Seven. That was the number of cherry blossom petals Akira had picked from the floor all the way from the burned chemistry study to the place he hated the most in Sun Castle; the Portal Yard.
The last week was a dull, peaceful one in the castle—well, if compared to the week before, which had witnessed the death of a student, the chemistry hall incident, and the following investigations—but it wasn’t that peaceful to Akira. Not because that studying portals was hard; it was just traumatic. And I thought I could stay away from them forever.
In a moment of temporary weakness, Akira thought of divulging everything to Jihoon, hoping he would persuade his mentor to guide him through the passage across the dreadful void that connected all portals together. Luckily, the faint voice of wisdom in his head saved him from committing such a foolish act. Since when have you started doubting yourself, Akira? Memorizing the locations of portals shouldn’t be different from memorizing any formula you have learned before.
Today was the day, Akira decided. The senior mages would be preoccupied until noon with that ‘important’ meeting Kungwan had called for; an opportunity that Akira shouldn’t miss. None of those senior mages would feel his absence for hours. Hesitate today, and you shall regret it forever.
Akira was expecting Kyong to keep his apprentices busy during the meeting with Kungwan Sen, and the potions’ tutor didn’t disappoint. Right before leaving the hopeless Pink Cloaks in his workshop, Kyong demanded loads of potions to be prepared before sunset. Some of the young mages mumbled in frustration, but none of them dared to protest straightforwardly, and the reason was his warning at the end of his session: “Those who don’t finish their assignments today will be denied their next city visit.”
Most probably, Akira was the only one who wouldn’t bother. Thanks to Lan’s burial day, he wasn’t yearning for a taste of ale. And honestly, he wasn’t that enthusiastic about seeing his mother any time soon. If it were not for your loved ones and a few sips of ale, why would anybody be eager for a city visit?
Akira waited until he couldn’t hear any footsteps in the corridor outside Kyong’s workshop. The meeting must have started, he deduced, and that was when he mustered his courage and went to the door to exit. As he strode across the corridors, he kept revising the map of portals in his head. No accidents today, Akira reminded himself, trying to prevent the memory of his last attempt to cross the void from overwhelming his mind. But it seemed that the more he tried, the more he remembered from that disastrous day. His panic when he had almost lost his balance. His perplexity when he had suddenly been unable to identify the right portal. His shame when Jihoon had interfered to get him out of the void before the closure of all portals. Most probably, the decision of not raising Akira to the rank of Red Cloak had been decided on that day, regardless of his results in the last trial which had been held one year later. Not that he questioned Jihoon’s fairness, mind you. Had it not been for his mentor, Akira would have been lost in the void until the end of times.
Enough of the memories, and focus, he told himself as he reached the vacant yard. The only thing he needed to remember now was all the instructions regarding portal crossing. First, the antiemetic. He dug in his pocket, took out the flacon of crimson ginseng decoction, and drank half of it. After he waited for a minute, he closed his eyes, gathering his focus to bind his anerjy with Earth’s pulling force. The crack startled him, although it indicated he did unlock the portal here.
Akira could feel his accelerating pulse as he stared at the shimmering oval that grew in front of him. The hardest part is yet to come, he thought, taking a few slow breaths to relieve his stress. You wanted to become a Red Cloak and fight in the War of the Last Day, right? What kind of a Red Cloak who would fear the void? Maybe they were right about not choosing you, son of Seijos!
Now his fury overcoming his anxiety, Akira drew one long breath, then walked through the shining portal. Instantly, he was in the place he feared the most.
The void. That dark, silent emptiness that connected all the portals in the world together.
Don’t look down, he reminded himself, lest he fall into the bottomless space for eternity. “It doesn’t matter if you can’t see it. Just trust your feet,” he recalled Jihoon’s instructions about dealing with the invisible ‘ground’ he was actually feeling right now. “Keep your eyes at the portal you are going to cross next.”
Akira, still overwhelmed by his presence in the ominous void, almost forgot about the other portal he would have to open to go to the other side. “The more you concentrate, the less portals you open in the void,” was another piece of advice from Akira’s mentor. “But it shouldn’t be a hurdle anyway if you memorize all the portal sites.”
One more time, he gathered his focus to open the portal that would take him to the only portal site with cherry blossoms around it; the southern hills of the island of Hokydo.
Luminous ovals started to appear in the void ahead of him until he counted eighteen, which was not something unusual for a novice. “Even a seasoned Red Cloak would unlock four or five portals in the void.” The warm voice of his mentor in his head couldn’t be a better companion in this dreadful passage. “Now walk to your portal, neither too slowly nor too fast.”
Taking a deep breath of air—or whatever filled this void, which was a totally different part of the world—Akira squinted at the portals on the left. Three of them would take him to Hokydo, only one of them to the desired destination. Pick one before the anerjy of the portals fades, he urged himself as he walked onward.
Suddenly aware he was not looking down, Akira could feel his heart racing again. “Please not now,” he muttered, resisting the urge to slap himself. Until today, he had never been closer to completing a passage through the void.
Akira wasn’t sure if his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he thought that the portals were slowly fading away. “You can’t channel your anerjy inside the void if the portals are closed,” Jihoon’s voice echoed in his head as he picked one of the three portals of Hokydo. Getting out of here was his priority now. Later, he might worry about the right destination. Any ‘destination’ other than the void would do for now.
The portals were shrinking indeed; it was plain. Without thinking twice, Akira strode toward the portal in the middle. The instant his foot hit some solid ground, he found himself stumbling. Panicking, he gasped, but one second later, he noticed the blue sky.
He did flee from the void. Now he could worry about where on earth—literally speaking—he had gone.
The sight of the cherry blossom trees around him made him chuckle. “I did it. I’m in the right place.” The question he should find an answer to was: What would a mage do here in this abandoned place?
Wait. It was not abandoned.
“I see you,” he called to the lady watching him from behind the trees.
The thirtyish lady emerged from her hideout, her eyes scanning him. “You are not the one I was expecting.”
“Whom were you expecting?”
“I never saw his face,” she warily said. “But he surely sounded older than you.”
Seems I’ve come across something. Akira did his best to hide his excitement. He had better handle this lady carefully to extract from her whatever she knew about that ‘something.’ “Being younger doesn’t mean I can’t offer whatever he offered you.”
The lady smirked. “And I was thinking he might have sent you in his stead.”
Akira shouldn’t ruin this. “How do you know he didn’t?”
The lady scowled, her lips curled in disdain. “Listen, boy. I haven’t traveled all that distance for some stupid game.” She wagged a firm finger. “Now open that portal you came from and take me to your superior.”
This was not going well. But if playing nice didn’t work, then he should try something else. “Whom do you think you are?” Disapproval was surely obvious in his tone, but it was an actual question. The journey to the top of this hill must have soiled her outfit, but the dust wouldn’t fool him. Only a wealthy lady would wear this silk tunic and trousers. “Do you have any idea what I can do to you in a blink of an eye?”
“I do, and I don’t care,” she peered at him, approaching without any hint of being intimidated, “as long as you are not going to help me bring my son back!”
Alright. Akira could still make this work. He just had to ask the right questions. “Why would he bring your son back to you?”
The lady in silk arched an eyebrow. “You are not even his subaltern.” She paused thoughtfully, and then she continued, “Actually, you are digging to find something you can condemn him for.”
“Did he do something that condemn him?”
She shrugged. “Who am I to judge?”
“I surely can if you tell me.”
“Why should I?” She stepped forward and stopped right in front him, fixing him with her gaze. “Because I must fear you?”
Intimidating her wouldn’t work. No creature is as a fierce as a mother who fights for her child. “Because I can help you.”
“You help me, I tell you everything I know.”
Helping her would probably imply violating numerous rules that would get Akira expelled from Sun Castle, if not arrested or even worse. Not if she leads me to the culprit who burned the study and framed an innocent girl to hurt her father. Kim would be able to return, and surely, the Archmage of this castle wouldn’t forget such a favor. “We have an agreement, then.”