Chapter 7: The rising tension

To Hiatus, it was a normal morning like every other days, except for the fact that Aria was there before him. Usually, he would be the first of the three to finish the test, then Aria would  2 minutes later, and finally Wander. Hiatus suddenly realized he had not seen or heard from Wander for weeks. He wondered if Aria was being bothered by this fact. The girl was standing beneath the oak, staring into emptiness, her fingers curling her hair. Her usual stubborn cheerfulness was no more, replace by a silent graveness.

Hiatus greeter her first, and she smiled at him in return. Today they walked much slower than usual, weighed down by their own uneasiness.

 » Aria, you have to tell me what is going on. »

 » This again? Hiatus, my concern is nothing important. » Aria said, looking down.

« You expect me to buy that? It’s important enough to make you like this. You have had that dull face for days! »

 » Maybe it’s that time of the month, don’t you think? »

 » What? Ew, really, you go that far to make me shut up? » Hiatus winced.

 » Guys? »

The voice of their long-time-no-see friend startled them both, and they turned towards him immediately. Wander’s silver eyes glowed behind his hair curls.

Hiatus grinned, approaching Wander, punching his arm before putting on a serious face.

He cleared his throat. « Where have you been? »

 » At home. » said Wander, smiling. » How have you been? »

 » Well, aside from all that extra training and extra preparation work, we are doing quite well. Right, Aria? »

The girl did not greet Wander nor say anything to him. She just stood in silence observing him.

« Did you get taller? » she finally asked, much to the surprise of Hiatus and Wander.

« No, I.. don’t know. » Wander stuttered

Hiatus frowned. »I think she’s right, you did get taller. Weird ,I used to be 4 inches taller. Now, only 2, about that. How did you do that? »

« You have to ask? I’m a late bloomer. » Wander forced a smile.

 » Well, good for you. Just don’t catch up with me too quickly. »

« I think we should talk while walking. We do not want to be late, right? » Aria suggested

 » Yep. Wait, Wander, you passed the test with that little time? Wow, you really improved. »

« Ha-ha, I guess. » Wander scratched his head, glancing at Aria and noticed that she was glancing at him too. » Hey, after school, do you guys want to hang out? »

« Sure, it’s been so long. Aria? »

The girl stared at her friends for a while, then replied in the affirmative.

______________________________________________________________________________

Dry leaves had completely covered Hunter Hill. The oaks and the On the way to school, Hiatus informed Wander of all the changes and events that had taken place during his absence, deliberately leaving out the Mirilad incident. Wander attentively listened while Aria had no reaction. Hiatus was not oblivious, he could feel that there were invisible walls among the three of them, as their conversation now consisted of  one speaker, one listener and one person with a whatever attitude, contrary to before while all three of them would talk and listen simultaneously. He suspected that something had happened between Aria and Wander behind his back, but resisted the urge to ask them directly.

When they arrived at school, Wander seemed unfazed by all the grandiose banners, balloons, statues and other decorative ornaments meticulously set up by his peers. He just kept walking like nothing had changed, and ignored all the Hunters pointing at him, « introducing » him to the summoners. Hiatus glared at them, effectively shutting their mouths.

 » Monday, which classes do we have today again? » asked Wander.

 » Well, Historical Politics, and Sparring. Sparring for four period. »  said Hiatus.

 » What? Why? Oh yeah, that upcoming contest. I already hate today. » Wander weakly smiled.

 » Do not worry. The summoners will join us, so it will be much more fun. »

 » I hope so. I don’t want anything happen during the sparring lesson. »

When the trio entered their classrooms, the presence of Wander immediately made them stand out.

 » Look who’s back? » Jonathan said with a smug. « Want some more, little Wander? »

 » Leave him alone, Jonathan. Keep your mouth shut, also. Help the world a bit. » said Hiatus.

 » Ha, I forgot that he has the best bodyguards here. So scary, hiding behind your friends. Coward! »

Wander frowned, but did not bother to retort. He silently went back to his seat and waited for the class to start. Miss Hannah arrived a few minutes later, surprised by his return and expressed her joy. She also congratulated Wander on his timely presence and asked of his health. Realizing that she was putting the boy under the spotlight against his will, she quickly started the lesson.

Throughout the period, Hiatus observed his two friends. Wander was looking at the blackboard but his head was obviously up in the air. Aria was looking out of the window again. They just remained in that state for the rest of the period, isolating themselves from the atmosphere of the class. Hiatus let out a long sigh, feeling frustrated by the apathy of his two friends. At times, Miss Hannah looked at him, then glancing at his two friends. In return, Hiatus just shook his head.

When the bell rang, every student enthusiastically left the classroom and header for the Marsianos Building. Noticing Wander’s hesitance, Hiatus patted his back and nodded at him. Wander nodded back, and the two headed for Marsianos.

Upon arrival, they were overwhelmed by the shouting and the chatting. Most conversations involved praises for the stadium. This in-house structure on the 12th floor was  of 1.2 ha with one large arena at the center and could contain up to 5000 people. It was called Battleworld, and was the most exclusive area of the institution, only available for access when big-scale events took place.  Principal Xixin decided that he wanted the students to experience the arena firsthand before the big day, so Battleworld was opened a week before the contest.

It took the two a while to locate their friend.  Aria was standing with Jake, inquiring into the contraption she and Hiatus helped build the other day

« Aria, you will know it sooner or later. In fact, I think today you all will be introduced to it, just wait and see. Look, Hiatus is here. And … is that Wander? »

Wander was in the same state of confusion as Jake. He rarely saw his friends talking that intimately with anyone before.  Before long, the two was introduced to each other, and Jake shook Wander’s hand with much enthusiasm, saying he had been eager to meet Aria and Hiatus’s best friend.

« I am very glad too. So you are Jake Malton. »

 » Oh, you know me? Someone told me about you? »

 » Yes. »Wander smiled as he said.

 » May I ask the name of this person? »

 » Sorry, but I can’t tell. »

« Ah, what a shame. Now one more mystery to tire me out. »

The four continued their talk by discussing the upcoming contest, until the voice of Principal Xixin echoed throughout the stadium, forcing them to stop and return to their respective seats.

 » Welcome to Battleworld, Hunters and Summoners! I must say that I’m very thrilled of your presence at this place today, because as you have known, Battleworld is only accessible when events of the highest importance and publicity take place. Therefore, you must know how much I value the upcoming contest to have this prepared for it. Are you impressed with this place? »

The principal’s question was met with a loud cry from the audience, unanimously shouting yes.

 » Thank you, thank you. And now, to not waste our precious time any longer, let me present to you: The Shield! »

All the metal pillars surrounding the arena emitted waves of lustrous light- illuminating the whole place. From the bottoms of these pillars, indecipherable symbols ( to most of the Hunters only) emerged and covered them, gathering at their tops to conceive light beams that shot at the sky, enveloping the whole arena in a glass-like layer. The whole stadium burst into a round of applause, and Jake threw a satisfying and proud smile at his Hunter friends.

 » I can feel his smile hit my face. » Hiatus smiled, shaking his head.

 » This Shield, one of the most advanced and flamboyant area defensive spell, was developed by excellent students of the Hamilton School. It guarantees that all the destruction caused by battles will be contained in the layer, and instead of spreading to the audience, it will be consigned to the empty air above. Who knows, maybe after the contest, we will have a lot of free delicious fried birds, don’t you think?

Awkward laughter surfaced somewhere then quickly died down.

 » Ok, no Xixin Fried Bird for any of you then. Anyhow, as you all know, Principal Hamilton and I have a little talk, and we decided that today Summoners and Hunters would join this sparring class together. Let’s just think of it as a rehearsal before the real thing. Now can I hear some passionate battle cry? »

The principal’s request received overwhelming response, and the whole institution was drowned in earsplitting screams. The summoners even shoot fireballs in the sky for dramatic effects, and various hunters, eerily simultaneously, activated their demonic form, heating up, literally and figuratively, the air.

 » Oh my, this is beyond my expectation! Ok, so any volunteers? »

The commotion vanished in the blink of an eye. No student was enough of a fool to show off their power to their rivals before the big game. And lots of them also suffered from crowd anxiety.

 » Oh my, this is within my expectation! » Principal Xixin grinned devilishly. « Well, as a wise man once said, when democracy fails, tyranny prevails! »

The principal pushed a button, and the seats of the students emitted the « bip,bip » sound.

 » There will be two seats chosen. Two random lucky students will be testing the new system today. Brace yourself, my dear! »

The seats in the stadium started to stop bipping one by one, accompanied by a sigh of relief from their owners. Those who had been safe gleefully looked around searching for the unlucky.

 » Hiatus, I think I am going to puke. » said Wander, excessively sweating.

 » Wander, calm down. There are over  3000 students here. The chance of you being chosen is 1/3000. Do not panic. »

Despite Hiatus’ assurance, Wander began to hyperventilate and violently tremble. His heart beat so hard he feared others could hear the sound.

 » No, I cannot take this. I am leaving! »

 » Wait, Wander! »

The moment Wander stood up, all the bip sound in the stadium disappeared except for the one from his seat, and the spotlight was on him.

« Oh, my trap has— » Principal Xixin could not finish his sentence. He looked at Wander in horror, as every Hunter who knew Wander well enough in the stadium.

The stadium went silent. Wander fell back onto his seat, kicking it with his heels.

 » Stop bipping, you chair! Hiatus, I am really going to puke. »

« Calm down, Wander. Your opponent, let’s hope— »

The second spotlight appeared, and the chosen one was Jonathan Miller. He intentionally stood up. The crowd went wild.

« That son of a… Wander, puke! Right now! Puke till you pass out! » Hiatus said in a low voice.

 » I can’t, I lost the urge. Is it bad if I force my finger down my throat? »

 » Just.. don’t. Ahhh, go there, to the arena, and give your best shot. »

 » Hiatus, we cannot let him go there. » said Aria. » Use your finger, Hiatus! »

« Are you even serious, Aria? » Hiatus said, showing his teeth.

 » Wander, step up! To the arena, now! » Principal Xixin said. Even he looked like he wanted to make Wander puke. » Jonathan is not patient. »

Out of option, Wander reluctantly walked towards the arena as slowly as possible, trying to delay the inevitable. Everyone was watching. He looked back at his friends: Hiatus was giving him a thumb up. Wander nodded in reply with determination.

 » No, no, no, no. » Aria violently shook her head.

 » You are making me more nervous Aria. Just be calm. Jonathan will not dare to injure Wander that much again, and Wander can surrender if.. when things get nasty for him. »

Hiatus had no idea what Aria was truly worried about.

Jonathan and Wander stood on the arena, face to face. Their expression was contrary. While Jonathan was smirking with arrogance, Wander was frowning with anxiety. The former had his arms crossed confidently on chest, while the latter was fidgeting frantically.

The difference in body language, in power, and the history between the two enticed the audience. They were ready to see Wander beaten to a pulp.

 » Ok, so I guess, this is it. The battle that we have not been waiting for! » Principal Xixin shook his head. » Fight! »

Jonathan charged at Wander.

 » I surrender! » Wander yelled.  » I surrender! »

The stadium, just seconds ago full of shouting, went silent . Everybody just stared at Wander with mouths still open.  Hiatus could only murmured « what », while Aria sighed in relief.

The whole stadium then burst into a wave of brutal laughter. Hunters and Summoners alike pointed at Wander, disparaging him with the most vitriolic words they can think of. Principal Xixin still had his mouth open, failing to accept what just happened. Only after a few minutes could he agree to Wander’s plead.

 » Hey coward! Last time at least you did not run! » Jonathan shouted at Wander. » How much more of a loser can you get? »

The shield went down, allowing Wander to leave. He wasted not a second.

 » With no one to cower behind you show your true colour. Do not run, dog! Your wiggling tail is showing! »

The audience laughed in agreement with Jonathan. The booed at Wander. Loud voices from the audience could be heard.

 » See, I told you all! He is a total loser! No that would be an insult to all loser. »

 » What an embarrassment. Now the summoners see the our ugly side! »

Wander walked with his head down, his whole body shaking and his fist clenched. He did not look at his two friends and immediately left Batteworld, leaving behind a ruckus of never-before-seen proportion.

Hiatus was still speechless. He could not believe Wander could give up that soon.

 » How could he? Aria, do you… »

Aria was no longer in her seat. She left during the commotion.

______________________________________________________________________________

Wander dragged his body along the hall and down the stairs. He wanted to leave this place as soon as possible.

Aria was waiting for him on the first floor. She looked deeply concerned, but not condescending.

 » Wander, that decision you made back there, it required a lot of bravery. » She said, much to the surprise of Wander.

 » Really? You really think so? » Wander answered in relief. He was worried she would pity him, that she would say things like  » It’s ok, I understand ».

Aria nodded. She approached Wander and signaled him to join her for a walk.

The schoolyard was devoid of people, and Wander liked that. He only needed Aria. He was afraid because this morning she seemed so distant, but now she was truly being his friend again. He smiled at the idyllic falling leaves.

 » I’ve been worried about you. You’ve never been absent for this long.  »

 » I’m sorry for not being in touch. I just needed some time alone. » said Wander as he silently thanked Aria for not talking about what happened at Battleworld.

 » I know. I’m not guilt-tripping you. I just feel quite relieved right now, seeing you still in shape. »

 » Well, I worked out indoor. » Wander grinned.

 » And even got taller! Seriously, Wander, which brand of mild do you use? Talk, right now. » Aria playfully raise her tone.

 » No, not milk! I am a late bloomer! Soon, the world will know of my beauty. » said Wander as he spread his arms wide open.

Aria chuckled.

 » So, you really are doing well, huh? »

 » Yes, I am doing very well. »

« Schoolwork? »

 » I will catch up in no time. »

« Compensative treat for Hiatus and me? »

 » This evening! »

« The wound on your shoulder? »

 » It has already healed. »

Wander suddenly felt a chill sent down his spine. Something was wrong. He turned to look at Aria, and her cold eyes penetrated his soul. No more smiling, just an expressionless visage that frightened him more than the angry faces of anyone. Suddenly, at that moment, he understood. Aria had suspected everything from the very beginning.

 » What happened to your shoulder? » She knew, but still she asked.

Wander was at a loss for word. He was sweating profusely,  even more than before. He was on the verge of crying.

 » Aria, I… The wound… »

« Who stabbed you? »

Wander could feel his knees weakened, he felt like breaking down.

 » Who stabbed you, Wander? » she asked with an even colder voice.

Wander utilized every ounce of his strength to utter one of the names he had always liked to call out

 » Hiatus. » He looked down, shaken to the core, ready for the dead silence that followed his answer.

______________________________________________________________________________

At first, it was numb. True emptiness. But then, Aria could feel something broken, then that feeling invading her whole body. The world around her crumbled, and she let out an inner shout. Finally, emptiness again.

Her plans for the three of them to graduate together, all gone now. The past few days she had struggled to delete the worst scenario from her mind, and here it was, manifesting itself in front of her eyes, staring at her.

She stared at Wander, feeling repulsive, feeling hurt, feeling betrayed. She inhaled deeply, her eyes closed, unable to think of anything to say. She bit her lips, and cried.

Tears streamed down her face, and Wander noticed. He instinctively raised his hand in an attempt to comfort her, but rejected the idea, realizing he was the sourced of Aria’s anguish.  They just stood there for minutes, one crying, one not. Finally, Aria wiped her tears with her sleeve,  and raised her head.

 » Look at me, Wander. »

Wander of course could not deny the request.

 » You can die, right now. Do you know that? Just one test, and your head will fly off your neck. »

Wander could not reply.

 » My duty, and Hiatus’s too, as  hunters, is to kill you on the spot. You know that right? »

Wander nodded. Demonization equalled death, ever hunter knew.

 » Then why are you here? Why did you not run away? »

 » I was planning to, today, after I hang out with you guys. I… want to see you guys and be with you before I leave. »

Aria shook her head, her face twisted into a grimace. She could already saw all the bad endings that might befall Wander.

 » You, you.. messed up big time! No, no, this is an irreparable mistake. Wander, you,.. » Aria was seething. « You moron! »

« I’m sorry, I’m sorry. » Wander trembled.

 » Stop apologizing! I have to stay calm. »

Aria held her head with both hands. She felt like she could split her own head in two. It was always like this. People assumed she must be the most calm, level-headed of the three, while Wander was truly the one matching that description, too matching in fact. If anything, Aria knew her emotion outburst was not much behind Hiatus’s. She was just better at regaining composure. Wander, aware of that, just looked at her helplessly as she walked back and forth.

 » Hiatus needs to know this » She finally said.

 » No, he can’t! He will kill me, Aria! »

« This is not your decision to make Wander! You made one on your own and it was a terrible one! Hiatus will know of this, and let us pray he will only kill you when he knows! »

Wander trembled violently, thinking of his other friend’s reaction.

 » Look, I will not let him kill you, ok? But he needs to know, we need him to help you escape! »

Wander looked at Aria with eyes wide open.

 » Did you say you will help me escape? »

« Yes! Oh demon, what the hell am I saying? » Aria walked around with her hands on her head.

 » But your duty— »

« I sure as hell know my freaking duty! » Aria yelled. » But I don’t want you dead. »

Wander gazed at the upset countenance of Aria.

 » Thank you, Aria. » He said, looking down at his feet.

« Don’t mention it, Wander. » Aria said without looking at him. » No really. Don’t. Mention. It. »

______________________________________________________________________________

Wander and Aria did not return to the stadium much to the bewilderment of Hiatus. He asked himself if they were fighting outside.

 » That’s it. From today, no more hanging out, no more defending him. Yeah sure, he could give up, but not that soon! Urg, just imagining the conceited attitude of Jonathan tomorrow is enough to make me mad. Aria too and that cold face of her. What is up with these two, is it some kind of prank to find out who can make me madder? » He thought.

 » Hey, earth to Hiatus! » Jake popped up right next to him.

 » What the… Jake, how did you? You were sitting across the stadium! »

 » Do not mind that. Where are the other two? »

 » I don’t know. And I don’t care. »

 » Still mad at Wander? » Jake asked, chuckling.

 » You’re really good at making too obvious statements, do you know that? »

 » Obviously. Ok, enough with that, I’m here to tell you about Principal Hamilton. Interested? »

 » Well, not the right time, but I really need something to distract me from the two idiots. »

The two left the stadium before commencing their conversation. The hall was empty.

Jake looked around before speaking. » As you can see, my principal isn’t here today. Currently, he is, I think and hope, lying in his bed struggling with his worsening headache. He refused to let us use healing spell, or any kind of spell on him. He resorted to painkiller! »

 » Am I supposed to feel offended? » Hiatus frowned, glanced to the right.

 » Yes, you are. For a Summoner to use human’s medicine before using spells! But that’s not the matter here. The point is, I think he’s under the effect of mind-control spells. »

 » Proof? »

« Only one, but not concrete enough. The abnormal black marks he had above his ears. It isn’t a skin disease, believe me, I checked when he was sleeping. » Jake shivered. « It can be a direct-touch spell, running straight into the brain. When I asked him, he couldn’t account for the existence of the mark. He could certainly kick me out of his room for asking though. »

Hiatus rubbed his chin.  » So, if what you said is true, then what can we do? »

 » We can tell Principle Xixin. » Jake shrugged.

« Good idea. »

 » You were being sarcastic, weren’t you? »

Hiatus nodded.

« Who do you think cast this spell? If it truly exists. »

« Don’t know, but it must be someone extremely adept at magic. Mind-control, or other brain-related spells require significant skill and willpower. Even when one does succeed, the effects can fade away in minutes, even in seconds! The headache, I think it is a sign of Principal Hamilton fighting against the spell. He still cannot shake it off, so the caster must be really powerful. »

 » Can it be the same one that had struck me down in the forest? »

« Possible. It’s a good connection. Oh, and one more piece of news: The contraption- it is missing. »

« What? You are telling me all those guards and that thing still got missing? »

« Yes, as I mentioned, very powerful being. It wiped out the whole building. The elevator got destroyed. The guards had their memories erased. »

 » Wait a minute, how can it get into our school in the first place? The alarm did not even go off, right? I heard nothing. »

 » I suspect it has already been inside the school from the very beginning. »

« It is a summoner then? I mean, a Hunter cannot use magic to that extent . »

 » Not necessarily, but highly likely. It could not have been a demon, since the protection spells prevent demonic infiltration. I just cannot think of other life forms, humans are not magic users or physical superior, and I think they are the only humanoid organism that can show up on the school campus without causing a ruckus. There may be others, but it is most likely one of our own has done those things. »

« Then is it still…here? » Hiatus frowned.

 » I’m not sure. I think the chances are that it is. »

`            » The demon I chased then, what is its connection to the thing we are talking about? »

« I don’t know. And the demon, I’m afraid it is a turn. »

« So you have the same suspicion as me. I think it’s a turn too. It did not pass the spell, it was already inside! »

 » What we have here then: A turn and a summoner traitor. A couple. Do you think it’s Aria and Wander? »

 » That’s not funny, Jake. Aria is not a summoner. And need I remind you she was carrying you like a princess back to the institution when all that shenanigans were happening ?

« Ouch. Right, I forgot that. »

 » Besides, they aren’t a couple. » Hiatus rolled his eyes.

 » Ooh, how do you know? Or do you want to deny that possibility? »

 » We are talking about Demon and a traitor here, Jake. Remember? »

 » Sorry, just could not help it. Still, I really think we should tell principal Xixin. »

 » Let’s just keep it a secret first. For now we wait. »

« Just as you said then. So, end of my report. Let’s head back inside. »

 » Yeah, let’s. Sit next to me, it lessens the probability of us being chosen as opponents. »

Jake nodded, smiling. Hiatus felt he began to warm up to the summoner.

______________________________________________________________________________

The sparring class elapsed wearisomely for Hiatus that day. He did not volunteer nor get chosen, so he spent the entire class watching others fight. He looked over to Jake sometimes  and the summoner was always seen sleeping. Hiatus told himself to give Maria and Wander a piece of his mind this evening and was determined to find out whatever it was that had been on their mind.

After the class ended, he bid Jake goodbye and went straight to the school gate. That was the usual place of rendezvous of the three, and this time was no exception.

 » Ready for my fury, you two idiots »

Aria and Hiatus seemed quite nervous and unease when they saw him.

 » No sad face can save you today »

When Hiatus was close enough to see their faces, he dropped half of his anger. Aria was frowning , staring at the ground. Her eyes had regain their spirit, only this time it was a fierce kind of spirit, not the cheerful one. Wander was no better. He seemed confused and scared but still tried to smile, which made him look miserable.

 » Okay, what’s now? Where have you guys been?

 » Out here, talking, a lot. » Aria sighed

Wander still smiled.

« You guys, please, drop these faces and just tell me what is bothering you. I am dying to know here. And Aria, it isn’t that time of the month. »

 » Don’t worry. You will know. Right, Wander? » Aria glanced at Wander.

 » Yes, » said Wander smilingly.

 » You are creeping me out, Wander. Stop smiling. »

 » Let’s go, then. » Aria said in a tiring voice. » where do you guys want to go? »

 » I want to eat some ice-cream, drink some smoothies and go to the amusement park. » Wander suggested.

« Hold your horse! What is this? We aren’t your guardians. » said Hiatus.

 » Well, kind of. » said Wander.

« What does that even mean? »

 » Hiatus, just let Wander have this one. »

Hiatus stared at his friends and got a little freaked out by their unusual way of talking. He lost all of his anger.

The hangout was unusually silent, but to this point, Hiatus did not know what was usual and what was not anymore. They did what Wander wanted to. Ice cream and smoothies did help smooth Hiatus’s mood further, but the others, not so much. Hiatus tried to make them laugh dirtying his face with cream but they only gave awkward smiles. The amusement park was no better, Wander and Aria did not bother pretending to scream.

They left the park at 5.00 with moods not much lighter than before.

 » Worst hangout ever. Now, mind telling me what’s been going on? »

Aria and Wander glanced at each other. They signaled Hiatus to follow them.

The three ventured far from the amusement park. They arrived at an abandoned section of New York Halcyon- a narrow yard near Hunter Hill base, overgrown with vegetation.   This place led to their school, but it was a path no longer taken. The virtual test road had become the only legible road. Now, mushrooms  and grass had taken over; the only things left were a few eroded set of tables and chairs.

Hiatus looked around, then looked at his two friends. They were staring at him.

 » This is freaking me out, truly. Before you two get any funny idea, I assure you others can find my body within a day. »

« Your body may not be the one they find » Aria sighed. » Wander, I think it’s time. »

Hiatus looked at Wander and noticed his face ridden with anxiety and fright. He recalled the conversation he had with Jake.

 » Hiatus, I…actually…I am…. »

 » Stop! Don’t tell me! »

Aria and Wander were both startled by Hiatus’s unexpected remark.

 » Hiatus, no, I really need to tell you. »

 » You don’t have to. Now I know, I know what’s up. »

 » You do? » asked Aria and Wander instantly, their eyes wide open.

 » Yes, » Hiatus deeply inhaled. » Wander, how long has it been like this? »

 » More than a month » Wander fidgeted. « Shortly after my absence »

 » Wow, that long huh? Oh wow, you sure wasted no time. » Hiatus nodded his head.

None of them said anything for a while. Hiatus stared at the ground with a long face. Wander stared at him, sweating. Aria stared at both of them.

 » So, how do you feel about it? » asked Wander.

Hiatus did not reply. He quickly approached Wander, looked straight into his eyes.

 » How could you Wander? »  He shouted. » I can strangle you right now. »

 » I’m sorry. » Wander took a step back. » I.. I just.. »

Watching Wander’s nervous expression, Hiatus burst out laughing.

 » Just kidding. I’m not so intolerant as to be mad at something like that. »

 » Oh wow, you take this much better than I expected » said Aria, frowning.

 » Yeah,  » said Wander as he let out a sigh of relief. « I thought you were going to kill me. »

 » Come on, I am actually happy about it. »

 » You do? » asked Wander, grimacing.

 » What!? Hiatus, this is not something to be happy about! » Aria yelled

 » Nonsense, Aria. I guess things are going to be a little awkward among us from now on, but I am truly glad for you two.  »

 » What are you even thinking?  He is a freaking demon now! »

 » Now, Aria, I… Wait, what? »

The three of them stared at each other, none understood what was going on.

« The heck you just said? » asked Hiatus in a chilling voice

 » Wander, » repeated Aria with more hesitation. »He had turned, demonized. This is not something to be happy about, right? Last time I checked? In this world? »

Hiatus stared at Aria, then at Wander. He then burst out laughing.

 » Heck, you guys have a twisted sense of humor, do you know that? »

 » She is not joking, Hiatus. I have turned. » said Wander. He bit his thumb. Dark green blood leaked from the bite, reflecting moonlight, glowing like a gem of jade.

Hiatus stared at the blood while Wander stared at his face. Aria held her breath, trying not to make even the smallest sound.

Hiatus opened his mouth, then closed it. He did not blink nor talk, just stared. He felt not a wink of emotion. He took a few steps back staggeringly, face twisted into a grimace,before bursting into laughters to the horror of Aria and Wander.

« Dear god, you know what, Wander, I’m really happy about this! »

 » You..you..do? » Wander asked with a trembling voice.

Without answering, Hiatus charged at Wander, punching him in the face multiple times as hard as possible, making him fall to the ground stunned.

« You retarded pig! You imbecile! Fool! Do you even know what you have done? « Hiatus yelled, charging at Wander again, his hand demonized, his claw protruding.

 » Stop, Hiatus! He had enough! » Aria stood between him and Wander.

 » Enough? Enough?? He had committed the most despicable, repugnant and disgusting sin a Hunter can commit. He is even worse than that jerk Jonathan and that sadistic garbage Aidan now. Not enough, Aria! » Hiatus’s claw sank in Wander’s neck. He lifted his demonized friend up, ignoring the choking sound from his throat, his dangling and kicking legs.

Aria yelled as she tried to push her friends away from each other. » You’re hurting him. Look at your hands, Hiatus! Look! »

Hiatus did as Aria said. His face immediately twisted into a frown, clearly expressing his disgust. The demonic green blood splatter all over his hands. He gritted his teeth, letting go of Wander.

He looked at Wander. Under the streetlight, his friend’s broken nose and grazed lips were eerily visible. He did not bother covering the bleeding wound on his neck. His blood mingled with his tears. He was sobbing, eyes covered by hands.

 » I’m sorry. I really am sorry. »  said Wander in a brittle voice.

His apology echoed under the stars.

______________________________________________________________________________

Aria did not know how much time had passed, She did not care much. She stared at the broad back of Hiatus who would not look at her or Wander. She stared at Wander who was lying on the ground, eyeing the sky. She sighed, let her head down as she held it with her hands. They were in a world of their own.

 » I am not demon. » Wander finally said, with a clear voice. » Please trust me. I did not sell my soul to Samundo or to any demonic beings. I turned because I wanted to. »

Aria and Hiatus did not reply, waiting for him to keep telling.

 » I did not feel the hunger or the thirst for killing. I’m still myself, you guys. My body may have been that of a demon, but my soul, it is still the same. You can say that I am still a Demon Hunter, but in an interminable state of Demonic Form. »

Hiatus scoffed. Aria glanced at him, silently telling him to stop.

 » A demon hunter? Saying that equals to telling us that you will commit suicide right now. Will you, Wander? »

« For God’s sake, Hiatus. Stop! »

 » It’s ok. I deserve that.  »

« How did you turn, Wander? » asked Hiatus.

 » I.. » Wander said « I am sorry, I cannot disclose that. »

 » Are you serious? You still want to hide something from us? Even now? » Hiatus raised his voice.

 » I am sorry, but I cannot reveal that piece of information. For good reasons, trust me. »

 » Let’s stop pushing him. » Aria said, sighing.

Hiatus crossed his arms, still looking frustrated, but quickly gave in to Aria.

« I’m sorry. » said Wander as he stood up. » I completely understand your anger and your disappointment. You two have done a lot for me, and I am very grateful for being able to know you. I will leave, and will not trouble you guys any longer. Thank you, and sorry. »

Wander walked away from his friends with his fists clenched.

 » Where do you think you are going? » asked Hiatus

 » I will go home, prepare and leave New York tonight. »

 » With that face and all those green blood on it? While don’t you scream  » I am a demon » to everyone while you’re at it? »

Wander could not find an appropriate response.

 » You are going to get your butt back here, and find a way to hide all those green blood on the ground together with Aria. I will go buy some band-aid, bandage, alcohol and other stuffs. You hear? »

Wander stared at Hiatus, speechless.

 » You hear? »

« Yes, I hear. » Wander answered as he slightly nodded.

Aria watched the boys, smiling meekly.

______________________________________________________________________________

When Hiatus was back, all the blood had disappeared, but the ground became much messier than before. He walked towards his two friends, whose complexion had got more lively. He handed the medical instruments to Aria, and sat down next to them.

Aria carefully washed the wounds for Wander and cover them with band aids.

 » It will be alright, Wander. » She said.

Hiatus still did not look at Wander, but he slightly touch Wander’s shoulder with his.

 » You bought too many, Hiatus. » said Aria

 » I hit too much, too. Cannot risk not buying enough, right? We don’t want a certain someone to be found out. »

Wander smiled, eyes got teary.

« Thank you » He murmured.

The three sat silently in the night.

Chapter 6: Preparation for the contest

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.

Chapter 5: Things seen in the forest that day

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.

Chapter 4: Divergence Point

Wander went straight to his house after he woke up, without bidding Aria and Hiatus goodbye. The two did not even see him leave.

Their friend failed to show up for school the next day. The teachers announced that his request for a long leave had been allowed, so he would not be present for at least 1 week.  There was no nasty talk, at least in the presence of Aria and Hiatus, since other students feared for the fate of their mouths and teeth  if they made any dirty remark. The two seemed really willing to use their fists any moment. Even Jonathan knew that everything had a limit, and it would be more than foolish of him to mock Wander in front of his best friends.

Visitation was out of the question: Wander wanted some time alone and he made his point very clear. Miss Hannah was asked by him to specifically tell Aria and Hiatus not to come to his house. The two acquiesced with much frustration. Miss Hannah asked after Wander sometimes, but only received Aria’s and Hiatus’s shaking heads.

The case of Wander soon died down, since the students of the Xixin Institution were about to welcome the most celebrated event of this semester: the arrival of the Summoners.  The Summoners were akin to the Hunters in terms of duty and purpose, but their methods differed: while the Hunters majorly relied on physical strength, martial techniques, demonic nature to fight and little on magic, the Summoners emphasized the use of arcane arts and magecraft. Their most overwhelming power, though, was their innate ability to summon Familiars- powerful beings from another realm. This ability granted them the name Summoners. One could have supposed that the two species would be on good terms with each other thanks to their common purpose, but most of them felt nothing towards the other besides mutual hatred and contempt. Rarely existed a friendship between individuals of the two species. And even rarer was a life-long one such as that of Principal Xixin and Principal Hamilton.

The Hamilton School’s arrival transpired on a peaceful autumn day in the most tranquil manner possible. No limousine, no trumpet, no orchestra, no crackers. Lines and lines of summoners wearing white uniforms hovered in the air, killing any sound in their vicinity apart from the angelic voice coming from one of their students. They leisurely passed the gate, their formation being parallel lines. The quite sacred atmosphere rendered all the hot-headed Hunters speechless, and their gazes fixed on the march of their rivals. Principal Xixin also looked much more polite and sophisticated than usual in his vest, bowing to Principal Hamilton, who responded also with a bow. The two principals’ appearance bore some striking similarities, the deep wrinkles, the bright, mischievous eyes like those of foxes, and the trimmed moustaches.

 » Did they plan to look the same? Hey Xixin, I think we should trim our beards like this! Ho ho ho! » Hiatus whispered to Aria, his fingers stroking his imaginery moustaches.

Aria and Hiatus were selected to participate in the ( quoted from Principal’s word)  » a glorious theatrical once-in-life-time production of pure genius ». In reality, all the selected individuals just had to draw swords simultaneously and yelled « hah » out load, before sheathing their swords and « hah » again.

 » For God’s sake, at least we don’t have to yodel. » Hiatus murmured to Aria.

 » You know what is worse? »Aria whispered. « Xixin, Xixin, Xiiixiiiiin. »

Hiatus nearly burst out laughing, but managed to hold back. Beside him, Aria was considering a final push, but then discarded the idea out of mercy.

All the students were startled by the loud voice of Principal Xixin as he approached his friend.

 » Hamilton, long time no see! » said Principal Xixin, hugging Principal Hamilton. « Thank you for coming! »

« Of course, that is the least I can do for a friend! » Principal Hamilton replied, before changing his loud voice into a whispering sound. » Money from the ticket profits, 50/50, that’s the deal. »

 » Oh, you still got it in you, Hamilton! How kind, how humble! » Principal Xixin patted on his friend’s shoulders.

The two old man shook hand, before introducing their best students to each other. The touching reunion effortlessly turned into a show-off, and students of both schools that day learned not less than fifty names for international contests and competitions, enough for a life.

Afterwards, Principal Xixin and Hamilton quickly headed for the former’s office to discuss the upcoming versus battle game, while the students were left to their own devices in the Afflia building, ready to initiate their own discussion, but possibly with swords and wands, not words.

______________________________________________________________________________

Fortunately, there was no such discussion, only an awkward silence. The both sides decided to hold a stare contest, with the losers being those who stared longer. The two species sat across each other with a long desk separating them. No one dared to touch the food and drinks placed on the desk. They did not even dare to leave the benches they were sitting on. Most of the hunters and summoners either glanced at their friends or gazed at the outside through the circular window running on the walls, from which sunlight entered.

To the Hunters, their rivals resemble the stuck-up rich kids they saw on television. Expressionless, aloof versions. On the part of Summoners, Hunters were also expressionless and aloof, also resembled people they saw on TV, just not as well-dressed as them.

Every student was ready to run out of the auditorium, when a voice emerged.

 » How do you find New York? » Aria initiated a conversation after 10 minutes of increasingly burdening silence.

That sentence earned her the looks of everyone.

 » It is very hectic and dynamic, noisy, but acceptably so. Oh, and I am Jake Malton, very nice to meet you. » A summoner with smiling eyes replied, extending his large and firm hand to Aria.

« I am Aria Tansine, very nice to meet you too. Please, I would love to hear about Hamilton School.  Maybe you can shed some light on that matter? » Aria said, taking Jake’s hand.

 » I certainly can. » Jake answered with a smile.

Thanks to Aria and Jake, the auditorium became much more lively. Both sides were still a little reserved and diffident, but they managed to overcome the barrier and strived to communicate, hoping to dissolve some misunderstanding and prejudices. Small talk started to emerge everywhere, covering all kinds of topics. Summoners and hunters shook hands, laughed and at times sat in awkard silence. Of course, a few did not join and only watched others with eyes of disdain and pursing lips, leaning back against the wall.

Jake and Aria decided to talk a little more, even though their mission to enliven the place had ended. They positioned themselves near the entrance, where they could see everyone.

 » I have read a lot about you, Aria. You have made quite a name for yourself. I suppose it would not be too wrong of me to assume you are the best student of the institution? »

« No, you’re not wrong. I am the best. »

The unexpectedly blunt answer of Aria surprised Jake. He had expected an attempt on her part to appear humble by answering the opposite. His question was a trick one, for if one chose to be humble, one implicitly said the guest was wrong. The opposite meant that one was arrogant. He wanted to bother Aria a bit.

« But our school does not just have one best students. In this school, there are at least 2 more students who are my equal. » Aria added, smiling.

 » And who is that? » Jake asked, raising his eyebrows.

« Now that is unfair. Why do I keep answering? I suppose it would not be too wrong of me to assume you are the trickiest individual of Hamilton’s school? »

Jake chuckled when faced with the slightly sarcastic tone in Aria’s voice.

 » Ha-ha, you can say that I also lay among the best. Ok let’s play a game then, we will take turn to name our equals. How about that? »

Aria shrugged.  » Sounds good to me. As the host, I will have the pleasure of playing first. Though I do not mind giving that privilege to you. »

 » Oh no, you first. I would not dare abusing my stay. »

 » Okay then. Uhm, the first one I want to mention is my best friend over there, Hiatus Sovanno. » Aria pointed to Hiatus.

Jake turned his look to a boy sitting a few meters away. A very tall, muscular boy who appeared to be sleeping. The type whom Jake believed he could be friend with.

 » Hiatus’s strength did not show on papers or in scores. As his friend, I can assure you that it would be in your best interest not to underestimate him and to send your best candidate against him, unless you long for defeat. »

Jake nodded and stared at Hiatus for a while before starting his turn.

 » Let me introduce you to Victor Axiel, »  Jake pointed to a boy sitting very far from him and Aria, among the groups of summoners who avoided conversations with hunters.   » Years ago, he wasn’t the brightest student, but certainly the grumpiest and nastiest one. Now, it has changed, sadly the  » not the brightest » part only. Do not let that seemingly shy and nerdy face fool you. He is a very nasty individual. A lot of us fear him. He is very strong for a Summoner his age, already able to summon a level 6- a feat not a single summoner his age can achieve. Let me tell you, only a handful of summoners can do what he can do. He is the future candidate for the  » Regis Magus » title, the summoner  of a level 7 Familiar. »

Aria had heard of the « Regis Magus » title before. High Grandmaster Vivien Iridis held the title, even though she could not summon a level 7. Her political influence earned her the status.

 » Quite frightening. And obviously you are better at describing your comrades more than I am. No one has ever summoned a level 7? »

 » Never before. They are legendary. Can you believe it?  All this time and no one has ever succeeded. All of a sudden summoners who can pop up all over the world. But hey, no more extra information. Your turn. » Jake jerked his thumb at Aria.

 » Alicia White… Ah, she is not here. Anyhow, she is from the Eson Halcyon, that Avalon –ish land, and I heard that she’s aristocratic. I have fought her once, in secret, of course, and it was a draw. She is extremely skilled, and her use of the sword is superior to me. And once again, her true ability is not reflected on paper. »

 » I see. Hey, you are not lying to me right. What with the  » not reflected on papers »? Both of them? »

« You have no idea how faulty the classification system of this school is. I swear on my honor, I did not tell a lie. » Aria replied as she looked straight into Jake’s eyes.

Jake was startled by the sudden stare. He scratched his head.

 » Okay, if you say so. My turn. The next one is…me! » Jake pointed at himself.  » Well, I am not as powerful as Victor, but I possess 2 level 5, also quite a feat. I also have mastered the Earth school  of magic and let me tell you it is very difficult to master a school. Oh, and in your word, I am also the trickiest. » Jake finished his sentence with a grin.

« Now that is just grossly unfair. I already knew about you, so you must tell me about someone else.  »

 » I tell you quite a lot about myself, aren’t I? I think that will suffice. Your turn? »

Aria rolled her eyes. « I think our little game should end here. I don’t want you to reveal to me you have split personalities and describe to me each one.  »

 » Come on! It’s getting fun! »

 » Nah, I’m good. I’ve kept you occupied long enough. Some girls over there are checking you out, maybe you should go there and tell them about yourself.  At least they care. »

 » Ouch! That hurts. »

Aria just smiled in return, then walked away from her new tricky « friend ».

After she was out of sight, Victor approached Jake and coldly asked.  » Did you tell her a lot? »

« Just enough. »

« Did you tell her about me? »

« Yes, I did. »

« You fool. You should have kept me a secret. »

 » Give me a break. You are no longer  the most powerful, Victor. You lost that title weeks ago. I kept the most powerful one a secret, so stop complaining. Now leave me alone, I do not want the girls to see me with you. It is going to repulse them, the moment you open your mouth. »

______________________________________________________________________________

The Principal  Office.

Xixin checked out the piles of books his old friend had brough him: thick books with leather covers and a fair share of dust. He glanced at his custom-made desk, annoyed as he thoughr of all the cleaning he had to do later.

 » Samundo is coming back. » Xixin said, nonchalantly, as his eyes rested on the volume 1 of Histoire Lacrium Daemon . » Or should I say, has already come back. »

 » Hmm, so it had been revealed to you too.  Should we buy him a cake? »  Principal Hamilton replied as he sipped his tea.  » Maybe it will convince him to stay dead this time. He may just want a cake. »

That joke had gone bland many years ago. Both of them wondered who started it. Both of them believed that person had died for a few centuries.

Samundo’s returns, as excessive in number as they were, did not qualify as common occurrences. Most of the time, it took nearly a century for the demon lord to come back. Even the shortest interval amounted to 80 years. Halcyon dwellers enjoyed the peace inbetween those returns, while making preparation for the next war. A few generations were lucky enough to never encounter him. It was a long dreamt dream of various individuals to bestow that luck upon the future. Slowly they deemed it improbable.

 » Do you find it strange? He returns too quickly.  Sixteen years, a record. Why the haste? How does he even return at that speed? I have the feeling this is going to be the final battle. This time, if we defeat him, he’s going to stay dead. »

 » What makes you think that? I lost count of how many people had uttered the same thing, but they were wrong. Don’t get your hopes up. »

Xixin turned to his friend, his eyes narrowing.

« The conflicts, they are reaching the climax. All conflicts in the world. »

« Which conflicts? » Hamilton stirred his tea as he said. He raised his almost non-existent eyebrows.

« Halcyon is being stirred up by hundred simultaneous events. The Council is enforcing its grip on the whole Hunter Community, accompanied by the complete disappearance of the Singulus Digiti. The Familiars will pick the new Eternalia Regis a few years from now. The candidates for that title Regis Magus too. M.O.M informed me of the increasing number of apocalyptic prophecies from various species. Something big is happening, don’t you think? »

« They happen because they happen, that’s all. It does not necessarily mean something big is going down. Xixin, our students, their futures are bright. With this event, a new chapter will open for both hunters and summoners, we should focus on that. Remember the Cold Decades? Our friends killed one another even without Samundo. He is the least of our problem right now. We have nothing to do with that beast. » Hamilton said, his eyes closed. » I just hope this time the contest will transpire peacefully. »

Xixin looked up at the ceiling, where his beloved crystal chandelier slighly swung in the air.

« Don’t jinx it, Hamilton. You suggest the contest, shouldn’t you be more confident? Let’s just assume it will be fine. At least we know no demon can infiltrate this place, thanks to you. Ah, and I have been tempting to ask: What happened to your head? »

 » What with it? »

« That burn above your ear, leaves a mark. »

 » I have that? » said Principal Hamilton as he walked towards the nearest mirror. « I do. »

« You don’t know where that’s from? »

« No. I have never seen this mark before. » Principal Hamilton touched the mark, frowning.  » This is bizarre. »

Chapter 3: For us, what to come

Sparring session was a must in the curriculum of every Hunter school. It was the more prominent equivalence of gym class in Human world. Some physically superior students would shine and crush the weaker ones. Some not so gifted would be subjected to humiliation from their peers. Paradise for some, Hell for many others. Still, the majority of young hunters favoured the session with its being the only time when they got to wear armor and wield weapons. After the Red Incident in 1996, the Council had limited the availability of weapons. Adult hunters, apart from those who work for the Unison Force and the local arm forces, could possess only one weapon at most.

The young Hunters of Xixin Institution knew too well that during class like this, there existed four individuals they absolutely must not provoke. Normally, the gap in strength was not very significant, but in some cases, it was overwhelming.

Aria Tansine was one of those. She got 1st place in an international competition a while back, making her name famous worldwide. She was an ace, the arguably best student of the Institution, and definitely among the best of her generation.

As a result, sparring lesson bored her to death, since no one wished to fight her, and the teachers deliberately left her out, lest they would be held responsible for the critical injury of some students. Thus, Aria must spend time doing what she had always hated: gossiping. She sat in the corner of the gymnasium with a group of friends, a few feet away from the arena at the center. Aria constantly shifted her attention from her friends to the shiny wooden floor.

« The Hamilton School is coming to New York this month. » Karen, a boredom-prone girl in the same class with Aria, nonchalantly announced the news to others.

 » Hamilton School? That renown school for Summoners? Why? » A girl asked.

 » They want to have a friendly competition with our school. »

 » Principal Xixin and Principal Hamilton are best friends, and rivals. This is just another occasion for them to compete. » Aria said, her eyes following the swords of other students.

 » That’s odd. A Summoner and a Hunter can be best friends? »

« Apparently. This time, Mr. Hamilton will be accompanied by the best of his apprentices. Some are globally famous, like Aria. »

The girls simultaneously glanced at Aria, evaluating her reaction.

 » Hey, if it’s true then good for them. I don’t mind. » Aria replied with a shrug.

The glances persisted for a while before the conversation could continue.

« We can expect a big event next month. Many people will be there. It is a fight between Hunters and Summoners after all! I bet the people from the Council will be here too.  And maybe, even the Hottie Trinity! The Captains will be here! »

 » No way! Really? » The girls asked simultaneously, then start emitting sound they did not know they could make.

 » Quiet, you lot! Karen, get your butts up the stage right now! » Their instructor Aidan said. His voice came from a speaker.

 » Oops, busted. You girls stay fun. I’m up, » said Karen as she dragged herself towards the stage.

The girls stayed quiet until they knew Aidan had stopped staring.

 » Aria, why do you and Hiatus befriend Wander? Is he not like super lame? » A girl asked in low voice.

Aria received the stares of others again.

« He isn’t lame. And there is no reason why. We just want to. » Aria said, frowning.

 » Don’t you think it is a little cruel to him? »

« What do you mean? » Aria sighed.

 » Well, if I were him, I would definitely be devastated being constantly left behind by my best friends. »

The girls did not stop glancing.

 » Wander is not like that. »

« Yeah, I guess. But still that’s a probability. We all know weak ones can do dangerous things. Wander may resort to dangerous methods to get stronger.  Worst scenario he may attempt to turn. »

Turn- Demonization- an irreversible process caused by the abuse of Demonic Form- was one of the most abhorrent thing a Hunter could commit. Any Hunter who turned would be sentenced to death, no exception. Demonization was an insult of the highest degree to all Hunters.

 » That is not funny. » Aria stressed every word, glared at the girl who just spoke. The terrifying glare made her apologize immediately.

Aria shook her head, trying to rid herself of the words previously said. She believed today would not be any different from yesterday, or the day before that. After school, her two friends and she would either do some group study, hang around the malls or simply watch TV, enjoying themselves.

The conversation strayed to other topics, less personal, less infuriating to Aria. The class elapsed tediously, it was seemingly just another boring day.

It was supposed to be like that, the class ending with no incident. However, that day, the peacefulness was disrupted by a huge sound originating from the other gym stadium. Students and teachers looked at each other in confusion, and seconds later, every person exited the stadium and headed for the source of the commotion.

It was Wander and Jonathan. Aidan forced Wander to spar against the worst opponent ever- his bully, Jonathan Miller. There was blood all over his unconscious body. Hiatus rushed to Wander’s side with a frightening look on his face. Aidan was yelling at Jonathan. Hiatus glared at them both as he ran past them towards the infirmary with Wander in his arms. A trail of blood followed him.

Only Aria and Hiatus were allowed to enter the infirmary. All other students were forced to go back to their classrooms. The whiteness of the infirmary stung Aria’s eyes; she knew nurse Matilda went to great length to keep the place clean. The old nurse kept everything in order: she categorised needles, bandages, pills, blankets by shapes and colors. Principal Xixin greatly favoured her, mostly because she once kicked a room designer he hired out of the infirmary for failing to meet her standard, saving him a great deal of money.

 » Will he be alright, Mrs. Matilda? » asked Aria, holding Wander’s hand.

 » Yes, he will be okay. Don’t worry. Who or what did this to him? »

« Jonathan Miller. That muscle head used claws on him. » Hiatus replied.

« Miller? That blond kid ? And claws? He can do that already? I swear, kids these day, big muscles. Brain? Not so much. Make me miss the days when that boy Jade protected the school with his bags of candies » said Matilda as she shook her head violently. » I have applied  medicine to his wound, it’s going to close soon. May take a while for him to regain consciousness though. »

Aria and Hiatus thanked the nurse and she smiled in return.  Apparently wanting to leave the kids alone, she told them she had some business to attend to, then quickly left.

Aria turned to Hiatus. « Why did Mr. Aidan do that? Why did he force Wander to…this? »

« That sadistic garbage just wanted to see his students suffer. » Hiatus clenched his fists. » I tried to talk him out of it, but Wander… he wanted to try. Idiot, he should not have done that. Going against Jonathan. To think that guy can already use claws »

A hunter’s body transformed throughout their life. The stronger they got, they more demon-like they became. They could grow claws or horns, change their eye colour, gain additional arms. No one knew the zenith of a hunter’s demonic form.

 » Not the time to be impressed. Wander tried to push himself. Is it not what you want? » Aria almost raised her voice.

 » Not like this! Stupidity and effort are 2 different concepts! » Hiatus’s thick eyebrowns compressed.

The room fell into  a brief silence, except for the breathing sound of Wander. The smell of disinfectant made Aria drowsy. She stood up and proceeded to close the curtains.

 » Hiatus, Wander needs us. Maybe even in the future. We must not abandon him. » Aria said, her hands holding onto the rough fabric. She wondered why she told Hiatus the obvious.

 » Of course. But I know what will happen.  For now, he will let us help, in the future, he will refuse. There is nothing we can do for him in the long run. »

 » We can stay by his side. » Aria averted her eyes from Hiatus.

 » That is if we can. With your talent, do you really think you can stay with him at least once a month? You will ace the Penultimate Act and then the Apprentice Trial. Heck, you will become one of the few to get a Demon Arm. Aria, you will not get stuck in this city, you will be out there, to lands you do not even know of. And I? I will…definitely not be here. »

Aria could not find any appropriate answer. She knew Hiatus got a point. Maybe more than a point.

Patience was one of her virtue, but even she sometimes felt lost when it came to Wander. He just could not be any more helpless. It hurt her a lot to admit that her friend lied at the very bottom of the Hunters. Aria felt angry and frustrated, it was as if nature mother decided to savage his genetic traits as much as possible on purpose. She suddenly thought of- the words she heard earlier and wondered if she was indeed cruel.

 » What will happen to the three of us? » Aria just blurted out the question.

In return, Hiatus just looked at her with sadness in his eyes. For the first time, Aria doubted her plan.

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.

Part 1: Light Path- Chapter 1: Epilogue of Peace

It began on an autumn night, somewhere moonlight could not reach. No one knew what it was. No one cared.

Within a poorly lit room that seemingly expanded nonstop, four hunters, cloaked in hooded robes, waited for their leader- the Singulus Digiti known as Primitos. Their eyes were fixed on the centuries-old round table , their patience tested- a test introduced innumerably thanks to his habitual tardiness.

 » He died, didn’t he? » asked Tetrax, adjusting her mask.

 » Highly unlikely. Still, I’m beginning to favor that scenario. » Trexon replied with the voice of a hungry wolf.

« Please inform me why he’s our leader again. » Tetrax added, sighing.

 » He was the first to have been chosen, and he can, arguably, easily kick our butts. »

« Yet he still cannot be punctual for once. If the matter he mentioned is that important, surely it would be sensible to arrive on time? »

« No use complaining now. We know too well that old habits die hard. For the time being, let’s just wait, and think of something…not him. » Deuza said, his fingers tapping the tabble.

The room fell back to silence, once that was even graver and more solemn than before. Each individual in the room sank deeply into their own world. Thoughts of doubt and anxiety, of fear and betrayal harmonized with each other perfectly, ready to morph into an overflow of chaos.

For centuries, generations of the Singulus Digiti Order had protected the realm of Halcyons, albeit in secret. The tradition of secrecy had never been broken, for a reason unknown. It was this tradition that smeared the reputation of the order, causing most of the hunters to isolate and resent it, considering it an apathetical group full of condescending elitists. The truth: the order revelled in secrecy, looking upon itself as a hound lurking the abyss, not a peacock sitting on a throne. Primitos, Deuza, Trexon, Tetrax and Pentos were the names of the hounds, created partly for the purpose of masqurading the true names.

The creaking door pulverized the mass of thoughts, winning the attention of every person at the place. They all turned their heads to look at their leader, who was standing in quite comfort, his hand folded.

« Isn’t it so nice to get together once in a while? » His voice, modulated, yet musical, as if moonlight was singing.

The leader’s  ice-breaking question was met with an universal cold-shoulder treatment. He had expected this, but he knew the piece of information he was about to disclose would offset the negativity surging within his peers. With that in mind, he gracefully found his way to his rightful seat- the center of the round table.

« Primitos, your unpunctuality will be discussed much later. Setting aside our exasperation of immense proportion, all of us here are longing to hear the news which incites from your part so great an eagerness. Please make it quick, to compensate for the precious time you have laid waste. »

« Thank for the quick opening speech, Deuza. Now, as you wish, I will get to the point: Our greatest enemy- demon lord Samundo- has returned. »

None of the hunters shuddered, or even moved an inch of muscle.

 » What a surprise. Should we buy him a welcome-back-for-the-who-the-heck-knows-how-many-time cake? This is your precious piece of information? » Trexon rested his head on his hand.

 » I’m with Trexon. I mean, come on, the great demon lord comes back to destroy the world, can your news be original for once? And here I am, expecting you’ve confirmed the existence of Hexa, or at least announce that you’re going to resign. Now that would have been of prime importance. And of immeasurable joy too. The latter news that is. »

« Sharp tongue as always, Tetrax.  However, I have a reason to believe that this time is going to be much different. Samundo is planning something big. Very big. If we underestimate him, the price to pay will be of unthinkable scale. »

 » Last time he was here, one-fifth of China was obliterated. The time before that, Alaska nearly sank.  This time, it is going to be the world, isn’t it? Again, what a surprise. » Trexon slouched on the table.

« Yes, it is going to be the world. And more than that, every realm within our scope of knowledge is now also at stake. Not only Earth, but every layer of existence surrounding it will vanish, if Samundo succeeds. »

 » Wow, that’s frightening, but still not a surprise. We all know that destruction is in his blood, and the extent of that destruction is hardly ever beyond imagination. Even if Samundo plans to destroy the whole Solar System, I will not bat an eye. »

Others nodded at Trexon. Time after time, Samundo’s return birthed new waves of doomsayers and new ways to end all realms on Earth, each time more or less creative than the previous. Halcyon ( or as some would prefer, Halcyons) – an amalgamation of hundreds of different realms-suffered the most. Since the day demons’ presence were made known, it had always been considered The Great Wall, the shield that stood between Samundo’s army and almost everything else. Hunters along with other species had done a good job protecting the shield. Time after time, they unfailingly vanquished Samundo. There was simply no reason to believe this time would be any « different ».

 » How can you be so sure of this… difference? » Deuza asked, his fingers pressing against one another.

« I have a credible source of information. It was about 3 days ago when the message reached me.  The messenger informed me of Samundo’s scheme. He’s looking for two ancient artifacts: The Pillars of Light and The Key of Darkness. I know it sounds stupid, but hey, before this, he has never  sought to use something rather than his overwhelming army to kill all of us. This time he’s serious. »

The others seriously doubted Primitos’ statement.

 » Does anyone besides us know of this? » Tetrax asked.

 » The Council; M.O.M too. Their intelligence bureaus work with greater efficiency than ours. » Primitos leaned back. »They have become quite bored of Samundo. He’s still the greatest threat, but to them it’s rather ridiculous that someone returns from oblivion for the 20th freaking time. Rumor has it that the last time he got banished, people actually waved at him saying that next time they would prepare a cake. »

 » So… what will we do to give him a warm welcome then? Not baking a cake, obviously. »

 » Nothing. I just want to warn you. It’s not like we can just charge at him. None of the demon hunters will support us; they favor the Council. Besides, the nineteen times before it was not us who vanquished him, but someone, or something else. »

Tetrax and Trexon sighed simultaneously. The two did not hide their bitterness: the supposed strongest demon hunters could not lay a finger on Samundo even once. Always, the hidden heroes killed the demon then vanished. Still, since the heroes did not step forward to take the credit, most hunters assumed the Singulus Digiti defeated the Demon Lord. The order did not bother rectifying the lie: it needed whatever scraps of respects it could garner from the Hunter community.

 » What a waste of time. Even without your warning, we could have heard it from somewhere else later. This kind of news spreads far and wide, you know? » Tetrax said.

 » I’m aware, but the Elder insisted on making me summon all of you. He said that he wanted to be sure. »

 » Of what? » Deuza raised his voice.

« Of us. »

« What does that even mean? »

Primitos shrugged off the question. He clapped his hands. « That’s it. Dismiss! »

 » All that trouble, all that waiting for this 10-minute get-together. Next time I shall send a cake in my place. I bet you all: Samundo’s 20th birthday will be just like the others. » Trexon said, storming towards the exit.

 » Pentos, the meeting is over. You can leave now, » said Primitos to the only figure in the room yet to utter a word.

The figure did not move an inch, nor did it display any kind of reaction. The hunters felt a chill spreading throughout their bodies.

 » Pentos? »

Deuza cautiously approached his comrade, one hand on his gun. He touched Pentos’s shoulder, shaking it slightly.

The body fell to the ground lifelessly. The sound of cracking bones made the hunters cringe.  The cloak came off, revealing a face with mouth wide open, decayed teeth, skin peeled off, and two emtpy holes where Pentos’s eyes once were.

 » Now that’s a surprise. » Trexon slowly shook his head.

The others glared at him.

 » We are the only one who know of the time and place of the meeting, right? » Tetrax asked

 » Well, yes, I guess. » Primitos answered, aware of the implication of his answer.

The four stared at each other. That moment, a paroxysm of fear, doubt, and grief surged within each of them, distorting the ambience, converging with each other in a chaotic order.

 » So this is why he wants to be sure of us. » Tetrax said in a dead voice.

« Before someone in this room tries to pull a Sherlock Holmes on us all, let’s be serious now: which one of you thickhead killed him? »