What seemed like an eternity was only a few seconds. Plop! Like the sound of a stone dropping from up high into a pool of water, Delias was pushed out, tumbling forward from the mirror like barrier. He skid across a dark, green and black grass- his mouth open, eating blades and dirt.
Delias spat. He got up and dusted himself off. His formally clean white uniform tunic was now stained with green and brown streaks here and there. Delias grimaced, but as he looked up, he was no longer concerned with that, nor was he concerned that he had probably swallowed a mound full of an odd looking dirt. No. At this moment, a shock reverberated through his mind. His eyes bulged, and his breath grew rapid. He just could not believe what was right before him.
Open in front of him was a new world filled with an open grey sky. Large, dark green stalagmites, as wide as two acres, spread for miles as the eye could see. Their tips so high that no bird could fly to. Streaks of bright green, glowed on the walls of the stalagmites; and there were dark cavern entrances. Each stalagmite were distant from each other, and bogs, grass, a few sparse trees, and one giant river flowing from the south-west towards north-east, cutting through the land, stood between.
Looking down a ways, stood a platform. And on that platform was a middle-aged averati, with short dark hair and long black robes. He stood still, his eyes closed. Lines of black tattoos marked from his chin, down his neck, the rest hidden under the silk fabric he wore so well.
Plop! The first student that had stared at Delias popped out from the other side. He stumbled slightly before fixing himself, as if sifting through the mirror-like barrier were only a minor nuisance. Delias glanced at his bedraggled state, and back at the student. Hmph. Show off!
Delias walked down towards the platform, stopping a few feet from the dark-robed individual. The grass crunched as the averati student followed behind. He, too, stopped a few feet short of the platform.
After what seemed like a few minutes, more and more sounds came from behind. Students plopped out of the mirror barrier. Grunts and curses were uttered as they came through. The prospective students straightened themselves out and headed up to the platform as well. More and more came as the hours drew on. Delias did not sit. He felt like he would be opening himself up to danger if he did, even though his feet were sore, and his muscles tense from all that prior running. Some of the students did not have Delias’s reservations, but most did and kept on their feet.
After another few minutes, the plopping sounds finally ceased. And the eyes of the dark-robed figure snapped wide open.
Delias flinched. The irises were like a diamond jewel. They glittered, but even more pronounced was the pupil. It was a three-pointed star! The star reminded Delias of the two men that he had made a deal with to obtain his new body. The same two men he now knew had stolen something most likely very precious. And even though a part of him knew that that too was a part of the deal, Delias still felt cheated. He only agreed to join in their experiment in exchange for obtaining a new body. He had no idea that the experiment was whether or not they could steal his gateway to reincarnation! There was a loophole in the words they had spoken, and from that loophole, they cheated him! It was not Delias was stupid. He had asked what the experiment was before he agreed. They had said it was something like a body modification. But they refused to go into details without his agreement. At that time, Delias weighed the pros and cons. He had no idea it would turn out the way it did.
Delias took a deep breath. Those eyes made him increasingly wary. He did not want to get tangled up in something that had anything to do with people who had a relation to those two men. But inside he knew that now being dragged to Crawfields was a fortuitous event. If the two men had some relation to the individual before him then a huge portion of the information he was looking for was here!
The diamond-like eyes gazed across the crowd. They had a pressure to them, as if all secrets were revealed before them.
The individual smiled.
“Welcome.” He said, coolly. “Not many know who I am. In fact, I would be utterly surprised if any of you did. I am the head elder of the recruitment division. You may even think of me as the leader of the elders that had the foresight to choose you great candidates to become members of our esteemed academy.” The head elder glanced around one more time. “Now, I know some of you have many questions. Why is the head elder here? Why did he not appear before? Why is he so handsome? And What is this place?”
Delias smiled wryly. This guy… He’s more of a narcissist than me! That was obviously an unconscious slip up.
“Well, first, I did not greet you up top because I must say not all of you were deserving to see.” The recruitment head elder continued. “While it is true that everyone of you five thousand three hundred and seventy-two individuals had great promise, your abilities and mindset may of not been what suited Crawfields Academy best. So, we gave you all a pre-trial. And see? Barely over half of you survived! Those of you who did are the ones who were quick on their feet. Witty. Resourceful. And had the mentality to kill in order to survive. Some of you bonded together in groups and survived through good teamwork. In any case, whatever you did to get here is what proved you belong. If you had died out there or have gotten lost, then you may have capability, but it was not something tailored to this academy, or just not enough to compete with the surrounding students.”
Delias’s mouth twitched. What kind of twisted logic is this? They haven’t even learned anything, yet you put them in a trial to see what they would do. Getting on in life is all about life’s experience. But they are so young. They have yet to experience anything for them to show such worth. No wonder so many die in these trials.
“Now. About this place…” The head elder looked Delias in the eye for a good moment before he shifted his gaze. Delias felt nervous. A cold sweat dripped down his back. What was that look for? “This place is the site of the real trial. It is a hidden realm within the dark canyon. Dropped by the immortals from a long forgotten war. Once you enter this place you are trapped. There is no escaping it without a key. There is another barrier leading out of this small space and to the other side, but again, to leave you must have the key. The other side is a few days journey. Every year we place a few fifteen hundred keys for you students to find. Obtain one, and you may leave.”
The crowd sucked in a cold breath as the elder said that. Because that meant that at least over a thousand of them would not survive.
“Like the pre-trial, you may team up for this as well.” The elder smiled.
Like anyone is really going to team up after that! Most of us already became enemies from that pre-trial.
“And last note before I go, the key is a two meter rod. It acts like the crystal, turning on by touch. Some of the rods are powerful enough to carry two people. But most are not. Now good luck! You have two months. And beware when night comes!” And as the elder said the last few words he disappeared, fading to nothing.
Delias clenched his fist. He looked around him. He knew at this point that no one would be stupid enough to fight each other now. No one knew what was down there or what was going to happen at night. Who would want to injure themselves at this point? It had yet to become a life and death moment like before.
Even though a lot of students became enemies, there were those they had never met. Students started to mix in and team with each other, temporarily grouping that way, but most kept to themselves.
First things first. I need to find a place to hold myself up when I need to and use it as a base for searching for the key. I have two months. I can’t just roam aimlessly. Especially if what the elder said, and there is something to be wary of at night. Something enough for him to even give us warning about.
“Hey! Wait up! You over there!”
But just as Delias was going to head out, someone called from behind. Are they calling me? Delias turned around to look. Standing behind him was someone he had never expected to see. It was the injured boy from Olato City. No. No longer injured. He seemed to have healed up since then. His face was dirty, obviously he fell face first when he came out of the mirror barrier. He was chosen by Elder Lu as well? Why? The formerly injured boy had silver on his knuckles, but other than that he looked human. Next to him was another guy. The guy next to the formerly injured boy had blonde hair with green streaks. His eyes were green with flecks of gold, and he, too, had silver knuckles.
“You? You were chosen to be a student?” Delias asked. If that was the case, why did Elder Lu seem so distant to the situation back in Olato City. If he was really recruiting them as students, he would not have want them to get terribly injured before the trial.
“Yes.” The formerly injured boy laughed. “I was accepted after that incident, and like any one invited, I can bring up to three people with me. I brought my brother here. Anyway, my name is Cotter Price. Call me Cotter. Me and my brother here want to group up with you.”
Now that I have seen some of these candidate’s strength, I can see even these guys are probably stronger than me. Thank God Elder Lu intervened in Olato. That Parker kid would have probably killed me. I need to be more careful next time.
“You want to join me?” Delias had not thought of forming a group. In fact, he had some reservations of asking a whole bunch of strange averati. Even though the chances of survival might be better even with the risk of betrayal, he did not want anyone finding out he was human. But with these guys… Maybe it’s not bad to group up and have a buffer. I might not be able to obtain a key with my human strength. The risks of them finding out that I’m human are lower than the risks of not having a team. “Even though I stiffed you back in the city?” Delias cautiously asked.
“Ha! They gave you gold. Even if you gave me more, I would not be able to use it. In fact, to get treatment, my friends… my brother had to beg for them to take it.”
Delias frowned. He thought on it. And said, “Ok. We can join up. Delias turned to Cotter’s brother. And what’s your name?”
Cotter’s brother gave an unflinching gaze towards Delias. “Daniel Price.” Price, huh. So it’s a blood relation. I was hoping they were just good friends calling each other brothers. If there is a choice, they would turn on me before they turned on each other. But I don’t have much of a choice, do I?
Delias nodded. “I guess we have a group now. It will be hard, but we will find all the necessary keys. We should go. Talk when there is fewer people around.”
The other two nodded and they all headed down the slight hill they were on and go deep into this new realm.
“Wait! I will join as well.” But before Delias could set off, another called out. This time. All three of them turned around, and surprisingly the voice came from a tall youth. His hair was dark, and the tips of his air were like bright red flames. His flaming irises stared directly at them.
This was the student that came in second to the realm like Delias!