In the meantime, everyone was wondering what Snowflake was possibly up to over there.
Crispius furrowed his brow: "Is the cat trying to advance even farther?"
Binius stared at him, still shocked, and said: "Is it even possible to improve Mana Control just like that, on the fly?"
No debates occurred that day; everyone's attention was completely drawn by the new would-be freshmen. Snowflake, moreover, had terrified the entire crowd with his awe-inspiring performance. The whole hall was still dead silent. Not even Circe had proved able to display such masterful talent. It was the first time in history that more than a great genius showed up within very few years, and very few years had gone by since Pseudonym and Circe had done their heart-stopping performances. It would already have been a miracle if someone went past the eightieth step once every ten years. And now, within a handful of years, a new great anomaly was climbing its way up the steps leading to the Shrine of the Black Phoenix.
"I have no idea," said Crispius, "Mana knowledge is no prerogative of mere mortals as we are. We live in a small dimension, you see. Maybe the greatest Clans in the universe are in hold of some real information, but we, as tiny ants, can claim no access to these kind of deep knowledge…"
Binius nodded. He was well-aware that Orma, if compared to the vastness of the universe, was but a grain of sand that could be wiped out at any moment.
While everybody was still busy mumbling about Snowflake's deeds, their faces painted in awe, Helial turned towards Frankenstein and Lulu. "Do you wanna go next?"
The two nodded and took a step forward.
Frankenstein looked insanely focused. He stretched his hands out. His next move left everyone speechless. All around him appeared a flame, a watery globe, a small tornado and a sharp rock. They all began to revolve relentlessly, orbiting around him like planets around the sun. Frankenstein inhaled. He took a few first steps forward as he gathered all the focus he was capable of.
"He's trying to increase his control on the surrounding Mana by taking it over the power of his elements' Mana," an utterly shocked Devil said to Helial, his voice resounding inside his head. "I didn't come even to my mind, actually, but that technique makes a good way to reduce the disturbing effect of the Shrine of the Black Phoenix. He's a damn mastermind, that Goblin."
Helial kept quiet. He beamed at Frankenstein. Helial had basically saved that Goblin's life, and now he was rewarded with what turned out to be a far more powerful companion than he thought. His eyes flew to Lulu, and his gaze turned sweeter. The greenish-skinned girl had already reached the fifteenth step. Helial had no idea how far she would get; all in all, he had resorted to a rough yet efficient method to temper her heart.
Would she get by smoothly? It would appear so. After heaving a satisfied sigh, Helial nodded slightly and kept witnessing their tests.
Frankenstein was a genius; Lulu had worked hard.
After a few minutes, the spectators' expression betrayed the wildest terror. The hall was pierced by a deadly silence. Not even the Seniors could utter a word. All gazes were set on Helial. After laying his hands illegitimately on a prominent position in the Orman society, that human had succeeded in creating from scratch a real group of talents - or rather, monsters.
Snowflake, ninety-five steps.
Frankenstein, eighty-two steps.
The crowd stood dead silent in the quiet room. The Seniors' shock led them to forget to announce the results.
With his thumb raised, Helial showed Frankenstein his satisfaction. He had accomplished more than he could have imagined.
The most upsetting accomplishment though was that of Lulu. She had started from scratch and was now reaching the forty-sixth step. She glanced down at the Goblin crowd under her feet, whose disbelief had left them aphasic. She was standing so high as she would have never imagined to be. Lulu had always been considered useless by her people, let alone the three Inner Court disciples who had regarded her as ground meat. And now Lulu had gained the title of Inner Court disciple herself.
Helial gazed at her and smiled in tender satisfaction.
"Am I next?" A sweet voice, slightly high-pitched, resounded out beside Helial. The boy gazed down and his eyes met Lumia's, who was looking calmly at him. Helial could scarcely recognize his little sister in that completely different attitude. He nodded his head and said yes. She would go next. He planted a kiss on her forehead and whispered in her ear: "If you feel that your strength is failing you, just stop, no matter what. If you fall from that height you might get hurt."
Lumia seemed to ignore his words and, with a malicious smile on her face, said: "Keep our bet in mind. If I beat Circe, you'll owe me a kiss."
Circe had formed ninety-one steps. If Lumia overcame the ninetieth-first step, Helial would be bound to kiss her. Helial didn't doubt his sister's abnegation in the least, but he did doubt that she could outdo Circe. Despite her not having reached the First Phase, Circe had indeed been training for years before taking her test, or so they told him. Lumia had only been training for a month, instead, and the Devil had become her teacher only a week before. How could her Mana Control possibly exceed that of the Witch?
Lumia took a first step forward, and the first stair appeared under her feet.
… two, three, four…
"Hey, you little one! You came back here? Does your sister know?" asked a boy with pitch-black hair and sharp features.
"Shhh, don't you dare tell her. I like to come here and play with big bro. Would you do again that trick when the world loses its colors?" Before the boy stood a fifteen years old girl whose outstanding beauty could have likely made empires collapse. Her silvery hair lay on her shoulders like falling stars, her red lips were in striking contrast with her pale, smooth jaded skin.
"Hahahah, trick? Are you aware that your entire Clan is trying to kill me? I have no idea how you found me myself, actually," said the boy with pitch-black hair as he tousled the girl's shining locks, then he added: "Tsukuyomi, I've already told you that you can't come and play with me. You're an Immortal of the Forces of Life, now, and you're supposed to kill people like me. Didn't you know I became a Devil?"
"A Devil? So what? You wouldn't hurt Tsukuyomi!"
The boy shook his head helplessly. "How could I, little one?"
Tsukuyomi jumped in his arms and said: "When are you marrying old sis, big bro?"
Her question made sadness flash in the young boy's eyes. It only lasted an instant though, and escaped little Tsukuyomi's notice.
After holding her tight, the boy made her land gently on the ground again: "I wish you could stay this cute forever, you know?"
Tsukuyomi giggled, covering her mouth, and replied: "Tsukuyomi will be like this forever, then! Big bro is the only one who's kind to Tsukuyomi."
The boy suddenly seemed to be worried "You're a Life Immortal. If your father saw me now, he would send for every ally your Clan has to get rid of me. What do you think you can do, alone?"
"But without big bro, Tsukuyomi wouldn't have anyone left!" Tsukuyomi frowned.
"What do you mean? What did you do, little one?" asked the now suspicious boy.
Little Tsukuyomi seemed to panic. She fell silent, her hands behind her back, and stared down at her feet. With her right toe, she starting drawing little circles on the ground.
A week before the test
"You'll live your worst nightmare in any possible form..." a voice resounded out inside Lumia's head. She had just materialized in a completely different place. She had a feeling that something was wrong though. She looked at her hands, trying to figure out what it might be, but… instead of her tiny tapered fingers, she saw feathers! She wasn't in her human form anymore; now she was a bird. She was a chaffinch that flew free in the sky under the warm rays of a golden sun.
Lumia began to get a taste for soaring through the airstreams; she pirouetted, somersaulted and dived into the wind.
Suddenly, she found another chaffinch to twirl around the airstreams with.
They danced for days, performing in breathtaking choreographies. Their harmony seemed to evolve stunningly with each passing day. For how close they got though, they wouldn't touch each other, as if they feared that by brushing one against the other they could shatter their idyllic illusion. Despite their not touching even slightly, however, every day they experienced the sweetest happiness. They lived immersed in a never-ending magic.
Their chasing after one another gradually turned into a tender love. Now, running wouldn't suffice anymore. Perched on a tree branch, the two chaffinches tried to get over their shyness. The slowly drew nearer and nearer, when suddenly a violent gust of wind announced that a hawk was coming. Before the two lovers could even realize what was happening, the raptor clawed at one of the chaffinches. It grabbed him in its fierce talons and left the other alone, unable to act, to fly, to reach the lofty distant cliff where the hawk eased down in his rapacious evilness. Lumia was still perched on the branch, alone. She stared powerless at the hawk as it devoured the chaffinch, who was still twittering one last cry for help.
Lumia felt a pang of pain tear her apart while, in a flash of light, everything around her changed.
This time she was a girl, an unwed mother. Lumia had all the woman's memories wandering through her head. She had had a difficult life. She got pregnant when she was very young, and had to raise her baby alone. To give him all that he needed to grow up healthy, she had worked days and nights on end. They lived together in a small wooden house that she had built with the help of the villagers who lived in her same small town. It was in that small wooden house that she was presently sitting. The small wooden house at whose door someone suddenly knocked violently.
The woman opened the door. Before her stood her son, covered in blood from head to toe. His arm was pressed against his stomach as a gush of blood erupted from his mouth. The blood gushed down on her legs and feet, as warm as relentless lava.
Some swindler must have stabbed him on his way home to steal over his belongings. Lumia instinctively resorted to all the medical knowledge the woman had in her memories, but she could nothing to save the guy's life. Her son's life. Her heart got immediately clasped in the metallic grip of an excruciating pain. It ripped her apart and drove her to the edge of insanity.
The chaffinch first, now her son. The two losses inflicted an unbearable pain, an unbearable pain that no being could experience in a single life. She felt lost, disoriented, defeated.
As Lumia transmigrated from one body to another, in an endless cycle of pain and sufferings, only a few minutes had gone by in the outside.
Lumia kept suffering. She kept facing her body's weakness and her mind's fragility. Her incapability of saving those she love.
Lumia was weak.
Helial had to face her same problem in his life, and the issue still obsessed him every single day. Helial though had found an answer; he would become so strong as to be able to crush out of the way anything that would step between him and those he cared for.
But what about Lumia?
Lumia gazed down at her small hands as she changed life for the umpteenth time. Pain was tempering her mind, letting her grow mature far quicker than any girl her same age. She felt a lump in her throat as she witnessed the umpteenth death of someone she loved.
Would she end up like that, eventually? Would she witness the death of anyone she had ever loved until her very last day? Would her brother die before her eyes, just like the chaffinch, the son, and all the people she was presently meeting?
Would Lumia remain forever too weak to change people's destiny?
Initially, Lumia had tried to oppose this fate in any possible way. After an initial hesitation, she had desperately tried to climb up the cliff and save the chaffinch, and she had struggled to come up with a rough cure to save her dying son.
And yet, suddenly, perhaps in the grip of folly due to the pain that besieged her mind, she had an Epiphany.
The chaffinch, the son?
Lumia brought both scenes back to her mind, but rather than on those creatures, she focused on what was filling the sky. The sun was shining from up high in the sky, majestic, unmovable, invincible. The sun warmed up every living being and ruled unrivalled over everything. No one could dream of moving it.
A chaffinch, a son?
Lumia suddenly wound back up in the body of a chaffinch, like in her first imaginary life.
She was flying with another chaffinch. He flew in the distance and looked at her, visibly in love. This time though, Lumia suddenly accelerated towards the sun.
Love isn't a changeless experience. For how hard we strive to consider it unchanging, the subject and the object of love do vary continuously. Lumia was indeed powerless, but Helial was not. Her brother was nowhere near as weak as a chaffinch; he had nothing in common with a little boy who was stabbed to death. Her brother had turned the Goblin capital upside down, had wounded an Immortal before reaching the First Phase!
Could he be considered a common person who was doomed to die?
Lumia knew perfectly well that she would never lose her brother. Someone might accuse her of being too naive, because her faith was blind and silly. But there was more to it. There was an entire world to it. Lumia had touched her brother's strength personally; she had witnessed his invincible willpower. And the choice to believe in him was totally conscious. She hadn't let her naiveté nor her inexperience cloud her judgement.
Lumia had made her choice.
Helial was her sun.
Lumia flew higher and higher, until she was so close to the sun as to get burnt by its rays.
Lumia would die, one day. Everything would die, one day. But this didn't apply to Helial. Helial would stand by her side. And while her brother would titanically fight to protect everyone and everything, Lumia would go for something different. She could never go down the same path as her brother, because she would never be able to. This, however, didn't mean that she would be able to do nothing.
Lumia would live as a reflex of that fiercely burning sun, trying to never glance away and absorb his power until the day she died. Living in the light of someone else would have never allowed her to outdo them nor shine brighter. But who could possibly shine brighter than the sun? Who could ever outdo Helial? No one could, Lumia had no doubt!
Boom! Boom! Boom!
In her imaginary dimension, space began to collapse as a terrifying amount of Mana started flowing throughout her Meridians.
As inevitably as it shone on everything existing, the sun would disappear at some time of the day, leaving the world in the dark. But it was then that another figure, as majestic as he was, would replace him
The moon would be in charge to reflect the sunrays and shed that light on a darkened world. Then, at every dawn, the moon would step back. However, even though her only task was to reflect light, no creature would dare to diminish her.
You discovered a Dao of Mana!
Your Mana Control increases exponentially!
A wide, translucent moon appeared behind Lumia. The Devil beheld the show with teary, wide-opened eyes. The kid stretched his hand out towards Lumia. A pang of melancholy dried his mouth and made his nose burn.
"Tsukuyomi chose to renounce to everything, big bro! Don't look at me like that, big bro, I beg! It's up to me. What's the point in following dad and old sis if they don't love Tsukuyomi? From now on, the only aim of Tsukuyomi's life will be to make her big bro happy. Tsukuyomi only wants to live by her big bro's side. Because you want to conquer the entire universe, you'll be the King of Kings, and Tsukuyomi will serve as your princess. One day, old sis will get this too and you'll make up, Tsukuyomi is sure." The girl twirled around and her splendid silvery hair waved in the air. "And then you'll get married. Tsukuyomi will bring flowers and we'll all live in peace! But until that day comes, I will fight by big bro's side. Tsukuyomi has found a new Dao of Destructive Mana, and will always side with you. Tsukuyomi will destroy her body and her mind, in order to take the fullest taste of this life with you. This is my Dao of Mana, big bro, just accept it. Because this is a decision I will not take back."
Snowflake was sitting on the ninetieth step. He took advantage of the pressure exuded by the staircase to step forward on his Dao of Mana; as long as he was still under pressure, he could make further progress. Maybe he could even form another step or two before the test was over. He was almost sure.