A week later she arrived at the address that had been in the packages she had been given. The details had been vague; Cao wasn't sure if she still wanted to go. Her parents had been alright with it, as long as she didn't put herself in any danger. Asüna had agreed with them; being among students who were constantly practicing would be best for hiding Cao's ability.
The area she had been told to go to had long since been deserted; a lone church stood against the horizon and the yard around it had fallen into disregard. The church itself had once been a magnificent piece of architecture, a tall spire rose high into the evening sky, piercing the clouds above it. Cao could see the remains of cultural stained glass scattered around the exterior of the building. It was a shame. The doors were slightly ajar, giving a slight hint to life on the site. Cao approached them slowly, noticing a few buses parked along the tree line away from the church. Her own car sat behind her, parked out in the open.
The church was bigger than she had originally thought as she climbed the massive steps up to the doors. Reaching the top, she shook off the feeling of anxiety that the building had thrown over her and placed her hands on the right door. It wouldn't budge. Cao threw her weight at it, but it remained stubborn. Slightly frustrated, she remembered the card she had received in her package. Taking it out, she held it aloft in front of her. A click sounded from in the door somewhere and it slowly swung open to admit her. Once she was in, it closed again.
The interior of the church was barely as disturbed as the outside. The pews still lined the aisle in perfection; the bibles were even still there. The floor slowly sloped downward only to rise in steps at the front. It was up those stairs that she saw a group of people suddenly vanish. At first she stood in shock, then cleared her mind and stepped forward. Figures dressed in black emerged from around the dais as she got closer.
"Card," said a voice to her left. Cao nearly jumped out of her skin. An Academy representative stood beside her, hand outstretched towards her. He looked stern, eyes narrowed and mouth straight. Cao handed over the card she had used to get in and gawked as he glanced over it briefly before shouting out orders to the others gathered around. Cao just stayed rooted to the stone floor beneath her feet. After a time, the man turned around and found her staring at the operation. He picked her card again and read through the rest of it. He nodded and walked back towards her.
"I'm guessing you don't understand," he stated bluntly.
"Not at all," Cao replied. A smile crept quickly over his face before disappearing.
"Then I suppose I'll explain. We are preparing to send you to the Academy. The coordinates on your card were different from the rest we had come through here today. You should be our last. Once we're done, you'll step into that circle and we'll activate it. It's as simple as that," he clarified.
"Why do you need so many people to do this? Wouldn't one or two do it?" Cao asked. He turned his head sharply away and watched the rest of the representatives continue to scuttle around.
"We no longer have to ability to operate a seal this big alone. We are now organized into teams and we can operate as if we were one being," he replied. Cao remained silent. One of the others announced that it was ready and the director left her. She ascended up the three stairs and stepped into the waiting circle. The team arranged themselves evenly around the perimeter and fell silent.
"You will feel a slight pain while in transport, it's not often we're forced to make someone travel as far this," he voiced. Cao nodded but said nothing.
A glow encompassed her again, just like it had in the gym. But instead of going through her, it shot out into the unknown and created a kind of bridge. Cao watched with fascination and wondered if everyone else had seen this as well. A moment later, everything went black and the air around her seemed to become solid, crushing her as it tried to squeeze through the narrow bridge. The pain gradually faded, leaving behind an emptiness that Cao had felt before. But unlike the whiteness of the West, everything remained black, an endless void of space. Just as quickly as the darkness had come, it disappeared, blinding Cao as she was suddenly thrust into another world.
The sun poured down on her, as if welcoming her to its world. Cao blinked away the surprise of the light and looked at her surroundings. Below her feet was a large, moss covered rock that had been worn by the weather. The lines of an intricate circle were still slightly visible underneath the growth. Lifting her head, Cao glanced out at the scenery around her. Behind her was a forest, in full summer foliage. Birds sang out from the branches, not too different from the sounds Cao had enjoyed at home. The trees gave way to a large field of grass, swaying slightly in a breeze. The rock rose above the tops of the grass, making Cao wonder just how tall the rock actually was. Beyond the field, a building rose sharply in front of her. The church that she had found beautiful now paled in comparison to the detailed façade of the new building.
Before she had a chance to see what was beyond the building, she spotted something moving. Swimming towards her through the ocean of grass was a man. He pushed aside the grass with a stunning grace, moving quickly despite the obstacle of the grass. He stopped in front of the rock.
"Well, are you going to come down?" he asked humourously. He looked up at her. Cao physically took a step backwards as she noticed his eyes. They were a deep shade of orange, like a full moon during an Indian summer. An understanding flowed through them and at first Cao thought that he might have been a Guardian of some sort. She quickly crossed off that possibility when she remembered that there were only four Guardians. She quickly scrambled down off the rock.
"You must be Cao. You're the only one we were expecting. Welcome to the Academy of Magic and Weaponry. Others will split the name, but we're one school. I am Daru, the so-called 'headmaster' of the Weapons division," he began. "Come, we're already going to be late for the ceremonies."
With that, he disappeared back into the grass. From down where she was now, Cao could tell that the grass was much deeper than she had first anticipated. How Daru had gotten through it so quickly she had no idea. So she plunged in head first. The grasses parted in certain areas that Cao could tell were paths, made to be discreet and nearly invisible to anyone other than a student. Daru raced ahead of her, as if daring her to catch him. She pushed herself to her limit, but the Instructor often disappeared from her sight. He would wait for her to glimpse him when the path split into different direction, but never said a word. The building quickly grew as they sped towards it.
The silhouette on the horizon separated into smaller buildings, in every different shape Cao could imagine. To her surprise, there was even a circular room floating midair above a garden. The edge of the grass appeared and she slowed to gape at the mysterious room. Daru emerged beside her.
"Wonderful, isn't it? That's the Dias' chambers, accessible by only those invited by the Dias. And these days, it isn't many," he explained. "Only a few Instructors are ever able to go up there."
Cao was silent. Her eyes dropped from the floating room and looked around at the other buildings. Daru followed her gaze and pointed out each building.
"The large group of buildings over there are the main Academy buildings. That's where you will have your theoretical classes. The sale is to the right over there, sort of in the trees. Practices will be held on the main floor. Your dormitories are above that," Daru stated.
"Where do the mages stay?" Cao asked curiously.
"For some reason, the mage students and the weapons students are roomed at opposite ends of the Academy grounds. The mage dorms are at the far left, overlooking the lake."
"Why is that? Do they want to create a division between the students?"
"Well, there's always been a sort of rivalry between the two groups. You'll notice it at the beginning, but from there we do things separately. Except for classes; theory you'll take with sixth class mages and other first level fighters."
Cao mused on that for a while. The silence that had fallen between them was broken as the sound of hoof beats pounded the ground. A roan horse without a rider raced into view and stopped in front of Daru. It snorted and pawed at the ground. Daru walked out towards the horse as a breathless rider scampered into sight. By the look of pain on his face and the dirt on his pants, Cao figured the horse had tossed him. He didn't look like much of a rider. Daru didn't think so either.
"What were you doing with a horse out on your own? You know that mages have to have an escort in order for them to ride outside the arena!" Daru scolded.
"But why? It's not like we're lower than the weapons scum that rides alone all the time. I think that we should be allowed. And who are you to scold me?" the mage replied. Daru grabbed his coat and examined the tag on it.
"Leo, class four? I guess I'll be having a talk with Instructor Zora then. You will have to be taught how to respect your superiors. Go back to the Academy and tell her that Daru sent you. I'll make sure this horse gets the proper treatment he deserves," Daru replied.
"It deserves nothing but a beating. It threw me!" Leo raged.
"Only because you obviously can't ride," Cao commented. Leo glared at her. Before he could say anything, Daru cleared his throat and the student jogged away. The Instructor took the reins of the horse and began to lead him away. Cao started to follow when a bird swooped out of the sky and alit on the horn of the horse's saddle. Daru carefully removed a piece of paper from the bird's leg and sent it on its way. His eyes danced over the words scribed on the slip and a frown crossed his face.
"Cao, can you ride?" he asked.
"Yes, I suppose," she replied.
"Good. Take this horse to the stable just around the bend and then come to the big building in the middle of the Academy. If you get lost, just ask someone. I have urgent business to attend to."
And with that, he was gone. The horse stood quietly as Cao gathered up the reins that Daru had dropped in haste and mounted. It had been a while since Cao had been in a saddle, but everything was familiar to her almost immediately. Nudging the sides of the horse with her heels, she sent him trotting in the direction Daru had indicated. As the stable came into view, Cao slowed the horse to a walk, remembering what she had been taught. The closer she got, the more she had to fight with the horse. He wanted to be back in his stall with his dinner. The stable master noticed the horse coming towards him and ran out to meet her.
"Why you good-for-nothing mage! How many times have I told you not to go out alone, you idiot! I'll have you cleaning stalls for a month!" he bellowed. Cao pulled gently on the reins and dismounted. The stable master looked surprised.
"The horse threw him and Instructor Daru sent him to Instructor Zora. He asked me to bring the horse back," Cao explained, handing over the reins.
"Who are you?" he asked bluntly.
"I'm Cao, a new weapons student. And you?" she replied without thinking. The stable master was surprised again.
"I am Bryn, the crude and ancient stable master," he replied, glancing over his shoulder. Two boys had popped their heads out the door to listen but quickly withdrew once they realized that Bryn had noticed them. "You're a weapons student, yes? Then we will get to know each other well."
A bell tolled in the distance. Cao's mind quickly remember that she was supposed to go to the 'big building' in the middle of the Academy. She apologized to Bryn for her abrupt departure, gave the horse one last pat and took off in a run towards the Academy.
As Daru had previous said, the place where she was supposed to go wasn't hard to find. A steady stream of students, uniformed and not, was flowing right into it. Cao spotted Daru standing outside the door, waiting for her. He saw her running and acknowledged her presence with a nod. Together, in silence, they walked into the building.
The Great Hall was well named; rows upon rows of seats filled the building like an arena or auditorium of some kind. Most of the upper rows remained vacant as the ones near the front filled up quickly. The general hum of mixed conversations buzzed around the room. Cao walked in and stared around in amazement. Daru grabbed her arm and pulled her to a section close to the front; it had been taped off and reserved. He dropped Cao into one of the seats and left. Cao slowly came back to her senses and began to look at the people that were chatting aimlessly in front of her. They were wearing street clothes, like her, and were filled with the same awe. But they talked about magic. Cao immediately stopped listening. They were mage students then. Cao suddenly felt very alone.
A shuffle beside her caught her attention. Daru had returned, leading three other students. They looked at her as they stepped passed her and sat in the other empty seats. Daru told them to be quiet and took a seat directly behind them. The lights dimmed and the chattering ceased completely.
A single spotlight illuminated the front of the Hall. Everyone stared at it with interest. With a wild plume of smoke, a man appeared in front of them. Cao briefly saw a seal beneath his feet before it vanished. Cheers rose from the students who had been at the Academy before; this was the Dias. He was tall, his age showing on his face. His hair, long and grey, flowed off his shoulders and down his back in a neatly plaited braid. He was wearing a long robe, deep blue in colour. His eyes were what caught Cao the most. They were bright, clearly showing signs of great wisdom. For a moment, Cao thought that they almost shone with a light not unlike the Guardians of Solitude. Her train of thoughts was broken as he began to speak.
"Once again, we begin a new semester at the Academy. For those who are returning to their studies, welcome back. I'm sure you remember your first Assembly. To those who are new; I also extend a welcome," he welcomed, extending his arms out towards the students. Cao drifted into thought. Time passed and she woke with a start when the girl next to her gave a cheer along with most of the audience.
"I hope you will all find your time here exciting and interesting. Most of you have already met your respective Instructors, they will be in charge of your housing and schedules. Lunch is in an hour, I will see you all then," he spoke, his voice carrying throughout the auditorium. With that, he vanished again. Voices immediately rose up as the students began to get up and leave the Hall. The three people sitting beside her stayed sitting down. Daru got up and walked into the row in front of them.
"Once they're all gone, I'm giving you all permission to wander around the Academy grounds by yourselves. I want you to discover firsthand just how amazing this place is. And learn the grounds well, I often test on how fast you can get to a certain point or obtain something from an obscure corner. I'll give you guys a few minutes to get acquainted," Daru explained. Cao turned to the other three students who were already chatting up a storm. She looked back and Daru was gone. Nervously, she attempted to join their conversation.
"It doesn't matter if you had grown two feet over the break Deonté, you're still the shortest of us all," the girl mocked. The boy in the middle frowned.
"I'm not short! Do you remember Josan? He was tiny. So don't you be calling me short," Deonté complained. "And besides…"
"Hey! You're new, right? Where are you from?" the girl interrupted, acknowledging Cao.
"Um, not from here," she replied. Cao didn't know how to behave around them. Sure, they were going to be her classmates for the rest of her time here, but how close could she get to them? They seemed like such good friends, she would be only an interloper.
"Are you a Foreign then?" Deonté asked curiously. Even the tall guy in the back was listening now.
"I'm not sure what a Foreign is."
"A Foreign is a person who crossed over the Void to another world. There's not many of them because magic usually doesn't exist outside of this world. It would be amazing to have a Foreign as a classmate!" the girl explained, ecstatic about the very thought. "My name's Shiraz, by the way."
"I'm Cao. And by your definition, I'm a Foreign," Cao replied. Shiraz's eyes widened and her mouth dropped.
"Really? You really came through the Void? How was it? Did it hurt? Can you…"
"Shiraz, calm down," the tall boy spoke softly. Shiraz hushed immediately.
"I'm sorry; I didn't mean to be so intrusive. I'm just incredibly curious. I've never met a Foreign before and I've heard so much about them," Shiraz explained. "That's Xeo by the way."
Cao nodded to the boy sitting silently off to the side. He nodded back. By this time, Daru had come back. He had a folder in his hands.
"Alright, I have to go off and make sure that there's a room for you guys to sleep in tonight, so feel free to wander around. I'll see you all at lunch," Daru stated. Cao stood up with everyone else. They filed quietly out of the Hall and out into the sun again. As soon as they were clear of Daru, who had gone in the opposite direction, Deonté attacked Shiraz.
"Deon, get off of me!" she yelled, trying to flip the boy off.
"Not until you apologize for calling me short in front of a Foreign!"
"Alright, I'm sorry for calling you short. Now get off!"
Cao just stood in the background watching as the two of them struggled. Her mouth drew upwards in a quirky smile, her eyebrows lifting curiously. Shiraz eventually threw herself backwards, squashing Deon enough to get him to let go.