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72 Wager

In a vast hall whose ceiling was over sixty feet high, hundreds of Goblins were turning left and right continuously, and from time to time directed their gazes towards the Seniors of the Royal Academy.

Today was the day; if they passed the entrance test, they would finally be part of the Royal Academy.

A particularly excited Goblin couldn't take his eyes off of the huge platform that glided up in the air, near the ceiling.

"Hey," he said to the fellow sitting next to him, "do you think we'll make it to the top?"

The other looked at him and rolled his eyes. "Cut the bullshit. In the last hundred years only that monster made it to the top…"

The first Goblin shrugged and kept staring at the platform with dreamy eyes. It was the base on top of which rouse a holy temple, the Shrine of the Black Phoenix. An Immortal had brought it to Orma time out of mind. No one knew what it was for. Only those who hadn't reached the First Phase could set foot on it; anyone else would be pushed away by a mysterious and unfathomable force. That force didn't even spare Immortals, who, whenever they imposed their strength, still ended up in a temple whose mysteries remained impregnable and beyond their reach.

The temple was part of the test itself. Every contestant of the Royal Academy had to reach it by creating a staircase in Mana. The Mana one had to used was scattered across the room and sprang in light-blue sparks. Contestants were supposed to gather those sparks and form a flight of one hundred steps to reach the temple's platform.

However, the Aura exuded by the Shrine of the Black Phoenix only made Mana Control more difficult a task; the closer one got, the harder Mana Control proved to be. This was the reason why it was almost impossible to reach the top. In the past century, only one practitioner had accomplished that feat.

And that practitioner was standing on a lateral room whose balcony gave on the main hall. He was gazing down at the noisy kids who would start the test any moment now. Suddenly, his contemplative silence was shattered by a mellow voice that resounded maliciously from behind his back: "I'm surprised to find you here, champ."

The black shadow sighed and said: "Stop harassing me. What do you want?"

"I saw you visited the boy. I wanted to warn you to keep your hands off me, or…" said the Witch as her mellow voice was distorted by a hint of jealousy.

"Or? Or you'll ask your daddy to get rid of me? Have you lost your marbles once and for all and want to challenge me again? I can make you eat the shit of all the lions in the Colosseum any time you ask," the hoarse and icy voice threatened. "There are more mysteries concealed in the Shrine of the Black Phoenix than you could imagine. Reaching it isn't for everyone. I had to go all out and risk my life to pull that off. That boy is strong and he's more talented than you are, I'm too curious to see how many steps he'll form."

Circe lost her temper, even more than usual: "So why don't we make a wager, champ?"

The hoarse voice replied: "It's not like you've got something I'm interested in."

"Why so sure? I've heard you've been looking for the Root of the Dark Flame, lately. A Seventh Grade herb. I have no idea why." Herbs were indeed sorted out like Phases. The Root of the Sacred Phoenix and the Herb of the Nine Deaths were Third Grade herbs, which meant that they fitted best a Third Phase practitioner, even though Helial could absorb their essences anyway thanks to his peculiar build. Seventh Grade herbs and plants were extremely rare.

Pseudonym's voce got shaky: "And you have a Root of the Dark Flame?"

"Got you, bastard!" the mellow voice rang, "So, apparently there is something I've got you're interested in, huh? Yeah, I have one. I convinced my father to give it to me as a gift. I'm perfectly aware of its value. I have no clue how you might absorb it at your current level, actually, but it's none of my business. Shall we make this wager or not?"

For a while, the only thing that could be heard was the clamor of the contestants below. Then, Pseudonym spoke again: "I'm in. What is it that you want?"

"Hehe, easy. You steer clear of him. As I've told you, he's mine. We'll guess how many steps he'll make. Who gets closer is the winner. How about that?"

"Mhn," the black armor nodded.

"Okay, then! I bet it's 93!" the mellow voice said.

"All," Pseudonym calmly replied.

"What?"

"He'll reach the shrine." And the black hoarse-voiced shadow disappeared from the room.

The thin yet voluptuous figure of Circe leaned slightly forward over the terrace.

The dim light of the room glowed on her face as she looked down, wondering when Helial would arrive.

Meanwhile, the three Major Seniors had entered the room. A huddle of older students than those already present was following them. When the three appeared, the room fell silent and no sound could be heard.

Crispius.

Binius.

Philopappus.

All three were present, their eyes set on the new blood. They hoped to find new young promises in the caliber of Circe and Pseudonym. Unfortunately, the latter had isolated himself and took no part in any academic activity, but his unparalleled talent prevented everyone from harming a hair on his head.

Crispius glanced up to the lateral rooms. He had sensed two dense Auras.

"Those two bothered coming here? We're all eager to see if the boy will make it, apparently." With a distressed frown, Crispius curled the corners of his lips upwards. "You'd better dazzle me, boy."

While Crispius mumbled to himself, Binius and Philopappus stared at him with a puzzled expression on their face. Did Crispius lose his marbles once and for all? Since Helial had stood trial and razed half Senate to the ground, Crispius wasn't the same anymore. Lately, he had become more silent and pensive. He had even beaten the hell out of Binius and Philopappus when they disturbed him during the arrangement of turns for the classes.

The old man really seemed to have lost his marbles. However, since they were still suffering for the punches of the day before, they thought it better to keep quiet. Crispius looked even moodier than usual; provoking him wouldn't turn out to be a wise choice.

Crispius glided up in midair and, his eyes on the crowd and his arms wide open, he said: "Good evening! Today is the first day of our entrance test. As you know, from time immemorial our Royal Academy sorts its future disciples through an entrance test and assigns them to the proper Court. Those of you who are new must remember that the test requires all contestants to create a staircase to the Shrine of the Black Phoenix by forming up to one hundred steps. Whoever forms less than twenty steps won't be accepted as a disciple of the Royal Academy. Whoever forms from twenty to forty steps will be accepted as an Outer Court disciple. Whoever forms from forty to seventy steps will be accepted as an Inner Court disciple. Whoever forms more than seventy steps will be accepted as a Special Court disciple. Every single Court has its own privileges to offer, along with an inner ranking on which every disciple is placed according to their score and strength."

Then Crispius got into a long speech that remarked the importance of the Orman traditions as well as the younger generations' responsibility to meet the expectations placed on them.

Mainly, the youths seemed to be incurious. They appeared more interested in their own outcome. Some of them looked enraptured by Crispius' words though, and in their eyes one could catch a glimpse of an incredible patriotic fervor.

Once the speech was concluded, the contestants were divided into groups and directed to different spots of the hall, so that more than one person could try to reach the Shrine of the Black Phoenix at the same time.

Yet, despite his gaze sweeping over the crowd continuously, Crispius couldn't find Helial nor his friends anywhere. He had been told that Helial would come with a human girl, a rather singular cat and two Goblins.

I wonder what they meant by "rather singular"... Oh well, they're fashionably late. After all, the great ones are always the last to step on stage, Crispius thought.

In that very moment, a catlike voice resounded out from the corridors, filling the silence of the hall. "WHO THE FUCK WANTS TO DO THIS SHITTY TEST? AHHH, WATCH OUT, THAT'S MY TAIL! YOU, SHITTY QUEEN OF A SHITTY RATHOLE. WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT WE'RE COMPELLED? ARE GOING TO FORCE US OUT? WELL, THIS EMPEROR CAT HAS BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN WASTE HIS TIME WITH PEASANTS! LEAVE ME ALONE, STUPID OLDIE! HAAA, NO, MY TAIL NO!!"

An endless string of foul words followed. Snowflake's cussing skills could have likely pierced an iron wall and parted an ocean. The hair on the back of Crispius' head stood on end. For hell's sake, who's this one? This cussing could knock an opponent out without even resorting to Mana. Is he cultivating the Sacred Technique of the Heavenly Insult?

Crispius kept scratching his beard while listening to Snowflake's string of curses in bafflement. Suddenly, a woman glided through the room in midair. She had a majestic posture and a refined crown on her head. Her right hand was holding a white furry tail to the end of which hang a huge cat, the source of the string of curses.

Everyone turned pale.

Not only had the cat filled the room with more cussing that the Royal Academy had ever heard, but the one he was insulting was no other than the Queen of Orma. Even though Caesar and Nelia always had a benevolent attitude towards their people, they were known to sweep away whomever dared go against their authority. Meticulousness. Caesar had even killed on the spot some Senators who had insulted him publically. And why was Nelia giving face to a cat, when she wouldn't think twice before eliminating the biggest shots in Orma?

That cat must have been… rather singular, indeed.
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