Ilami opened her eyes and gasped. It felt like being alive again. Never would she get near Haka when he was in his beast state. She sat up, recognizing the white bed and blue blanket. Aleveri and Gael sat beside her, Aleveri clutching her hand.
‘Thank the Naturals you’re awake,’ Aleveri said, sighing in relief. Gael smiled.
‘How long have I passed out?’ Ilami asked.
‘Just for an hour.’ Aleveri turned to Gael. ‘I think it’s time for the award ceremony. You should go, Gael. The artifact is yours.’
‘Wait.’ Ilami looked from Aleveri to Gael, frowning. ‘He wins for the Scholar test? He beats you?’
‘Um, yeah, I’ve beat her several times, in fact,’ Gael said, grinning. ‘I don’t know. Maybe I don’t win? We’re basing this off our question papers.’
‘Which should be enough!’ Aleveri said, oddly determined. ‘We put our answers in there, there shouldn’t be any mistake. And, er, this might sound harsh, but the other two don’t have a chance to outdo you. I just know.’
Ilami rubbed her chest, feeling sore. That part was most impacted from this energy draining. Other than that, she felt okay. She started to get off the bed.
‘Wait, what are you doing?’ Aleveri asked. ‘You should rest.’
Ilami waved away her concern. ‘It’s just a faint, Aleveri. I’m fine now. We should watch the ceremony also.’
As they left the ward, Aleveri told her about Felaris’s parents.
‘I saw them arguing with Mrs. Venaria. They obviously knew what Haka displayed was no ordinary Natural magic. They accused him of cheating – what with the extraordinary speed and strength. They couldn’t recognize the energy draining though – it wasn’t apparent. Kestari was with her. And did you know what he said?’
Ilami shook her head.
‘He said this was a blessing from Lio. No, not a regular blessing, but one for a priest. He said Lio must’ve seen potential in Haka, and had been choosing this time to grant them these enhancements. It’s pure nonsense, I tell you, and the parents might have thought so too, but they couldn’t prove otherwise. The crowd would be even more ignorant about this. They aren’t from people who use Natural magic for combat or knowledge.’
Ilami nodded. Despite Natural magic being the common magic used in Estagria, only a few schools actually taught focused on it and its potential for combat and further research. What they had seen from the fights would be summarized as nothing more than the advancement of Natural magic, if anything at all. Just as she expected. Still, it was a risk for the school to let Haka participate, knowing what he was capable at. What were the school and the church trying to prove?
A stage had been prepared for the ceremony at the field. The floor was made with glossed wood. Mr. Haifei stood at the corner as the host of the event. He stood at the podium, addressing the crowd who sat in the chairs that had been provided. Mother, Kestari, and the parents of the participating students sat at the front row. From the back, Ilami couldn’t identify the Xikaras and Arvans, but Ashavs stood out with their crimson attires with gold adornment.
‘The moment we have been waiting for has arrived,’ Mr. Haifei started. His monotone voice suited the air of formality he had to exude. ‘The result of the winners of the Fighter and Scholar tests has been given to me. Before we start the award ceremony, I would like to welcome our Natron, Kestari Fexar, to deliver a speech.’
Kestari’s speech went on in a generic fashion. Of course, he sprinkled it with praises to the school and the people who had managed to come. He continued to pour the artificial sweetness to the church and the gods, especially Lio and Xesar. Ilami gritted her teeth. That manipulator, flawlessly orchestrating his words on the stage. The church to whom he belonged founded the Test, was aware of the artifacts in the Restricted Area, and most likely to be involved in the experimentation, given that was what their god, Lio, wanted them to do.
After he finished, Mother took the stage. Her speech contrasted Kestari’s. She spoke with confidence expected from a general at war, unbothered to layer her words with decorations. Honesty she displayed like a sword, a weapon to be used to encourage reaction from the audience. Looking around, Ilami could see it. The audience was enthralled by her speech just as Kestari’s did, but instead of making them feel better about themselves, Mother heightened their emotions – the passion and determination. She emphasized the importance of the Test, and the infinite worth of the students who had participated in it.
The award ceremony finally arrived.
‘The winner for the Fighter test goes to Haka Arvan!’ Mr. Haifei announced. For a split second, he stared at Ilami, making her gulp.
Haka, standing up from a line of teachers and priests, walked to the stage. His face was emotionless as he shook Kestari’s and Mother’s hands before claiming his artifact from Mr. Haifei. The artifact was a white bracelet.
Gael gasped. ‘Farava’s twin bracelet. The Life Giver,’ he whispered. ‘It all makes sense now.’
Ilami frowned. ‘What does?’
‘Later,’ he replied, glancing at the rest.
Aleveri, sitting beside her, nodded her head. She didn’t look as surprised as Gael. Odd.
Haka left the stage and joined the teachers and priests.
Mr. Haifei read the scroll in his hand. A few seconds of silence passed by before he spoke up. ‘The winner for the Scholar test goes to...’ He stared directly at the crowd, at one specific student. ‘Aleveri Uora.’
‘No,’ she whispered.
Gael was stunned.
Ilami didn’t know how to react. Surely it was possible that Aleveri had passed Gael at last. What was so unbelievable about that? ‘Aleveri. Take your artifact.’
Ilami had to pushed her for her to stand up. She walked to the stage slowly, as if she was approaching her own execution. It baffled Ilami. Aleveri took the scepter that looked familiar and walked down toward them.
‘Scepter of Cerelia,’ Gael said. There was… jealousy in his tone. ‘We saw it in the Restricted Area. That artifact’s too powerful, even for a student.’
Aleveri took her seat. Mr. Haifei continued taking charge of the event before suddenly he handed it to Kestari again.
‘This year, the church and the academy have planned a surprise for the winners of the Test. As we all know, the border that separates our country from the Hollow has its protective magic weakening. Thus, we require more people to contribute to the safety of the citizens, of us. Gods’ Brotherhood Church has decided to choose its representatives in the form of potential wizards, and where else is best to find them if not in a prestigious academy? To Haka Arvan and Aleveri Uora, from this moment, I declare you, Vartons il Seris!’
‘What?’ Gael asked, his eyes widened.
Ilami couldn’t find anything to say. She looked at Aleveri instead, and was surprised to her silently crying, despite smiling at the same time.
‘I failed,’ Aleveri whispered, her body slightly trembling. ‘I thought I could stop it from happening, but I should know better. I should know I wouldn’t have a chance.’
‘Aleveri? What are you talking about?’
‘Of course, the church and the academy are not the only ones who know about this surprise. The parents of the participating students are also informed about this. It is through their approval of that the students could continue to join the Test. An hour after this event, arrangements would be made to prepare the students for their transfer to the church.’
Ilami turned her attention to Kestari. ‘That couldn’t be!’ she said.
Kestari smiled widely. ‘The Test has proven to be extremely successful in helping the church to find the perfect contributor to the noble cause of protecting Estagrians from the threat of the Hollows. It is my best intention to keep it going. Perhaps the same concept can be applied to other academies of our chosen.’
They were taking her friends from her. She clutched her fist. All under the disguise of a righteous agenda. She couldn’t bear spending her time in the academy without Aleveri. Without Haka, even. They had both accepted her even after knowing her dark past. They helped her to be her best self. After her fight with Haka, she was certain she could learn more from him, even when she faced him in his beastly state.
‘I will not allow this,’ Gael hissed. ‘I – Wretched fool! Pulling the strings and making them his puppets. Lio has taught his priest well. He is as damnable as his god.’ Ilami stared at Gael, shocked. His eyes were cloudy blue. Brilliantly blue. His voice grew coarse. ‘No matter. I have to end this dalliance. It is time to destroy the church and its deplorable priests once and for all.’ Then, his eyes turned to their normal colour. He blinked.
Unable to process what just happened, a voice at her back startled her. It was Veris’s. ‘I know where they carry out the experiment.’
Finally. One good news.