“Is everyone ok?” Ray said as he collected a small amount of Aura and formed it into a floating ball.
Three other light balls appeared beside him.
“Where are we?” Fiora asked.
“Acionna’s personal dimension. Her throne room” Ray manipulated his light ball with his hand, making it do a circle around their group.
There was a swooshing sound above them and the three Apprentices directed their light balls above them, but the darkness was so thick that they could not see far. They could barely see a meter in front of them even when they had increased their light balls to their maximum intensity.
The swooshing came again, this time from their right. Then from the back, the left, above again.
“What is that?” Merlin said as he collected Aura into his palm and manipulated it into the form of fire.
“That’s the serpent” Ray answered in a hushed tone. “Hecate. Can you form a barrier at par with a Level 40 Technique?” Ray asked.
“I have only reached level 30. But I can for a short period if I borrow power from the Earth” Hecate said.
Hecate slammed his feet into the ground and concentrated.
“It is rock beneath our feet, but there is a power hindering my own” Hecate had to raise his voice as the serpent Lotan was now moving so fast that it began to form a gale. And the gale was swiftly increasing in strength.
“Fiora. Can you use your Weaving to push away the other power in the ground?”
“I’ll try” Fiora said.
Fiora collected Wood Aura in her hands. She knelt down, touching her hands to the ground. She felt smooth floor underneath but whatever it was must have been made from elements originating within the earth because Hecate could sense and control it.
She released her Aura Technique – Wood Formation. The green Aura in her hand turned into tree roots that dug deep into the ground. Then she spread the roots out around them.
‘I can also help Hecate form a wall’ the thought crossed Fiora’s mind. This idea became impossible when she felt the power in the ground try to consume her own even when she wasn’t exerting herself to form a wall.
Ray sensed what Fiora was trying to do, and the alien power opposing her. It was the same power in the ground that was opposing Hecate’s control of the earth.
“Fiora, focus on pushing Acionna away. It doesn’t have to be a wide area” Ray instructed Fiona to focus on just one thing. He knew how powerful the Ice Elemental Queen was.
Fiora pulled the roots to cover an area just slightly bigger than where the four of them were standing. Then she Weaved the Aura that made up the roots to give them a property that repelled Acionna’s power and make the earth respond to her control. Having done all that, which took less than a quarter of a second, she wrapped a root around Hecate’s legs and Weaved the Aura in those roots to allow Hecate access to the earth through her.
The gale created from Lotans movement was so strong now that everyone had to shout to make themselves heard.
“Hecate NOW” Ray shouted.
With Fiora’s help, not only was Acionna’s interference repelled but Hecate now had more control of the earth than he would have had on his own.
Hecate lowered his feet and took a strong and powerful stance, one of the stances that his people the Earth Giants call ‘Stance of the Earthen Lords’. The particular stance that Hecate took was the ‘Byako Stance’.
With the Byako Stance and help from Fiora’s Wood Formation Technique, Hecate was able spread his Aura through the ground around them and mix his Aura with the Aura of the Earth that was present in the materials which made the ground.
Hecate detected foreign material that was not of the earth but most of it was made from rock and soil and those elements welcomed the intertwining with his own Aura. They responded to his call and strengthened him.
“House of Byako” Hecate boomed as he raised his hands above his head, and not a second too late it was.
As Hecate raised his hands and activated the Earth Giant Aura Technique – House of Byako, the ground rose to form a dome around them.
At the same time, the gale reached a screaming peak and Hecate’s dome shook as a thousand powerful wind blades cut into the rock.
“Ok release your techniques” Ray said as the shaking stopped.
Neither Fiora nor Hecate could have held their techniques a second longer and they stopped their respective Techniques.
“Merlin, fire your most powerful flame Technique. Follow my lead” Ray said.
Ray shot a blue ball of Aura whose light cut at the darkness. Merlin could see the ball, and the surrounding area where it’s light cut at the darkness, even when the ball had gone a long way.
For a second they all saw silvery gold scales and gleaming red eyes. Five gleaming red eyes.
Even as Rays Aura ball revealed the serpentine creature, Merlin’s Aura Technique – Sol Invictus struck at its eyes. Just before it struck, the spear of fire that Merlin hurled grew ten times as big as it originally was, blazing so bright that it was painful to look at.
“We’re not done yet” Ray shouted. “Again”
Once more Ray sent his special Aura ball that can cut through Acionna’s darkness in one direction and just when the red eyes came into view, Merlin’s spear of fire struck, growing in size and blazing brightly before striking the red eyes.
All of this: Ray sending his blue Aura ball and Merlin following up with his Sol Invictus and both Techniques hitting the red eyes happened in just a millisecond. The time span between one cycle and the next was shorter than even the blink of an eye.
The two of them repeated this series of attack a total of five times before Ray shouted: “Fiora, Hecate, get ready to shield us again”
This time, a blunt force attacked the shield of rocks. A force that was much stronger than the wind blades from earlier. Because of this, Hecate couldn’t hold the technique for as long as the first time and the House of Byako crumbled prematurely.
Merlin barely had time to react when five red eyes suddenly appeared in front of him. Five red eyes and a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, each the length of a human arm.
Merlin’s reaction was to strengthen his body with Aura. There are many Physical Aura Techniques where one uses Aura to strengthen the physical body, thus allowing them to perform physical feats that are usually beyond the capacity of their normal physical bodies alone. The Warriors and Paragons specialize in this kind of Aura use. Merlin is not one of them, but he did frequently practice a Technique where he strengthens the muscles in his whole body to allow him a very short burst of speed to avoid close quarters combat, one of the greatest weakness of the Caster.
However, before Merlin could move, Ray appeared between him and the serpent.
Ray caught the teeth and pushed them back easily. He finished off with a punch between two of the eyes.
The serpent Ladon was sent flying into a wall. None of them could see through the pitch black that surrounded them though but there was a massive crash like something huge had hit a hard surface.
“It’s not over yet guys” Ray cautioned. Get ready for another round.
The swooshing sound like earlier began again as the serpent Lotan circled around them at an incredible speed.
Just as the gale was reaching the peak, it stopped all of a sudden. And then lights turned on all around them.
The light was soothing such that they did not need time to accommodate. Neither Merlin, Hecate nor Fiora failed to notice this small fact or the fact that every surface in the massive room they were in was emitting the light. It was not the result of Light Stones, a common but rather expensive material that people with a lot of money use to build their homes. Even those could not produce such fine light like the one this room was emitting. All of them could sense that it was the result of a very intricate Aura Weaving. Weaving on a level that none of them could even begin to comprehend, not even Fiora who, as a Wood Elf was relatively well versed in the art of Aura Weaving.
“What happened?” Merlin said warily.
Although they were awed by the display of Aura manipulation and by the sheer size of the room and its equally impressive adornments, Merlin, Hecate and Fiora did not let their guards down. Of course, this was assisted by the fact that there was a gigantic, twenty meter long serpent in the room with them.
Lotan had been thrown into a wall fifty meters away from them. There was a crater where it had been slammed into the beautiful blue marble but even as they watched, the serpent slithered down to the floor. It then rose into the air and coiled into a circle.
“I guess Acionna is sufficiently impressed by your display of skills” Ray said. “You can take it easy. I think we will be meeting the lord of that throne soon”
By ‘that throne’, Ray was referring to the feature which was the most eye-catching in the room. At one end of the gigantic room there was a massive throne almost twenty meters high. The size of the throne was evident when Lotan, curled into a circle floated to one of the three circular imprints on the wall behind the throne.
A column of light fell from the ceiling which was about a hundred meters high, on to a spot about ten meters away from where Ray, Merlin, Hecate and Fiora stood. Then a constellation of white balls of light descended down the column of light. As the balls of light neared the ground, they coalesced to form a bright ball of light.
Though bright, the light was not painful, like the light in the room. And from that light, stepped out a young maiden.
“Welcome young Heroes” she said and her voice was the sweetest thing that any of them had ever heard. As the sound of her voice swept over them, all their pain and injuries were cured.
Then she looked at Ray and bowed slightly. “Hero Raiton. It is a pleasure to see you again”
Ray returned her bow and replied “As it is my pleasure to see you again Lady Acionna”
Acionna then addressed each of the Apprentices in turn. “Hero Merlin Pendragon, Hero Hecate Hekatonchires, Hero Fiona Feanor. I believe this is the first time we meet” she said. It was an obvious fact and since she is an ancient Elemental Queen, it is unlikely that she did not clearly know this. Acionna was merely trying to be conversational in order to ease the trepidation that they were feeling. This was one of her particular characteristics other than having anyone who wants to meet her fight Lotan beforehand. She is one who eases the hardships of others.
“I have seen your valor and conviction. I do not believe that any of you are unworthy of the title Hero” she said assuring them that she was not exaggerating in calling them Heroes when they have not yet finished their training.
“However, the Academy may still teach you much and completing your training will make you far better Heroes” she added.
Acionna approached them and presented each of them with a scroll. The promised reward for anyone who manages to defeat the guardian of her throne.
“In these scrolls are skills and guidance that may further refine your existing abilities. May they assist you in your quest to become the guardians of Avalon” Acionna said in her mesmerising voice.
Merlin, Hecate and Fiora each received their scrolls with utmost reverence from the Elemental Queen.
“Of course, this is but a token of the knowledge that you can obtain from the Ice Palace” she added, a playful glint twinkling in her clear blue eyes.
At the mention of this fact, the three of them seemed to wake up from their satisfaction at obtaining their gifts.
Acionna went on. “As you know, the higher the level you ascend here, the more you may find. The gifts that I have imparted to you reflect the level that you have ascended. Choosing to risk everything by taking my special challenge, you have actually skipped ten levels from where you were last”
They breathed. Their last level was level four. Ray had told them that levels five to ten didn’t have a lot of new skills. They just skipped all that and gained some powerful knowledge. And from an Elemental Queen no less. But even then, Acionna said that these were just tokens.
“So there are more levels above this one?” Merlin asked. “Skills far more powerful than even these?”
“Of course. There are at least 100 levels” Acionna said. “Levels 30 and 70 are also my domain. Should you pass those levels one day, I will impart to you powers far beyond that which I have given you today”
“But for now, I think this is far enough” Ray interjected. “Your exams” he reminded them.
Acionna actually laughed. A soft, refined and lady like laughter befitting her status as a Queen. “Do not worry young Heroes. Even with these, you may pass your exams with ease”
“And you’re not supposed to be here, remember?” Ray said. “It’ll be hard to explain if you know things that you can only get from this place” he looked pointedly at Acionna.
“Each gift is the exclusive right of the challenger who obtained it” she said, refusing to tell Ray whether there are anything in the scrolls that she gave them which can be traced to the Ice Palace. This was also one of the rules of the Ice Palace and Acionna was refusing to break it for Ray. Nevertheless, she added:
“However I do not believe that there is anything that will give your little rule breaking adventure away” she winked and smiled.
“Uh… and about the time…” Ray asked Acionna, sounding a bit worried.
Acionna turned her right palm upwards and a celestial clock appeared. Her celestial clock was far more complicated than the ones Academy Heroes and students have.
Ray heaved a sigh of relief. “Only one a.m.” he said. “Thank you Lady Acionna”
“I think you guys should be getting back. Get a good night’s sleep, rest some more tomorrow and be fresh for your exams”
“You make good jokes Hero Raiton” Acionna said. “Of course they will not be resting. They will be mastering the skills in their scrolls to give them an edge in the exams” she said the obvious.
Acionna tapped her finger in the air as if pressing an invisible button and a blue door appeared.
“This door will take you to the Cross Roads” Acionna said. “That is as close as I can get you to the Academy”
Merlin, Hecate and Fiora bowed in thanks to Acionna.
“Well… this is where we part ways” Ray said which surprised them.
“Wait… you’re not returning to the Academy?” Merlin asked.
“Like I said I’m on a mission” Ray replied. “I will be back for the exam though so maybe we’ll get to fight together” Ray said with a smile.
“Pray that I pass” Merlin said as he shook Ray’s hand.
“Pray for us too” Hecate and Fiora said to Ray and Acionna.
The three of them stepped through the portal that Acionna had opened and the blue door disappeared.
When the three Apprentices had gone through the portal and it had closed, Acionna turned to Ray.
“You have come for the Clew of Ariadne” she went straight to the point.
“You know about my mission” Ray said. It wasn’t a question.
Acionna’s expression became worried.
“I err… I no longer have the Clew of Ariadne that you gave me” she said sheepishly.
She chuckled at the look of horror that had began to form on Rays face but she wasn’t finished with pulling his legs yet.
“You do know that it was made from pure Olympian Quartz right. The one material that I could never find which can increase the power of my constructs by ten folds” she said.
Rays voice was chocked when he said “So you… my Clew of Ariadne… you used it for spare part to make your constructs?”
The Ice Elemental Queen shrugged. “You did not specify particularly how you expected me to handle it when you gave it to me. I assumed that it was a gift. A gift is the property of the one gifted it and thus can be used as the gifted sees fit”
Rays mouth opened and closed like a goldfish, unable to say anything.
Then Acionna burst out into laughter.
“I jest of course” she said though it apparently was not very funny for Ray.
Acionna pointed her hand at her gigantic throne and three giant circles appeared on the wall behind it and floated towards her. The circles were arranged in a triangle, each making up one of the edges of the triangle.
The circle on the bottom left was the serpent that Ray and the others had faced. Lotan the five eyed guardian of Acionna’s throne.
“You’ve made two others” Ray commented. Acionna grinned.
The two serpents at the bottom of the triangle, one of which was Lotan had silver-blue scales but the one at the top was a bright magenta with seven black eyes.
“You used the Clew of Ariadne to make that?” Ray said almost crying.
“Do not worry Raiton” Acionna tried to ease Rays concern that the Clew of Ariadne could not be used. “Indeed I did use your artifact to make Mazu but I believe this is putting it to the best use”. She then proceeded to show him the reason that she believes this to be true.
By Acionna’s will, the red serpent Mazu shrunk into the size of a football, floating a few inches above the Ice Elemental Queen’s open palm.
“While the original Clew of Ariadne only functions like a mere compass in the labyrinth, my Mazu will actually guide you to your destination. You only have to tell it your destination within the labyrinth and it will take you there through the best path. Not only that -“
Acionna twirled her hand and an ice golem formed in front of Mazu.
The red serpent uncoiled, opened its mouth and fired a solid red beam, shattering the golem.
“It can also help improve your chances of survival in the labyrinth. Though of course, this function may be redundant for you” Acionna said with a shrug.
“As always your kindness is as magnificent as your creativity” Ray said as thanks to Acionna. They both bowed to each other.
Again Acionna tapped the air and a blue door appeared. Just before Ray stepped in, Acionna called out to him.
“You must also feel the growing evil do you not?” she said in a serious tone.
Rays eyes became dark. “Indeed” he answered. And he has been having this feeling of dread for some time.
So Acionna also feels it, it’s not just me then Ray thought to himself. This fact made him wonder about it more seriously. Acionna’s intuition is rarely wrong, even if his own may be questionable.
“Be careful in your quest. I believe that the one who you have been sent to save has a far bigger role in everything than anyone knows. And… she may even play a very big role in your own fate”
Ray bowed to the Elemental Queen as thanks for her advice though he did not really know how to take her premonition. Her wisdom was great which is to be expected of someone who was close to a millennia old. Her intuition which feeds her wisdom was also as great, though it was never always so straight forward. Often, even she was not sure how to interpret the things that she feels. Because of this, her advice cannot be taken at face value.
“I will bear your advises in mind” Ray said finally
And he walked through the portal.