6. No Wounds to Lick

The hubbub outside in the corridor demanded the attention of everybody in the potions chamber.

Akira, whose working space was the closest to the door, was the first to exit the room. Two men wearing the red mantle were carrying another mage, a bunch of newly-promoted Red Cloaks following them across the hallway.

“Kim, wait!” Akira hurried after his cousin, who was among the junior Red Cloaks group. “What’s wrong?” he asked the alarmed girl who covered her mouth with both hands.

“Lan collapsed,” she said, her voice barely audible.

“Why? What happened to him?”

Kim heaved a deep sigh, folding her arms across her chest as she closed her eyes. “It must be all the jumuns he wielded in today’s long session. He exhausted himself until his heart almost halted.”

Our stamina is not infinite, Akira recalled Jihoon’s words. He had also learned from his mentor that one of the main differences—if not the main one—between a seasoned Red Cloak and a novice was the ability to channel as much anerjy as possible with the least stamina.

“Calm down.” Akira briefly held her shoulders. “What matters now is that you are—”

“I don’t want to see anybody in the corridor,” a firm feminine voice rang in the castle. The dreadful Tashihara, Akira thought, looking at the short, slim, dark-haired lady who stood in the way of the junior Red Cloaks at the end of the corridor. “Your friend is stable now. His body just needs rest to recover from the shock. Now back to your chambers!”

Without saying a word, Kim exchanged a look with Akira and shook her head, as if telling him that she was not ready to resume her baleful session for the time being. Taking her by the hand, Akira ushered his cousin to the potions room. Luckily, no senior mage was supervising him and his peers today.

Akira motioned for her to pick a seat at the corner of the hall as he dragged forth a chair and seated himself opposite her. “Who was in charge of your session?” he asked Kim.

“Tashihara was the most senior mage in the room. But it was Minjun who was doing most of the work.”

Of course, who else other than the prodigy of Sun Castle? “How did he let Lan reach that level of exhaustion? That’s a crime! Your father must punish him as well as his senior.” Akira could wager that Tashihara’s students would celebrate such an event.

“He will,” Kim smiled nervously, “if their students are not ready soon.”

Akira had to admit; he had been jealous the moment he had heard the Archmage name Kim as the last newly-promoted Red Cloak. Now he felt worried about her. “How are you faring so far?” he asked her warmly.

“I’m doing the best I can do, Akira.” She sighed again. “The thing is that I’m not…” She hesitated, and then she continued, “I don’t know if I will ever be in the level a Red Cloak is expected to reach.” Her lips curved into a smile of contempt as she added, “I was just lucky in today’s session that Lan’s turn was before mine.”

Should Akira consider himself lucky as well? “This can’t be right. There must be another way,” he muttered.

“You have any idea what the likes of me will be supposed to handle?” She paused for effect, but Akira knew already.

“Demons.” Akira surprised her with his answer. “You are supposed to contain them until the summoners command them, right?”

Kim peered at him. “I see you are well-versed about the process.”

“It’s not a secret anyway.” Not for someone who had dedicated his entire life to earning the honor of donning the red cloak.

“It’s not that simple either. Taming one demon requires channeling too much anerjy.”

Akira shrugged. “Shouldn’t be a problem when you have a summoner on your side.”

“So did I hear,” she scoffed.

There was something strange about his sweet cousin today. At first glance, Akira would attribute that to Lan’s incident that might be looming large in her mind, but he hadn’t forgotten what she had said the day the Emperor had visited this castle. Blood and ruin is not something I have been looking forward to, had been Kim’s words about the Last Day. What could be her problem with the Light’s holy plan?

“Sometimes I don’t understand you, Kim.” Akira lowered his voice. “Right now, you seem suspicious of the effectiveness of His Eminence’s plan. Earlier, you questioned the entire notion of the Third Crossing.”  He leaned forward toward her. “What is your concern exactly?”

“What is yours, Akira?” she countered. “Don’t you have any?”

“Why should I? It’s the Light’s will. That’s what we are fated to do.”

“What if we are not?” Kim gnashed her teeth. “Because I don’t believe the Light would ever glorify the extermination of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.”

Despite her low voice, Akira couldn’t help looking around to make sure nobody was eavesdropping on them. “We are not in the place to judge His commands, Kim. We just comply.”

“What if they are not His commands?” Kim looked Akira in the eye. “Didn’t this possibility cross your mind?”

His cousin’s issue was more serious than he had imagined. “Don’t let such intrusive thoughts get the better of you, Kim.” He held her shoulders, not so gently. “You are stronger than this.”

Kim shoved his hands away. “Do you know about The Tree of Amagesdon? They are working on it as we speak! They will make it real, Akira! The Light would never be pleased with such atrocity!”

This was a first. When it came to knowledge, Akira was always the stronger one. “What is that tree you are talking about?”

Kim pushed to her feet when Kyong Sen, the tutor of potions and chemistry, entered the hall. “It’s an old weapon,” she said to Akira in a low voice. “Soon, they will involve you all in it.”

Akira’s cousin strode to the door, giving the senior mage an apologetic bow before she left the chamber. I must do something before she says something stupid, Akira thought, hoping his foolish cousin hadn’t divulged her ideas to someone else. Even her father shouldn’t hear this nonsense; he would be the one issuing the order of expelling her from Sun Castle.

“You.” Kyong Sen was brushing his black beard when he called to Akira. “Is everything alright?”

The bearded tutor was not as nice as Jihoon, but definitely not as menacing as Tashihara. “My apologies, Kyong Sen.” Knowing that leaving unfinished assignments was not an option, Akira rose to his feet and returned to his workspace.

“Let what happened today be a reminder to all of us of the great role we must play in the Third Crossing.” Kyong Sen addressed the entire class. “Without our help, our brothers and sisters on the frontline will never be able to win the War of the Last Day.”

One of Akira’s peers raised her hand. With Kyong Sen’s permission, she said, “Speaking of the frontline; when the time comes, will we cross the Koyan Sea alongside the Red Cloaks?”

“Most of you won’t have to, if I understand correctly,” Kyong Sen replied. “But I assure you; all the potions and weapons you craft will be there in your stead. That’s how you all will claim your glory.”

“Weapons, Kyong Sen?” Akira dared to ask.

The bearded tutor grinned. “We will get to that in our next chemistry class.”

*  *  *

There was an hour to spare before the obligatory sleep time in Sun Castle.

Akira found his legs taking him to the healers’ hall, where Lan was being taken care of. Not because Akira was worried about him—Lan was never one of his close friends. Was it curiosity? Perhaps.

Lan’s eyes were shut when Akira tiptoed toward his bed, but the young mage who had almost died today was breathing now, his chest slowly rising and falling. The potions worked, Akira thought, glancing at the colored vials cramming the small table at the corner.

“I knew you would come.”

Minjun’s voice startled Akira, who took a few seconds to process that the slim dark-haired mage had been assuming a seat at the corner of the dimly-lit chamber before he entered it.

Akira greeted the Red Cloak, and then he asked, “Why did you think I would, Minjun Sen?”

Minjun rose to his feet, and slowly approached Akira, his hands clasped behind his back as he cast a long look at the unconscious young mage. “Maybe you wanted to see for yourself an upside for not being selected as a Red Cloak.” He turned to Akira, a strange smile on his face. “Or maybe I’m wrong.”

“I was never afraid of being placed at the frontline, Minjun Sen,” Akira replied at once, unable to hide the tension in his voice. “All my tutors and peers know that.”

The right side of Minjun’s mouth quirked upward. “Do you know why the upcoming war was called the Last Day?”

What was that basic question for? “Because it will be the last day for the Goranians in our homeland.”

“Right,” Minjun Sen scoffed. “But if we are not taking good care of our measures, it may become the last day for mankind.” He glanced at Akira, surely taking note of his astonishment. “You never knew how grave the risks would be, but you shouldn’t be blamed for that. None of you were told how the Last Day would really be like anyway.”

Akira was confused for a moment. Was that a mere warning for the sake of enlightenment? Because after giving what he heard a second thought, Akira sensed an implied criticism of the plan of the Last Day. Have you lost your mind? Akira thought to himself. Only a fool like Kim would blatantly condemn our holy mission. A relatively young mage like Minjun would never acquire his fame if he was too clueless to understand what to say and what to keep for himself.

“If dealing with demons is that dangerous; why do we bother?” Akira began. “Aren’t our mages enough to vanquish the Goranians?”

“We have learned our lesson a long time ago, young man.” Minjun’s annoying smile vanished at last. “In the First Crossing, our ancestors thought that fending off a barbarian horde was enough to keep their borders safe. Even in the Second Crossing, we still underestimated our foes who had managed to sneak past our defenses and attack us in the heart of our homeland. We were badly outnumbered, but we never doubted our inevitable victory. You know why?” He leaned forward toward Akira. “Because we blindly believed in our mages as you do now.”

Blindly? Hearing that from a Red Cloak was shocking, Akira had to say. “If I understand you right, Minjun Sen; we are far from ready for this war.”

“Then you understand nothing.” Minjun cast him a hard look. “This war is not about defeating the Goranians; it’s about annihilating them. And bearing in mind that they have become more numerous and more advanced than the barbarians who defeated us in the past, we have no room for mistakes this time. The Third Crossing must be a perfect victory.”

Because we can’t allow the Goranians to rally, Akira reflected. There wouldn’t be wounds to licks. Only dead bodies.

Millions of them.

Akira noticed the concerned look on Minjun’s face as the latter was staring at Lan. “Something wrong?” Akira asked, the mage laying his left hand on Lan’s chest.

“His pulse is gone!” Minjun pointed at the vials on the table. “Ephedra! Quickly!”

Only now did Akira realize that Lan’s chest had stopped moving. Alarmed, he pushed to his feet and hurried to the table, the panic confusing him for a moment. “The red one!” Minjun urged, and at once, Akira snatched it and handed it to the Red Cloak who was keeping his left palm on Lan’s chest. From the tension in Minjun’s wrist, Akira could tell the mage was channeling his anerjy to revive Lan.

“Raise his head!” Minjun instructed, and right after Akira complied, Minjun emptied the vial into Lan’s mouth, tossed it aside, put his right hand on the left, and now he was channeling his anerjy with both hands. “No, no, no! Wake up!” he blustered, as if Lan might simply obey his command, but the lad didn’t move a muscle.

“Should I call for help?” Akira asked nervously, but Minjun Sen ignored him, still trying to revive Lan’s heart with his anerjy. While Akira was now certain that the lad wouldn’t come back, the Red Cloak needed another minute before giving up. Leaning over the edge of the bed, he murmured a prayer for the first victim of a war that hadn’t started yet.

Next Chapter: 7. The Light Behind the Mountain