The Xixin Institution laid not very far from a forest called Mirilad. It was said to be the most serene and tranquil forest in all Halcyons with its only inhabitants being wild animals and birds. Mirilad was there just for the sake of being there, left undisturbed for years, its overwhelming army of trees challenging city lights and skyscrapers. Hardly anyone bothered trespassing the forest, since to them, tranquility did not equal enticing mystery.
The other reason: New York Halcyon was a places filled with supermarkets that sold exclusive goods, amusement parks with infamous X games like free-fall waterfall and hi-tech shops sponsored by CyTech Coporation. The summoners, following the recommendations of their new hunter friends, left Mirilad out as a point of interest. Most of them.
Two weeks following the summoners’ arrival- the institution cafeteria.
» Let’s explore it. » said Jake Malton. » It’s going to be fun. »
The suggestion was met with empty stares from both Aria and Hiatus.
» Why is this guy sitting with us? » asked Hiatus without stopping chewing his slice of bread.
» Oh come on, you guys are cool. I just wanna be friends. Who knows, in the future, we may become like the Principals! » Jake said, eyeing the students-void cafeteria, the neatly placed plastic chairs, the bored cook with his headphone on, the janitor mopping the floor.
» One more reason to not be friends. » Hiatus sighed.
» Hey, don’t be like that. Let’s me join you. Three is better than two, right? »
Aria shook her head. » Sorry, but our little circle is already completed. We have Wander. »
« Who? Another famous person I haven’t heard of? »
Aria and Hiatus glanced at each other.
» Are you talking about that Wander? Loser Wander? »
The question was replied with cold silence. Hiatus kept chewing his bread. Aria looked down.
» Oh, ok, I guess…. Uhm, I’m sorry for being rude. I heard it from some… Yeah. »
Aria glanced at Hiatus.
» Hiatus, » she once again broke the silence. » The forest, it seems like a good idea. »
The other two looked at her, their eyebrows raised.
» What got into you, Aria? You are not exactly the adventurous type. » Hiatus said in a low voice.
» I think it is time for a change? »
A grin took over Jake’s face as he let out a sigh of relief.
» Come on, it is going to be fun. » He smiled at the grumpy new friend . « I mean, we will only explore the outer part and not venture too deep into Mirilad. It is safe! »
» Famous last words. » Hiatus replied nonchalantly. « Let’s go, then. »
» Hyped! Wait, I need to tell my friends to take charge in my place. » said Jake in a joyous tone as he rushed towards his fellow summoners.
Hiatus stared at the summoner. He put his slice of bread down.
» Okay, Aria, what are you scheming? »
» Just go with it, Hiatus. I really want to explore Mirilad. And this is a good time to gain firsthand knowledge of a Summoner. I want to know them better. May help correcting some prejudices. »
The three arrived at the edge of the forest 15 minutes later. The trees of Mirilad did not seem as intimidating as the ones shown in horrow movies. They were about 10 meters high with thin crowns. Trees in the outer area grew a few meters apart, leaving lots of open spaces for trepassers. Sunlight was streaming through the gaps among magenta and merigold leaves, and birds were tweeting on the branches. Their schools were just a few miles behind and still visible from where they stood, making them feel safe.
« This isn’t ominous at all. What will we do once we are in the forest? » asked Hiatus.
« I don’t know. We can look around, observe natural life forms, and if we are lucky enough, we may run into a hidden treasure, just like in those role-playing video games! » exclaimed Jake.
« The same type of games where people die because they venture into uncharted territory thinking it will be fun? »
Hiatus grinned as he saw the confuse look on Jake’s face following Aria’s question.
The forest certainly did not live up to its reputation. It was full of life, of sound, of vibrating wind. Hiatus, Aria and Jake deliberately stepped hard on the ground, loving the sound of dry leaves crumbling like cryspy fried chips. In its own sense, Mirilad was more hectic and radiant than various metropolises. The inhabitants of the forest did not fear the presence of a higher life-form, they actively approached the three without hesitation, eyes glowing with unguarded curiosity. They seemed to have gotten used to outsiders. Squirrels ran to Jake as he handed them chestnuts. Couples of deers stared at the three from afar, tilting their heads from left to right. Jake was the most excited, due to his quite nature-theme upbringing typical of every Summoner. He enthusiastically used his magic to impress the animals and his two less impressionable companions. Aria paid much more attention to the diversity of vegetation. Her inquisitiveness, and partly her appetite too, compelled her to try the taste of some strange fruits, which could have seriously upset her whole digestive system without the interference from Jake. There was not much for Hiatus to do, aside from standing still and appearing less grumpy so as not to frighten the birds perched on his body. The latter he managed with much difficulty, but for the grosbeaks and confused pigeons he tried his best.
» It is not so bad right? » Jake asked Hiatus, and received a shrug in return. Hiatus’s apparent comfort with his winged friends was more than enough of an answer for Jake. As of Aria, it could not be more obvious, the girl actively collected as many plants as possible.
» I think so far we are pretty fortunate to find these…. living treasures. » said Aria. » Do all summoners experience this regularly? »
» Yes, we put lots of emphasis on being in touch with nature. It boosted out magic, somehow, and our understanding of this world. »
» We love nature too. » Hiatus grinned. » Birds, stags, deer, worms, all food. »
» Just ignore Hiatus. We never put that in practice. » Aria rolled her eyes.
Jake nodded, but still gave Hiatus, and even Aria, a cautious glance.
» Wander, how did he become your best friend? » Jake asked, scratching his head.
» Actually, the right question should be: how we became his best friends. He gave me cookies, strawberry one. And we became friends, simple as that. The » best friend » part just followed.
» And Hiatus? »
» Tell him nothing, Aria. » Hiatus said, trying his best to keep his body still as he did.
Aria chuckled. » Hiatus was the unsocial kid. Before he met us, he was with…another. Anyhow, Wander and I treated his wound when he fell from an oak tree. He was shy at first, but then days later asked to play tag with us. »
» Shy, he? » Jake glanced at Hiatus.
» Haha, yeah. He changed. » Aria gave a brittle smile. » We changed. »
For a while there were only the chatters of the squirrels.
» Ah, this looks good! » Aria said, collecting a fleshy star-shape ruby red fruit.
» Its name is Pig Star. The pigs like it, hence the name. Ah, sorry, that is rude. »
» It is. Who came up with the name? »
» Lacrium, who else? The « old jolly nerd » named almost everything in Halcyon. If he was still alive, he would have trademarked everything. »
» Summoners idolize him, right? » Aria bit the Pig Star.
» Not only us. He’s worthy of idolization. The Leonardo DaVinci of Halcyon. »
After having sated her curiosity with the plants, Aria turned to Jake and asked him questions regarding summoners’ education. She asked him about the stadiums of Hamilton School, about the staffs of summoners, about their training methods. The conversation was fluid, but Aria noticed Hiatus was remaining silent for too long. She shifted her attention to him, and saw the a frown of disturb on his face.
» Are you okay? » Aria asked. « Hiatus? »
Hiatus gave no reply. He was lost in concentration. His sharp instinct warned him of something foreign, and he was trying to catch the source of the unknown. Aria and Jake, whose instinct was outmatched by him, sensed nothing, and to them he seemed to be in a trance.
All of a sudden, the birds flapped their wings in fright, the animals moved their feet in fear and the plants shook their leaves. Hiatus drew out a blade, much to the surprise of the other two.
« You brought an weapon out of school? You could get expelled! » Aria yelled. » And why are you drawing that out? Don’t tell me you just found out about your psychopathic self? Come on, Jake is much more likely to pull that one trick! »
« I am still here you know. » Jake pointed at himself.
» Shut up, you two! Can’t you feel? » Hiatus whispered.
» Feel what? The love tonight? » Aria said, shrugging.
» There is a demon in this forest. » said Hiatus in his low voice.
Both Jake and Aria shuddered.
» No, it can’t be. This area is protected by the more advanced spell. Principal Hamilton casted it himself. No demon could— » Jake could not finish, since from within the forest, a dense demonic miasma was unleashed into the air like a shrieking wind freezing his body.
Aria could not move, either. She was paralyzed by the unexpected overwhelming presence. She never truly faced an adversary that could seriously threaten her life.
In contrast, Hiatus was calm and collected, he gave his order.
» Aria, activate your demonic form. Focus on the feet. You will have to be really fast to get out of here. »
« I can fight! »
« Yes you can. But not here, not now. The Demex of that thing is too strong. If a Demex causes paralysis, it means the demon can kill you. You will run, right now. »
Aria stared at Hiatus, lost for words. She inhaled deeply, then nodded. » Understood. And I assume you will stay? »
« I will. I can hold it back. »
« What about me? »asked Jake.
» Were you paralyzed? » Hiatus raised his eyebrows.
« I’m out of here then. »
Maria went into a trance for a brief moment, and her body started to undergo transformation. The skin on her leg began to burn, revealing a new red layer resembling iron as the ground under her feet was crushed due to the weight. Despite Jake’s constant refusal and complaints, she carried him in her arms, nodded at Hiatus then leapt off the ground towards the Xixin Institution.
Hiatus was left alone the forest, and within him grew the seed of anxiety. The Demex of the Demon got to him and for an infinitesimal period his spirit succumbed to the intimidation, but his experience assisted him and kept him on his two feet. He wondered if that hostile creature was Samundo himself, but realizing that the scale of power did not match the standard of the Demon Lord. Nonetheless, he deemed the enemy dangerous and possibly lethal, and so with caution he marched in the direction of his adversary.
The forest turned dead following the appearance of the demon. All sound was killed, not even a gush of wind. All animals broke down from the paralysis, some were gasping for breath. All birds had their wings clipped and laid immobile on the ground. Hiatus had born witness to similar scenes for many times, but previously, a whole dozen of demons was needed to impose the same effects, this time, there seemingly existed only one.
As Hiatus chased the demon further into the forest, strange footprints were more frequently sighted. He examined those, and frightened to realize their owner must be at the level of a steel demon- the second most threatening level.
» The size, the pressure it caused, the traces of tissues, no doubt, it is a steel »
An overwhelming fear surged within Hiatus. He shuddered considering the possibility of this creature preying on humans or inferior hunters. Furthermore, he just could not comprehend why a demon of such great prowess could find its way into Mirilad. The forest, and the whole Halcyon, was placed under principal Hamilton’s spell. Infiltration was impossible.
Still, that by no means amounted to the most terrifying fact Hiatus noticed. Right after the discovery, another Demex crept up on him, but his previous contact with it rendered him quite immune to its effect, and he resumed to his chase.
The demonic aura was instable, phasing in then phasing out from his sense. At times it burst out, only to immediately diminish right afterwards. Hiatus must make the best use of his ability to hang on to the trace of the Demon.
The inner area of Mirilad was a gloomy place, dwelled by the most ancient of arch-trees, forbidding the sun to illuminate its scenery. Hiatus started to see more and more of unrecognizable animals and insects, which all shared the same fate with their outer side counterparts. The dimming light enabled Mirilad to strikingly resemble scenes taken from the most bleak and bloodcurdling movies. The Aura became increasingly intense, seemingly due to the fact that Hiatus was closing the distance.
» Is it being afraid? Or excited? »
Hiatus sped up, aiming at the demon. Then he saw it. Somewhat.
Blending in perfectly with darkness, the demon’s body was humanoid albeit with claws. Its eyes were glowing red, immediately averted from Hiatus the moment they were laid on him. It was all a blur, and the only other characteristic Hiatus noticed was the dense layer of smoke enveloping its body.
Hiatus drew out the dagger and went for a preemptive strike. His action startled the demon, causing it to let out an ear-splitting roar that pushed him back. It then returned to its getaway.
» It’s experiencing fear. Did it see through my disguise? »
For a moment, Hiatus considered letting it go, since it had no intention of harming him, but the thought was immediately rejected out of a sense of duty. Killing demon was a must for hunters, and Hiatus did not question that duty. With that in mind, Hiatus decided to end the chase, and if lucky, end the enemy simultaneously.
In the hand of a master, even a stick could become a weapon. And so for Hiatus, the dagger was more than enough. He demonized his arm, transferred the force to the blade, tightened his grip. With a deep inhale, he thrust his arm forward, and before long the skin on his arm started to shed and his inner muscles became visible ; his arm extended to an unbelievable degree, stabbing the demon’s shoulder with the blade, causing it to stagger and collapse.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Hiatus adjusted his arm, walking cautiously towards his fallen prey with the dagger dyed with its blood in his hand. The closer he got, the clearer it became. It was of medium side, and the smoke surrounding it was dancing erratically. Soon enough, the smoke started to dissipate, giving a better view of the demon’s skin and muscular system.
Hiatus, however, had no chance to investigate them. Before he could fully see the demon, a blinding light enveloped him. The light quickly turned into darkness as he collapsed.
When Hiatus woke up, Aria, Jake, and the two principals were standing near him. He realized he had been carried out of the forest, and was positioned in Mrs. Matilda’s office. The shiny ceiling, the stingingly white curtains, the dense smell of disinfectant, and most of all, the » International Nurse » certificate placed beneath Mrs. Matilda’s portrait, all were trademarks of this place. He looked around in confusion and was met with eyes of concern.
» Hiatus, can you hear us? Are you aware of your surrounding? » asked Mrs. Matilda.
Hiatus looked around before replying. » I am more than fine, Mrs. Matilda. It’s just like waking up from a nap, my mind is perfectly clear. »
» What does 9 plus 10 equal to? » Mrs. Matilda insisted.
» 21. Just kidding, 19. » Hiatus answered with a grin.
« He has no physical injury, » said the old nurse, shaking her head at him. » And apparently no mental one, either, besides from one he got before today. »
« Hiatus, please tell us everything that happened after Aria and Jake left you. » asked Principal Xixin.
Hiatus tried his best to recall everything. It was alright at first, but towards the end, his memory turned hazy. Everyone listened to the story with a look of concern and disbelief on their countenances. Principal Hamilton frowned at what he said, and was the first one to speak up right after Hiatus ended his narration.
» I think your memory has been seriously damaged, Hiatus, for I am sure what you have just revealed certainly must have not transpired. There could not be any demon in the forest. »
» I know what I see, Principal Hamilton. It was a demon, I’m sure of my memory. »
« Hiatus, » said Principal Xixin. » I think what Hamilton said is correct, your memory has been messed up. There was no demon. »
Hiatus frowned, turning to Aria and Jake. They both shook their heads.
» Come on, you guys, you felt it too right? That Demex? If it is not a demon then what can it be? »
» It is our experiment. I apologize, Xixin, for hiding it from you. Summoners have recently developed a new contraption allowing us to imitate the Demex, what you three felt must have been it. We were activating it, and the effects went overboard. »
» Now that is just nonsense. How the heck did you even bring that kind of contraption into this city without any one of us knowing? »
Principal Xixin glared at him. » Hiatus, watch your language, and Hamilton, I think you have a lot to explain to me later. »
» There are traces of that thing. The footprints, and the paralyzed animals too. »
« No such thing, Hiatus. We searched around, no footprint, and all the forests dwellers were doing just fine. » Principal Hamilton said, shaking his head,
» My dagger, I stabbed it with my dagger. There must be blood on it! »
« We found the dagger, Hiatus. No blood. »
« And must I say how unbelievable this story is from the very start, » said Principal Hamilton. » You told us that the demon was a steel level, then how did you even manage to catch up with it, and even injure it with your dagger? The star of your institution, Aria Tansine, was paralyzed by it, and there you were playing the role of the hero. The Demon did not exist, Hiatus, and your memory is messed up. »
Hiatus could not reply, for if he were to answer Hamilton, things would get even more unbelievable. He could only ask another question.
» But then why was I unconscious? If it was not the Demon, what was it? »
« It was a kind of pollen we found in the vicinity of your body. It causes hallucination and possible loss of consciousness. It’s from the Syphilis fungus. You must have inhaled too much. »
Hiatus stared at everyone around him. He knew this discussion was not going in his favor, and ending it was the best choice.
» I see. So that was it. I must have been confused. Sorry, I just… need to rest. I need to clear mind. » He said, glancing at Aria,
Mrs. Matilda was waiting forever for that sentence. She quickly chased everyone out, telling them to stop the untimely interrogation.
Aria returned a minute later, having picked up the signal from Hiatus previously. Mrs. Matilda was not amused, but let her in at Hiatus’s request. She sat down next to Hiatus.
» Aria, you must trust me. The demon, it existed. » said Hiatus with an insisting intonation.
Aria pulled the blanket over him. » Calm down, Hiatus. I trust you, I just did not want to alert people in that room. »
« Really? You do? And not alerting who? » Hiatus said, kicking the blanket.
« Principal Hamilton, duh! He was hiding something, obviously. His story is much more of a mumbo jumbo than yours. No offense. » Aria pulled the blanket again, glaring at him.
» Ok, what is wrong with the story? »
« That contraption! Really, how convenient for them to test it when we are in that forest, and how convenient that only the three of us felt it and no one else. And old man Hamilton is much suspicious, hiding the existence of that thing, if it truly exists, from principal Xixin. »
« But is it true that there was no trace? »
Aria nodded. She pulled her chair closer to Hiatus and lowered her voice.
« It is true. Not a single abnormality was found. I know what you are thinking, but principal Hamilton and the summoners did not erase the traces. There was not enough time. It took me less than 3 minutes at full speed to reach the Institution and another two to find and inform everyone. We got back in 5 minutes, and the summoners were lagging behind. The hunters were there first, Hiatus. We immediately searched for you, and the summoners arrived 4 minutes later. Ten minutes, Hiatus, for your story to happen, and for us to reach the forest. Who could have erased all traces, healed all the animals, chased after you and that Demon then knocked you unconscious during that while, and finally escaped and erased their own presence with us closely tailing behind? No one, Hiatus, no one that we know of. The summoners were too late, and we all know there was only that one demon, not to mention there was no way the demons could heal the animals and the birds. And Hunters, last time I check, healing is not really our cup of tea either. One last thing, I was there too, Hiatus, I was there when you were found, and no blood was found on the dagger. Someone was there before us, faster than us, much faster. »
» You are beginning to make me question the credibility of my own story. » Hiatus shook his head.
» At first, I questioned it too. But I just know that the story of Principal Hamilton is full of holes and assumptions, not to mention his change of attitude. He was genuinely worried when he heard the news. But the a while later, he was so indifferent and cold. I find it strange. »
« Hamilton is hiding something. And I doubt the demon is all that he conceals. »
» Yes, I agree with you. »
» And there is one thing I’m worried about: the demon, it is humanoid. »
Aria gasped, eyes wide open. » A demonized Hunter? »
« Very possible so. And the traces I found, its footprints, no presence of claws, not much difference in size and shape compared to Hunters. Not yet. »
« That thing transformed recently? But it was a Steel, how can… »
« Aria, do you think one of us here at the institution was that Demonized thing? » Hiatus asked, clenching his fists.
» No, I don’t… »
« Aria? »
« No, I.. don’t believe. Why do you ask? » Aria also clenched her fists.
» I told you, that creature, it was afraid. I think it was afraid of its own power, like an apprentice Hunter could not deal with his new found power. »
Aria’s eyes slowly grew fixed on Mirilad.
» Aria? Are you ok? » asked Hiatus as he noticed Aria’s blank stare.
The voice of Hiatus brought Aria back to reality.
» Yeah, I’m okay. I don’t want to keep discussing this matter. Take a rest, I’m returning to class. I’ve been skipping a lot recently. » Aria stood up, heading for the door.
Hiatus stared at Aria. He nodded. » Okay, see you later then. »
» One more thing, Hiatus, I want to make sure of: how did you catch up with and injure a Steel Demon? » asked Aria, her hand lingering on the doorknob.
« What? I… »
Aria waited for a few seconds for the silence to sink in.
» Forget it, you need a rest, not another question. Just assume I have never asked that. »
Hiatus cleared his throat as he watched his friend leave the infirmary. He turned his eyes on Mirilad, looming not so far away from him, harboring a demon on the loose.
The two principals entered the forest once more for the purpose of observing the contraption Hamilton mentioned. Hamilton walked in the front with Xixin behind him. He could felt the stare of his friend on his back.
» The contraption- what contraption? That contraption. To imitate the Aura. » the thoughts inside Hamilton’s head mingled into a pile of incoherency. Voices blew through his mind. « That contraption did not exist, no it did. But where? Where? Deep inside. »
Hamilton did not even know where he was heading, but his feet kept moving like someone was dragging them along against his will. Something was waiting for him there. He knew, but at the same time he did not.
And there it was, the contraption, shredded to pieces, its parts scattered.
« Is that it? » Xixin asked, frowning.
» What is it? What is he asking? The contraption? I don’t know »
« Yes, it is that contraption. » Hamilton said.
« I see. Why is it in this state? »
« I don’t know. »
« You don’t know? »
Hamilton shook his head.
» I do not know anything » the voices whispered again.