The Ice Palace was massive. Of course, a castle in itself would be sizeable but it wasn’t long before Merlin, Hecate and Fiora noticed that the scale of things was also large as if the palace was built for giants. The individual rooms were so large that they could probably fit another castle in each room. The ceilings were as high as four or five storeys. There was no furniture though as one would expect. In their stead there were massive mazes, pits of poisonous creatures, traps and courtyards filled with armies of monsters for them to go through. They met a new challenge at almost every turn. Sometimes it was a physical challenge like a monster or construct to fight. Some were indestructible and they would either need to find a hidden weapon or Aura Technique guide to defeat or avoid them. Sometimes it was a mental challenge, a puzzle that they needed to crack before they can move forward.
Some of the challenges gifted them with new knowledge after being overcome. An Aura Skill, Aura Weaving guides, and some left behind an item. Most of them were high class and rare and grew increasingly so as they moved further up the Ice Palace. The challenges also grew more difficult in proportion to the ‘presents’ that they received. Ray also gave the three students tips to improve their skills and taught them new techniques. However he rarely helped them directly with the challenges.
“I’ve learned more in the last few hours than I did in the whole of last year”, Merlin said merrily even when he was bent over and panting after a tough fight with an Ice Fiend.
The Ice Fiend that Merlin, Hecate and Fiora had defeated was the fourth one they encountered. They were the most powerful and difficult challenge in the palace and mark the end of a level. There was a pattern to the levels which they noticed after a while. Each level would begin with a great hall where they would face physical challenges. Then they would go through multiple rooms, sometimes end up in dungeons or fall into moats when the floor suddenly disappeared as what happened on the third level. And then at the end they would enter a courtyard where they will have to face the guardian of that level who guards the door to the next.
“No gifts?” Hecate said looking around the chamber after the fiend had disintegrated. “It was a very tough fight, Hecate thought that we would get a powerful Technique”, Hecate looked around the icy courtyard to see if there weren’t any gifts.
Even as the giant said those words, a pedestal rose from the ground at the center of the courtyard.
There were three buttons on the pedestal. The writing on each button was in simple language and not in some ancient symbol which had been the case up till now. It was a lucky thing that they had Fiora with them because Wood Elves are well versed in arcane languages.
The first button said ‘Up’. The second button ‘Out’ and the third button ‘Special’.
Ray rolled his eyes and shook his head as if he understood something that the others did not. He placed his right hand on the pedestal, and looked at the Apprentices seriously.
“Well this is it”, Ray said finally. “I’ll lay it out for you because to be honest with you, I have an interest in the choice that we will be making next”.
“If you press up, you’ll be able to advance to the next level of the palace. Personally I don’t think that the Aura skills in levels 5 to 10 are going to make you much more powerful than you already are. You will be able to sharpen your already existing skills though. But above that, there are a lot of powerful Aura Techniques and some great items”
“But there’s a catch right?” Merlin interjected.
“Yeah… there is” Ray answered. “For starters, I won’t be able to come with you but seeing your current level, I don’t think you’ll need me. So far, other than the final boss fights, I have been restricting you to fighting each battle alone, I’m sure you have noticed. If you take away that restriction, I’d feel confident letting you three go until level 20 or so”.
Merlin, Hecate and Fiora congratulated each other with very proud and happy looks. To have improved themselves so much in so little time, and be praised by the Legendary Hero was like a dream come true for them.
Ray smiled. “Honestly, and I really am not just being kind but I think you three are brilliant”.
“Thanks” the three said in unison.
“However… another reason that I don’t think you should take the first choice, and this is my main reason, is because I don’t think you’d want to miss your respective exams right?”.
“What do you mean? I thought you said that time goes much faster in here so that three days will only be one hour?” Fiora said.
“And three days have already passed”, Ray said.
Ray took out his Celestial Clock and showed them. Merlin, Hecate and Fiora didn’t seem to be able to believe it and took out their own Celestial Clocks. All of them showed the same thing – that three days have already passed in the Ice Palace. They have been fighting monsters and constructs, solving riddles and mazes for three whole days.
“But it doesn’t feel like three days have passed”, Hecate said.
“That’s because, other than the flow of time, the perception of time is also different here”, Ray explained. “And I also think that ‘she’ cheated somewhere”, He said with a thoughtful look.
“She? Who’s she?” Fiora asked, catching Ray’s slip of the tongue. Or rather, maybe it was more of a hint because Ray seemed to be hoping that they would catch on to it. He gave the three Apprentices a mysterious smile but did not immediately answer the question. Instead he continued to explain about the three choices that they have.
“The middle button, as it says will teleport you three out of the palace. In fact, I believe that it will teleport you out of this dimension and straight to the Red Roads. Half of me says that you should take this choice”.
“And the other half?” Merlin, Hecate and Fiora asked simultaneously with such an intense look that Ray was taken aback.
Ray indicated the third button.
“The third choice is the one that I have to take. As I said, I am on a mission. This is part of that mission”, he paused for an instant, hesitating before continuing.
“Where it leads to is the throne of Acionna, the Ice Elemental Queen who made this dimension and who is controlling the time paradoxes here”.
“An Elemental Lord?” Merlin said with awe and surprise. “They’re S-class Higher Dimension Beings. Some of the most powerful creatures in existence. I thought they were just legends”.
“They are very real and very powerful. And I am here to see her”, Ray said solemnly.
“Are we going to fight her?” Hecate asked. He didn’t seem afraid at all. If anything he looked excited.
“Acionna – no” Ray said. “She’s actually a friend of mine”, he stopped them from asking about this because they began to open their mouths and continued.
“However, she isn’t going to make it easy to see her. It’s their personality. An Elemental thing. Before she’ll allow us to see her, we are going to have to defeat the guardian of her throne – the serpent Lotan”.
“I’ve never heard of Lotan” Merlin looked thoughtful.
“Ok, even Merlin hasn’t heard of it. That’s scary” Fiora added. Although she sounded like she was joking, she was in fact serious and feeling quite uneasy.
“That would be because Acionna only made Lotan like three years ago during the war. After the war, Acionna returned to this place and made Lotan her guardian and since then she has decided that whoever wants to meet her must go through him. Even old friends like me”, Ray said it like it hurt his feelings.
“Lotan isn’t a problem for me, but if you three want to come with me, you are also going to have to fight him. I can assist of course, but I won’t be able to use my full power. Acionna knows my abilities and that I can defeat Lotan easily so she won’t like it if I did all the work. If you three come, you’ll need to show her your strength before she will allow you to see her. Oh… and if you do manage to defeat Lotan, I can assure you that Acionna is quite generous with her gifts”, Ray said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Then what’s there to think about. Let’s go”, Merlin said, full of spirit as he punched his left palm with his right fist.
“Alright, I’m all ready as well”, Hecate boomed.
Fiora on the other hand didn’t seem so keen. She appeared to have caught something else in what Ray had said that the boys didn’t seem to have noticed.
“You said that if we go, we’ll have to show our worth and that you can’t fight him with your true strength”.
“But if we don’t go, you can fight this serpent with your full power and it will be easy for you”.
Ray tried to sound modest with little success. “I wouldn’t say easy but I have defeated him a few times before”.
“So if we go with you, we’ll be holding you back”, Fiora summarized succinctly.
Ray evidently hadn’t meant to mean it that way because he opened and closed his mouth looking confused at the conclusion that Fiora had arrived at.
“I really didn’t mean to say that” Ray said, a little flustered. Her conclusion wasn’t wrong but the meaning that it brought was not the one that Ray had meant to convey at all.
“But it is the truth” Fiora insisted.
Ray looked like he wanted to deny it but finally said “I guess if you put it that way. But that’s not the main issue. I’m not exactly in a real hurry myself. You guys though, are, and that’s point number one – your time constraint”. Ray tried to explain things from his point of view.
“The flow of time in Acionna’s throne room may vary depending on her mood. I have no idea what her mood is like and how it will affect her decision regarding the time paradox. You guys have very important exams coming up and I don’t want to be the reason that you guys miss your exams. Secondly, Lotan is no pushover. I’m confident that you’ll be able to defeat him but how much time would have passed by then, I cannot know. Acionna can easily make an hour be a week outside”.
The three looked at each other in silence. Merlin was the one who broke the silence first.
“I really respect you Hero Ray. In fact, I’ve always wanted to be like you. That’s why I’m aiming to become a Caster. So… I’m sorry that I’ll be holding you back, but this is a rare opportunity that I don’t think I’ll easily get again. I know that Elemental Lords have very powerful Aura Techniques. I want to defeat this Lotan and earn those Techniques”.
“Hecate as well… em… what Merlin said” Hecate said in his booming voice.
“I guess… I’ll help too” Fiora said though she didn’t seem too sure about her choice. “I’m sorry that I’ll be troubling you Hero Ray”.
Ray grinned wide and said enthusiastically: “Seriously, you’re not troubling me at all”, Ray assured Fiora. “You want to grow stronger with your friend’s right? You want to see the wide world and learn as much as you can in order to become a Hero who can really protect Avalon from the Demons don’t you?”.
“Y… Yes, I do…” Fiora said, louder and with more confidence.
“Then it will be my honor to help you guys – and girl – “ Ray added purposely. “- to challenge this dungeons boss and gain some cool Aura Techniques”.
Ray indicated the pedestal. “Would you like to do the honors Fiora?” Fiora smiled, looking more cheerful. She pressed the ‘Special’ button.
The world suddenly turned pitch black.