As a matter of fact, what happened in the forest was kept a secret by everyone involved. The contraption was found and presented to people who needed to confirm its existence. Hiatus stared at it for quite a while, contemplating its dubious function. He wondered if Hamilton had this planned from the beginning. He grew even more suspicious of the summoner and of Mirilad and intended to enter forest once more to continue his investigation, but access to the forest was no longer available. Principal Xixin had forbidden everyone from traversing Mirilad, and ordered dozens of sentry drones to make sure no one disobeyed. Young hunters and summoners laughed, frowned and pointed at the robotic security guards, only to be silenced when one robot transformed its arm into a 7-feet sword.
Aria also had become more absent-minded after that day. She was frequently found lost in thought and when Hiatus called out to her, she always startled. He would ask her of her well-being, and she would answer that she was fine, only to repeat the same action later on. He was quite certain what she asked him earlier contributed to the condition. He felt guilty, but not enough to reveal to her the answer.
The contest would take place in the mid of October, and September was passing in haste. Young hunters of the institution began to overlook various subjects and invest more time in sparring lessons. Miss Hannah was frustrated by their attitude, but she also understood them, so no extra homework was given. Aidan, on the other hand, took advantage of his class’ uprising popularity and put the students through a training course harsher than ever before. He yelled at them even more than usual for trivial things, gave more punishment and prolonged the time of his period. All students endured for the sake of the contest.
Two days after the incident in Mirilad, hunters had their first midterm exam for sparring. Principal Xixin agreed to unlock the gymnasium on Marsianos 4th and 5th floor. Summoners also gathered to watch their Hunters friend perform.
The gymnasium was a duplication of the Roman Colosseum, save for all the wires and screens and control panels surrounding the arena. Aidan stood behind a panel, speaking through a speaker.
» Karen Spencer, stop talking and get on the arena, right now! »
Every student plugged their ears as Aidan yelled.
Hiatus and Aria sat near the arena. Watching their schoolmates fight was their hobby.
» Lead, Gold, Copper , Plantinum, Glass.- which level? »
» Blue Platinum, sir. » Karen answered, flipping her platinum hair. » Suits my hair. »
Two humanoid robots helped Karen put on a V.R.A- Virtual Response Armor. Done with their job, they quickly left the stage as a virtual Platinum Ursute- a demon with the head of a bear and an overmusculer body, its throbbing veins the size of a full-grown man’s thumbs, appeared on the stage.
» Fight! »
The Ursute bared its teeth, growling. Karen took one step back, lowering her sword.
The two opponents charged at each other simultaneously. Karen’s sword ran through the Ursute’s leg, while its punch hit her shoulder. The V.R.A flared up, as its shoulder piece turned red, accompanied by a loud « bip » sound. Karen winced as she lost control of her arm.
» Internal bleeding, dislocated shoulder, premature hyperventilation, potential consciousness loss in 5 minutes. » The V.R.A notified.
» And the best A.I award goes to. » Karen rolled her eyes.
Hiatus clicked his tongue. » Come on, you can do it. »
» Platinum Ursute, impressive. » Miss Hannah said as she sat down next to him.
» Miss, you don’t have a class? » asked Hiatus
The teacher sighed. » Aidan asked me to give him a full day. An exchange. »
» For what? » asked Hiatus.
» I asked him to let Wander off the hook. Aidan was ready to fail him. « He shall not pass! » Can you believe him? »
» I can. He just… Cut its other leg! He does not like Wander. »
Miss Hannah clapped as Karen cut the Ursute’s remaining leg. It roared, slammed its arms down and started to spin its body.
» I’m worried about the three of you. Well, two of you. Aria is prepared for the next 10 years of her life at least. Hiatus, you are a good combatant, but you are not doing so well in other subjecs. You score a Steel on the lastest History-Politics exams, and I’m glad. But you are failing when it comes to other subjects. A gold on Demonology! At this rate, you can fail the Penultimate Trial. »
Aria exited her silent mode as soon as she heard the teacher’s last sentence. » He can’t. I will help him with other subjects. And Wander too. We will graduate together. »
» Good recovery speed, left arm functional, stabilized breathing. »
Summoners and hunters shouted, encouraging Karen. Jonathan shouted he loudest.
« I have no doubt that Hiatus can do it. Though for Wander, it may take… more than your help. They boy is falling behind with more than 50% of the subjects. »
» He’s trying his best. I know it! » Aria’s eyes flared up. » He wil become a good hunter. He will be. »
Hiatus leaned backs, his arms folded, his eyes drooped. He murmured. » No. »
The Ursute’s spin attack reached Karen.
» Mutilation. Damage beyond recovery. Death. »
Aria and Hiatus effortlessly passed the exam. The latter got a Steel, while the former got an Iron. Right after the exam, Aidan made all students train harder, since half of them failed.
Practicing, though, was not the most exhaustive work during this period. The students had to help construct the contest arena, build ticket booth, decorate the school and advertise the contest. Principal Xixin placed much importance on the advertising part, and constantly reminded his « dear students » of the meaningful purpose of kindling the friendship between the Hunters and the Summoners. Everyone, of course, was aware of the potentially « meaningful » amount of money this contest would generate. It would allow him to buy even more virtual demon models, and his students liked that. They wanted to see an Iron and Steel demon up close.
Hiatus and Aria belonged to the construction team, and had to spend all of their afterschool time in Marsianos building a contraption whose function baffled them. Still they felt lucky, for many of their schoolmates had to learn flowery language for the sake of welcoming guests from other cities. Principal Xixin wanted them to talk like « true ladies and gentlemen. »
» I just do not understand, » asked Hiatus, carrying a steel rod. » Why are we the ones that have to handle all this… stuffs. Aren’t the summoners supposed to do the heavy work with their magical telekinesis? »
Hiatus let out an « urg » sound from his throat as he glanced over the lidless cans of paint, piles of metallic grid, dozens of steel stanchion leaning against the wall and construction tools scattered on the ground.
« Telekinesis is an advanced spell, Hiatus. In fact, from what I have heard, none of the summoner here can cast it. » Aria answered.
» The heck? Isn’t telekinesis the most basis spell? »
« I beg to differ, » said Jake as he approached Hiatus and Aria with Victor. « That spell is beyond most, if not all, of summoners, and other arcane practitioners, one of the Deific Spells, contrary to the popular belief that lifting an object is the most basis of all. Wingardium Leviosa- more than just those words. »
« Okay, then at least you can, like, use wind or earth or something to lift these freaking huge poles and bricks up right? » Hiatus asked.
» Yes, we can, hunter, » said Victor, his nostrils flaring. » But our spell is not for such crude purpose. You hunters suit the job much better. »
» Yeah, whatever. Can you be useful and contributing now? Or is that too crude for you? »
« Good one, Hiatus. » said Jake, smiling. » What? You must admit he had a point, Victor. »
» You will not get away with this, Sovanno. » Victor snarled as he walked away.
Jake’s eyes followed Victor until he vanished into a crowd that was decorating the walls.
» Thank you for chasing him away. I feel uncomfortable with him around. »
« Is he like.. your friend? » Hiatus said, climing up a ladder.
Jake shook his head. » Heck no. He is one nasty dude, experimenting his spells on lots of animals, for no good reason. But let’s talk of him no more, I’m not liking it. »
» Sure. » Hiatus shrugged. »Aria, can you throw me that hammer? Aria? Hey girl, that nail is pretty much dead from all that hitting. »
» Is she ok? She doesn’t look well. » Jake asked, staring at Aria.
» She has been like this since that incident. » Hiatus caught the hammer.
Jake stared at the hammer, then glanced at Hiatus. » Talking about that incident, I see that you’ve recovered. You’re lucky, overexposure to Hyptilis fungus can have more disastrous consequences. I shouldn’t have suggested that trip to the forest. I put us all in danger. »
» Not your fault. It was my decision to venture further. Can you pass me that bottle? »
« You have no idea. » Jake cleared his throat, handing Hiatus the bottle. »Hey, I… agree that a demon was in the forest that day. Now that I think about it, I have more reasons to trust you than Principal Hamilton. »
Hiatus did not reply. He just could not fully trust Jake yet. This might as well be a trap, a gimmick from Hamilton to make sure whether he had truly rejected the idea of a demon.
» That machine, whatever it’s called, I don’t think we summoners invent it. The staff and the students of my school aren’t aware of its existence. Principal Hamilton did not keep secrets from that many people. Not this kind of secret. »
Jake continued. » My friends still don’t know about the Mirilad Incident, but they know about the machine. It is a tourist attraction now. Sadly it does not help much with the investigation. »
» Have you found out who destroyed that? »
» No. The destruction was caused by a strong physical force, or possibly a air type-2 of magic. To be able to penetrate two layers of anti-magic protection, that magic user must have been powerful. In case a purely physical force destroyed it, we are clueless. We cannot deduce the anti-force characteristics of the machine from its remains. »
» You guys don’t notify the Round Table? »
« Principal Hamilton deemed it unnecessary. He doesn’t want to deal with… Dessina. » Jake shivered.
» Any more reasons for you to not believe your principal? » Hiatus glanced at Jake.
» Yes, but it’s just a gut feeling. His behaviors these days are untypical of him. I know he is old and all, but his age does not render him dull or senile. Yet recently he is always distracted and neglectful. »
» Are you implying he has been taken over by something, or he has just got really old? » Hiatus hit a nail with all of his strength.
» I’m afraid the former is more likely. »
» When I look at the wrinkles on his face I’m afraid both is equally likely. »
Jake shrugged. » I will watch him more closely. It’s not like there is anything I can do at the moment, but I want to make sure nothing escapes my sight. »
» You seem too invested in this stuff for a student you know? »
» I learned it from my family, mostly my brother. And I think we all have that side in us, right Hiatus? »
Having finished hitting the last nail, Hiatus climbed down the ladder. He looked at Jake as the cold expression on his face turned into a smirk.
» I think you are right. We all have that side. »
The stare contest went on for a few seconds before Aria decided to disrupt it.
» I’m done. I’m leaving first. » said the girl as she put down a wrench.
« You’re not feeling well? » asked Hiatus.
» Hiatus, for the 10th time of the day, I am very well. I just want to leave. » Aria said, her voice gradually rising.
» Okay, okay, please, do leave! »
Aria sighed then walked away from the boys.
« Something is bothering her. » Jake frowned.
» Please don’t make obvious statements. »
Hannah’s finger traced the list of name. After a while, she looked up. » Mr. Xixin, all the invitation letters have been sent. We received immediate affirmative responses from 10 guests. » said Hannah.
« Is Veritas one of them? »
» He is. »
« The other two? »
« No. »
Xixin tapped on his desk. »Shame, if all three of them are here it may boost the ticket sales. The youngsters are crazy about them. »
» No summoners will come? » asked Hannah.
« According to Hamilton, no. »
Principal Xixin’s office was a spacious room with little furniture, only an antiquated wooden office desk placed opposite to the door, a few comfy chairs and a huge vintage bookshelf few meters behind the desk. Aside from those, scattering pieces of metals and broken weapons filled the room. To walk around the room without causing the annoying noise of metals banging against each other was a nearly impossible task. Perhaps it was his intention to use the mess as a kind of alarm or anti-thief trap.
» So, about the security system, I assume you invite all the captains not just to attract young hunters, but also to use them as some kind of extra measure? To have them here would be safer for everyone? » asked Hannah.
« Yes, they’re competent warriors. But they are the last resorts: I don’t want to face the threat, I want to prevent it. Stop the demons from entering the contest is still the top-notch solution. »
» The spell cast by Hamilton is not enough? »
» No. After what happened, I don’t think it is enough. »
« You think there was a demon? » Hannah frowned.
» Not really. It’s just… Hamilton is not himself lately. That worried me. »
» Then shouldn’t we call this off? »
Xixin sprung up from his seat, startling Hannah. » Call it off? This is the most important phase of our dream. If this succeeds, other schools will follow our examples, young hunters and summoners will have a harmonious future, and no more Cold Decade, no more political marriages, no more weapon race, no more deaths! »
Hannah stared at Xixin with eyes wide open. The principal, finally aware of his explosive reaction, sat down. » Ah, I mean, we invested too much money, we can’t call this off. »
Hannah bit her lips. She nodded, and changed the topic.
« What is his excuse for bring that machine to our school without advance notice? »
» Well, he said that he did not want anyone to find out yet about that demonic technology. Said it might cause serious misunderstanding. He never thought someone would be in the forest during the experiment. »
Hannah frowned at the principal. She did not want his friendship with principal Hamilton to be spoiled. The two had been one of the reasons Summoners and Hunters became much friendlier recently. If even they fell out, the tension between the two species would undoubtedly increase. She recalled what happened in the Cold Decade, shaking her head.
» Back to the matter at hand, what shall we do about security? I doubt those sentry drones are enough. The school budget is insufficient for more purchases.
» Maybe we should use our own resources? » Xixin smirked.
« No sir, I do not think we should use students as scouts. » Hannah replied in a robotic voice.
» Oh come on, humans do it all the time. »
« We both know their scouts don’t have to fight 10-feet creatures. »
« It will not be that dangerous of a job. We aren’t 100% sure that the Demons will attack. Besides, they youngsters have been training all their life for combat, they’re ready. I bet they will be thrilled. »
» They are not ready. » Hannah said, doubting herself as she thought of her students’ faces.
» Remember how it used to be, Hannah? I joined the battlefield when I was their age, and you killed your first Demon when you was 14! Are you underestimating them? »
Hannah was annoyed when Xixin mentioned her first kill. She hated to argue, and she knew that the principal had already made the decision before he even mentioned it. His sparkling eyes made hers roll.
» Let’s just put our faith in them then. » she said, sighing.
» Excellent, can I trust you to pick for me the members of this patrol team? »
» Yes, yes you can. » Hannah rolled her eyes. » And by the way, for all the extra work, I want a raise. »
» You can’t be serious. »
« Yes, yes I can. »
Afflia- the most expensive building of the Xixin Institution- was not restricted to being a place for socialization or for solving external affairs. It could also serve as a kind of 3-star hotel for honored guests of the institution. In fact, 9 out of 12 floors of Afflia served this purpose, and during this time, the summoners were its temporary occupants.
Inside Principal Hamilton’s room, students were gossiping until he ceased writing his paper and turned his attention to them.
» We have already set up three new layers, sir! » said one student. » You can be at ease, sir, there is no way the demon can infiltrate the institution without us knowing. They cannot even enter Mirilad! »
» Good job. I am proud of you. » said Hamilton in a dull voice.
» Sir, is there anything else we can do? You still seem dissatisfied. »
» No, I’m just tired. » Hamilton rubbed his eyes.
» Sir, maybe we can give you a check-up? Just a simple spell and… »
» No, no, I don’t need that. Just buy me some painkiller. » Hamilton waved his hand.
» Sir, you have always promoted the use of therapeutic spells… »
« Can you just buy it? » Hamilton said as if he was shouting.
The students were startled by his outburst. They quickly left the room. Some unlucky ones got the job of buying the painkiller.
Hamilton lied in his bed and tried to clear his head. The headache emerged and worsened after that Mirilad Incident. Just a few days before he was just fine. He struggled to recall what happened a few days back and a few weeks earlier. The memories insides his head became so blurry.
» Good morning, Hamilton. My name is…. »
He could not remember the name, he could not even remember who said that sentence. Something had become very wrong with his memory.
» Principal Hamilton! » a student barged into the room yelling. « The contraption… »
Hamilton did not even need to hear the rest. He already felt what had happened to that..thing.
« It’s gone, sir. »
» The students? The staff guarding it? »
» Sir, no one remembers a thing. »
His headache just worsened.
Within Mirilad, a figure took out an orb, from which a robotic voice came. » Did it reach you? »
» Yes. It’s ready. » The figure answered, smiling as the machine nearby emitted faint burst of Demex.