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76 Hard-pressed

Nelia glanced one last time at Snowflake and reminded him: "Mind your words, or next time I use that muzzle you won't get rid of it before a week." Then, with a wave of her hand, the Mana muzzle disappeared from Snowflake's mouth.

Snowflake was still furious. He opened his mouth to hurl at her, but he closed it right away. He knew that Nelia wouldn't hesitate to muzzle him again, and so he resolved to turn his back on her in anger.

Meanwhile, several students had already begun the test.

A Goblin quickly formed twenty-three steps. From the twenty-fourth on, however, he started sweating profusely. The difficulty in advancing seemed to have increased greatly. The Shrine of the Black Phoenix had a mysterious strong effect on the would-be disciples. Even though its force didn't alter Mana directly, its properties would make Mana Control more and more difficult a task with each closer step.

Helial looked attentively at that Goblin; he was curious to witness someone else's test. Once reached the twenty-fifth step, the Goblin began to show signs of exhaustion and couldn't advance any farther. The Royal Academy Senior in charge of his group announced: "Twenty-five steps! The candidate is admitted to the Outer Court!"

The Goblin nodded and went down, smiling. All in all, being admitted to the Royal Academy was already a pretty good result. The fact that he wasn't admitted to the Inner Court didn't discourage him. He would improve, given time.

While he went down, another Goblin standing a few feet from him formed one Mana step more. And even after reaching the twenty-fifth step, he didn't show the least fatigue. He seemed to be able to go on easily.

25, 26, 27…

The Goblin went on untroubled. A cocky smile was hang on his face.

"That's one of the members of the Sect of the Worthy!" panted a student who had just descended its flight of steps, that came apart and disappeared in a bunch of Mana sparks. "He's one of the latest recruits of the Sect! Look at him. He's at the thirty-fifth step and doesn't even look weary!"

The Goblin on the staircase was still wearing an arrogant expression indeed, but secretly he started cold-sweating. The pressure over him was becoming tough. Luckily, the admission to the Inner Court was only a few steps away.

To qualify as an Outer Court disciple, one must form from twenty up to forty steps, whereas a staircase from forty to seventy steps would have granted an admission to the Inner Court. Lastly, whoever would form from seventy-one steps onward was considered a freaking genius. Among them were the greatest geniuses in Orma, like Circe and Pseudonym, who took part in the Special Court indeed. Special Court disciples had fewer rules to follow and could benefit from many more resources than any other common student.

After a great deal of trouble, the Goblin managed to create the forty-first step. After that, he figured he wouldn't be able to accomplish more and backed down. Now that his goal was achieved, he didn't need to risk damaging his Meridians.

"Can't wait to see if anyone of those filthy humans and company will pull off as much as I did," the Goblin sneered. He didn't speak too loud, to avoid an explicit slur, but it was still loud enough to let those directly concerned hear him.

Helial's face remained neutral. No ripple warped his expression. Frankenstein and Lulu felt wounded in their pride and were seized by the urge to punch that Goblin instantly. Snowflake still had it in for Nelia and didn't take notice of the insults made my that insignificant being.

A few yards away, some Goblins from the Clan of the Heavenly Eagle and the Guild of Life and Death qualified as new Inner Court disciples.

Crispius, Binius and Philopappus were looking at the Seniors who wrote down the scores on small boards. The year before, the best result achieved was sixty-two steps. And the year before that, no one had been admitted to the Special Court either. A disciple could be admitted to the Special Court even thanks to credits achieved through their studies, but true geniuses would qualify as Special Court disciples from the very start. Mana Control was an almost infallible indicator of one's talent. Everyone was eager to see if Orma would finally find a genius in the caliber of Circe and Pseudonym – or one a little more interested in the well-being of the population, hopefully.

"Yawnnn," Circe covered her mouth with a hand as she yawned noisily. The hustle was boring her to death. Her mind ran back to the memory of her own test. Two years had gone by, but she still hadn't swallowed that bitter pill. She clenched her fists. Her result would have been considered a semi-legendary feat, if Pseudonym hadn't stepped in. That damned freak really went beyond any common sense.

Her eyes surveyed the crowd keenly all over. Suddenly, she caught sight of Helial's pale skin and dark hair. She immediately forgot about her past. Her eyes glowed with fire; the kid hadn't yet taken his test though. His companions seemed as confident as he was. Circe had gathered a great deal of information about Helial's little group. From her balcony, she scrutinized them from head to toe: two Goblins, his silvery-haired sister, and a cat… Wait, where was the cat?!

Just beside the Goblin from the Sect of the Worthy, who was about to step down, a long staircase appeared all of a sudden. Every living creature with a faint hint of good sense would have formed one step at a time in order not to consume too much energy. On the contrary, Snowflake once again appeared to lack any good sense, or either he was the genius Orma was waiting for.

"Get the fuck out of my way, you sacks of crap," Snowflake cursed. He was still mad at the queen for the liberty she had taken with him. "That damned oldie. Just because she do-" Suddenly, Snowflake felt a chill down his spine and turned slightly. His eyes met those of the Queen, who was staring at his white fur. Nelia winked at him. Snowflake shuddered and shut up.

In the meantime though, he had formed more than fifty steps almost effortlessly. He had been so swift that he caught even Crispius, Binius and Philopappus' attention. They looked astonished. Every spectator was sure that all attention would have been drawn by Helial, but that cat had just gained an admission to the Inner Court without a blink of its eyes. And moreover, he didn't seem about to stop.

Snowflake went on, this time a little slower. Now he covered three steps with each leap.

60, 63, 66, 69…

Snowflake was now about to reach the seventy-first step as if that were a piece of cake. Helial was looking at him with the most beaming smile. He knew perfectly well that the Devil had been training that pig-headed cat, so he wasn't surprised by the outstanding progress he had made. Helial wondered quite often who that black-fanged kid might be; he was too overpowered and his knowledge was unmatched. Though, he was becoming increasingly aware that, by asking himself those questions, he was seeking a very dangerous answer. Such a creature wouldn't travel unnoticed through the universe. Most likely, someone was already looking for him. Or so Helial thought, at least. Since the Devil had lost his physical body and was exiled in a sword, and being him stronger than a common Immortal all the same, his real body must have been terrifying.

Helial couldn't help glancing inside his Soul, where the Devil was naturally laying the table as usual. He really couldn't do anything else…

Helial's attention was drawn back to the test.

While Snowflake advanced over the seventy-first step before the astonished gazes of the crowd, Helial approached Nelia and said: "Do you know what score Circe and Pseudonym achieved, Your Grace?"

Nelia smiled calmly at him, without withdrawing her enchanting deep eyes from Snowflake: "Circe formed ninety-one steps. Pseudonym… he formed one hundred."

Helial furrowed his eyebrows violently. "One hundred? Pseudonym set foot on the Shrine of the Black Phoenix?"

Nelia nodded as she heaved a sigh: "That guy has way more talent that it shows. If he weren't a lone wolf and didn't live as a secluded, he would do so much for our Orma. And what's more, he…" the queen interrupted mid-sentence, as if she preferred not to go on.

Frankenstein and Lulu gaped at her words. After hearing about the results of the two best geniuses in Orma, they both started feeling little beads of cold sweat down their spine.

Helial looked at them and understood their uneasiness. "Chill out, guys. You started mastering Mana way later than them. Especially you, Frankenstein. Your talent wouldn't lose out to Circe's, but she grew up in the most powerful guild in Orma, you lived as a pleb. She began to train at a tender age, you - less than ten days ago, basically. Now relax."

Lumia was unusually silent. Helial found that she was profoundly different, that day. The girl hadn't even coiled her arms around her brother yet…

Helial approached his little sister. He knelt down to look at her in the eyes, and was about to speak. But he didn't. The astounding profoundness he glimpsed made him hesitate. Where did the innocence that had always characterized her go?

Taking advantage of her brother's moment of hesitation, Lumia caressed his face and said: "What's up, brother?"

Helial smiled. "Nervous?" He quickly recovered and tousled her silvery hair. His sister's gaze had taken him aback.

Lumia winked at him and said: "Wanna make a bet?"

Helial stared blankly. "A bet?"

Lumia nodded, her silvery hair glimmering like a cascade of stars as they waved back and forth elegantly. "The Queen said that Circe reached the ninety-first step…"

Lumia leaned forward and grabbed his arm vigorously, wrong-footing an increasingly confused Helial.

"If I win, I'll get a kiss too," Lumia whispered in his ear.

Helial started cold-sweating. What the hell did that monster do to my sister? Why do I feel more and more hard-pressed?! These damned women… He forced a smile and tried to decline her offer: "Lumia, we're brother and sister, and I…"

Lumia's eyes immediately won their innocence back as two big tears started welling up. "But, but, but you kissed Circe!" Lumia wept.

The sight of his sister weeping left Helial helpless. Everyone was turning towards them, and whoever noticed the tears in Lumia's eyes wondered how cruel that human must have been to make that innocent girl cry. Helial quickly backtracked: "Okay, let's make this bet, just don't cry, okay?!" Helial had accepted. After all, despite having his master as her trainer, Lumia had only had a one week training. She couldn't likely have reached Circe's level yet…

Lumia plunged her face into her brother's shoulder knot and said: "Thank you, brother!" Malice filled her eyes as the corners of her lips curled up in an evil smile.

Inside Helial's Soul, the Devil stopped laying the table. His heart froze instantly as he said to himself: "Women are the worst disgrace in this world. A tiger disguised as a little child...!"

Sudden roars shattered the calm of the hall.

"I'M SORRY?! WHY IS NOBODY BEHOLDING THIS SUPREME CAT? WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU SHITTY BRAT, HUH? YOU BETTER WITNESS THIS EMPEROR'S ROYAL CLIMB!"

Snowflake had formed the ninetieth step. He wasn't advancing three steps at a time anymore; now every step required his fullest focus and a decent deal of time. As soon as he found out that the little group wasn't paying attention to him, he erupted in a furious outburst.

Helial gazed up at Snowflake, who had walked past the ninetieth step. It was an outstanding feat. The corners of his mouth being raised in a proud smile, Helial let his voice echo out inside his Soul. "Good job."

"Me?" the Devil laughed. He had gone back to laying the table, of course. "It wasn't me who did well. That cat is way more terrifying that you could tell." The black-fanged kid paused briefly and, his voice being almost impossible to hear, he added: "And you're also more similar than you could tell."

No one had gone past the ninetieth step, that day. The only two who was qualified as Special Court disciples had merely formed seventy-five and seventy-four steps. They were member of the Clan of the Heavenly Eagle and the Sect of the Worthy respectively.

91

92

Snowflake began to sweat. The pressure was increasing frighteningly. Mana was harder and harder to control.

93

94

Snowflake had almost reached his limit. Even though it let him touch unknown peaks of his knowledge of speed, his training with the Devil had only lasted a week.

95

Miraculously, Snowflake formed another step. And then he stopped. He was panting; due to the concentration he had needed, he couldn't keep his eyes open. From the ninetieth onward, every step was at abysmal distance from the ones before. The gap that each step required was had wide as the distance between heaven and earth!

Snowflake gazed down at his spectators and gave them a triumphant look. Every Goblin, including Seniors, were staring at him with their jaw dropped.

Even Circe, who had kept calm up to that moment, couldn't help cursing: "Where the fuck did that cat come from?!"

Helial looked about himself in despair. Snowflake had drawn everyone's attention. Once again.

The Seniors began to discuss among themselves. The case of a cat taking part in the Special Court was rather unprecedented, but as long as he fought by their side willingly, they wouldn't have nothing to object.

Snowflake glanced at Helial and Lumia, who had stopped looking at him and were intent on chatting.

"Now it's your turn, shitheads! Can you pull this off, huh?"

Helial raised his thumb and waved a hand. "Stay put and wait for us."
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