A sharp metallic scent hung in the air. It was rotten. It was vile. It was like his roommate, Xiang's dirty socks. Even the smell caused the young boy's stomach to churn and bubble with discomfort. It was as though a black sludge was being agitated by a thick serpent. The creature coiling its body, holding a tight grasp on the organs inside. He could feel his blood all but crawl beneath his skin. At times it was difficult to differentiate between disgust and irritation.
Shifting his feet across the sticky floor, crimson liquid clung to the soles of his shoes. The continuous clapping of his boots echoed throughout the stone church. His eyes were set on the cowering further, huddled by the altar. Short gasps escaped their thickened black lips. Its face ebony beneath the blood mask. Beady yellow eyes greedily watched the boy with anticipation. Drawing back its upper lip, it revealed two rows of jagged teeth. It panted, reaching with withering arms.
A blade winked in the light of the moon. The orb hovering through the cracked window panes. The sword cut through the air before it was thrust upon the daemon. The body sawed in one clean sweep. There was no time for a howling scream. A sound barely left the unholy creature. There was a snap. The remainder of the body cracked like clay. Fragments fell to the floor like newly fallen snow, much like the rest of the deceased monsters.
The floor was littered with the crumbled, ashen bodies of daemons and thick blood. The pews had been strewn against the wall and the door was billowing open, clapping against the walls of the stone building. His sword was coated in oozing blood. Frowning he stared down at the blade. He'd have to have it cleaned again; no surprise there.
Behind him, he heard footsteps. Pivoting on the ball of his boot, he twists around. His foot lifted from the ground, prepared to strike. But his sword didn't find the body of another daemon. Instead, it was met with a blade, reflecting his face like a mirror. The wielder, Xiang, stood with mismatched eyes wide.
"Whoa!" he exclaimed. Blinking slowly, the two boys lowered their weapons.
"What are you doing here?" Chen enquired, his voice rough and worn. Xiang exhaled, sheathing his weapon and placed his nimble hands on his hips. His combat attire did little to hide the fact that his arms were like a spider's appendages. "I thought you were suspended."
"Well, funny story," Xiang nodded his head as he silently inspected the crimson floor. "I self-invited myself as the backup."
"Self-invited? What does that even mean?" His response was an arched eyebrow from his roommate.
"I knew you hated literature, but I thought you would know the meaning of that." Rolling his eyes, Chen stepped forward and brushed a hand on his friend's shoulder. Instantaneously, the other boy recoiled at his touch. "I just had this washed!"
"I thought you came to help," Chen teased, beginning to make his way out of the bloodied church. Xiang stuck his tongue out childishly and ran to catch up, muttering under his breath.
The air outside was cool. It pinched their cheeks. Unknown sounds laughed and jeered in the distance. The sky, although heavily clouded, the moon still shone brightly. The stones crunched beneath their feet as they headed into the night.
Xiang folded his hands behind his neck and cocked his head to the side. He stood taller than Chen. His lean figure giving him the advantage of height over his opponents. He bit the inside of his lower lip, studying the short boy momentarily before he directed his attention to the path before them.
"What?" Chen furrowed his eyebrows. "What's that look for?" Extending an arm forward, he poked Xiang's cheek.
"What look? This is my face," he answered, swatting Chen's hand away from his face. He stepped back, holding his hands up in a defence pose. Chen laughed, and lunged forward and wrapped one of his arms around his friend's shoulder. Xiang yelled out, his voice reverberating in the silence. "Hey! Cut it out!"
The was the warm glow of light pouring from cottage houses. The pine-scented air was laced with the faint smell of smoke. Their voices seeped into the now placid night. Laugher and chatter echoing through the inky sky.
Sneaking into the academy was always harder than sneaking out, but after several years at the institution, there were a few known places that made for ideal escape routes. The iron gates clawed for the sky, pointed like needled fangs. Behind the gate, the academy resembled that of an obsidian structure. The mud clad ground was marked with parallel lines that indicated carts travelled to and from the institution.
The two boys had a system. As they would walk up the winding path, Xiang would leave Chen's side, darting into the curling trees that inched towards the path. The lush green leaves would become amber soon. From the corner of his eye, Chen watched as his roommate's shadow disappeared. No words were needed.
Shoving his hands into the depths of his pockets, he approached the daunting gates where two figures stood. Both were hooded, their faces invisible to the naked eye. Chen couldn't remember a time he had seen the guards faces. He approached with ease, avoiding looking directly at them as he made his way to the gates. He could feel their watchful gaze. It burned his skin. Outstretching a hand, he tugged at the gate, finding that it didn't budge. Instead, the cold metal rattled.
"Gentlemen," he forced a grin to touch his lips. Turning his head to the side, he ruffled the back of his dark hair. "The gate seems to be locked?"
"You're out past curfew," was the response.
"Or am I?" Chen countered. The guards head turned slowly to face him. The answer was complete and utter silence. Pressing his lips together, Chen nodded his head and gestured towards the gates. "So, if we could just open the gates –"
"Curfew has ended," the second guard interjected. Great. This wasn't the first time Chen hadn't made curfew. Nearly every time, it was Xiang's fault too. And every time, Chen managed to convince the guards to open the gates for him. Letting out a sigh, he crossed his arms over his chest.
"It's been a while since we all hung out," he started. "Three weeks ago? Or four." He was met with silence. He rested his weight against his legs, wetting his lower lip. "It'd have to be four, I'd say. Did you hear about what happened last week? No? Okay, well, we were in –"
Chen was cut off by the first guard making his way towards the gate. He could barely conceal the grin that was twitching in the corner of his mouth. He listened to the pleasant sound of the lock flicking as the gates were unlocked. That was fast, he thought to himself. It tended to take much longer in order to convince them to let him in. Perhaps he was finally wearing them down.
The young boy supposed he could have made things easier on himself and sneak in like Xiang, but where was the fun in that. It'd be more worrisome if he didn't turn up or if he mysteriously turned up inside the walls.
"I thought we were hanging out," he complained, shuffling his feet forward.
"Report to the headmaster in the morning," ordered the guard. With a victorious grin, Chen marched through the iron gates.
"Thank you for your service, keep the academy safe," he waved a hand. His back was to the two guards, but it wasn't like he'd be able to see their expressions anyway. Slumping shoulders forward, he continued on his path in the direction of the dormitory.
Chen didn't even need to pay attention to where he was walking. He had resided in the same building for as long as he could remember. At times there was the flash of a village and the face of a pretty woman with emerald eyes, yet he had no recollection of her. Chen could hear a haunting melody and the uncomfortable creaking of old wood. He could never be sure if it was a memory or a dream.
In the dead of night, the students would be in their rooms. Their teachers would no longer be roaming the dim lit walkways. In the courtyard before the dormitory, Xiang stood against the building waiting. His attention was drawn to something inside the one-story building that ran towards the hall of residence.
As Chen approached him, the boy didn't even flinch. Instead, his dark hair was swept across his forehead, falling into his eyes. His thin lips were set in a firm line. It was an expression that Chen rarely saw grace the other boy's narrow face.
"What do you suppose that is?" Xiang uttered, curiosity lacing his tone. Chen followed his gaze, finding that it was promptly drawn to a wavering light that trickled out the windows of the hall.
"I don't know," he shrugged. "Come on. It's late." Chen started for the entrance, peering over his shoulder back towards his friend who remained motionless. "It's like you want to be caught breaking the rules." At that Xiang wandered forward, shaking his head more to himself.
"Okay, okay, I'm coming."
Inside was moderately warmer than outside. Warmth flushed onto the boy's cheeks upon entering the building. It was then, a noticeable difference was felt in juxtaposition from being outdoors. The air, however, was musty and held a scent that was fortified with age. The cream walls had darkened over the years and doors decorated with brass handles concealed students.
Their boots softly thudded against the steps as they padded their way to the upper floors. They wandered down the hallways whilst attempting to maintain silence. Treading down their corridor, the two boys came to a doorway at the end of the hall.
"You have a key?" Chen enquired.
"No, I thought you'd have one," Xiang whispered.
"Me? You were supposed to be there to unlock the door when I got back," Chen hissed, "You didn't bring one?"
"Well, you shouldn't always heavily rely on me," the boy with mismatched eyes stated, placing his hands on his hips. "I didn't even know you were assigned a mission until just after supper. Imagine my surprise when I –"
"It's in your pocket, isn't it?"
"Of course, it is. What do you take me for?" Xiang rolled his eyes, digging his hand into the pocket of his pants.
"An idiot?" He received an unamused glance. "Am I wrong?" Xiang scoffed then produced the small, silver key from his pocket and proceeded to open the door for the two of them. He leaned against the door, flicked the key and pushed open the stiff door.
Their routine, like with entering, was quite as basic. They would split up to do their own tasks and meet up in their usual place. This usual place consisted of Xiang lying face down in his bed and Chen sitting on the ledge under the window, cleaning his sword. Xiang would mumble incoherent words into his 'weeping pillow'; named because of how pathetic it was. And Chen would systematically nod his head, regardless of the fact that his roommate could not see him.
Xiang turned his head to the side, arms folded under his head in order to support him. His droopy eyelids were gradually falling shut as sleep overcame him.
"Hey Chen?" he mumbled, "I was thinking –"
"Like seriously," Xiang muttered.
"That was serious," Chen responded, "Your ideas are terrible. You snuck out when you were suspended. Do you know how much trouble you would be in if you were caught?"
"You say that every time I do it," Xiang smiled. "They say suspension, I say imposed restriction."
"See, you can be summed up in one word; idiot."
"Tai Xiang the idiot king," the boy rolled onto his back, sighing, "It does have a ring to it. Anyways, get some sleep soon, we have class tomorrow." And just like that, the room fell quiet.
Ominous clouds hung low in the sky the next day. A rumble of thunder growled in the distance and rain spat upon the window panes, causing the outside world to be covered in a hazy layer. The harsh wind beat against the sides of the academy, whistling as it whirred passed the main halls double doorway.
Male students strode through halls in black slacks with an accompanying white shirt tucked in. A small pin was positioned on the maroon cravat tie. Wrapped around their figure or slung over their shoulder, some of the students, was a double-breasted jacket with gold trimmings.
The low hum of chattered reverberated off the walls; complaints both of training and lessons with professors. Those who weren't adorned in the required uniform were sporting their training gear, which was unsurprisingly dark in colour. The morning was rather quiet, due to the early hours that the students had risen.
Exiting the field coordinator's office, Chen walked out in his uniform which had been neatly tucked into the top of his pants. Standing just outside was Xiang, his uniform in complete disarray. With a tie messily bound around his neck and a half-tucked shirt with sleeves pushed to his elbows. His burgundy hair messily fell across his forehead, his eyes flickering towards his roommate.
He pursed his lips together, sliding his hands into the pockets of his long pants. He stepped forward as Chen closed the door behind him.
"Well?" Xiang prompted.
"I haven't a clue," Chen shrugged. "The old gargoyle is unreadable as ever."
"For a guy who doesn't show emotion, you'd think he'd at least crack a smile for his favourite pupil," Xiang chuckled gently as they walked away from the office and in the direction of their first class of the day.
"Nah, if he smiled, his stone exterior would break," Chen joked, "We can't have that happening."
The room they entered was small. In total there were fifteen students who were in the room, including Chen and Xiang. Tattered books and scrolls were stacked on shelves and a board marked up with chalk notes was set against one of the walls. Victorian styled windows gave a view of the thick forest peering just beyond the walls of the academy. The scene was all but miserable and grey.
Their professor, a slender woman with half-moon glasses resting on her nose. She was resting against the edge of the board, her thin arms folded across her flat chest. With her eyes closed, she spoke, her voice stern.
"Mr Tai, fix yourself up." Xiang arched an eyebrow and smirking, proceeded to correct his uniform. "And wipe that look off your face. Once you find your seats, I'm sure we can begin."
Slinking towards their seats, the pair took their allocated places. Their professor snapped open her caramel coloured eyes and locked them on the group of teenage boys. Slowly she scanned the crowd, her upper lip turned up in scorn. She hummed quietly in thought to herself.
"Nine of you I believe, were assigned missions over the last week," she started, "I am…interested in viewing the reports. Of course, Mr Tai, I recall hearing that you were suspended again. I can't say I'm particularly surprised."
Xiang bit down on his lip as to keep himself from retorting with a snarky remark. But even while the professor stared directly at him, he kept his gaze settled on her. There was no point in hiding the irritated look that was resting upon his face.
"When are we going to do something interesting," spoke up another student, who had their arms folded across their chest. "When do we get to see a Mage?"
"Your training is preparing you for the great evil that is the magi," the professor snapped. The woman scoffed and walked so that she was standing in front of his desk, her dark eyes narrowed coldly. "They aren't the type of people you should take lightly. Weakening their defences gives us a better opportunity in bringing them down. Your missions are assigned by the Council of Twelve; they decide what you are capable of dealing with."
"What's stopping you investigating the power source of the daemons you encounter," Xiang directed towards his classmate.
"Mr Tai, unless you want your suspension extended, I would suggest you keep your thoughts to yourself."
"He makes a valid point though," Xiang continued. "The council doesn't know what we are fully capable of unless they give us the opportunity to do so."
"That's enough Mr Tai."
There was a knock, followed by the creaking of the door as it was pushed open. A tall man, with hair, swept over one shoulder entered the classroom, wearing pale council robes. Upon his entrance, the students all rose to their feet in respect and bowed their heads forward politely.
"Chancellor Wang," the professor greeted, her demeanour rapidly changing. Her facial features had softened and even her movements appeared graceful as she walked towards him. "What brings you here? We were just about to begin."
"Excellent, we're not too late," Chancellor Wang responded, his voice deep. Much deeper than what one would assume by looking at his face.
"We?" The man glanced over his shoulder, towards the door where a young male walked through the entry. "And who is this?"
"Zhou Yijun. He'll be joining Class A; he's just been relocated," Wang stated, looking down at the young boy. "I'll leave him in your capable hands." He didn't stay very much longer and turned away, leaving the classroom quietly.
Chen peered up through his hair, peering across the sea of students towards the newcomer. He had a slender physique and forest green eyes. Long, dark lashes cast shadows across his fair cheeks. He was completely adorned in the required uniform; including the outer jacket. The thing that really stood out, was his fair hair that in the light almost looked silver.
"Who do you think he is?" Xiang whispered to Chen.
"No idea. Where do you think he relocated from?" Chen murmured gently. There had never been a new student entering the academy so late. It was unheard of.
"Obviously another academy; I think we'd remember seeing someone like him around," Xiang shrugged his shoulders. Chen hummed in response, watching as the boy stood silently as the professor rattled off the fundamentals of the class. The stranger wore a polite smile as he nodded his head, casting a quick glance out towards the students.
The boy's deep green eyes fell on Chen and the two held contact for a moment. Chen could see, even form the distance, the corner of the students mouth twitch upwards. He felt a shudder overcome his body when the boy broke eye contact with him.
"Zhou Yijun," Chen muttered under his breath in thought. "Who are you?"
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