Cross Roads is a group of five small Aethers. The one connected to the Academy’s Main Aether by Hanging Stairs is called the Central Aether. It is the largest of the five Cross Roads Aethers and was connected to the other four by bridges. Man-made bridges as well as natural bridges.
Around twenty students and Heroes were on the Central Aether. Others were appearing from the many teleporters spread out on the Aether while some disappeared into them, flashing a multitude of colours before being sent to wherever it is that they were headed to.
Ray needed to use a teleporter on one of the other Aethers to get to where he was headed.
1900H, the ‘clock’ at the centre of the Aether showed the time. The clock is a giant sphere the size of a house that floated in the middle of the Central Aether. Dozens of other information were also shown on the clock. Information that users might need in order to use a teleporter. The movements and relative positions of astral bodies, the position of the moon and the sun, the direction of the wind, the date in various calendars, and a hundred other information that an Apprentice and a Hero must know before using the teleporters.
Using a teleporter is not always as simple as keying in the coordinates, walking into one and being teleported to the desired location. For certain locations, especially in the Aethers of Atlantis where the Cross Roads teleporters mostly lead to, various conditions may need to be met before the door is opened and the path is cleared. Of course, some of the teleporters on the Cross Roads were the simple ones where a person just keys in the coordinates, walk in and is taken to the desired location. These only lead to safe places like the nearby Tebrau City or one of the teleporters in other locations on the Academy grounds.
The teleporter that Ray needed to use was Teleporter Number 78. It is located on the ‘Red Roads’, one of the other four Aethers that made up the Cross Roads.
Three bronze guardians blocked the path to the Red Roads, each one of them was twenty-foot-tall and had half a dozen hands, each holding a different weapon. There was no Hero or student heading towards the Red Roads. Most people it appeared kept their distance from the giant guardians that guarded the gate to the Red Roads.
The bronze guardians moved so fast that it was almost instantaneous. From their neutral positions, they went into combative stances, pointing their spears, lances and maces at Ray.
“Hero Raiton Etheria” Ray said calmly. “I am on a mission from the Academy”. He produced the Letter of Introduction signed by the headmaster.
“I need to get to the Ice Palace”
Without a word, the bronze guardians returned to their neutral positions as fast as they had entered their combative stances. The one in the middle dropped one of its many spears.
“Thanks” Ray said and picked up the fifteen-foot bronze spear as if it weighed nothing.
As he made his way to the bridge, Ray felt a strange wind blow pass him but he didn’t see, hear or feel anything else. He refrained from using Panoptes on principle but stood still for a while. There wasn’t supposed to be any other hindrances from going to the Red Roads after the bronze guardians, the one ton spear that must be carried and the bridge trial after this, but he wasn’t so sure. The Academy may have added a few more layers of trials for training sake. He wouldn’t put that past the Masters and Grandmasters of the Academy. However after a while when nothing happened, Ray continued on his way.
The ‘bridge’ to Red Roads was a constantly and haphazardly moving belt of small Aethers. Some of them were connected by rope bridges that swung wildly when the Aethers moved not unlike the Hanging Stairs but on a much smaller scale and thus making for a more difficult passage.
Ray took a peak down the ledge. It was a long fall.
He watched the Aethers for a few minutes to determine their pattern. He knew that they changed movement patterns constantly and was never fixed for more than three or four cycles. They would stay the same for a while and then change abruptly.
He waited for a new cycle to begin and then jumped from one Aether to the next and crossed the longer distances using the rope bridges while they were static. Ray made it seem like child’s play but the mental strength required to make the trip across the bridge, knowing that even the slightest miscalculation can lead to certain death was not something that any normal person can muster.
Power and skill to pass the guardians, strength to carry the spear, mental fortitude, agility and courage to cross the bridge. All these attributes were required as a minimum for anyone wanting to use the teleporters on the Red Roads and go to the destinations they led to. This was the reason that these trials were set up – presumably by the Ancients – for accessing the Red Roads. Those who can’t pass the trials or even have the courage to attempt them had no business going to the Red Roads whose teleporters led to some of the most dangerous training grounds.
There were three teleporters on the Red Roads. Three circular platforms on which were etched a symbol of the sun, the moon and a star respectively. Beside each of the three platforms was a cuboidal controller and in the middle of the platforms there were three slots in the ground.
Ray slid the spear in the slot to the right because that was the only slot where it would fit.
For a while nothing happened.
It was already night and the moon was out. The sky was clear.
Ray turned his Celestial Clock on. The clock looked only like a coin but when Ray placed his finger on the surface, a 3D hologram of various celestial bodies appeared. The symbols and numbers must have made sense to him because he nodded and turned it off.
“A few more seconds” Ray said to himself.
A while later, the moons light touched the tip of the spear. A red light spread down the spear and brought to life the moon and the star teleporters.
Ray went to the moon teleporter and keyed in the coordinates. Just as he pressed the last key, a rip opened in the fabric of space above the moon teleporter.
Even from a distance, he could feel the pull of the wormhole. From their design and the rough pull of the wormhole, Ray knew that this was an older teleporter. They are not the most comfortable of ways to travel, and some of them can be quite dangerous but they get the work done.
Ray knew that something had gone wrong the moment he stepped inside the portal.
At first there was the expected tug on the stomach and he was pulled roughly into a spinning vortex of green and black. It felt like being hit by a big wave, swallowed into the water, spinning and grabbing for air and then just when you barely manage to find the surface, you are hit gain by another wave. This was how it felt to travel using one of the older teleporters. Ray managed to center himself in a split second but then something hard hit him on the side causing him to spin wildly off course.
Ray stabled himself again and this time he activated Panoptes. He knew that it wasn’t the teleporter, he had felt something solid hit him, something that shouldn’t be inside the teleportation vortex. What Ray saw almost made the legendary Hero panic. He immediately activated his Lightning Aura and chased after the thing that had hit him.
Ray’s hand caught an invisible silky cloth, but he knew what was beneath it. He covered the three people hidden underneath the invisibility cloak and pulled it towards the exit with himself.
Ray landed softly on his feet but the three Apprentices that he had pulled from the vortex landed hard on their backs.
“Are you guys alright?” Ray said with worry rather than anger as he went to inspect each of them in turn.
The first Apprentice who was a burly two-meter-tall Giant had fallen unconscious. A half-Giant or rather a quarter Giant was more correct though considering his size. Ray did a quick check with Panoptes to make sure that there were no serious injuries and used the Aura Skill ‘Curia’ to cure him. He opened his eyes immediately and sat up straight as if he was a spring but then he turned around and vomited.
Ray patted the quarter giant on the back. “Take your time, get it all out. This is a normal side effect of using the older teleporters”.
The second student was a female Elf who emptied her stomach on the ground immediately as she landed. She didn’t seem to have any serious injuries other than the expected side effects of travelling through an old teleporter but he used Curia on her just in case. It seemed to lessen the vomiting.
The third student was a male Human. He was smaller in build than even the female Elf and wore long robes. From his specialist dress, Ray knew that he was a senior Apprentice. Final year Apprentices are allowed to choose a specialty that they would focus on later in their career as a Hero. Robes are the symbol of the ‘Caster’. A Hero who specializes in the use of powerful long range Aura Techniques to fight. Ray is also classified as a Caster.
The boy looked at Ray with a confused kind of look and tried to stand up.
“You should sit down for a while and let the side-effect wear off” Ray advised but the young Hero forced himself up.
His face turned purple and he doubled over and vomited.
“Take it easy” Ray said more insistently.
“I’m fine” the boy said and vomited some more.
“Seriously. Sit down for a while” Ray repeated. “We’re safe here…” A look of dread crossed Rays face and he whirled around to look at the teleporter.
The wormhole had already shrunk to the size of a football. As he watched, it shrunk further and with a final popping sound, disappeared altogether.
Ray sighed and kneaded his head. “Oh great”.
The teleporter died down and a red clock appeared on top of it.
“What is that red clock?” The Giant asked. Despite his muscular build and somewhat intimidating look, his voice was soft and his tone was formal and polite. He had recovered enough to be able to sit up without puking but he still seemed a bit off.
Ray slumped down beside the Apprentices and sighed, shaking his head.
“Look closer” Ray said, indicating the clock with a tilt of his head.
It was the Human boy who noticed. “It’s counting down” he said. “Seventy-two hours? What happens in seventy-two hours?”.
“That’s how long you’ll be stuck here with me” Ray said in a resigned tone. Then he gave the Apprentices a stern look and tried to sound teacher-like. “I am meant to be here though. You are not. Would you like to explain why you three are here, and how you managed to get past the guardians?”
Rays eyes brightened and the forced sternness melted away from his face as the thought of what he had asked caught his interest. “How in the world did you guys get past the guardians by the way?” He asked, more inquisitive than disapproving.
He managed to catch himself and attempted, with less success, to act stern again but when he saw the worried looks on their faces, Ray felt sorry for them and gave up on the stern act. It wasn’t natural for him at all anyway. In the first place, they were only one or two years younger than him. Ray had been made an instructor much too early in term of years of experience and due to his young age, he was quite awkward when dealing with Apprentices in an instructor’s role. At least the people his age had mostly graduated to become Heroes. It had been even more awkward when he had to instruct people older than he was and those with whom he had studied with before the war.
“Are you three ok now? I take it you didn’t know that the older Type-C teleporters can be a bit hazardous?”
“I was torn from the ground” the Giant said in a rumbling voice. He looked like his pride had been hurt. His eyes were downcast and he punched the ground in frustration. His punches were only light taps, more of an exhibition of disappointment than anger.
“Well… that’s a type-C teleporter from a few centuries ago for you” Ray said understandingly. He knew that Giants took pride in their Earth Aura Techniques and their physical strength. Being ‘unmovable like a mountain’ is one of their motto. It was a sign of their strength and their affinity with the Earth.
“That’s one of the reasons that the Red Roads is off limits to Apprentices” Ray said. “Even before entering the portal to this place, you are already faced with that level of challenge. I can tell you that what comes after this is going to be even more difficult. And that leads me back to my original question of why you three are here. Would you like to explain yourselves?”.
The three of them looked at one another uncomfortably.
The Human boy answered.
“We heard that the Ice Palace has very powerful Aura Techniques. The kind that is not taught at the Academy but that Heroes must discover for themselves” the boy said. He seemed to gain some confidence after the first few words and spoke more boldly.
“We wanted to do what we were trained to do – be Heroes. Search for adventure and knowledge, grow more powerful and use our powers to make the world a better place”.
That was one of the Academy motto. They were the words of one of the founding fathers, Master Naga. “I shall seek adventure and from it gain knowledge. With knowledge I shall grow ever more powerful. And with the power I possess, shall I make a better world”.
“We spent months studying the Red Roads guardians; learned a lot of new Aura Techniques just from that. Then we studied and trained more for the Ice Palace. We didn’t know about the teleporter though” he admitted.
Ray pointed at the cloak that the female Elf was holding. “Is that how you got past the guardians?” He asked. “Can I have a look? I mean… it’s ok if it’s a trade secret of course”.
Rays eyes shone like a child when he inspected the cloak.
“A Total Invisibility Cloak” he said with awe. “Did you Weave this?” Ray asked the Elf girl who blushed and nodded.
Ray muttered half to himself and half to clarify his observation with the elven girl. “This is Elven Weaving. Oh… wow… I can understand a bit about how you made it to be totally invisible but I don’t know how you managed to achieve such Weaving. And I’ve never seen this material that you embedded your Weaving in. I suppose that’s a trade secret? Incredible… Incredible”.
Ray handed the cloak back to the Elf. “Indeed that’s some high class Weaving you did there. Extraordinary”. The Elf blushed even brighter and because her Elven skin was so fair, she became visibly red.
“Brilliant piece of work but I don’t think that this alone could have gotten you past the guardians. Maybe you can tell me how you managed that feat and introduce yourselves at the same time? I’m Ray by the way. I’m on a mission and I actually do have permission to be here at the Ice Palace”.
“We know who you are. You are the Legendary Hero” the Giant said, extending both his arms. The scene between them looked like that of an avid fan meeting his superstar idol. Ray shook his hands with a smile. “I’m really sorry for breaking the rules Hero Ray sir” The Giant said. He looked both worried and excited at the same time.
“We heard people say that you once came to the Ice Palace and gained great powers. We really want to be like you, so that is why we tried to come here. I am Hecate sir. Hecate of the Ancient Earth Giant Clan. I used an Earth Assimilation Technique. That is how we got pass the guardians.” He said the last part with pride.
“It made you appear to be a part of the ground” Ray said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Ingenious. Simply ingenious” he exclaimed. “But to be able to fool the guardians, your Earth Assimilation Technique must have been high class”. Hecate smiled from ear to ear at this compliment.
The human boy named Merlin introduced himself next and shook Rays hand. “I am Merlin Hero Ray sir”
“Ray… Please. Just Ray is OK” Ray said with an uncomfortable smile. He knew that it wasn’t so easy for everyone to look past the ‘Legendary Hero’ thing and see him as just another Hero of the Academy, and merely a young man who is in fact only a year or two older than most of the senior Apprentices. Still every time he has contact with anyone who acts like they are in the presence of royalty or in fact, a god or a demi god, he tries to make the atmosphere more normal. The Masters and senior Heroes who have known him since he was a child don’t treat him differently after the war but there are only a handful of them. People who have not known him personally and his juniors treat him with a reverence that he feels puts some distance between him and them. Naturally his personality is uncomfortable with this situation.
“I take it that you’re the ring leader?”.
“Yes I am the leader. I was the one who started it. So if you want to report us, please just report me but Hecate and Fiora don’t deserve to get punished. I’ll take full responsibility. I was the one who asked them to join me” Merlin said. His expression and tone were serious and he didn’t look away from Ray when he said this.
Ray grinned. “I’m not going to report you” he said with a shrug.
“I’m going to train you”.
Ray pointed to the clock above the teleporter. “That’s one of the reasons that the Ice Palace is off bounds to students. In fact, few Heroes come here to train because of it” he said.
“While the countdown is on, there is a time and dimensional barrier around the Ice Palace and its territories that prevents us from getting out and anyone else from getting in. Once the portal has closed, we are stuck here for three days”.
“We’re stuck here for three days?” The three Apprentices exclaimed in unison.
“But the part 2 exams are in three days” Hecate moaned.
“And Merlin’s written test for the final exam is in two days” Fiora added.
“Oh… don’t worry about that” Ray laughed. “This Aether and the Ice Palace is in a different dimension from the real world. Time here moves much faster. After our two days here, only about an hour would have passed outside. You’ll have plenty of time. You wanted to grow stronger right? You’ll even have me as your personal tutor for the next three days”.