Chapter 4 Magic
Arran stared at the blond man in front of him. He was certain he had never seen the man's face before, yet there was something strangely familiar about him.
"Who are you?" he asked again.
The man smirked, and his image suddenly grew blurry. When it cleared, Master Zhao's grinning face appeared.
Arran was astonished. "So it was you…" Although he had seen the man change like this once before, at the time he had been too shocked to give it much thought.
"Why did you draw so much attention?" Arran asked. "After tonight, there is no way we can escape unnoticed."
"I've always loved a good bit of theater," Master Zhao said, a sly smile on his face. "But more importantly, this was the best way to hide you."
A puzzled expression appeared on Arran's face. Drawing attention was the best way to hide him?
"You failed to get into the Academy, then spent half a week at the biggest brothel in the city, before getting hauled off by your uncle." Master Zhao grinned.
"Nobody would act that way while trying to hide from the Academy," he continued. "When the Academy's mages arrive, they will have to find out who cracked the testing disc. The first suspects will be people who left or disappeared."
Arran now understood why Master Zhao had sent him to the Blue Angel, although he wished the man had told him earlier.
"But won't Adept Song tell them it was me?" he asked, remembering the man who tested him at the Academy.
Master Zhao shook his head. "Adept Song is dead." Seeing Arran's shocked reaction, he added, "It was the only way to hide your identity."
Hearing this, Arran was overwhelmed. Master Zhao killed Adept Song, and because of him?
After a few moments of silence, Master Zhao said, "We have much to discuss. But first, tell me, what do you know about magic?"
"Nothing," Arran answered honestly.
"Nothing?" Master Zhao knitted his brows. "Then what made you come to the Academy?"
"My mother," Arran replied. "She left when I was little. My father never told me anything about her until…" He swallowed hard. Even now, the memory still felt like a fresh wound in his heart.
After a moment, Arran continued. "Half a year ago, my father was struck by a bandit's arrow. The wound became infected, and he fell ill with fever. In his final moments, he told me that my mother had been a mage."
With a thoughtful expression, Master Zhao spoke. "I think I can tell you why your mother left."
Arran immediately sat up in attention. The question of why his mother left had plagued him as long as he could remember. He looked at Master Zhao, eagerly awaiting the man's next words.
"What you have — the reason the Academy wants to capture you — is a forbidden Realm." Master Zhao said the last words slowly, as if they carried great meaning.
"A forbidden Realm?" Arran had no idea what the man was talking about.
Master Zhao took a deep breath. "When we use magic, what we really do is manipulate Essence, a type of magical energy. Essence is drawn from Realms. Whether you can use magic depends on the Realms you can access."
Arran listened intently. What little he had seen of magic already astonished him, and he was anxious to learn more.
"There are many Realms," Master Zhao said. "For example, there's Fire."
He raised his hand, open palm facing upward. Without a sound, a fist-sized ball of yellow-white fire appeared, slowly spinning in the air above his hand.
Despite being several paces away, Arran could feel the heat that radiated from it. It seemed hot enough to burn through flesh as easily as it would burn through paper.
Master Zhao lowered his hand, and the ball of fire disappeared. He spoke again, waving his hand. "Wind."
A sudden gust blew through the room, nearly sending Arran to the floor. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving Arran's hair tousled.
Once more, Master Zhao spoke. "Shadow."
In an instant, the room went pitch black. It was as if all the light in the world had disappeared, and for a moment, Arran worried that he had gone blind.
When the light returned a few seconds later, it revealed Arran's shocked face, gaping in astonishment. He had finally seen a glimmer of the true power of magic, and it was beyond anything he could have imagined.
"To mages, acquiring Realms is a small matter," Master Zhao said. "It is easily achieved with magical scrolls or artifacts. The difficult part is learning how to draw Essence from a Realm and use it."
Arran nodded. It made sense that powers like these required practice.
"Most Realms are bound by the laws of reality," Master Zhao continued. "Fire might burn a man, but it will still leave ashes. Shadow might conceal him, but he will still be there. But some Realms have the power to change reality itself. To the Academy, these are the forbidden Realms."
"And I have one of those?" Arran asked.
Master Zhao nodded.
"So… what can I do?" The prospect of having powers like Master Zhao's seemed incredible to Arran.
"Right now? Absolutely nothing," Master Zhao said with a chuckle. "Just like having hands does not make you a carpenter, having a Realm does not make you a mage."
It made sense, but Arran still felt slightly disappointed. With a sigh, he forced himself to stop thinking about what he would be able to do once he became a mage.
"You said you knew why my mother left?" Arran asked, remembering what the man had said earlier.
Master Zhao nodded. "I think she sensed your Realm when you were a child. As the son of a mage, other mages would inevitably wonder whether you had inherited some of her powers. If they looked into it, they would discover your forbidden Realm, and you would become a target for the Academy."
Comprehension dawned on Arran's face.
"When she left you behind, she probably hoped that you would live a normal life, never so much as meeting another mage. To save her son, she sacrificed seeing him grow up."
A hint of sorrow showed in Master Zhao's expression as he spoke the words, as if he was reminded of a distant but painful memory.
Arran, meanwhile, felt a sudden sense of gratitude toward his mother. For the first time, he understood that she had left him for his own protection.
"But why are you helping me?" Arran asked.
"My reasons are my own," Master Zhao answered curtly.
Arran suppressed his curiosity. It was clear that whatever drove the man to help him was something he did not wish to discuss.
"So what will we do now?" he asked.
After some hesitation, Master Zhao answered, "I don't know yet. There are some powers within the Empire that can keep you safe, at least for a time. Whether they are willing to do so… that's a different matter."
The answer only left Arran with more questions, but some small part of him was relieved to hear the uncertainty in Master Zhao's voice. Apparently, the man did not know everything.
Finally, Arran asked the one question that had been burning in his mind since the start of the conversation:
"Will you teach me how to use magic?"
Master Zhao laughed. "We haven't even escaped the jaws of the Academy, yet already you're thinking of learning magic?"
Arran flushed in embarrassment. In his eagerness to learn magic, he had almost forgotten about the danger he was in.
"But yes, I will teach you." Master Zhao's expression turned serious. "I can protect you for now, but eventually, the Academy will find you. When they do, you will have to rely on your own strength to survive."
Arran's excitement at the prospect of learning magic dimmed instantly. Eventually, the Academy would find him? And he would have to face the Academy's mages by himself? The thought filled Arran with dread.
"For now, return to your room, and get some sleep. We leave at dawn." Master Zhao's tone made it clear that the conversation was over.