To the residents on the ground floor, the sun had set behind the walls of the city. At Adderman academy, however, resting several hundreds of meters above the ground, the light was still shining, just barely being blocked by the volcano in the distance.
Dirk idly walked up to the gates of the academy, speaking briefly with the security. The doors slowly swung open, revealing a large courtyard spread about with various smaller buildings, all leading up to a coliseum at the centre.
Avery crawled up the staircase in front of the gate, out of breath and barely able to continue on. Because of how steep it got, the path up to the academy wrapped around the mountain of the city several times. She was convinced that she had walked the equivalent of the distance between Rotherham and Alnagia. She was also forced to move at Dirk’s abnormally fast pace. Finally reaching the top of the stairs, she sighed, relieved that her hellish trek was over.
“There… I did your six-hour walk,” Avery screamed out, trying to get the attention of Dirk, who was already through the slowly opening gate.
“Actually, it was eight hours,” Dirk said. “You took your sweet time coming up here. I even walked slower just so you could keep up.”
Trying to stand up, Avery stumbled forward. Her legs had given out. The headmaster sighed, running his hands through his hair. White magic circles formed at his fingertips. As he continued to slick his hair back, his grey hairs became black. Once his hair was fully darkened, he lowered his hand to his mouth, and a blue magic circle formed.
“Oi! Dirk! Get someone out here! We got a walker!” Dirk screamed. The blue circle vibrated, greatly increasing the sound of his words until they echoed through the academy. The sheer volume forced both Avery and the security guard to cover their ears. A few minutes later, a grey-haired man came running out. He ran past the black hair Dirk, sitting by Avery’s side.
A feeling of warmth surrounding Avery, starting to get her strength back. She turned over to see the familiar face over her shoulder.
“Dirk?” Avery whispered, barely able to speak. The man paused for a moment but stayed silent as he continued to cast his healing magic over her.
“You’re really into this,” the black haired Dirk asked. “You normally just send one of the medical students here to practise.”
“Well, I’m sorry. but I felt I should tell you personally that you should stop sending people on these walks, no matter what they did. They’re inhumane,” the grey-haired Dirk said. “Besides, I’ve had my eye on this prospect, and it would be unfortunate if she gave up because of you.”
A few minutes later, Avery was back on her feet. She grasped her aching head, which was an apparent side effect according to black-haired Dirk but still worried the grey-haired Dirk.
“Were there always two of you?” Avery muttered, still perplexed by the two Dirks standing in front of her. “Or is that another side effect I’m having?”
“You lived outside the capital, so you wouldn’t know,” Grey-haired Dirk said. He placed his hand on the black haired Dirk, who slightly recoiled but was held in place. “This is my twin brother, Dagger. A fitting name, to say the least.”
“Wait… Dirk and Dagger?”
“Our mother had an… eccentric taste,” Dagger coughed. “If we had a sister, she’d have probably been named Stiletto.”
“So why’d you pretend to be your brother?” Avery asked. “You know, with the hair and all.”
“People don’t take me seriously, even though I’m the twin of the ‘esteemed’ Dirk Howard,” Dagger muttered. He took another piece of chocolate from his pocket and began to messily eat it, disgusting Dirk. “But hey, they’ll listen to whatever the esteemed headmaster has to say. If there’s any perk of looking like this guy, it's that.”
“Back to the main point,” Dirk said, trying to steer the conversation back. “While I’m the dean, Dagger is the combat instructor. He teaches offensive, defensive, and support spells for use in battle against monsters. I’m sure you’ll see a lot of him later on.”
“I doubt it,” Dagger muttered, continuing to talk with his mouth full. “It took eight hours to get up here, so you’ve probably missed the written exam.”
“Ah...” Avery said aimlessly, her heart sinking as Dagger finished his chocolate. She didn’t even want to go to this school, it was just that she just spent eight hours on a nightmarish trek for nothing.
“Don’t rule her out,” Dirk said, noticing the gloomy Avery. “There’s still the practical exam, right?”
“Most of them are either in progress or have ended, though. All except the combat exam...” Dagger paused. His eyes widened as he realised what his brother meant. “You’re not serious, are you? There’s no way she can pass with only the combat exam. Only half of the second year students would be able to pass it.”
“The better half,” Dirk said. “And I’ll bet that Avery here can pass it easily.”
Avery stood silent, unable to follow the conversation. Dagger hung his shoulders as he realised that his brother wouldn’t admit defeat. Gesturing at Avery to follow him, he walked further inside the academy. As the girl passed Dirk, he slapped her on the back and gave her a friendly smile as she looked back.
Avery caught up to Dagger, who walked silently through the academy’s courtyard. The gold trimmed buildings under the evening sky gave the place an ethereal vibe. Various students, all wearing redish cloaks, walked around but made way for Dagger and Avery.
Wanting to break the awkward silence between them, Avery spoke out. “So, about the exam…"
“What about it?”
“Well, what is it?”
“Did you really come here to learn?” Dagger asked as he turned to Avery, his expression worsening. “Because you don’t seem like you want to.”
“About that…” Avery said, looking away and unable to answer him.
“I really don’t know what Dirk sees in you. You learn a high-level spell, and suddenly you’re the one thing on his mind,” Dagger muttered, turning away. “Listen up, I’m only going to explain once. There’s a written exam and a practical exam. The written part is worth 50 points, the practical is worth 100 points, and you need 75 points to pass.”
“But didn’t you say it was impossible for me? If I can get 100 points on the practical, then I can pass easily.”
When the two reached the coliseum, Avery took a moment to gaze up at it. While every other building in the academy was made of marble and gold, this one was made with stone. She sprinted back to Dagger’s side as he continued to walk inside.
“Hah, that’s cute,” Dagger chuckled. “Adderman has prepared various different exams for different professions. However, you’ll be taking the general exam, which is much harder.”
The two entered the arena of the coliseum. People were dotted around the outskirts, and hundreds of targeting dummies stood huddled in the middle. Spells were being fired wildly in random directions, some managing to land and some missing entirely.
“You might want to wait around for a bit,” Dagger said, pointing to the stands. “You’re going to be the last one, so it’ll take a while for everyone to finish.”
Avery climbed into the arena’s stands while Dagger went to talk to some of the examiners on the field. She walked around, watching the rest of the applicants attempt to hit the dummies. Some would run forward and crazily cast spells while others took time to aim theirs. She didn’t understand why they didn’t just get closer. As she continued rounding the field, she eventually saw the huddled figure of Reinhard in one of the seats.
“Hey! Reinhard!” Avery called out. Reinhard looked up from his legs to see her running up to him.
“Oh, hey Avery…” Reinhard brooded, his face entirely blank.
“Uh, are you okay?” Avery asked, showing concern at her friend’s mood. “Did something happen?”
“Well, I just finished my practical…”
“I got a 28…”
Reinhard looked blankly at the field. Avery remembered about the 75 point requirement to pass and realised what Reinhard’s plight was.
“You don’t have to beat yourself over it,” Avery said, trying her best to cheer him up. “And I mean, as long as you got 47 or more points on the test, you should be fine.”
“Don’t you remember the test? That was insanely hard. I’m not confident I got higher than 30 points on that. How’d you do?”
“Ah…” Avery paused, looking away from the boy. “I didn’t get to take it…”
“What!?” Reinhard shouted, jumping from his seat. His outburst brought attention from some of the other people in the stands lamenting over their scores. “What are you talking about!?”
“When you and Nyx left, I was forced by Dagger to walk up here,” Avery answered, faintly remembering the trip up.
“Dirk’s twin brother or something,” Avery said. She wanted to change the topic quickly. “Ah, where’s Nyx. She came up with you. Is she taking a different practical?”
Reinhard turned to the field, scanning it thoroughly before pointing at one end. Avery could just barely see Nyx’s silhouette beside that of an examiner’s.
Placing a bone onto the ground, Nyx began to chant. After a moment, the ethereal mist engulfed her. A skeleton rushed outside of the fog, grabbing one of its rib bones and swiftly pulling it out. Lancelot quickly closed the distance between it and one of the dummies before cleaving it in half with its bone.
Lancelot continued to dance through the crowd of dummies, chopping through each efficiently. Avery, Reinhard, and many of the others watched, mesmerised by its performance. Finally, ten seconds after it had been summoned, Lancelot stopped, standing on top of the five dummies it had chopped, before dashing back to its master’s side and back into the mist.
The examiner jotted down something into his notes before showing it to Nyx. She bowed to him before climbing into the stands and running around the field to Avery and Reinhard.
“Avery, you’re here,” Nyx panted, exhausted from running over. “How did you do on the written test?”
“I just got here, so basically 0,” Avery laughed, scratching her head. “I basically have to pass with this alone. What did you get?”
“I, uh, well,” Nyx stammered, looking at the mopey Reinhard. She could see the dread in his eye. “67 points.”
“How nice for you,” Reinhard muttered. Avery and Nyx could see tears beginning to form in his eyes.
“There’s always next year, right?” Nyx said, trying to cheer him up. When Reinhard started to break down, Avery waved her away from his pitiful display before she accidentally caused any more damage.
“But hey, congrats,” Avery chirped. “You need so few points from the written part that you’re practically guaranteed to pass!”
“Yes, it’s nice that I got a good score,” Nyx sighed. “Many others weren’t as lucky though. Reinhard’s score is in the higher percentage of scores, despite what he’s probably thinking right now.”
“Hey!” Dagger called out up from the field. “The last ones are almost finishing now, so you’re going now!”
“Welp, it’s my turn now,” Avery gulped, giving Nyx and Reinhard one final look before running down the stairs and leaping over the wall onto the field. She could hear something crack in her legs when she landed, and she fell over onto her front.
“Ah… I’m fine…” Avery winced, regretting her decision. She held up her hand when Dagger extended his, before forcing herself to stand up. He merely sighed as he pointed her to a nearby examiner. Nyx waved at Avery while Reinhard looked up slightly from his sulking.
“Do you really think Avery’ll pass with this part of the test?” Reinhard asked sceptically. “Based on everyone else’s try, your score is probably the best out of everyone. It’s impossible to pass with one test.”
“I know it may not seem possible,” Nyx said. “It is a tough hurdle to climb, but I believe she can fly over it. She’s saved us from that razorbeak attack, and you told me about the hellhounds from your village. If anyone can do it, she can.”
Reinhard paused for a moment contemplating Nyx’s words. He leaned back onto the seat behind him, looking up to the starry evening sky. “If you say so, Nyx.”
Avery walked over to the examiner, a man in glasses with brushed hair and a stern look. Someone she would call the definition of an administrative type.
“Ah, the latecomer… Have you been briefed on this part of the exam?” the examiner asked. Avery shook her head. He flipped through the notes on his clipboard before readying his quill. “Listen closely, because I want this done as fast as possible. You have to use whatever spells you see fit to destroy the dummies in the centre. You can earn a maximum of 100 points in this portion, so it’ll be enough for you to pass if you get lucky.”
All the information that was spewing out of the examiner’s mouth was already known by Avery, based on watching everyone else. His nonstop explanation was starting to confuse her, however.
“You’ll have a maximum of ten seconds to earn points,” the examiner began to explain. “For every target, you’re able to destroy, you will receive 10 points. You will also earn points based on what kind of spells you cast. You will earn 10 points for every mid-level spell, 30 points for every high-level spell, and 70 points for every grand level spell you cast. Offensive spells will only earn points if they land within ten meters of the targets. Defensive spells, however, will require...”
Smoke was starting to bellow from Avery’s head as she tried to wrap around the examiner’s explanation. Defensive spells? Something that Dirk had said before. Grand level? That was new to her. She stared blankly at the examiner while he continued to explain
“...support spells will automatically earn spells. You’re allowed to prepare your initial spell, but once you cast it your ten seconds will start,” the examiner finished, realising the girl wasn’t getting what he said. It was finally something Avery could understand. It wasn’t much time, but she was confident she could fire at least five of her pistols. She started to walk towards the dummy before the examiner held out his hand. “Where are you going?”
“To the dummies, so I can destroy them,” Avery said. “You know, points and whatever.”
“It seems you don’t understand.” The examiner pushed his glasses up, before pointing to an X on the ground. Avery could see slight veins starting to pop on his forehead. “You’ll have to start from there. Leaving that area will also start your time as well.”
Sweat dripped down Avery’s head as she realised the real difficulty of this exam. It wasn’t apparent from the stands, but the dummies were at least a hundred meters from where she was. It explained everyone’s frantic dash towards them, just to get a better shot. If the razorbeaks were any indication, Avery wouldn’t be able to hit any of the targets with only five pistol shots.
“You’re allowed to take all the time you need,” the examiner reiterated. “It’s not like you’re holding me up on your impossible task.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Avery muttered, walking onto the X. In her head, she imagined firing each of her experimental gun spells. None of them had any hope of landing. She gripped her head with her hands, trying to get even a single feasible idea out.
“You’re just making this take longer!” Avery screamed, looking up from her hands. Looking back to them, the girl finally felt something spark in her mind. It was stupid, even she realised it, but based on her track record with stupid plans, she decided to give it a shot. She held out her palms, forming three red magic circles in each, before aiming them behind her.
“Uh, miss Cross... The dummies are in that-” the examiner began to say, before being cut off by the sound of Avery’s boosters propelling her forward into the sky. It was her first attempt at a near parallel takeoff, but it was what she believed to be her only chance.
The dust flew up behind her as Avery flew towards the dummies. The air hit her face harder than when she had fought the razorbeaks. Her body violently shook as the second booster fired, clearing distance between her and the targets. Forcing her arms forward, she shot her third booster, stopping her mid-air above the dummies. She floated for a brief second before beginning to fall. Reinhard and Nyx watched intently at her display, and the other applicants quickly joined in.
Compared to her first fall, this one wasn’t as rough and violent, but Avery was still freaking out from being so high up. She held her hand out from below her, quickly reciting the spell multiple times by accident. “Displodo! Displodo! Displodo! Displodo!”
When Avery expected one explosion circle to form, four popped out instead. The radiance from each seemed to be amplifying the others, until the light engulfed them all, creating one much larger yellow circle.
Avery gulped as the large magic circle started to flash, signifying it’s activation. Before she could think, the girl was flung upwards with the shockwave as fire and gas rained down below her. The targets and the ground beneath them were consumed by the raging torrent and vaporised into ash in an instant. In less than a second, the entire field of dummies had been obliterated. Everyone from the applicants in the stands to the examiners on the ground had their mouths wide open. Reinhard looked at the devastation with a concerned look, while Nyx had a smile on her face. “I told you she would be able to do it.”
Still stunned from creating an explosion magnitudes higher than her previous, Avery sailed through the air. Once she started to descend again, she snapped back to reality. Forming two more boosters, she fired them as soon as she could, slowing her descent significantly. It wasn’t enough, however, and Avery hit the ground hard, rolling a few meters before stopping.
“Avery! Are you okay!” Reinhard yelled out to her. He was slightly relieved when she weakly held a thumbs up but still felt the need to jump off the stands onto the field and run over to her.
As examiners ran over to Avery’s side to aid her, Dagger slumped against the wall, his eyes widened in disbelief at the scene before him. There was nothing left of the dummies that had been standing there. Only small embers still burning and a large crater covering half of the field. His head ached when trying to think of how much it would cost to repair it. He fished out another piece of chocolate out of his pocket and frantically took a bite of it.
“Dirk, what kind of monster did you find?” Dagger asked himself, continuing to stare out into the destruction.