Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
‘It was a trap,’ Gael whispered as he looked at the blank wall in front of him. The room he was put into was made of bricks.
Of course it was, Serra said. We have discussed about this. The only way to move our plan forward is to act as if we are played. Other flows of water I’ve seen that made us avoid this trap only set us at the starting point.
Gael sighed. He had put his trust on Serra. The minute Haifei suggested him to switch place with Ilami, Serra persuaded him to agree with it while Ilami argued it was the worst plan possible. Haifei had told him if something went wrong with the infiltration, Ilami was needed outside, uncaught. The teacher must’ve thought his value was less than hers; the fact hurt, but he couldn’t say something to prove otherwise.
You are not less important than Ilami, Serra said, once again interrupting when she wasn’t supposed to. I will not let my potential priest say that. You are essential to this plan in ways that Haifei do not know.
‘What should I do now?’ Gael said, closing his eyes and resting his back against the wall. Tiredness caught up to him. Sleep sounded like the best plan at this moment. Whatever the priests had done to him, it drained his energy.
We need to rescue the others, including Aleveri and Haka. They both have become one of the Church’s greatest assets. I was hoping for Kestari to lead us to them, just long enough for us to know they were safe, but that was wishful thinking. We had to figure it out by ourselves.
‘I don’t have any blessing, remember? I’m useless,’ Gael said. He felt like throwing something. Anything to remove this weight of self-loathing he was having right now.
Even if you do have your blessing back, it’ll be useless. This room was enchanted with blood magic to suppress any magic from leaking out.
Gael nodded. That was how anti-magic artifact worked. It was like a container, stopping magic from getting out of it. Even if he could summon some water, it wouldn’t penetrate the room. It wouldn’t help him to escape. Even if he could escape, surely someone would catch him outside. He shivered as he was reminded by the Serra-blessed combat priest. The way he worked with water spells to restrain them was scary. Imagine what he could do to hurt someone.
There is a flaw to this anti-magic artifact; it has its limit, Serra said, ignoring his thoughts on the combat priest. I know how to counter it, but first, you need to gather information. They still think you are Ilami. Use it to reach out to someone – Venaria, for example. This time, do try to act like her. You can only fool them for so long before they find out you are someone else.
Gael mentally shook his head. No, that’s impossible?
I beg your pardon?
I screwed up. Venaria knows I’m not Ilami.
How would she –
The door cracked open, revealing Venaria in her headmistress attire. She turned to the guards behind her. ‘Leave. I can handle my daughter alone.’ Priests they might be, but even they couldn’t deny the weight of authority in her voice.
Once they left, she closed the door and focused on him. She sat in front of him. ‘Whoever you are, you are not my daughter. She would never call me Mrs. Venaria.’
Both Gael and Serra sighed. Stupid boy, Serra said.
‘Do you know Kestari tasked Veris to capture Gael?’ she asked.
Gael frowned. ‘Veris? But why? Kestari wouldn’t know –’
‘Oh, he knows. Veris is not a spy material, but that is beside the point. From my understanding, there were five of you who planned to figure out the secret in Kestari’s office the other day. Ilami, Felaris, Gael, Seya, and Veris.
‘Veris is your traitor. I have talked to Felaris and Seya and they both have convinced me of their identity – Felaris with her unfiltered fierceness and Seya with her dripping sarcasm. Since it was quite unbelievable for Veris to fail to capture the unassuming Gael, and since only someone with the Fighter quality could anticipate his attack, it stands to reason that the person sitting in front of me is Gael.’
One would be expected to smile for figuring out the replacement, but Venaria’s face remained expressionless. ‘I know about just the exact artifact that can grant such effect. No one knows where it is. I am curious to know who has lent it to you.’
‘I’m not telling you. You know that,’ Gael said with a shaky voice. He could try to look confident, but not in front of someone who knew what he’d done, and he’d done something bad.
Venaria looked at him directly. She let silence passed in the room.
‘Keep it to yourself,’ she whispered. ‘Serra would want you to do that too.’
Before he knew what he was doing, Gael’s eyes widened. No way. She wouldn’t be able to figure that out. He had been very careful not to let anyone hear him talking to himself to the point where it became second nature to him to stop talking with Serra when someone was around. He even kept their conversations from Ilami. How could’ve Venaria known?
There is no time to gather information, Serra hissed. This woman is dangerous.
Felaris’s hands were chained to the wall. They had to, since once the water sphere was dispersed, she launched herself at the nearest guard priest. She tore his face and bit his neck before her head was knocked out. Once awake, she found herself in this state, trapped like an animal. She couldn’t summon wind to break her chains. Somehow, she didn’t have the energy to do so.
Venaria had visited her and asked the typical questions you expected from a principal. How could she have been so stupid to break into the Natron’s room? How could she endanger her life, not knowing the consequences of her actions? To those questions she replied that she could and she didn’t care. Venaria didn’t know what it felt like to have a brother dying in front of you. A brother who was also your best friend, the one who calmed you down and cheered you up.
She didn’t tell her what happened to Arafel, but responded to her loud demand that she wanted to talk with Kestari. He promised to answer questions, and he had to do what he’d promised. It was a naive thing to ask, really, but that was all she could do at the moment. Venaria said she’d send her message to Kestari and leave the room.
And now, the door opened yet again, revealing the monster himself, Kestari Fexar. Smiling, as he always did, with blood in his hands. Oh, how she wished his blood was in her hands.
‘Hey, bastard,’ Felaris said. She grinned, showing him her bloodied teeth. ‘Care to unchain me?’
Kestari put on an apologetic look. ‘I’d love to, Ms. Felaris, but I’m afraid you’ve given us good reason to keep you under control. Attacking a guard priest, getting all feral on him by biting his neck?’ He shook his head and frowned in disappointment. ‘You can’t be trusted to even control yourself.’
‘Don’t talk to me about control, you pretentious priest,’ Felaris spat, her hands struggling to bet let loose from the chains. ‘Were you in control when your priests experimented on my brother? That was what happened to him, wasn’t it? And what for? So that he could become like Haka, turning into a beast whenever he’s out of control?’
Kestari clucked his tongue. ‘There’s so much you don’t know, child. The importance of this experimentation of which you’re so disgusted is beyond your comprehension. I must admit, what happened to Arafel wasn’t to my liking. I wasn’t in charge when Alyosha brought him to us, catching him sniffing around. No, it would be more accurate to say I wasn’t there to supervise when he did what he did.’
Felaris blinked. ‘What do you mean? WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?’
Kestari stared at her, pity reflected in his eyes. ‘Alyosha brought it upon himself to experiment on Arafel. He borrowed my priests to help him. What he’d done to Arafel… I’d never condone it. He used ways that we purposefully avoided to extract information from Arafel, to test whether the artifact matched or not. We’d never harm any student of the Academy.’
Felaris gritted her teeth, the scattered thoughts in her mind finally turning into one cohesive unit. ‘But you did. You experimented on Haka later on, because you knew despite what Alyosha had done, despite him failing, he’d found something useful. Why else would you risk experimenting on another student when you could pick on someone who was poor or homeless, someone who was easy prey?’
Kestari glared at her, and Felaris could see a glimpse of anger in his eyes before it vanished. ‘Those who were experimented, they were not easy prey. They were crucial for the survival of our country, for the protection of our people.’ He leaned closer to her. ‘I honor each of them for the sacrifice they made.'
Felaris spat at him. Slowly, he cleaned his face with the helm of his sleeve.
‘You might call me feral, but you’re the one who’s heartless,’ Felaris hissed. ‘Don’t tell me they’re dead for the greater good when you forced them to be lab rats to be mutilated.’
He stared at her darkly.
Veris woke up when he heard the door closed. He blinked a few times to see Ilami, now in her true form, stand in front of him, arms folded. Well. What would she do now?
‘Haifei told me you aren’t a threat anymore. The tattoo compelled you to attack Gael, not me. You had the chance to attack me from before, but you didn’t. Whatever it wants you to do, it involves him only. Which makes sense, since he’s the easiest target.’
He didn’t say anything to do that. He wasn’t sure if the tattoo allowed him to say anything in the form of agreement, so it was safer to keep quiet.
He could tell her other things though, just enough to make her realize he wasn’t the enemy. Gael wouldn’t want to see him after this, anyway, when he’d find out Veris was a traitor.
‘There’s something I need to tell you about your mother. Venaria.’
Ilami raised her eyebrows. ‘What’s with her?’
Veris took a deep breath. ‘She asked me to spy on him, Gael. I didn’t know why, but I figured it could be another excuse for me to meet him often.’ He paused, waiting for Ilami to interrupt her, but she didn’t. In fact, she was listening to him intently. She didn’t seem as surprised as he thought she’d be.
‘There’s nothing much to know about Gael — that guy’s pretty much an open book. But he did speak to himself sometimes. He tried to hide it from me whenever I was around. I pretended I didn’t know.’
Ilami kept her silence, before she spoke up. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
Veris sighed and made desperate gestures. ‘Because other than what the tattoo hold me back from saying, I can tell you everything. I can help you. You said it yourself — Haifei doesn’t think I’m a threat.’
Ilami stood still. ‘You could be — you just haven’t found the right time yet.’ She moved slowly to him and leaned forward. ‘You’re a vague character, Veris, and I don’t like it. Until I know for sure what you can and cannot do, you’d stay in this room.’ She walked out of the room and locked it.
Veris closed his eyes. These few days in the room — it was definitely not one of the academy’s — actually helped him to clear his mind. No one was around to boss him and expressed their disappointment at him, and he appreciated that. Really, really appreciated it.
But Gael was in danger now. Felaris and Seya, too. He couldn’t just do nothing about it. He didn’t hope much for Aleveri and Haka — for all he knew, they’d been under the strict protection of the Church. Kestari wouldn’t want Gael, Felaris, and Seya from being anywhere near them. Urgh, he felt powerless in this room. Ilami had to make her mind fast on what to do about him.
She told Haifei everything Veris said to her. They were sitting at a chamber of the Xesar’s church, a private one used only for selected members. Two priests adorned in scarlet and gold garment — she’d known them as Ralia and Chaen — stood at his side. A round table separated them from her.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘He said Gael talked to himself?’ Haifei said, folding his arms.
Ilami nodded. ‘It’s… kind of unbelievable, what he said, but I remembered something about Gael.’ She frowned. ‘During the Test’s award ceremony, his pupils turned blue, and he was — he was pissed off about the Church. He wanted to destroy it once and for all. It wasn’t his voice I heard — it was coarser.’
Haifei’s eyes widened, and he slowly nodded. ‘I see…’ He kept his silence for a moment. ‘I think I know the reasons he acted up that way. If my theory is true, then we have to trust that he is in good hands.’
‘What do you mean in good hands?’ Ilami said, frowning deeper, her voice louder. ‘He’s caught by the Church along with the rest. Mother and Kestari must be with them.’
‘Hush, girl,’ Ralia said. ‘We’re here to discuss, not to bicker. Despite the ridiculousness of it all, I trust Haifei knows what he’s talking about.’
‘You’re depending on us too, so try to make yourself likeable,’ Chaen said, smiling.
As a fellow Lin-zhese, his hair had shades of gold. The presence of Lin-zhese in this rescue mission — Haifei, Chaen, and she — was notable. It was kind of ironic too, because Father and Alyosha supported Lio’s church instead.
‘How do you set yourself apart from Lio’s followers, by the way?’ Ilami found herself asking. ‘Fexar claimed he was the priest for both Lio and Xesar. Is he right?’
‘Definitely not,’ Haifei quickly answered. He looked at Ralia and Chaen, who glanced at him. ‘As far as I’m concerned, in our church, our Natron is decided through an election. Xesar has disappeared for too long that he didn’t choose a Natron to guide us. I’m pretty sure Xesar wouldn’t choose Fexar as his Natron, though I think differently when Lio is concerned. Lio is likely to choose Fexar to represent him.’
Ilami nodded. Interesting.
Haifei took a deep breath. ‘I know you wouldn’t like this, but the best way for us to act on your friends’ disappearance is to wait. We simply do not have enough information on their location, and I doubt we’d be able to find out what happened in Fexar’s office without going in there.’
Ilami gritted her teeth. Just — waiting? She couldn’t bear thinking about it. She couldn’t bear not doing anything for her friends. But another half of her couldn’t help but to agree with him. They couldn’t do anything about the situation right now. They needed a plan, and it couldn’t be made without enough information about what they were into.
‘We have to find a way to get rid of Veris’ tattoo,’ she said. ‘It’s — it’s stopping him from saying anything that would help us.’
Haifei sighed. ‘That tattoo is a result from a powerful artifact, one of the finest works of the Twin Deities. We don’t have a Natural mean to undo it. The only way for you to remove the tattoo is to either ask the person who casted the spell to cancel it, or to use a counter-artifact, which we do not have.’
The door of the chamber cracked open, revealing a young woman. Unlike the priests, she didn’t adorn the overflowing garments, though her sleeveless red attire with a short skirt indicated she was affiliated with the church. Some sort of secretary, if Ilami wasn’t mistaken. She forgot her name.
‘The Natron calls for you to go to his office. He wants to discuss about the issue that has been circulating throughout Ciraciel.’ She glanced at Ilami. ‘That is, the disappearance of the students.’ Then, she left.
‘Let’s go, Haifei,’ Ralia said, starting to move.
‘I’ll follow suit. I want to have a talk with Ilami for a few minutes.’
‘Alright, but don’t make it too long,’ Chaen said, patting Haifei’s shoulder.
Once the priests left, Ilami spoke. ‘No one knows your involvement yet in the academy. I have to say, I’m impressed. Living a double lives as a mere teacher and a spy priest must be tough.’
A glimmer of mischief passed in Haifei’s eyes. ‘Oh, the things you do not know, child.’ He took a chair nearby and sat.
‘I understand your frustration of not being able to do anything for your friends now, but it’s only temporary. Our church is trying to divert the public’s attention to the disappearance of all of you. No doubt, previous cases — like Arafel’s and Dayel’s — will be talked about. When the academy and Lio’s church are focused on dealing the situation, we’d continue gathering information on the location of your friends.’
Ilami sighed, and got another chair for her to sit. It had been days since she stayed in Xesar’s church. She felt like there was something else, better things, that she could do instead of checking on Veris and listening Haifei’s plan. She wanted to act. She felt like they were delaying their plan — whatever it was. She felt like what had just happened didn’t feel important enough to them.
She was being ridiculous, of course. She knew that, but she couldn’t help from having strong feelings about the direction of things.
‘I’m going out,’ she said, suddenly having a plan in mind. ‘I’m going to Seya’s house. Her family is trained to be spies. Maybe I could ask their help so that we could get information faster.’
‘Definitely not,’ Haifei said flatly. ‘It’s too risky to have people see you.’
That wasn’t going to stop her.