"As of today, you're a full-fledged Witch. Don't break any rules, don't slack off on your studying, and act properly like a Witch. Got it?"
The girl just stood there, frozen, her gaze fixated at Monica's unwavering emerald green eyes behind her eyeglasses.
"Are you going to answer me?"
Her answer was barely audible. Her heart was pounding so hard that she could barely breathe. Monica straightened her back that had been lowered to her student's eye level, thinking. She was just thinking of what to say next, but to her student, her momentary silence made her look all the more stern, strict, and dignified.
"I've acknowledged you for a reason. You should be more confident in yourself."
The girl answered with laughter in her voice. The Lapis Philosophorum around her neck glowed red as if on cue. Anyone could join the Ancient Library to learn witchcraft, but only those who proved their talent and skills could receive a Lapis Philosophorum, the stone also known as the Holy Grail of Witchcraft. The head librarian's office may be too humble a place to appoint new Mages official Witches and impart the Holy Grail to them, but it was the safest place the Witches had found since the incident in Elting Memorial.
The girl left the office with a spring in her step. Monica reached her hand toward her student's small back, quickly drawing something with her index finger. Soon, a light bloomed from her fingertip, giving birth to life: familiars.
"Take good care of her."
Monica's voice came out steadily, not as dry as before. A Florae hopped in response. The other familiars followed its suit. She was watching the familiars fly out of the door when Ram appeared, carrying old, thick books by his side. He was wearing a clean, but wrinkled shirt, and his hair was smoothed, but puffy in places. He must have stayed up all night again, reading books or studying.
"Lady Monica, I've prepared what we talked about the other day and picked a few referential books."
"Thank you. Is Ikki still being stubborn?"
"Well... She's been adamant since this morning about talking to you. She even filled out the official form, and I couldn't—"
"The form? Oh, no..."
She didn't have to look to know to whom this voice belonged. Monica sighed under her breath. Ram readjusted his thick glasses, looking stumped.
"I must go to the Meeting—I have to see Niu! I have to show her that the last time was just a mistake!"
The girl storming her office, her black cape flapping behind her, was Ikki the Vikki, the red-eyed, tomboy Witch at the Library. Her unstoppable curiosity and single-mindedness were infamous among the Library's members.
"We already talked about this."
"I'm sorry I opened the letter from that man, Ron. I even wrote everything Ram asked me to, as a token of apology."
"But it wasn't a letter of apology you wrote; it was a visitation document. She said I'd be a frog for three days if I didn't cooperate..."
Ram tattled. Ikki's eyes instantly lit up with anger as the weary shadow cast on Ram's face deepened. Monica, who had been quietly listening to their exchange, slowly turned toward the window. Her hand crossed her desk and rested on the envelope with the Terra Cotta's seal stamped on it, the cause of this uproar. The rhythmical tapping of her fingers on the envelope was scarily loud. Ikki and Ram went quiet and observed the look on Monica's face. But her mind wasn't here; she was thinking of the past.
Monica had read all the books in the Ancient Library, and she was still thirsty for knowledge. Determined to create a solid foundation for witchcraft, she traveled all the eight planes of Pandemonium and looked for records of Ancient Terra. One day, she found one sentence in an old tome mentioning Brooklyn as the center of Terra civilization. She walked all the way to Brooklyn, and there, she met Ikki in an abandoned building in the outskirts.
"Don't you date get close! I'll destroy you!"
Even back then, Ikki's voice tended to grow louder the more scared she was. Standing behind the few makeshift machines consisting of scrap metal, the dusty, scruffy-looking girl shouted in a voice that was surprisingly sharp and firm for her emaciated figure.
"You don't want to be turned into a frog, do you?"
Her threat went in one ear and out the other. Monica's eyes were fixated on the chunks of scrap metal that Ikki had created. They were sloppy, but had the unmistakable marks of Ancient Terra's technology. Monica thought finding some document that couldn't be found in the Library would be a huge success. She'd found something better than that. These machines, and that girl. She'd found someone else who saw the same thing, felt the same thing, and was moved by it. Monica felt a tingly sensation inside her chest. Later, she learned that it was from an emotion similar to happiness.
Ikki produced her staff, holding it toward the stranger who was approaching her with a fascinated look on her face. She had to be one of those people from that magic school. How many times do I have to tell them that I'm not interested in studying anything? Ikki was tired of these people who constantly came to tell her what it was like to be a true magic-user.
"I told you, I don't want to study magic!"
With loud bangs, Ikki's machines shot upward. Without panicking, Monica fell back, and assessed the situation quickly. The machines didn't actually move; they only looked as if they did because of the magic energy that the girl released. Monica was so impressed by her talent that she decided to show her a world slightly different from hers. In the whirling cloud of dust, Ikki saw a hand moving toward her.
Silver hair resembling the Delarion in the clear night sky, eyes sparkling like the blue gemstone that she once saw somewhere. Judging by her pointy ears, she was a Pandemonian, but had a different air from those Ikki saw before. What is she trying to do without a staff? What can she do with her bare hands? As soon as these questions came to Ikki's mind, Monica showed the answers by shooting pure energy from her fingertip that flew directly toward Ikki's machine.
She only had enough time to say this before the light penetrated her machine. She was stunned. She was going to lose this machine that she worked on for many nights! Then, the machine started vibrating with a low hum.
This was the first time that one of her machines, which previously never came to life, no matter the kind of magic she used, moved with strange sputtering noise. Squinting her eyes, Ikki was so busy checking the squirmy creature inside the machine that she was oblivious to the other familiars circling around her, giggling. Suddenly, sparks flew before her eyes with a loud pop. Her very first mobile creation blew itself up, sending shrapnel flying everywhere.
"There must have been some internal flaws. If you could show me the materials you've referred to—"
"Whoa! It moved—it moved! How did you do it? Huh? Where did you get these little creatures?"
Monica still remembered how the girl laughed out loud, hopping, her cheeks flushed from excitement. After that day, many things happened before she returned to the Ancient Library, but Monica believed taking Ikki under her wing was the best decision she'd ever made in her life.
Ikki called her again. Monica turned her head and met Ikki's red eyes.
"We're not holding this Meeting to treat it like a pissing contest like the last time."
Just the thought of the last Meeting made Ikki grit her teeth. She badly wanted to showcase the awesomeness of witchcraft to everyone at the Meeting. She begged Monica for days to get her approval. She even had to use her precious frog nap candy to leave Ram and his nagging way behind her. Ikki and her machine were definitely a surprise to her opponent, Niu, and the other Pandemonians who previously didn't care much about witchcraft, but all Ikki remembered was her humiliating loss.
"From the dark energy that covered all of Pandemonium to the incident in Nighttime Skyscraper, everything that's been happening has been completely out of the ordinary. Besides..."
It's related to the Apostles. Monica pursed her lips without finishing her words, scowling. Information. She needed information. The Ancient Library may rise above territorial dispute or power struggles, but it couldn't ignore the Meeting this time.
Monica's silence didn't last long.
"...If I let you join the Meeting, you must behave yourself. You must not pick any fights with Niu or show off your machine without my approval. You might have to stay seated for hours, just listening. Ikki, do you still want to join the Meeting?"
"Can I show my machine just for a few minutes? Please, the one I've got this time is incomparable to the last one."
"No, not unless I let you."
A momentary silence followed Monica's firm answer, but that was enough time for Ikki to devise a plan. Ikki answered with a sparkle in her eyes.
A corner of Ram's mouth slightly quirked up at the prospect of finally seeing the Meeting place.
"Please take good care of the Ancient Library while I'm away. You're the only one I can trust."
A strange wind blew in through the open window. The future was an uncertain thing. Anything could happen at the Meeting. Ignoring the surge of disappointment he was feeling, Ram nodded his head slowly.
The Witches at the Library were just about to open the book.
"Aren't they wonderful?"
The summoning circle drawn in the middle of the air glowed. The power of an element gathered in the center of the circle, and formed a familiar shape. The Naias, having been summoned at the foot of the hill with no one around it, looked around in confusion. A woman was sitting on the hill, looking down at it. Rhum hadn't missed her voice that almost sounded like a whisper.
She was talking about the elementals again. She loved talking about them. Rhum thought about telling her what he knew about them, but decided against it. She knew everything he knew.
"To summon a sentient creature, you have to enter into a contract with it, no matter how insignificant it is, like the Aukuso found anywhere in the fields. But if you want to summon a really powerful elemental, then all you need is some understanding in the summoning magic and the elements. It's really no different from how the Elementalists employ the powers of the elements."
"I don't think that's a reasonable comparison."
Rhum hoped he didn't sound too stiff.
"I knew you'd say that."
The woman's shoulders shivered at the wind blowing up the hill, which probably came all the way from the chilly White Spot. Rhum tried to take off his robe to cover her with it, but she shook her head, smiling. She stood up, her long hair flowing in the wind behind her. Rhum stared at her dazedly.
The Naias was climbing the hill, finally having taken notice of the two. When it came almost where they were, the woman grinned and canceled the summoning. The water elemental twitched for a moment, and then broke up into water particles, returning to the environmental mana.
"You shouldn't have sent it back so suddenly—”
"Stop, Rhum. You'll have enough time to nag me later."
She turned around and looked at him. The mischief in her face struck him dumb, leaving him speechless. They climbed down the hill and started walking toward the center of Central Park.
"People got hurt during the latest summoning ritual, again. Is that right?"
The summoning ritual was performed under Kate's supervision between the creatures that she had summoned and the other members of the Circle Mage. It was every summoner's dream to enter into a contract with an otherworldly being, but it was also a dangerous wish that could easily hurt them if they were not strong enough to handle the summonling.
"She's never going to change the way she does things unless someone actually dies, is she?"
"She's being careful, but sometimes things happen. Succeeding in a contract between two different beings is as difficult as unifying two worlds."
In spite of himself, Rhum rubbed his chest and felt the old scar under his shirt. The wound was so deep that it took a long time to heal. Watching him, the woman frowned.
"You didn't have to risk your life to make contracts, you know. You could just prepare some mana and control your summonlings—"
"Smilla." Rhum's voice rose slightly.
"The first rule of summoning is understanding and communion. Of course, safety devices are necessary, but I don't think Kate's way is wrong."
He knew some people weren't happy about Kate putting the summonling's safety before everything else. Just a few days ago, some of them actually got caught performing a summoning ritual with the Loop of Domination and removed from the group.
"Are your summonlings more important than your own safety?"
"They are as important to me as myself."
Smilla opened and closed her mouth a couple of times as she thought of something to say, but ultimately resigned herself to silence.
"You'd understand me if you tried to enter a contract once."
"Okay, let's not talk about that anymore."
Looking at her, Rhum smiled bitterly. Smilla, specializing in elemental summoning, had never tried contract summoning.
"You'll represent us at the Meeting, right?"
"I don't know if I deserve that honor, though."
"Don't worry. You're the best summoner at the Circle Mage."
Smilla smiled and patted him on the shoulder. The air smelled more like fresh, dewy grass the closer they got to the center of Central Park.
"I guarantee you that."
Rhum opened his eyes and returned to reality. A boy in the Circle Mage robe was waking him up. He tried to remember the boy's name and failed.
"Ah, is it time to change shifts?"
Rhum uncrossed his legs and jumped off the rock that he had been sitting on.
"No. It's time we leave."
Rhum looked up at the sky. The Delarion he saw as he entered meditation had disappeared, fading away in the dawning light as it brightened Pandemonium's only green area.
"I'd better wake up the others."
"Everyone's ready to leave."
The boy was right. The others already had cleaned up the campsite and packed, and now they were just waiting for Rhum. They must have taken turns keeping watch while he meditated.
"You should've told me. Everyone must be tired."
Having taken care of the Circle Mages while their leader, Kate, was away to tend to Central Park, Rhum naturally had become a leader himself. His members behaved carefully around him, no matter how many times he asked them not to.
"We didn't want to interrupt you."
The boy smiled, looking sheepish. Rhum sighed inwardly.
He inhaled, filling his lungs with the fresh air of Central Park. He was feeling better after sweating a little bit. He was walking at a brisk pace when the boy who woke him approached.
"Will we be okay?" Meeting Rhum's gaze, the boy asked carefully, his eyes filled with curiosity.
"What's your name?" asked Rhum.
"Okay, Ethan." Rhum adjusted the straps of his backpack and started at Ethan. "Are you afraid?"
"Honestly, yes. Especially because there would be many other organizations."
"More than the first time you entered into a contract with a summonling?"
Rhum's question put a grin Ethan's face.
"No. I'd never again be as nervous as I was then.”
A few summoners around them heard Ethan and chuckled. Rhum smiled at him.
"Then, you'll be okay."
Ethan thought for a while, and then nodded his head, looking relieved.
"Could you tell me about the previous Meeting?" The people around them suddenly stopped talking. "It's so famous that people are still talking about it.”
Ethan was right. Everyone in Pandemonium knew about the previous Meeting, but no one knew exactly what happened except for the leaders of the major organizations who participated in it. However, it'd brought many changes. The sudden rise of Kashipa, previously conceived as a bunch of neighborhood thugs. The new power called the Abyss. The renewed reputation of witchcraft. The verification of the fabled combat power of the Battle Mage. And the melody of the legendary musical instrument, Marrelete. Everyone held their breath and waited for Rhum to speak.
Rhum moved his tongue inside his mouth, carefully picking the words to say. So many words wanted to come out at once that he was having a hard time holding them back. After a long while, Rhum carefully released the words that felt the most prickly in his mouth.
"Have you heard about the Second Pact?"
He took one step closer to Smilla, and the Ador under control of the Loop of Domination released unbearable heat. Rhum hurriedly raised up a mana barrier around him.
"You Circle Mages let the summoners get hurt, again."
Rhum didn't know what to say. It was his idea to hold a summoning ritual and cheer up his members after their loss at the Meeting. They should never have summoned such strong beings. A significant number of members were hurt in the process. It took only a moment for cracks to form in the big group—no, maybe the crackers had already been there, but not visible until now.
"Kate is always like this. When I lost control and got attacked by the elementals, she was more worried about them than me."
"Is that why you set fire to the forest and tempted the others to run away with you?"
Smilla didn't answer. One of the summoners standing by her said,
"Summoner Rhum, we've decided to take a different path from you Circle Mages. Please leave. This will be the last time we let you go peacefully because you were our leader once."
Rhum ignored him and walked toward Smilla with his arm held out in front of him. The Ador writhed as the Loop of Domination tightened, generating more intense fire. The heat was murderous. Smilla stared at Rhum with a sadly twisted smile on her face.
"Through domination, we'll gain greater power. Power to protect ourselves during summoning."
Smilla waved her hand, and the Ador lunged at Rhum. Rhum concentrated his mana and tried to summon Barca. He missed the right timing because of his momentary hesitation. The Loop of Domination lit up more brightly as the Ador screamed in pain, exploding itself.
Rhum, even as he got caught up in the explosion and was losing consciousness, couldn't stop looking at their backs that were moving away from him.
They climbed the hill and the scenery changed. The plants here looked greener and healthier than others. They were getting close to the center of Central Park, where Kate was staying. Some people were waiting for them on top of the hill.
"Long time, no see, Rhum!"
One of them, Pipi, ran toward him. The sight of the cheerful girl brought a smile on the visiting summoners who were weary from their long walk.
"You've heard the news, right?"
Rhum smiled and patted Pipi on the head. Kate was standing not far away from them, smiling, with Pai who looked slightly nervous.
"Thank you for coming, Rhum."
Rhum shook his head and responded to Kate.
"I'm only doing what needs to be done."
"The powerful organizations of Pandemonium are gathering in Harlem. Nihilistic Ron at the Terra Cotta has proposed another Meeting. I know I'm asking you too much, but I'd like you to join it with me on behalf of the Circle Mages."
A wind blew across the hill, possibly coming all the way from the chilly White Spot. Rhum looked back at the foot of the hill that he'd climbed.
Of course, there was nothing there.
She tried to lift one leg and take a step forward. She tried to flail her arms and shout. She couldn't. In the complete darkness void of even the faintest trace of light, deprived of all her senses, the girl let out a silent scream. She struggled to escape from the constricting darkness. The harder she struggled, the deeper she sank into the darkness.
A familiar voice brushed past her ears. It sounded calming, reassuring. It was a touch of salvation that would guide her out of this bleak, terrifying dark trap and into the safety of light. But the girl felt an unknown revulsion rising from deep inside her. Her emotions got twisted up and turned into anger.
The voice spoke again. Shut up. Stop! But she couldn't speak. Who the hell are you!? She screamed at the top of her lungs. No sound came out of her throat, but it felt hoarse just the same. She became angry again. An unknown murderous desire boiled up inside her. She felt the extreme compulsion to destroy something.
Shut up! The girl desperately swung her arm. The darkness cracked open and light poured in. A luxuriantly green forest filled her vision. Ah... Dazedly, she stared at the scenes unfolding before her eyes. Children lying on the ground, bleeding. The remnants of elementals that got caught up in an unknown explosion. Lastly, a fire elemental that lunged at her.
Ignoring the onrushing fire elemental, the girl turned her head to the opposite side, with realization apparent in her face. A white-haired woman was reaching out for her, calling her name, looking desperate. Yes, you. The girl smiled at the woman before glaring at her with murder in her eyes.
Angry flames rose, engulfing everything before her eyes—the burning children, the shattered remnants of elementals, and even the white-haired woman...
The girl—no, she was now a woman herself—opened her eyes. Smilla stared at the ceiling for a while, her face void of any expression. She raised herself from bed, thinking about the images in her memory that she could never forget. A long time had passed, but the memories still wouldn't let her go. She wasn't tormented by them, but they bothered her. She breathed a deep sigh as she ran her fingers through her silvery long hair.
The voice that said her name sounded weak and frail. Smilla flinched, remembering the voice in her dream that had called her, and lifted her head toward where the voice came from. A pale-faced child stood there, staring at her blankly. She was holding a staff in one hand and a letter in the other. Smilla glared at her, her lips trembling. Slap! A sharp tearing sound rang in the air and the child fell to the ground. She immediately stood back up and assumed the same position as before, as if nothing had happened.
Smilla rose slowly. Her whip that struck the child slid across the floor and coiled around her right arm. She approached the child, lowered herself, and grabbed the child's face with her right hand with her whip wrapped around the arm. The child's cheek was reddened, her lips torn and bleeding, but she didn't look as if she was in pain or terrified. "Good." Pleased, Smilla released her hand that had grabbed the girl's cheek. The unpleasantness of the nightmare melted away, leaving her feeling refreshed.
The girl quietly held out the letter in her hand. It was spotted with blood from her lips. Smilla noticed the familiar stamp on the envelope, of the Terra Cotta, one of the most powerful organizations in Pandemonium. She frowned in spite of herself. This couldn't be good news. The Terra Cotta was one reason why the Second Pact had lost the turf war and moved all the way to Queens, exposed to the cold winds blowing from White Spot. It was as useless as the Circle Mages, who criticized her because she refused to commune with insignificant creatures like the elementals. Hah!
"Who brought this?"
"Black magic. At the door. An old man."
The child spoke in fragments, as if she was having trouble forming sentences. Smilla stared at her for a while before moving her eyes to the letter. What is this about? Even though the answer was right before her eyes, she was reluctant to find out. But it didn't take long for her to make up her mind and begrudgingly tear off the Terra Cotta's stamp sealing the envelope, shredding it into pieces, as if taking her anger out on it. She then quietly read the letter for a while.
"Hah... Ah hah hah! Good, this is really good! Yes, this will be fun!"
Smilla burst out laughing, and then violently crumpled the letter, throwing it into the brazier. She then went to the expressionless child, grabbing her face, and gave her orders.
"Gather everyone around."
"Gather everyone? Are we going to have fun?"
"Yes, we're going to have lots of fun."
The child's face distorted into a grotesque grinning visage. She scampered away, making a strange sound that might have been laughter. Smilla watched her with an affection that totally mismatched her previous cruelty. She then moved to the window, looking up at the Delarion, Pandemonium's moon.
It was an unexpected proposition. She was aware of the incident at Nighttime Skyscraper in faraway Harlem through the information she'd gathered from various sources. The incident shook all of Pandemonium. It had something to do with the disastrous Apostles, and Kashipa was involved in it because of whatever it was after. The Guardians and those contemptible Circle Mages were on the move. The Terra Cottas must have decided that it was time that they stopped watching and responded to the rapidly changing situation.
However, that was all she knew. There was only so much she could do in Queens, so far away from Harlem. No other organizations or informants willingly shared their information with the Second Pact. Recently, some of the bigger organizations, with vested interests in maintaining things as they were, even started intentionally blocking information from her group. They didn't want to give it a chance to rise above them, especially since the Second Pact once was considered a force to be reckoned with. It was only natural that they were so wary of it. It was frustrating to Smilla because she badly wanted to restore her group to its former glory. She needed more information about the incident that happened in Harlem. If only she didn't lose so many summoners during the last lunar eclipse... She should've punished all the stupid executives responsible for the disaster. She wouldn't at least have been so angry right now.
Then, a letter came from one of the vested interests, surprising her. Its content was even more surprising. She had been invited to the Meeting. According to the kid, an old black mage brought the letter. She could easily guess who he was, and why he wanted her group to be there. He wrote that he'd provide her with information and the same rights as the participants of the First Meeting. Of course, this was so she could keep an eye on everyone else there for him, she expected. Especially those whom he wasn't happy with.
Smilla was in a better mood now. The old geezer had been interfering with her at every turn, but not this time. She might have to withstand some loss, but what she'd get in return would be worth it. Besides, this was her chance to confront that woman she hated on equal ground. The woman who insisted on communion with the elementals, who tried to protect the elementals, even as they attacked the young summoners who had failed at communion with them. That hypocrite even stopped her from using the Loop of Domination and saving herself against the angry fire elemental on that day!
Ah, Kate! That arrogant hypocrite! Finally, I can get back at you!
She had a feeling that when this was over, she would never have that nightmare again. If she did what the old geezer wanted, she might even be able to move her group somewhere warmer. Where would that be? I don't care, so long as it's not this hellish Queens—no, perhaps I should be more ambitious. Somewhere near Central Park—no, why not inside Central Park? Then... Smilla stopped thinking, and looked down below. The Delarion's light shone upon the empty lot that was now filled with her children, their expressionless faces facing toward her.
Every single one of them was lovely to her. They were geniuses, whose natural gift was only realized after they met her. They lost their minds during the process of dominating and sacrificing the elementals that had grown close to them, but even their mental void was lovely to Smilla. Some of them got caught up in some strange phenomenon and disappeared without a trace, but she still had many children left.
As if they knew what she was thinking, each and every child who met her gaze made a face that looked grotesquely happy. The air rang with their silent cheers. Pandemonium's moon Delarion withdrew its light, hiding their images, hiding their madness. Looking enraptured, Smilla looked into the eyes of her children that glowed in the dark.
"Let's go, children. It's time we keep our new promise."
The sound of dry leaves being crushed underfoot was getting louder. The mana he was sensing was benign, but there was an air of expectancy in the approaching footsteps.
"Ron, so you were already here."
Ron raised his wrinkled hand, lifting the hood that was covering his eyes. Razin had returned, looking as nonchalant as she would if they met while on a stroll.
"I haven't had tea for a long time. It smells wonderful."
Razin brought the adequately hot tea to her lips. Sitting across her, Ron watched her every move while putting together the thoughts that had been on his mind since last night. This mage reached the state of Transcendence, which even Ron has yet to achieve, at the age of twenty. She was the greatest Elementalist that the Terra Cotta had ever produced, and also the first Overmind, who disappeared while at the height of her fame. After the First Pandemonium Meeting and until he became the leader of the Terra Cotta, Ron had gone through a lot and was confident in his strength. But now, Razin was back, raising more questions in his mind than she did when she disappeared. What had she seen in the infinite world of Transcendence? Why did she leave her organization without giving an explanation? What had she been doing so far? No, all these could wait. But why now? What about "Her?"
"It's late, but congratulations on becoming the leader of the Terra Cotta."
Razin's composed voice pulled Ron back to reality. So she knew. She could pretend all she wanted, but she could never fool Ron's eyes that were enhanced by the power that was his age. Ron gave up on his original plan to feel her out first, and went straight to the point.
"Do you know about the thing that landed on Pandemonium?"
"...I know it headed to Harlem, of all places."
"There have been suspicious movements on that side."
"Is the Terra Cotta stepping in?"
As if it was someone else's business. Ron reached out for the teapot for the water that he was originally saving for the guest.
"Could you step in?"
Razin didn't answer until the steamy hot water filled up Ron's teacup.
"The Terra Cotta has you. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to step in. I'd also like to watch how things go first."
Razin put down her teacup and raised herself from the chair.
"Thank you for the tea."
"I don't think I'm needed just yet."
"Are you not going to say hello to the others? Everyone has many questions for you."
"No, I can't answer any of them."
Razin turned around, pulling the door open. Ron leaned against his staff by his chair, bracing himself to stand up.
"I'll see you soon."
He lifted his head toward her voice, and she was already gone. But she was right: he'd see her soon. Ron tightened his grip on his staff, staring at his cooling teacup for a while.
After that day, there had been several reports of someone resembling Razin being seen here and there, but they were overshadowed by the incident that took place in Nighttime Skyscraper. And it was snowballing, threatening the safety of Pandemonium itself. The leader of the Terra Cotta had to take matters into his own hands.
The nib of his pen sharply moved across the dry paper. One by one, envelopes with the Terra Cotta's stamps on them piled up on one side of the antique black desk. There were four of them, each with an addressee written on it. And the very last period for yet another letter just had been pressed on the paper.
Knock, knock, knock.
The hands that were sealing the envelope didn't stop. Ron delayed his response until he was finished stamping it. When he finally waved his finger at the door, the door opened itself, revealing a patiently waiting Razin.
"I was told you'd come."
"I knew it. I knew you'd make a move first."
Razin's eyes scanned the desk. Five envelopes. One more than the last time.
"So, you're holding another Meeting."
"What I thought was a small scratch has festered into this disaster involving the Apostles. But even if it didn't happen now, it would've happened later. It's time for the Terra Cotta step in. To scoop out the pus and grow new flesh."
She knew where it was. It was a strange place to hold a meeting among such important figures of Pandemonium.
"I've arranged temporary accommodations for our members, too. We can't be too careful."
Having heard that, she was able to picture his plan in her head and reach a conclusion.
"...I'll accompany you to the Meeting."
Ron stroked his beard, smiling happily. Now that all the pawns were ready, it was time he rolled the dice. He put the stack of letters into his jacket pocket and stood up. Razin tactfully stepped aside, clearing the way.
"I'll stay here until you come back."
Yes, you should. Ron, instead of leaving the room right away, turned around as if he remembered something. His robe flapped, whipping up a mysterious feeling in the air.
"Razin, let me ask you something."
She already knew what it was, but waited for his next words.
"What did you see in there?"
Maybe he could get the answer he'd wanted this time. A hope flashed across Ron's face half-hidden under his hood.
"I'm looking for the answer myself, and..."
Her eyes gazing upon the old mage gleamed.
"I think I'll find it this time."
The confidence in her voice spread like a stone skipping across the water. As if being pushed by the waves, Ron left his office without a word. After his mana became so far away that it was barely detectable, Razin closed her eyes.
"I know you're watching, even right now. I'll wait for the day I see you again, Transcendent..."
Her voice trailed away into the darkness. Pandemonium's moon was growing fuller