed. “Yeah, right, lucky. No wonder one of the Conclave members died: they died to save your worthless life. He must be disposable to do such a thing.”
“…. What did you say?”
“You heard me right. The Conclave members are powerful individuals, and one of them gave their life for nothing. I guess ‘Senior’ is just as pathetic as you are.”
Merlin made a fist and gritted his teeth. He pushed Bral away, readying his staff and assuming a stance. “I don’t care what you say about me, but I won’t let you talk to Senior that way! Take it back, now!”
Bral smirked, readying his sword. “Make me, you little s***.”
A crowd of students formed around them, keeping their distance from the upcoming fight. Dickus shook his head and took out his magic mirror.
“Oh my, looks like the younglings are causing a disgraceful scene. Security will have to deal with this, soon enough.”
“Who’s the kid that pissed off Merlin?” Aren asked.
“That is Bral Eadburt. One of the top students of the Academy. Top marks in combative tests and very intelligent. Unfortunately, his success is getting to his head. I heard reports of him bullying the other students on the daily basis.”
“And you did nothing about it?”
“His family funds the Academy. If any of the Academy staff dare lays even a finger on him, the Head of House would negate their resources at will. With such circumstance in hand, you can clearly see its effects…”
“I had other things to worry about. Some squabble between students is none of my concern,” Dickus said. A drop of sweat fell from his forehead.
Aren lowered his eyes in disappointment. “Yeah, yeah: excuses, excuses. So, he’s acting all bigshot, huh? As much as I would want to start on him, there’s still a question that needs to be answered.”
“And that is?”
“It’s about Merlin. His spell casting inconsistent and his mana flow feels off. Let them do their thing so I can see what’s up.”
“Yeah, let them fight.”
Dickus gave a quick bark of laughter. “Y-You can’t be serious? Merlin stands no chance against him. I cannot bear the sight—”
“I’ll hop in if things get ugly. Trust me on this.”
“I remember you wanting to avoid attention and now…? I—Bah, such a predicament.” Dickus was silent for a moment, then activated the magic mirror. A soldier’s face appeared in the glass.
“High Lord Hawkwood.”
“Captain. Get a medical team and staff ready for a soon-to-be injured student. Be on standby near the Gardens. That’ll be all.”
“As you wish, my Lord.”
Dickus ended the transmission and gave Aren the look. “The Head Maester would not like this. I suppose I am the one to take the responsibility for this matter. Oh my, the lengths I would go for you, hero.”
“Thanks. Be right back.”
Aren went off into the crowd, pushing the other students away until he got to the front. He saw Bral telling his goons to get to the sidelines. The young man brandished his sword, pointing the tip to Merlin.
“I assume you are aware of what’s going to happen to you?”
Merlin grunted. “I don’t care. You are going to take back what you said about Senior! Here I come, Bral!”
He yelled with all his might, closing the distance between them. Bral grunted, immediately appearing before him, and shoved his heel deep into Merlin’s stomach. Merlin was sent back, tumbling across the ground. He got up undeterred, though breathing heavily and coughing vigorously.
“Not knocked out in one hit? Looks like you gained some guts in you.” Bral smirked. “You should’ve stayed down, though. To keep on fighting will be a decision you will soon regret.”
Merlin manifested a magical barrier around him when Bral thrust his sword at him. Despite his effort, the spell broke by the sheer force of the strike. He was thrown back once again but quickly stood up with his staff ready. The mage charged once again and this time, Bral allowed him to close the distance.
“Agni!” he shouted.
A puff of smoke came out from his staff, blocking Bral’s vision. Bral swiped away the fog and was met with a staff bashing across his face. He felt a small bump form on his cheek. Merlin saw Bral’s boiling rage and made another barrier to protect himself from the barrage of strikes.
“Come on, come on, please work when I say the spell!” Merlin turned his back on his opponent and pointed the tip of the staff in front. “Staff, ignite and burst!”
The top of the staff set off a fiery explosion, enough to propel himself back meters away. The magical barrier slammed face-first into his opponent, throwing him off his feet. Bral got up, tasting his blood from his lips. The crowd murmured.
“Woah, that kid made Bral bleed!” a bystander remarked.
“What is Bral even doing?! Is he even taking him seriously?” another came in.
Let’s see the power difference between the two, Aren thought. He closed his eye and reopened them, seeing the magical cores of both Bral and Merlin. Bral’s core was the typical blue, and it was radiating high amounts of mana. Merlin, however, was an interesting case: one half blue, one half red. The two sides were at a constant battle and such conflict resulted in a lower mana radiation. No wonder Merlin’s magic was unpredictable: his core was not refined at all. Even so, the young mage used his incapability as a mage to his advantage. Such feats were impressive, but strikes like that will not pierce the dragon’s scales.
Bral laughed hysterically and looked at Merlin maliciously.
“So, you can do something. I guess pissing you off is all the motivation a deadweight like you needs!”
“Shut up. Senior’s no push over and I won’t let you disrespect him like that!” Merlin shouted.
“Seeing me bleed sure gave you some determination, but I’m afraid all will end here.”
Bral traveled in speeds faster than Merlin can react to, and before he knew it, the noble smashed his fist across his face. His body spiraled in midair and landed face first into the dirt ground. Merlin was knocked out cold. Bral approached the unconscious mage and spat.
“No matter how hard to try, you’ll never be as strong as me.”
He raised his feet to land the finishing blow, but was pushed aside by an unknown force. Aren appeared in front of him, standing in his way.
“All right, kid, that’s enough. You made your point. Fight’s done.”
“And who are you supposed to be?!” Bral snarled. “Get out of my way!”
He lunged his sword and Dickus instantly appeared out of nowhere, blocking the sword with the tip of his finger. He pushed the weapon away and brushed the dust off his clothing.
“H-High Lord Hawkwood!” Bral exclaimed and bowed in respect. “I-I didn’t know—”
“Save your squabbling for later. All of you students, chop chop, back to your dorms! Fun time is over.” Dickus said, gesturing everyone to leave. “One more instance of this and I will have your brother personally discipline you. Understood?”
“Y-Yes, sir. I shall take my leave now.” Bral rounded up his goons and left with the large gathering of students. A group of nurses quickly came to pick up Merlin and left the premise with haste.
“That fight, while impressive for Merlin, was horrific to watch,” Dickus remarked, fixing his gloves as he turned to Aren. “I hope the information you gathered is well worth its value.”
“Sorry about that. While I didn’t figure much about that Bral kid, I definitely found out what’s going on with Merlin. He’s…”
“He is what?”
Aren was silent for a moment. “We’ll talk about that Sigil thing later: need some catching up to do with the kid.”
He waved goodbye and ran off to follow the nurses. Dickus heard a jingling noise and took out his magic mirror. The Head Maester’s face came into view.
“Dickus Hawkwood. A word, if you may. My office.”
“Yes, madam. Right away.”
Dickus put away his mirror, sighing and shaking his head. “Oh dear. The makeup will not cover the number of wrinkles I will get this time…”