Nelia entered the room with Snowflake's tail held in her hand. The cat was still hurling at the queen, but his back paws were loose on the floor. His complete incapability of rebelling against Nelia's strength left him helpless. Behind them walked a Goblin and a silvery-haired girl.
Frankenstein's face was almost disfigured by an uncanny expression of fanatical enthusiasm. He seemed out of himself; he was holding a book and couldn't help leafing maniacally through its pages, creasing them noisily. A honking sound followed every sentence he read. "Ha! Got it! Mh! Noep!". He seemed to have lost some marbles, and the violent Aura he gave off only confirmed the impression. Whoever had a fine sensory perception took notice of the ripples that Frankenstein's Aura was leaving behind. Everything suggested that he was a madman.
Beside him stood Lumia. Or rather someone like Lumia, but deceptively so. The childish expression always hang on Lumia's face had indeed left space to a seraphic calm. It looked as though her gaze concealed an insurmountable mountain behind it. She conveyed the impression that whoever looked at her was actually admiring a stone monument time has left its trace on. Everything suggested that she was majestic.
Every now and then Nelia glanced at Frankenstein and Lumia. On their way to the hall where the test would take place, she could scarcely recognize them. They had undergone a radical change, as though some traumatic experience had conditioned their existence. Lumia's gaze was what Nelia was most upset about; she didn't look like a girl anymore, she now looked like a woman. Her gaze betrayed the resoluteness of she who has explored hell's far ends and then reemerged.
After some seconds, other two figures arrived.
A young human and a Goblin girl. Lulu was sitting on Helial's shoulders as he repeated: "So have you grasped the principle behind that reasoning?"
Lulu furrowed her eyebrows heavily and answered: "Yeah, but if I…"
"No, it wouldn't work. Try to lead your Mana towards this spot instead," said Helial as he touched her arm.
"What if I made it resonate with this?" said Lulu as she touched Helial's shoulder.
They were talking about Mana.
Lulu seemed different too. Her eyes were still fearful, but her sparkling irises revealed an unhesitating gleam. By looking at her now, one could never have guessed that she once was a shaky servant in the clutches of a bunch of Goblins.
However, what people got most shocked about was Helial. His tunic was drenched in blood. The cloth was scattered by stains of dried blood, while fresh blood was still dripping. He had a slightly open wound that was leaving a trail of tiny crimson blood stains behind him.
That wound was the last one of the long and painful training undergone by Lulu. It had ended just a minute before, which was why Helial had had no time to change clothes. The training had made the both of them, teacher and learner, suffer. But they had both benefited greatly from it. Helial had inflicted a terrible wound to himself, but Lulu had managed to heal it and had also found an unfathomed tenacity inside her heart. Thanks to this new experience, the girl had molded a totally new, resilient disposition that led her to build a strong self-confidence. If compared to Lumia and Frankenstein, however, Lulu had started off at a disadvantage; her mindset was still influenced by the Goblin hierarchy, so she was clearly weaker than them. On the contrary, Helial had spent that week meditating on Life and Destruction and had ignored any other training style.
Actually, the guy wasn't there to take part in the test. He had come to witness his friends' performances. Suddenly, he realized that everybody's gazes were set on him. He looked down at his feet and noticed the blood stains dripping down from his tunic. He scratched his cheek and sighed. He had no way to get changed. And, honestly speaking, it wasn't like that made a priority to him.
He thought back to the folly he had done and felt satisfied with himself. Without Body of the Qilin, Helial wouldn't have probably survived the blood loss and, after a few hours of agony, his life would have come to a very ugly end. And yet, the Ancestral Creature's Skill had let him resist to a physical strain that could have proved lethal to anyone else.
Helial glanced distractedly at the balconies brimming with spectators. Their chattering resounded out even through the test hall.
With a frown, Helial asked Nelia: "Do we really have to get mixed up in this brouhaha?"
Nelia looked at him, an eyebrow raised. She was highly surprised. "You can't become Royal Academy disciples without proving yourselves worth it. Or rather, your friends can't. As far as you're concerned, this test isn't really necessary…" The queen looked about herself. "Anyway, did you decide if you're taking part or not?"
"We'll see," Helial evaded the question and shrugged.
The corners of Nelia's mouth curled up in a sweet smile. She finally let go of Snowflake's tail. And as it's commonly known, he landed on his feet just like every cat.
Not really. Snowflake crashed its face on the floor in a noisy DONG, causing every spectator to burst into laughter. Even the Seniors let a smile escape.
Snowflake stood up immediately and gave Nelia a murderously furious look. The damn old rag did it on purpose. It must have been her revenge to all his insults. Normally, Snowflake would have been swift and agile enough to land on his four paws easily. Some strange force though had prevented him from twisting his trunk and made him fall off on his face. Despite the tumble and the general laughing, however, he thought it best to ignore the offence. He would have plenty of time to show that bunch of peasants what the Supreme Cate was made of.
Crispius asked for silence. The spectators kept quiet and he began to arrange everything. He had some of the contestants stand on different spots of the hall, so that each could start creating their flight of Mana steps and reach for the Shrine of the Black Phoenix. The remaining ones walked to the side and waited for their turn.
Every step had to be high enough to be useful to a potential walker trying to reach the Shrine. One could form up to a maximum of 100 steps. From the hundredth on, creating a new step would be of unimaginable difficulty. Nobody knew why. It was probably due to some hidden effect produced by the Shrine of the Black Phoenix itself, since the closer you got, the more unstable Mana Control turned out to be.
Helial took place along with the others, all ready to face the test.
"Who's first?" asked Nelia as she ignored the reverential look of every Goblin standing on that side of the hall. Crispius gestured towards her, hinting at approaching her. Nelia though didn't want to bother the three Seniors and resolved to wave a hand in response, a smile on her face.
The mere wave of her hand made Snowflake remind the ignominy he had just suffered. He immediately forgot about his good resolutions about seeking revenge by passing the test and growled, foaming with anger: "You shitty oldie, this Supreme Cat is overly ready to kil-mhhhhhh. Mhmmm?! Mh! Mmm?"
Snowflake suddenly had his mouth clamped by a Mana muzzle that prevented him from speaking. Nelial smiled reassuringly yet frighteningly at him. "Why don't you go first, sweet little cat? I was just now thinking that, if you were to get a high score, we might as well take care of that white fur. We've plenty of tools to shave cats off with. I'm sure that my husband will agree with enthusiasm. He'll shave you personally, I daresay. I wonder how a mangy Supreme Cat would look like…"
A cold shiver ran down the cat's spine as every hair he had stood on end.