When Rizzly passed on the message to end the training, Rivelia had a hard time believing it at first and was still in disbelief even after being told a second time. She immediately left off to ask Isaac herself. Meanwhile, the volunteers were left dumbfounded at the sudden end to their training. Not a single soul screamed in excitement or jumped about at the news. They were simply too exhausted in both body and mind. The first thing on the volunteers’ minds when they got back to their senses was to eat. They invaded the kitchen in a frenzy, driven by the relentless starvation, devouring everything within whether it was cooked or not. Once they ate their fill, they all collapsed onto the floor, having been deprived of sleep for so long. Duke Corduroy and his instructors received the news of the training’s end and decided to visit, only to walk into these volunteers during their ravenous feast. They were at a loss for words, bearing witness to what was once a group of bright students of noble lineage now turned into a band of marauders, devouring all that was edible before collapsing onto the ground to sleep.
After sleeping for a considerable amount of time, the volunteers’ sanity started to return. Awkwardness took root as they began remembering their own disturbing behaviours, but it was only for a moment. Everyone here had seen each other at their worst already.
The next course of action for the volunteers was to clean themselves. They were so meticulous in cleaning themselves that the bathwater needed to be replaced three times over. They returned to their former selves once they donned clean clothes.
“… I am awed by your determination to accomplish this arduous training, and will ask that you safeguard this word as Central’s agents of the Directorate of Security by accomplishing your missions to the best of your abilities.”
Mazelan immediately flew over to Campus as if he’d been waiting for the entire time when he received news that the training was over, and he brought Central’s uniforms and defensive coats for the volunteers.
The sight of thirty agents fully equipped and in uniform set quite the atmosphere, but they were deathly silent when Mazelan finished his speech. Mazelan was alarmed at the unexpected lack of cheer and switched places with Isaac awkwardly.
As soon as Isaac got on the stage, the agents saluted Isaac in a single motion before returning to their parade rest stance.
Isaac spoke as he peered at the agents with cold eyes.
There wasn’t a single reaction from the agents to Isaac’s insult. This brief insult was nothing compared to everything they had experienced up to this point.
“Retards who volunteered, tempted by the rewards. Remember this. Central turned a blind eye when I tried to kill you. Which means all of you are expendable. No organisation treats expendables dearly. Only cast aside when needed.”
“I will only take missions that Central finds difficult to deal with, and I will resolve it in a way that Central will not be happy with. If you wish to return alive and restore your family’s honour or live out your lives buried neck deep in wealth, demonstrate absolute obedience to my every order and survive to the best of your abilities.”
With that, Isaac boldly stepped down from the stage, replaced by Reisha who shouted.
“It’s over! Let’s go have our meal.”
Reisha’s shout dispersed the agents. There wasn’t a single cheer, any excitement, or the sense of accomplishment one would normally see after going through a trial.
With the event gone through rather quickly and silently, Mazelan approached Isaac with a frown to complain.
“What does that make me if you end it so quickly?”
Mazelan had carefully crafted his speech by pushing the absolute limits of his vocabulary, speaking for over ten minutes. Isaac glossed over Mazelan’s complaint without a care.
“It’s to everyone’s favour if we go through this founding celebration that nobody likes as quickly as possible.”
The order of the Directorate of Security’s founding came at the same time as the completion of the agents’ training. Mazelan attended this event, carrying with him the written order with the Emperor’s seal and approval from the Grand Council. But this event was rather barren, considering it was to celebrate the founding of Central’s new directorate.
No, it was difficult to even call it an event. Nobody from Central had attended the ceremony other than Mazelan, and none of the College’s instructors nor Duke Corduroy were present.
“Anyhow, I’m going home, so call me when there’s work.”
Mazelan burst out in laughter as if Isaac had made a good joke.
“Where do you think you’re going? Your work isn’t done yet.”
“Wow! Now that’s harsh. Even I was going to give them a few month’s holiday after that training, and you want to deploy them straight away? No wonder Central’s cruel inside out, what with the higher-ups setting examples like this.”
“… I have questions as to why Central is cruel and why a holiday would last for months. But there is one procedure all recruits must go through.”
“To visit the Forbidden Lands.”
“The Forbidden Lands? Why there?”
“It’s a field trip. They visit the spawning ground of the gates and see the battalion that protects the area. Truth is, recruits aren’t treated as official agents of Central until they visit the Forbidden Lands.”
“Such malpractice must be left behind. Therefore, the Directorate of Security won’t be participating in such behaviour…”
“This isn’t malpractice but a formal procedure.”
“Tsk! This is why paper pushers are so difficult to deal with… Then take the agents and go. I’m going home nonetheless.”
“I told you already. It’s a formal procedure. If you don’t go, you have no real power as the Director of the Directorate of Security.”
“Do I even have permission to use this so-called authority?”
“They may bare their fangs in secret, but they won’t do it out in the open, at least.”
“But it’s still annoying to go…”
Mazelan sighed watching Isaac seriously contemplating if he would like to go or not. Being forced to appease to someone as petty as Isaac was miserable.
“Don’t be like that. Look, I even reserved a special transport for it.”
“Special transport my ass…”
Isaac grumbled as he looked at the giant airship in front of him.
“It is a special transport, specialised in traveling into the Forbidden Lands.”
When Mazelan said ‘special transport,’ he didn’t mean that it was reserved for Directors but a transport made specifically for traveling to the Forbidden Lands. Isaac continued to grumble that he’d been baited and raised his head to look at the giant, spherical body of the ship.
“Is this thing going to explode?”
“… You know well.”
“Hydrogen and helium aren’t the only ways we can achieve flight.”
“… Is that magic too?”
“I swear, this magic can’t be the answer to everything…”
Mazelan smiled bitterly at Isaac’s mumbling and left Isaac when the captain of the ship called out to him. Left alone, Isaac looked at the airship, unsatisfied, when Kunette and Reisha hesitantly approached him.
“What is it?”
“Hehe. Can we not go?”
Isaac narrowed his eyes at the two, hearing Reisha’s plea-ridden request. Their body language was practically screaming at Isaac to let them skip the trip, even as they tried to maintain composure out of courtesy. Isaac turned to look at the faces of the agents boarding the airships. He found two distinct reactions.
Excitement and disgust.
Those who had just graduated from the College were excited, while veteran agents had a mild scowl on their face as they forced their feet to move on, like cattle being led to the slaughterhouse.
Even that vicious Kainen had an uneasy expression, unlike his usually ferocious attitude. Isaac turned back to look at Kunette and Reisha, who replied with an awkward chuckle.
Isaac asked the two, seeing that even Kunette, who refused to stay more than an arms length apart from him, didn’t want to follow Isaac.
“What’s the reason?”
“It goes whooosh and swooosh!”
“And pooof and fwooosh.”
Reisha and Kunette waved their hands wildly as they acted out all kinds of sounds. Then, Rivelia, Mazelan, and an old man, who was the captain of the ship, came back to Isaac.
“What’s up with those two?”
“They’re saying they don’t want to go.”
The captain smiled bitterly, and Mazelan sighed as if agreeing with the two.
Isaac couldn’t help but feel worried after seeing even Rivelia, who had been completely devoid of emotion on her face ever since that day, frown ever so slightly as she nodded.
“What’s the reason?”
Rivelia quickly explained for Reisha and Kunette, who were flailing their arms about and making noises.
“It shakes. A lot.”
“Shakes? That’s not how airships work. Is it different in this world? Well, I guess there’s no reason to take someone who doesn’t want to go. Go back home.”
Isaac glossed over the issue, thinking that the two simply didn’t like experiencing turbulence. As soon as Isaac gave them the nod of approval, Kunette and Reisha grinned and disappeared quickly from the scene – almost as if they were afraid Isaac would change his mind if given the opportunity. Meanwhile, Rivelia lost her chance to go further into detail as to why that was the case. Her mouth agape for air, she didn’t have time to explain as Isaac misinterpreted her act.
“What, you don’t want to go either? Then why don’t you go back home?”
“… No sir.”
Rivelia simply shut her mouth at Isaac’s irritating face. He’d know once he experienced it. Isaac nodded without a care at Rivelia’s reply and spoke to the captain.
“I can’t possibly ride this plain airship as Central’s Director. Prepare a safer and sturdier plane for my use.”
The captain looked at Isaac blankly for a moment, then burst out in laughter. He immediately walked over to his sailors and repeated what Isaac had said, and the entire group fell on their knees in laughter.
Isaac angrily looked at the situation in silence, when Mazelan said to Isaac as he sighed.
“All of the mighty directors in the past had gone to the Forbidden Lands in airships. Do you really think they’d have a personal plane just for you? Not to mention, only airships can enter the Forbidden Lands.”
“I told you before, that there’s constantly a mana storm.”
“Then how did you fight all those battles to defend the gate in such a dangerous environment?”
“Haven’t I told you?”
“Tell me what?”
“No matter how ferocious the storm is, its centre is calm.”
“… Eye of the storm?”
The airship boarding the agents left quietly and secretly without a single farewell from the Campus. Leaving aside the question whether airships could travel up to the stratosphere or not, the slow-moving airship offered a magnificent view unlike the fast planes, giving the passengers the impression of walking on the clouds.
There was hardly any swaying in the ship, so Isaac found it difficult to understand why Kunette and Reisha were so adamant on not going. He remembered their act of waving their hands and the words they’d used to describe their reason and deduced that it was because they had a bad experience by running into a storm out of poor luck.
Their actions did make Isaac nervous at first, but it had been a decent trip so far. The food was nice and he was treated as he should be, other than the sailors glaring at him as if they were ready to spit in his food at any moment.
Floating in the sky for three days, Isaac experienced just how large this Empire was and also silently cursed his foolishness for never suspecting the Empire’s possession of air travel technology. It was necessary if the Empire were to administer such vast territories at maximum efficiency. Isaac heard from the flight broadcast that they had just passed through the northern reservations and arrived at the Forbidden Lands.
“… That’s the mana storm?”
Isaac couldn’t help but yelp out in astonishment the moment he entered the observation post and the power of nature’s might in full swing.
Ahead was a wall of dark red clouds extending to every direction like a wall barring their way. To the left, to the right and even beyond the horizon, the clouds were ever present along with irregular lightning strikes that flashed about like the lights in a nightclub.
“That’s no joke.”
Isaac admired the view ahead as he enjoyed his smoke, when he realised the airship had stopped moving.
“Shit! To think I’m back here again.”
Mazelan and Rivelia entered the observation post. They seemed to have been looking for Isaac all this time. When Mazelan saw the mana storm, his body trembled.
“That path you said before is safe right? I really don’t want to experience flying in the skies with my body alone.”
“Huh? What are you talking about? Do what with your body?”
“What? Weren’t we landing here and traveling on foot?”
Rivelia slowly turned her head away while Mazelan smirked and replied.
“That’s one way to commit suicide.”
“… Don’t tell me we are running into that storm on board this airship?”
“This is the order of the Director. Withdraw immediately.”
Mazelan shrugged in the face of Isaac.
“The chain of command in an airship is the same as a sea vessel. The captain’s the king here. You can try to convince the captain if you’re confident.”
“How is an airship supposed to travel through that?! We’d be in pieces long before we arrive!”
“That would be the case if we threw ourselves without a thought.”
“Then are you saying there is a method?”
“Of course! Do you really think we’d use an airship for no reason?”
“Shit! I was a fool to believe your words… So this was why they were so desperate to skip out.”
Isaac moaned as he suffered a massive headache concocted by the constant shaking of the ship. The motions and sounds Reisha and Kunette made weren’t an exaggeration in the slightest.
Isaac had wondered why there existed a set of rope restraints on the chair until he experienced this. The method Mazelan spoke of was the most brutish and foolhardy one.
The Forbidden Lands was comparable to the North American continent in size. And this storm of massive scale had been raging nonstop for hundreds of years, completely encompassing that area.
The method to pass in and out of the storm was almost too easy to say. The storm was a spiral leading into the centre. So if one threw their bodies and allowed the wind to carry them, the storm will naturally lead them to where the gate was. One would arrive in moments If they caught the good wind, but if unlucky, you’d be stranded inside the storm for days.
When she heard the inflight broadcast say that they were now moving, Rivelia took one of the seats in the observatory and started putting on all the seatbelts to the point where she looked more like a jet pilot than a passenger.
Isaac watched the scene blankly, struggling to understand. Mazelan listed the reasons why they were acting like this just before the ship was about to jump into the storm, and Isaac, in a furious panic, took a seat to secure himself. The moment he finished belting up, all hell broke loose.
The direction of the wind was always the same in the storm, but the strength of its winds varied greatly. Isaac could understand why they used an airship instead of a plane after coming inside. No amount of reinforcement on the structure of the plane could survive in these winds.
Like a falling leaf toppling in the wind, the ship moved in all directions at the mercy of the winds, getting seasick whilst in the air. If it weren’t for the restraints, many would have died on the spot.
“You should consider yourself lucky. The shaking in this part of the ship isn’t as bad as it used to be thanks to magical attunement.”
The shaking was so intense that you could hear the entire ship creaking. One would worry if the ship could actually survive, yet Mazelan called this the ‘better part.’
Mazelan answered Isaac, explaining the even worse hell that existed.
“I’d guess where the agents of the Directorate of Security are right now is a living nightmare. You have no idea how bad things get whenever we lead a group of recruits into here. We at the very least can sit like this and look outside, but the agents must lie down on a bed and restrain themselves. Imagine if one of them fails to hold the sickness and throws up – only instead of watching it drip to the ground, it lands on their face. Because the ship shakes so much, the droplets of vomit are bound to splash all over the ship. So when one throws up, it starts a chain reaction, and even those who have been holding on gives in. It’s a constant cycle of throwing up and choking down vomit – and it most likely won’t be your own too.”
“Wow. It sounds disgusting.”
“Right? Thankfully for me, I had a short flight where we passed through in just 1 hour, but I also heard those after me had the worst flight.”
“How long did it take them?”
“They caught the worst draft possible, catching the outermost wind of the storm. It took them about 3 days.”
“Uwah. Spending three days while tied up in this place? That’s one way to turn someone into a corpse.”
“Right? And you can’t even think of having a proper meal in here. Even worse is that you lose grip of your mind and can’t help yourself when it comes to excretion. Think about it. You are covered in your own piss and feces. What a nightmare.”
“Wow! That’s horrible. Did you suffer through that too?”
Rivelia’s body shuddered when Isaac asked, as if she was remembering those nightmarish times. She grit her teeth and nodded. Isaac dashed his lips and cursed.
“What a shame. If I knew, I would have sent you to be with the agents.”
Mazelan snickered to Isaac’s muttering, while Rivelia stared daggers into Isaac with all her might. Isaac noticed Rivelia’s glare and changed the topic.
“But shouldn’t you come up with a different method at this point? Let’s say, hm… You place walls in between the beds to limit the damages as much as possible or something.”
“It’s true that such discussions have been brought up in the past, although all of them were rejected eventually.”
Mazelan hesitated to answer Isaac, so Isaac redirected his eyes to Rivelia. Rivelia answered with the calm voice of hers.
“The reason is that it interferes with the camaraderie of the agents.”
Mazelan sheepishly smiled as he explained.
“You know these recruits are elites who think they are at the top of the world because they are graduates of the College, long before they were recruited into Central. And once they learn of the truth behind this world, it’s easy for them to grow overconfident and walk around like they are chosen ones. We then force them to cover themselves in their own puke and excrements together, be it man or woman. They would have seen each other at their lowest. There’s nothing better than that to crush their arrogance right? And the fact they suffered the same indecency gives them a bond. But imagine if we do put barriers between each other, and only those who couldn’t restrain themselves suffered. It’d only cause mutiny.”
“True, only those that threw up would be ridiculed.”
“Well, that’s the reason on the surface. The true reason is different.”
“The true reason?”
“Every agent from Central refused it.”
“Don’t tell me it’s that ‘You have to suffer it too because I did’ excuse.”
“Of course it is. I couldn’t help but agree after going through it myself.”
“I guess it does feel like you’ve been cheated.”
Humans wanted to be rewarded for their troubles. Mazelan snickered and continued.
“Shall I tell you something funny?”
“The vicious one, not the idiot.”
“Although I don’t feel sorry for him, he is a pitiful fella. But what about him?”
“Kukuku! He was in the team that took 3 days to pass through.”
Isaac burst out in laughter the moment Mazelan finished, and even Rivelia ducked her head to hide the slight change in her expression. Just imagining how that cold and vicious face of his would have changed after covered in excrement was pure joy.
Once Isaac had gotten used to the shaking to the point he could enjoy his cigarette in this turbulent ship, one last shock ran through the plane before everything went still.
“We’re out. It’s faster than I expected.”
Mazelan muttered as he took off the restraint and got on his feet. The others followed Mazelan and got on their feet as well.
“So we’ve arrived?”
“No, we’ll need to travel for 2 more hours to reach the gate.”
“I thought we were out of the mana storm?”
“We are out, I guess, since we’ve entered the eye of the storm.”
“What a desolate place…”
Isaac said as he looked down at the Forbidden Lands with a cigarette in his mouth. Looking at the grand, empty plain where not a single blade of grass existed gave him a gloomy feeling.
“It’s always unsettling no matter how many times I come here…”
Mazelan nodded with Isaac, when Rivelia came to them with two glasses of pumpkin-coloured wine. Isaac grabbed at it without a thought, but Mazelan was momentarily paralyzed, hesitant to take a glass before deciding to do so.
“Bring me some ice if there is any.”
Mazelan saw Rivelia, the Vice-Director, being ordered around like a secretary. When she disappeared without a word back into the kitchen, Mazelan complained to Isaac.
“Shit! I told you to take care of her, so why has she changed so much?”
“Heroes are solitude beings.”
“What bullshit is this?”
Isaac ignored Mazelan’s retort and leisurely sipped his wine. He looked down again before saying.
“It’s pretty empty.”
“The Forbidden Lands was once a human kingdom before the 7 Days of Calamity. It boasted of the continent’s most fertile land, and now it’s turned to this.”
“There’s an end to everything.”
Isaac muttered with a cigarette in his mouth. Mazelan glimpsed at Isaac and said.
“I’ll start you off with some warnings since we still have time before arriving at the base.”
“You can’t use magic in Forbidden Lands.”
“That’s got nothing to do with me then.”
“No mana exists in the Forbidden Lands. The reasons why are still a mystery, so don’t ask me. Anyhow, in order to use magic in this place, you have to use mana crystals.”
Isaac replied half-heartedly, frustrating Mazelan. He growled as he continued.
“You know that mana crystals absorb mana from nearby right? So mana crystals that have been depleted of its mana can be recharged, although not to its original capacity. But in the Forbidden Lands, there is no mana. So the only way to use magic is to use the mana within these crystals. Therefore, the mana crystals that are supplying that coat you trust in so much depletes much more quickly in the Forbidden Lands.”
“I get that, but what does that have to do with me?”
Mazelan sighed and said.
“You have been causing incidents and making enemies everywhere. And that title as Director of Security is also a problem. General Noxvil, the commander of the Gate’s garrison, is a sword master and has fought in three separate battles to defend the gate. He was also a close friend of Duke Lopez, now the former chief instructor of College.”
Isaac chuckled and smiled.
“Is he so high and mighty that he can go against Central’s orders?”
“He has the utmost regard for the rules and principles but…”
“That’s fine then. If he’s as hard-headed as you say then no matter how disgusting it is, he’ll come bowing since I rank higher. And if he’s just proud, then he wouldn’t like it if I grovel at him either.”
Mazelan sighed and shook his head.
“Anyway, this is all just a formality, and we’ll be leaving as soon as we are done with resupplying, so please stay out of trouble until then.”
“Then why’d you bring me to this place?”
“To quell the discontent, even if its effect will be minimal. I’ve already told you before, but Central’s in a bit of chaos because of your rise to Director. But if you were to skip the formality that all agents of Central go through, then there will be arguments that they cannot accept you as a Director. Which is why I will act and treat you as my superior when others are around.”
“Tsk tsk! You’re still lacking some basic formalities. The nerve to say that you’ll only act when I’m recognized as your superior…”
Isaac clicked his tongue and shook his head tauntingly. Before Mazelan could shout out, Isaac said.
“Ah! There’s a question I want to ask.”
In face of Mazelan’s cold answer, Isaac took out a new cigarette and said.
“You said that you guys made a path through the storm right?”
“Did you use an airship back then too?”
“No. The airships had yet to be invented back then. So we had to pass through on foot.”
“Wow! You passed through that horrendous thing on foot?”
“It was difficult. We had no choice but to place down signs as we progressed slowly. The signs were made to deflect the wind using magic, but since we couldn’t use mana, we had to use mana crystals to sustain it. Which was why our mana crystal expenditures were extremely high back then.”
“But all of that changed once airships were invented?”
“Yes. Although brutish, using airships allowed faster travel and significantly lowered the costs, so using the land route became obsolete. It was closed down.”
“But it must have been a hell of a work to demolish all the signs.”
“No need. The signs would just stop functioning once its mana crystals ran out of mana.”
Isaac nodded as if he’d understood everything. When he grabbed for another cigarette, Isaac saw something at the edge of the horizon.
“We’re here. That’s the garrison for the Gate.”
Isaac muttered as the shape of the strange looking building became clearer. Mazelan said,
“We are just repurposing the castle of the kingdom that once existed in this land. These are the only buildings that exist in the Land of Beginning.”
“Didn’t you say the expeditionary forces made a camp last time?”
Isaac asked, and Mazelan answered with a somber expression.
“We don’t know how, but the location of the gate’s opening changed the last time. Since then, we decided to create and staff a garrison in the centre of this land in order to react in a timely fashion no matter where the gate opens.”
“We don’t know where the gate will open you say?”
“Yes. That’s why we suffered extreme casualties in the last battle. We almost lost every man in that defence.”
“So what’s the point of all those flags there?”
As the ship drew closer, one could make out the silhouettes of many flags stuck onto the castle. Some were vertical, while others were horizontal, and these flags practically covered the entire building. Although the flags did look cool flying in the air, it seemed rather hypnotic because of its sheer numbers.
Isaac flinched when he heard glass shattering. Isaac turned to see Mazelan stiff as a stone as he stared at the castle.
“You surprised me. What’s wrong?”
“The flags… They are being flown.”
“I guess it’s quite windy today.”
“There is no wind in the Forbidden Lands.”
Isaac started to wonder why Mazelan was acting that way, his voice getting more shaky as he continued. Rivelia came to the observatory with a bucket of ice, and when she saw the flags flying, she threw the bucket in her hand and came right up against the window, her expression deathly serious. Isaac glimpsed at the two and asked.
“Is it bad if the wind is blowing?”
“… The only times the flags wave are when a gate is about to open.”