Chapter 2: The world they live in

New York city. Late August.

Fall had dyed everything with a warm shade of apricot. Under the oak tree they had known since childhood, Hiatus Sovanno and Aria Tansine were waiting for their ever-tardy friend, Wander. Dry leaves crumbled beneath their feet, sunlight was dimming above their heads. They were halfway up Hunter Hill, their school lied at the top, while their town lied a few miles away from its base. Tasmanian oaks, redwoods, alpine ash and honey locusts sheltered the hill with their intertwined thick crowns, resembling an umbrella. As useful as it was, during fall, the umbrella discharged leaves after leaves, and young hunters sometimes have to put down their weapons and pick up the brooms if they played truant or were late for school . A leave fell on Hiatus’s head, vanquishing his patience.

« Aria, we must not spoil him any longer. We need to get to school on time. He can get there on his own. » Hiatus said, his thick eyebrowns- always being compared with  the hairiest tussock moth- compressed. They, along with his glares of flames, also shut the mouths of the hunters that ridiculed them.

.            » We will not leave Wander behind.  » Aria replied, fondling her hair. Her peers gave her various nicknames: Aria the Strawberry Binge Eaters, Aria the Book Recapper, but the one she liked the most was Bronze Wave. Wander gave it to her, after witnessing her first fight. He said her hair shone in battle. Hiatus agreed. This one remained a secret between them. » We’re his friends. »

The two stood two miles away from school. They had no trouble covering that distance, but their friend did not have it that easy. Wander’s limited physical strength force him to lag behind them all the time.

 » That’s exactly why we must help him grow and improve himself. Waiting for him will just condition him to think that we will always be there, and he will never try his best. And  don’t say that he’s fine they way he is. The demons will show you the opposite. Your friendship will kill him one day. » Hiatus said, frowning.

 » We’re novice hunters, Hiatus. Time for change is plentiful. For today, let him be late. » Aria sighed. Her eyes followed a squirrel running by.

 » Time is never plentiful. He must change today! »

« Come on, he’s trying very hard. Harder than any of us. Cut him some slack. »

« Slack? That’s it. I will leave you guys right now, right here. I’m going ahead. »

« Please do, no one’s stopping you, » said Aria.

Aria glanced at Hiatus as he walked away. She knew what was going to happen. Hiatus would stomp towards the school, then for a few minutes later would frustratingly walk back. He would pout, tell Aria  » this is going to be the last time » and then wait till Wander arrived.

It happened just as she had predicted.

 » Oh, hey, school is over already! » Aria said without looking at him.

« This is so going to be the last time. »

Aria chuckled, thinking of Hiatus’s childish side. She had always liked that about him. She closed her eyes, enjoying the  gentle breeze caressing her face. She had once wished the wind would erase the freckles on her cheeks, and at times the wish returned. Nonetheless, the freckles did not dampen her contentment of life: she had a promising future, got along with her parents and had the two best friends she could ever ask for. The only thing that bothered her was Wander’s poor academic result, but there was still time for her to fix that, to make sure she could graduate with both Wander and Hiatus. Samundo would not return anytime soon, meaning they would not join a war, or suffer one. Aria never felt more sure about the peace waiting ahead.

It was another 5 minutes before they saw Wander running towards them from afar, panting and sweating.  He smiled at Aria, and also at Hiatus, a little guiltily.

 » Sorry for making you guys wait. » Wander said, wiping his forehead. His silver eyes were barely visible behind his bang.

 » Don’t worry, you’ve improved. You’re 2 minutes faster than yesterday. »

 » Yeah, and will be 5 minutes later tomorrow, I bet, » Said Hiatus as he went ahead.

Aria notice how Wander stared at the back of his much admired friend.

 » He does not hate you, Wander, » said Aria, patting Wander’s shoulder.

 » I hope you’re right. Let’s go, I’ve slowed you down long enough. »

_____________________________________________________________________________

Hiatus thought of  Wander.  He loved his friend, but Wander’s incompetence annoyed him. He hated to see Wander being ridiculed by others,  yet he knew  protection would only halt his growth. Thus, Hiatus forced himself to be harsh, and struggled to resist spoiling Wander. Spoiling was Aria’s job: she managed to find excuses for Wander most of the time. Hiatus had tried to stop her several times, only to be shut down by her silence. Thinking about the two frustrated him, but also warmed him up.

Running at his full speed, passing rows of oaks and redwoods, Hiatus soon caught sight of the place he loved to be at.

The school the 3 of them attended was known as  » Xixin Hunter Institution ». It was an area of grand size, about 85 ha. There were 3 separate buildings on the campus, linked together by 8 bridges, surrounded by high fences and exotic trees called Green Firework. Each of them had 12 floors, and a bridge was built every 3 floors. People named the first one  » Scientia »- where students focus on researching into Demons, History, Runes and many other studies. The second one, Afflia, served to facilitate students’ socialization. If the school received a visit from others, students would be gathered here and, most of the time, forced against their will to communicate with strangers. The last one, Marsianos, named after the god of war, presented the students with the chance to hone their combat skills. It was the most popular building, considering the blood-thirst of soon-to-be hunters.

The school adopted a harsh daily test for students. If they wanted to go to school on time, they had to traverse a virtual battlefield where various challenges awaited, ready to strike them down. Their life would not be in danger, but their attendance record certainly would. Hiatus and Aria unfailingly beat the test with ease, but Wander struggled. That was why he was late every day.

« Xixin, Xixin, Xixin » Hiatus could already hear that  irritating sound coming from the school speaker. The principal- Dr. Xixin Howard Nate- was not egotistical, but he modified the bell that way to horrify the tardy. Rumor had it that at 2 a.m, the word Xixin would be distorted, resembling the sound emitted from a snake, killing anyone hearing it. Rumor also had it that those tried to sneak into the school at 2 a.m were expelled with no chance to come back.

Hiatus safely entered the schoolyard, but there was no sign of Aria and Wander. . He shuddered thinking about what would happen to them: the gatekeepers of Xixin Institution kept in store all forms of punishment for late students. He stared at the 20-feet steel gate, then stared at Scientia. The yard was void of people: all students and teachers had begun their classes. He was about to pass the gate when a voice reached him.

« The bell will ring soon. I don’t think you have the privilege, » Miss Hannah- the History and Politics teacher- called out to Hiatus. » I think it’s best you go back to class. »

 » Miss Hannah, I… » Hiatus tried to find an excuse.

 » Go to class, Hiatus. I will be here, just in case, » said Miss Hannah, pushing up her red glasses. » It will be fine. »

Hiatus looked at Miss Hannah. He knew she could be trusted: Hannah had always been an ally of students. He had the feeling she knew what he was trying to do, and decided to help.

 » Yes, miss. I leave it in your hand, » said Hiatus, heading for class.

______________________________________________________________________________

Waiting for his friends in the classroom, Hiatus could feel his stomach burning from the heat of his impatience. He kept looking out of the window, then glancing at the room’s door, his feet tapping to a rhythm even he found tedious.

Aria was on time. Hiatus was about to let out a sigh of relief when he noticed Wander was not behind her. He asked after the boy, and she shook her head in return.

« What happened? » Hiatus asked, his eyes closed, his hands pressed against his forehead.

« He  stayed behind as a distraction, so I could get ây. A gatekeeper got him. »

« That idiot. »

The gossip emerged among the students. Those in the front rows turned around, while the ones in the back left their benches, running to the windows, brushing aside the velvet curtains to observe the school yard.

« Wander is late again. That scardy-cat  is serious trouble. I wonder how they still manage to keep him in school. » A girl said as she cleared the black board.

 » I’ve no idea why those two decided to befriend him. Maybe they want someone to be their background? Ha, he surely fits that role. »

 » That wuss failed at anything remotely related to strength. »

This kind of malicious talk happened behind Wander’s back every day. Sometimes Hiatus and Aria marveled at the extent to which people could kept talking about the same topic over and over. They tried to shut people up, to no avail. They understood that unless Wander changed, hurtful words would never change.

Wander  only appeared 10 minutes later, with Miss Hannah following behind. All students ran back to their seats as they walked in. The two both eyed at Hiatus and Aria, both smiled. One guiltily, one tiredly.

Other students in class tried to hold back scoffing, they had witnessed this scene too many times.

 » Look, the princess has been rescued. Again. »

The sneering sentence compelled almost all of the class to succumb to their urge to laugh. The whole room was overloaded with noise as Wander walked to his seat with his head down and his two friends seething. Wander glanced at the two, signaling them to just let it pass.

Miss Hannah slammed her fist on the table, immediately silencing the whole room. She stared at them with the most threatening glare she could make, mostly at Jonathan Miller- the boy who had just made the remark. After ensuring that she got the attention of the whole class, Miss Hannah began her lecture.

« Today, we are going to learn about The governing body of the Demon Hunter world. Who stands at the top of our world? Who regulates it? What is the Council? Aria, I know you have already read the text book. So would you mind? »

« I think I can only recap what I read in the book. » Aria scratched her ear. » The Council is a governmental entity with utmost power in the world of Demon Hunters. They represents the law, the force and the path. Established in the year of 415, they have always stood by Demon Hunters, guiding us through times of hardship. »

Miss Hannah nodded. She picked up a piece of chalk and draw a diagram.

« Correct. That is the most basic definition of the Council , each and every one of you should remember that fact. I will elaborate on the Trinity System Aria mentioned: the Council represent the law- they build the legal system and ensure the delivery of justice, the power- all military power answers to them  and the path- each and every Hunter Government across the globe shall be harmonized and guided by the policies of the Council. »

 » Miss, so the Council adopts totalitarianism. Is it not a little frightening? »

 » The Council does indeed possess total power and control, but within it exist a myriad of fractions with dissimilar ideologies and policies. They help to create what we call  » chaotic convergence ».  They shall try to pursue their own interest, and it seem that Adam Smith’s theory can be applied even in politics, for an invisible hand shall guide their interest towards a common goal: the prosperity of the Demon Hunter community. »

« But then we have the Chancellor, who stands at the top. A man with that much power in hand is a recipe for disaster, right? »

 » The Chancellor can suggest new policies, laws and principles, but it is not up to only him to decide where those will take effect. He will have to consider the Board of Makers, who will choose to be either for or against the proposal. He does not have that much power. He cannot even order the Unison Force to move, unless under extreme circumstances. Like when The Council is under direct attack and there is no time for vote. »

 » And what about the government in each country? If the Council controls all, they are just straw puppets? »

« The Council rarely interferes with the affairs of nations. In the ancient times, they used to consider every government just branches. But now, it ‘s different. Their power is still nearly absolute, but their main job now is to mediate countries, not control them. Nations can declare war on each other and the council would not bat an eyelid, unless asked for. Besides, we have various representatives from all nations with the Council, they help to preserve the balance of power by influencing the council. You can say that nations’ government now partly controls the Council. »

 » What about the Singulus Digiti? Are they under the control of the Council too? »

The boy who asked that question got the thumb ups of others. The matter he just mentioned were of interest to every young hunters.

 » The Singulus Digiti? Well, they are a special case, but still, they are just a small size organization. »

 » In the Histoire Lacrium Daemon, they are regarded as the true leaders? »

 » True leaders do not abandon us in time of need, keep themselves hidden from us and make no contact at all. » Miss Hannah frowned.

 » Then what is their purpose? »

« They are just there, doing whatever they want without others knowing. Demon Hunters can live well without them. »

« But at least is it true that they are the most powerful Demon Hunters? More than anyone of us? »

« Well, » Miss Hannah replied with hesitation. » There is no proof, but indeed, it is very likely that they are the most powerful Demon Hunters, if not on par with various powerful beings scattered across the realms.

« That is so cool! They must be the one who defeated Samundo before! »

Small discussions popped up and filled the room with noise.

 » Now, now, that is not true. There is no proof of that claim. We don’t know who defeated Samundo. »

 » But many hunters were there when he was banished? »

 » We were there, but we saw nothing. The battlefield always got covered in a dense layer of smoke. When the smoke vanished, Samundo was also gone. We never knew how he was defeated. »

Miss Hannah flipped through the text book. She paused on a page and showed it to the students. » This is a picture of 16 years ago, the last time Samundo appeared in this very city. All smoke.  »

The students squinted.

 » So, we have no account of his appearance? »

 » No. We don’t know how he looks like. »

 » Who knows, he may look like us. » Hiatus said, staring out of the window.

Some students shivered. Miss Hannah shook her head.

 » Everyone, even if he returns, he has nothing to do with us. We are just students, the responsibility is not ours. »

Miss Hannah smiled. »Aria is right. Enough with Samundo. You guys will all have turned 100 by the time he returns. Now, we go back to the Council and the Singulus Digiti… »

The class once again was filled with noise. Anything power-related could entice young Hunters. The Singulus Digiti had always been an extremely controversial topic, for both the young and the old. Hannah knew that too, so she did not try to stop the students. She vaguely remembered experiencing the same feeling when she was younger. The Singulus Digiti never failed to associate themselves with the childhood of every young Hunter.

The rest of the period was spent on talking about the rising influence of the Council and the decreasing importance of the Singulus Digiti. The students asked questions after questions, since their curiosity for the power struggle between the two entity proved to be quite unrelenting. The period ended on a quite energetic note.

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