Chapter 19: Thirty Minutes Left
Akane’s eyes narrowed as she sighed to herself. “Oh, Onii-chan. Why do you have to be so…”
“I see,” Hiroshi muttered, “So he’s that type, huh. You must have a hard time.”
“Yeah, I really do.”
“Huh? Wait, what’s going on?” Shun asked, clueless.
Hiroshi crossed his arms and stared at his brother with an exasperated expression. But his figure quickly deflated as he let out a deep breath.
“Shun, Akira’s obviously troubled over… that.”
“How d’ya figure?” Shun asked, tilting his head.
“You know, sometimes I can’t believe you’re my twin… He’s an S-rank who has barely done anything worth his ranking so far. How do you think he feels?”
Shun scratched his head sheepishly and looked away. “Ah, fair enough.”
“Onii-chan still can’t figure out how Ten works. And I have no idea how to help him.” Akane was biting her lip and staring at the ground.
Hiroshi fell silent. In the end, what could someone like him say? He pondered for a while and decided it best to say nothing. After all, it was unlikely she wanted to hear the words of two ignorant outsiders.
On the other hand, although Shun didn’t understand his brother’s thought process, it was still obvious to him that his brother had his reasons. So, he decided to follow suit and shut his mouth.
However, their consideration proved to be meaningless, when Akane herself broke the silence not a second later.
“On another note… ”
Hearing Akane’s voice, Hiroshi looked up. The pity in his eyes was replaced with surprise as his gaze landed on her hand where her Speculo was held. Noticing his stare, she turned to him and smiled.
“Why don’t we get rid of all the Flashbangs?”
“Huh? Why—” Shun wore an incredulous look on his face. But before he could protest, Hiroshi gripped him tightly by the shoulder and pulled him backwards.
“Don’t say anything,” Hiroshi hissed into his ear. “Just keep watching.”
Akane pointed her wand to the sky, making a fireball a meter in size appear above her head. Even though she kept the spell contained, a few of her hairs were singed.
“Well we don’t have any use for them any more, do we? We might as well stop now and be happy we passed the exam. Scatter!” she said, flicking her wand once to release the ball of fire. She flicked the wand surreptitiously one more time, and added under her breath, “Shadow.”
True to its name, the fireball formed by the Scatter spell stretched in all directions before splitting into twenty globules of fire. Glowing brilliantly, they spun in a circle, and upon gathering speed they went flying in all directions.
Akane studied the surroundings as each of the fireballs impacted the traps, triggering the flashbangs. The twins quickly covered their faces, but she didn’t bother to look away. Earlier, she’d cast a low rank spell to darken her vision: a magical substitute for sunglasses.
From the corner of her left eye, she saw an area of the dirt shift in an unnatural manner. Swerving in that direction, she sent ten firebolts straight at the patch of ground. One by one, eight of the ten impacted the earth.
The last two never reached the ground, and instead they dispersed in midair. Right where the two firebolts had disappeared, a footprint half-a-centimeter deep was visible.
“Come out, I know exactly where you are. I can prove it by showering you with magic,” she said, forming another six firebolts and pointed them towards the footprint.
Following the voice, the air in front of them began to shift. One by one, body parts began to appear against the vast canvas of the fog. Within seconds, a girl wielding a crystal bow appeared. One of her sleeves had burnt open, revealing a patch of red skin underneath. At her sides, Akane saw the twins’ mouths drop open.
The girl tilted her head, and asked, “Interesting. How did you know?”
Akane scoffed, and replied, “It’s the fog.”
“Oh please, it’s obvious. This mountain meets almost none of the requirements necessary for the formation of fog. Do you expect me to believe that fog this dense can naturally form in a matter of minutes?”
The blank-faced girl raised her eyebrows by a tiny amount.
“You’re the first one to realize the fog is magical. Everyone else realized that fact too late.”
“Hmm, is that so?” Akane asked, narrowing her eyes. “You seem rather unconcerned for someone who’s facing three people alone.”
“Well, there’s an obvious reason for that, no?” The girl’s lips curved upwards ever so slightly.
“And that is?”
“I won’t be facing three people,” the girl explained. “Hiroaki!”
Hearing her reply, Akane immediately swiped her wand in an attempt to launch the firebolts, but several roots shot out of the ground and dispersed them.
“You two, dodge!”
Yelling one last warning to the twins, she covered her face as the roots shot further upwards into the sky and threw her backwards onto the ground.
With a gasp, Shun leapt onto his feet. Only for a few seconds, he’d been knocked out by a blow to his head. Ignoring the throbbing pain in his head, he frantically glanced around. To his relief, he saw his brother a few feet away from him.
“Shit… Ya alright bro?”
“Yeah, don’t you remember? You caught me and jumped back with Hermes. God, is the fog getting thicker?”
“Ya think those two are on the other side of that thing,” he asked, pointing to his right.
There, a couple metres away, two thick brown walls had joined at a right angle. Looking closer, they were made of intertwined roots. The wall’s structure meant it had gaps in it, but they couldn’t see more than a few metres into any such gap. For a moment, Shun had considered running around it, but he was dismayed to discover two more walls which boxed them in.
Cupping his hands to his mouth, Hiroshi called out, “Akira! Akane! Are you two over there?”
As expected, he was met with silence. He let out a heavy sigh.
“Well, I should have expected that.”
Hiroshi then brought out Yin and placed his palms on the wall. Channeling his mana, he willed his Speculo to activate its ability. But soon, he raised his brows.
“Huh. What’s this?”
Even though he’d activated his ability, the wall was still there.
“If it isn’t working, then…”
Hiroshi poured more mana into his Speculo, channeling it all to his palms. With a grunt, he focused his efforts on the small area that his hand was touching. However, the wooden serpents refused to disappear.
Curious, Shun peeked over his shoulder.
“What’s wrong bro?”
“I can’t delete it.”
“Haa? How does that make any sense?
“I don’t know. From what I’ve seen so far, I should be able to get rid of anything.” Scratching his head, he continued, “This is normal wood, right? We already saw Yin delete wood, so it should be able to get rid of this wall.”
“Then why the hell ain’t it working?”
“Like I said, no clue. Yin can delete magic just fine, so it can’t be because the wall was made by a spell.”
Hiroshi started pacing back and forth with his hand on his chin while he hypothesized out loud. “Now, Yin did accept my mana, it just had no effect on the wall. The only thing that I know Yin can’t delete is…”
The speed of his pacing and the loudness of his voice both gradually lowered. Once both came to a stop, Hiroshi was staring at the wall as if its existence defied reality.
“You’ve got to be kidding me…”
“Oi, what’s wrong?”
Hiroshi bit his left index finger while muttering something. His twin peeked over at him with a concerned look. Feeling that his behavior warranted an explanation, he turned to his mirror image.
“The only thing we know that Yin can’t delete,” Hiroshi articulated, “is a Speculo.”
“So?” Shun asked, squinting for a moment before his eyes shot open as the implication of the words sunk in. “Hol’ up—”
“Yes.” Knowing what he was going to ask, Hiroshi cut him off. He pointed at the gnarled roots rising out of the ground.
“Going by that logic, that whole wall… has to be part of someone’s Speculo.”
Considering the participants were all mere teenagers, it seemed to be an impossible conclusion. However, Hiroshi knew it to be the truth. A famous detective of the Magic Era had once said: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
“Ya gotta be jokin’! How is all this part of a Speculo?!”
Although his brother said it with an over-the-top wave towards the wall, it was a good question.
‘Hmm, these roots do look natural. They shouldn’t have been made using the Nature element, because they’re far too old in appearance.’
“Well, if I had to guess, these are all ‘normal’ roots from the forest. Whatever the enemy is doing to them has somehow registered them as a ‘part’ of their Speculo and strengthened them.”
“So what now?”
“Simply put? We’re stuck,” Hiroshi said before walking away from the wall to survey the area.
Clicking his tongue, Shun took a stance. Around his legs glittering particles of light appeared, joining together and gaining a silver luster. “If we can’t delete it…”
Backing away from the wall, he hopped up and down before breaking into a run, his figure blurring like a heat mirage. Leaping into the air, he spun like a tornado and sent several blades of wind at the wall.
Whistling, the blades dived towards the wall like ravenous birds hunting for prey. They soared straight through the roots, cutting deep into the wall. Seeing the result, Shun grinned as he landed on the ground.
“Score! That otta do—Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?!”
His jovial mood was immediately tarnished. The roots were growing to fill the wall. In a matter of seconds, the damage he caused became nonexistent.
The laughter coming from behind him only served to amplify his displeasure as a growl formed at the depths of his throat.
“Oi, robo bastard, don’t laugh at me! Ya—”
“Um, Shun? That wasn’t me.”
Just as Shun turned around to argue, he saw a jagged knife tear its way through the fog, heading straight for Hiroshi’s back.
“Fumu. So it regenerates, huh.”
Outside the box formed by the wooden walls, Akane was frowning and tapping her cheek repeatedly.
“Firebolt didn’t work.”
“Flare didn’t do anything either. Well, outside of clearing all the small plant life around here.”
Tap, Tap, Tap.
“Nor did Greek Fire work, even though it’s still burning the forest behind me. Those fumes are getting really thick… Well, someone will take care of that.”
Tap, Tap, Tap, Tap, Clap!
“Okay! Vento di Fiamma it is!”
Akane raised Seventeen high into the air and began to channel her mana. Inside its lapis-blue leather grip, the mana formed into two attributes: Wind and Fire. As they were pushed through the golden body and into the red orb at the end of Seventeen, the two elements swirled around each other, turning into a violent mass the size of a basketball two metres above her head.
“This should do the trick!” she said, flicking the wand behind her like a pitcher preparing to throw a curveball. “There’s no way this stupid wall can endure a fire tor—Eh, what was that!”
Just as she was about to perform a wonderful hurl, several rocks pelted her from behind. She let the spell Vento di Fiamma dissipate to prevent it from becoming unstable, and then she turned around and created a luminous shield to block the barrage of rocks. Once the assault ended, she heard a yell coming from the direction of the attack’s origin.
“Huff… As if I’ll… huff… let you do that!”
To her surprise, she saw a girl about her own height standing there with her knees bent and her hands in a tight grip over her thighs. With each pant, the girl’s chest swayed in tandem with the black hair that curtained it. A few moments later, the girl lifted her head and pushed up her glasses, which had fogged up from her breath. The girl stood upright and sent a glare at Akane.
“I’ll be fighting you now. Obviously, running away isn’t an option.”
Akane let out a sound of admiration as her eyes brightened.
“I’m surprised you’re so calm after seeing Vento di Fiamma. Impressive! Usually people scream from the fire tornado.”
The girl’s sharp eyes softened in response and she put on a proud smile.
“Ehehe. If something like that fazed me, I wouldn’t be taking this exam.”
‘Truly impressive! That sort of composure is rare for teenagers like us,’ Akane thought, clueless as to how off-base her observation was.
‘Close… Too close. I was thinking of letting her drain her mana… but it never ends. What kind of monster did the others leave me with! And didn’t she say Vento di Fiamma? She must’ve been lying. What insane person would fire off a spell that big just to get rid of a wall? She’d kill all of us!’
But Akane wasn’t a mind reader, so her favorable view of the girl remained. Letting a broad smile adorn her face, she gave her opponent a curtsy. And since she wasn’t omniscient either, she didn’t know that, in a certain observation center, her simple act had elicited shouts of, “Don’t act so polite, you demon!”
“Nice to meet you,” Akane said in a formal tone reserved for guests. “My name is Nishiyama Akane. Would you mind telling me yours?”
Contrary to Akane’s expectations, the girl’s smile disappeared when she mentioned her name. She then pushed up the bridge of her glasses to hide her gaze.
“My name is Asai Tsubaki. Nishiyama-san…”
In the air around the girl named Tsubaki, spells of various ranks and elements started to form. Even though Akane couldn’t see her eyes due to the spell light, the deep frown on Tsubaki’s lips made her hostility obvious.
“I loathe you.”
Akane’s smile vanished in a similar manner, and disappointment replaced it.
“That’s a shame.”
“Crap, what’s going on now?”
Akira was rushing towards the area his friends and sister had been in. First, he’d been blinded by what he assumed could only be the flashbangs all going off together. He’d figured everything would be fine with his sister’s strategy, but then the damn wall had risen out of the ground.
“I left for a few minutes and there’s already something going on,” he muttered, jumping over a charred tree trunk. “Just my luck.”
After sprinting for a few more seconds under the effect of a speed amplification spell, he reached the mysterious barrier that’d been erected in seconds by some unseen force. He was in awe. Without a doubt, whoever created the towering wall would’ve been valued as a saint in the middle ages. After all, such a person would’ve ensured eternal protection for any castle. However, Akira immediately shook off these thoughts, remembering the situation he was in.
“But how do I get past it? Climbing it would take too long. I can’t burn it down or destroy it either, and it stretches really far…”
“There’s a simpler answer to that, no? You’re just stuck here.”
From his right came a bored voice holding traces of mild amusement. Akira kicked off the ground and jumped to his left. Quickly settling into a fighting stance, he felt bewildered when he didn’t find anybody in the area. Yet a chuckle could be heard coming from his front.
“It’s surprising how jumpy you are. Well, I suppose that’s understandable.”
In front of his eyes, a ripple spread through the air. At first it was miniscule, and he’d nearly missed it. However, it didn’t stay that way for long, continuously growing until it was the size of a small person. And soon enough, the ripple took on the shape of a person as well.
The girl who’d appeared said, “There. I think you can see me now.”
Tilting her head as if bothered by something, she continued, “Hey, how rude of you to attack before we chat! Hiroaki.”
Akira had pointed Ten’s sleek black barrel at her and cast a firebolt without hesitation, but it was dissipated by a large wooden shield that’d appeared out of a ripple a foot from her face. From behind it, a tall boy walked out.
“Well, if you’re that eager”–the girl nocked an arrow on her bow–“why don’t we get to it?”
Akira was faced with a shield prepared to block his every move, and a bow aiming to bring him to a swift end. It was a lethal combo. But he had no other choice than to strain his mana relays and take on a fighting stance.
There were thirty minutes left in the exam, and the finale had just begun.