"You sign up for epic battles and saving the innocent, and you end up spending most of your time crawling underground while being utterly lost. And then the battle always go wrong, and the innocent is an ashole." unknown bracer quote

It didn't take long before Jusis Albarea began to think maybe rushing ahead on his own had been a mistake.

An understandable mistake, maybe. This Machias Regnitz character had been an infuriating presence, and the prospect of spending more time than absolutely necessary with him was distressing, to say the least. Moreover, given the way some of the others students had gawked at him – no, at his name – he had an inkling they would have made for an irritating partnership too. He had quite enough of fools either resenting him for the actions of his family, or trying to garner favour from the house of Albarea by seeking his friendship, thank you very much. The prospect of being thrust into a class mixing nobles and commoners did not particularly faze him: in his experience, most of his supposed peers were pests, simply content to flout their names to get ahead in life. And while Jusis would never feel ashamed of bearing the name of Albarea, that came with a duty of proving yourself worthy, not the indolent complacency he had observed among so many scions of the nobility.

Really, it was no wonder the Reformists had gained so much traction these recent years.

Given the circumstances leaving had seemed to be the sensible course of action, at least for the sake of his own peace of mind. Nonetheless, after spending close to one hour roaming through stone corridors, and being no closer from finding the exit, it was time to admit his initial impulse may have been ill-advised. Despite his personal feelings, joining forces with the others would have made leaving this place easier.

Speaking of this place, Jusis had to admit the location was rather peculiar. The whole complex was underground, with no visible openings to the surface, yet light had not been an issue, due to the numerous orbal lamps illuminating the way. That should have been nothing out of the ordinary – those devices became ubiquitous a few decades ago – until one remembered that this building was in all likelihood considerably older, predating their inventions by at least two centuries. At first he had believed the lamps to be a recent upgrade from the Thors faculty, but a quick exam showed they seemed as old as the rest of the place, yet still in perfect working order.

Jusis was no archaeologist, but he was rather sure this was not normal.

The layout of those catacombs did not appear to make sense either. Those corridors were full of seemingly random twists and turns, while stairs kept leading him up or down without any discernible patterns, to the point where he really couldn't tell what distance he might have walked already, or even if he was currently lower or higher than his initial position. It was as if this whole place was designed to confuse human senses. But who would have built it like that, and more importantly why?

Nonetheless, the architecture was only a secondary concern compared to the various monsters that crossed his path. They came in all sorts: strange gelatinous blobs, overgrown beetles, winged feral cats... The nobleman had no idea how such an ecosystem could even function, and frankly didn't care; all that mattered to him was their constant attacks, which were starting to become a nuisance.

Jusis wasn't too concerned about his safety, of course. As a member of the high nobility, it was expected of him to be a capable fighter, able to lead through example on a battlefield if needed. As such, his training with the rapier had been extensive, and he was no stranger to the finest points of orbal artes casting either. That new battle orbment the school issued took a little time to get used to, but so far he couldn't complain about its performance. A cursory examination seemed to indicate the thing had countless functionalities whose purpose remained mysterious so far; though admittedly technology wasn't a strong suit of his. Dispatching the few creatures he encountered proved to be little challenge to the scion of House Albarea, still the constant skirmishes were beginning to take their toll. While he was not so clumsy as to get injured by such meagre opponents, the whole thing was turning to be a rather tedious stroll, and a dirtying one at that. His clothes were marred by dirt and monster blood, his sword arm was beginning to ache, and Jusis felt like a small headache was coming his way. All in all, this day was shaping up to be unpleasant.

Curse that foolish teacher! What was she even thinking?

This Sara Valestein was entirely unknown to him, but her lackadaisical front did not inspire confidence, as far as he was concerned. He was certain the teaching staff had excellent reasons to hire her – such a reputed institution certainly had an extensive screening process - but for the life of him he couldn't even begin to imagine them right now. The woman was far too young to have any meaningful teaching experience, and all Jusis had seen from her were a messed up speech, a poor attempt at humour, and dropping them down a hole. He was pretty sure most nobles he knew would have disapproved. In fact, he very much suspected that his father would be livid if he ever heard of the details of this particular first day.

Not that he'd ever ask, of course. The Albarea name might be important in the Duke's eyes, but Jusis himself was not.

With a frustrated grunt, the nobleman drove his rapier through the nearest monster – yet another of those strange flying felines – before releasing an arte toward another. The stream of lightning sent the creature twitching on the floor. Still they kept coming, two others taking the place of those he just dispatched. How annoying.

Jusis raised his blade once again, intent on parrying the oncoming attack and counter as a follow-up. The chance to do so never came as a blur of red and silver shot past him, diving toward his opponents. Two flashes of steel, and the monsters were slain, leaving the young noble face-to-face with the newcomer: a small girl with green eyes and silver hair. Despite the deadpan expression on her face, she lazily flashed a victory sign in his direction.

Recognizing another member of class VII – as if the red uniform wasn't enough of a clue – Jusis sheathed his rapier, before giving her a nod.

"I suppose I should thank you."

The sentence came out a bit harsher than what he had intended. While he did feel he had the situation well in hand, it was no reason to appear ungrateful. Fortunately, the girl seemed to take no offence, easily shrugging off his social faux pas.

"You're welcome."

Jusis glanced at the girl, frowning. She certainly was a strange one. Her small stature and youthful face made it hard to believe she was seventeen - the usual age for Thors freshmen. Yet her body language showed no sign of the tension any sane person would feel upon being thrust into a monster-filled labyrinth. In fact, she almost seemed bored, an impression accentuated by her unkempt short hair and somewhat loosely adjusted uniform. Her weapons were another source of curiosity for the nobleman; gunswords were a rare sight in Erebonia, and from what he knew they took time to be efficient with. Yet that girl was carrying a pair with no sign of discomfort, and from what little he saw during the previous skirmish, her skill was not to be doubted.

Shaking his head, he forcefully put those considerations away. Anyone was entitled to a few secrets – in that regard, his family was no exception – and right now there were more urgent matters at hand. Though there was one piece of information he felt bound to ask.

"May I ask for your name?"


The agreement was followed by a long silence, which wasn't quite what Jusis had in mind. His expectant stare was met with a blank face. She... she did understand figures of speech, surely? Just as he began to wonder if perhaps he should reformulate his question, the girl spoke again.

"Fie Claussell. Nice to meet you."

"Likewise." He tried his best not to frown. "I believe I have introduced myself already, but I am-"

"Jusis, I know."

This time he couldn't quite suppress his scowl. On one hand, he never had been overly fond of titles and formalities; and if he was to spend his two years at Thors with commoners, lording his family name over them would be a very petty attitude. Still, he wouldn't have minded if that girl had at least hesitated before deciding they were on a first name basis.

He couldn't help but mentally admonish himself for this line of thoughts. Earlier he had been contemplating how annoyed he would be if his classmates made a big deal of his status, had he not? He couldn't complain now that one of them seemed utterly unimpressed.

Well, maybe he could complain just a little.

"Very well" he sighed. "I don't suppose the others are coming right behind you?"

The girl shrugged. "Nope, just me."

"I see. Shall we be off then? The faster we meet up with the others and find the exit, the better."

"Well, if it's the exit you want, I can take you there. It's a bit far away though" she mused. "Maybe we'll pick up Machias on the way."

Jusis couldn't quite stop his eyebrow from twitching at the name. That green-haired idiot was the last person he'd like to have by his side right now. Though more importantly-

"How do you know where the exit is?"

The question remained unanswered. Fie simply strolled down a seemingly random direction, following a flight of stairs without even checking to see if Jusis was behind her. With a groan, the nobleman followed. His new partner was definitely weird, and he was beginning to suspect her off-putting mannerisms were not simply born out of social awkwardness. She had proven to be able to pull her weight in a fight though. If she truly knew where the exit was, it'd be foolish to simply ignore it.

At the very least, she showed no hesitation when it came to pick a path. For half an hour, they continued to navigate through the subterranean maze, all the while fending off the occasional monster attack – he had to admit they were certainly easier to repel when he had someone to watch his back. The architecture still baffled him though, as they passed through yet another massive archway. Just how big was this place? Was it really a part of the old school design, or was Thors Academy built upon an even older complex? Unfortunately studying the history of antique ruins that could be found throughout Zemuria had never been high on his list of priorities. Once this ridiculous ordeal was over, maybe he'd ask one of the teachers for details. Speaking of which.

"Is it still far?" he asked, not bothering to hide his impatience. "It feels like we've been down there for hours."

"Almost there. Just have to continue in this direction." the Claussell girl pointed toward yet another flight of stairs – at least those were going up – without the slightest hesitation.

As if to answer her statement, a shrill, panicked scream echoed through the hallway, coming straight from the direction she wanted them to go.

"Huh. Seems like someone woke that big thing. Better hurry."

Well, wasn't that ominous. "Dare I ask what 'big thing' you are referring to?" Something told him the answer was not about to improve his mood.

"You'll see soon enough." she said, before breaking into a sprint. He followed suit once again.

If one of his classmates was in peril, it was probably his duty to provide assistance – and if the one in trouble turned out to be a certain green, spiky haired nuisance, the prospect of having him in his debt was not entirely without appeal. Such petty thought was probably unworthy of the Albarea name, Jusis acknowledged within the safety of his own mind. Then again, the day had been frustrating enough, and he wasn't about to deny the one thing that might brighten it up a bit.

Sometimes it was the little things that counted, after all.

As he went flying, Rean Schwarzer couldn't help but think that things weren't going as well as they could.

The black-haired swordsman suppressed a grunt as he hit the stone floor, yet he still managed to roll away, avoiding the massive paw that crushed the pavement he landed on. The monster roared, but Gaius' spear thrust managed to distract it long enough for Rean to stand up once again, gasping for breath.

Unfortunately, it was all the attack could accomplish. The blow, like half a dozen the two fighters managed to land before, barely scratched their opponent. Machias shots weren't doing much either, its rock-hard skin once again preventing their weapons from drawing blood. Did that monster even have blood? Rean doubted it could entirely be made of stone – the creature seemed too fast and too agile for that – but then again, nothing about this beast made sense.

The first blow had come from nowhere. The four-man team had made due progress, withstanding the various monster ambushes with only a couple of scratches here and there. And as they finally spotted what seemed like sunlight coming from the top of a stairway, they had hoped the 'orienteering' exercise was coming to an end. Of course, Rean should have known nothing was ever that easy. Which was why he was almost blaming himself for not anticipating that of course the giant statue watching over the stairs would spontaneously animate to kill them all.

The creature was looking a bit like the tigers or panthers he had seen pictures of in his master's travel books. That is, if panthers or tigers were three-arges high, had bull-like horns, a pair of giant wings and were made of stone. So maybe not all that alike, all things considered. The really important thing though, Rean reminded himself, was that this monster had sharp claws and fangs, horns that looked awfully pointy, was nearly impervious to damage, and was deceptively fast for its size.

Rean wasn't sure he liked these odds.

By now, Gaius was frantically backing away, doing his best to keep the enraged gargoyle at bay by using the full range of his spear. Machias was attempting to provide support but having to aim in a melee, even against such a large target, wasn't making things easy for him. The few shots he did manage to take were mostly glancing blows, barely noticed by their target. As for Elliot-

"A-Aqua Bleed!"

The water bolt hit the creature's side, making it roar in pain and stopping it dead in its tracks. That was enough to give Rean some hope back; if orbal artes were effective against the monster, then maybe they could pull it off after all. His newfound optimism was replaced by horror as he saw the gargoyle turning its head toward their red-headed friend, before breaking into a sprint.

Rean didn't need Elliot's panicked shriek to realize how bad this could be. He and Gaius barely managed to survive in close quarters against that foe; the orbal staff user would be torn apart. The black-haired swordsman rushed forward in a desperate attempt to intercept the pouncing creature; unfortunately someone else had the exact same idea. As Rean darted forward, his path was accidentally blocked by Gaius, sword and spear users on a collision course with each other due to their haste. The loud curse coming from behind also told him they just blocked Machias' line of fire. Great.

Spinning around, Rean managed to avoid crashing into his ally while still dodging the rampaging monster, but his opportunity to strike was lost. The foreign spearman wasn't so lucky, and got thrown out of the monster path, who continued a mad dash toward its target without ever slowing down. Elliot was frozen in horror, his staff pointed forward like a spear in the futile hope that would be enough to make the creature falter.

For the second time today, his rescue came from Machias. The bespectacled gunman gave up on firing and instead threw himself at the red-headed boy, pushing him away to safety. His heroics cost him dearly though, as the creature's claws missed Elliot, but managed to graze his savior's forearm instead. Machias fell back, letting out a painful cry. Before the monster could press its advantage, Rean was once again in melee range, striking at its legs before retreating, the enraged beast hot on his tail.

Frantically, he tried to remember the steps his former master tried to teach him, the strikes he made him practice over and over in the desperate hope that something would stick. But now that his life depended on those lessons, his inadequacies were painfully clear. Was it any wonder he ended up being kicked out?

Damn it, focus!

Rean dodged a swiping claw before retaliating, his blade barely scratching the skin once again. Gaius rushed to his aid, this time wary of not getting in the way. While the two of them made for a decent enough team in their previous skirmishes, a couple of hours were far from enough to learn how to perfectly fight side-by-side. In other circumstances, not accidentally injuring each other would be deemed a good enough result! For now, the two fighters stayed on the defensive, focusing on avoiding the heavy blows sent their way.

Visibly frustrated, the creature halted the assault, giving them some much needed breathing room. Before they could count their blessings though, its head reared back, before expelling a burst of flames in their direction. Diving to the side, Rean felt the heat singing his face, but managed to remain unharmed otherwise. The spearman wasn't so lucky, the attack leaving scorching marks on his left flank as he rolled away, gritting his teeth.

"It-it can breathe fire too?!"

Rean could understand Elliot's tone of horror. What was this thing? And more importantly, how did they kill it? They were hanging in so far, and Elliot's healing artes were a precious boon - already Machias seemed to have the use of his injured arm - but that would only take them so far. Rean and his friends were drenched in sweat and breathing hard, while the beast didn't seem to slow down. And even artes could only be used for so long before their orbment started giving out. They had to end it, and soon. He shouted:

"Machias! We need your gun at point-blank range!"

"You want me to get close to that thing?!" Even without seeing his face, Rean could picture the green-haired tclassmate's scowl. "This is beyond reckless!"


He could understand the marksman's reluctance, especially given the close call he already went through, but he suspected that a blast from that gun right to the monster's face was their best bet to hurt it and break its momentum. But for that to happen, he had to make sure the gargoyle remained focused on him and Gaius. The Nord nomad was already back into the fray, each twirl of his spear releasing small bursts of wind. He managed to drive the monster back a few steps, though his pained gasps were proof that his previous injury was taking its toll.

Rean took a deep breath. He really couldn't afford to hesitate now. He might have been a disappointing pupil, but he was still a student of the 'Eight Leaves One Blade' school. Even if his mastery left a lot to be desired for, that didn't mean he learned nothing. Taking advantage of the spearman's protection, Rean took a step back and sheathed his tachi.

Fourth form.

Clearing his mind, he assumed a crouching stance. And just as Gaius was finally knocked back by a vicious wing strike, he darted forward.

Autumn Leaf Cutter.

With a sudden burst of speed, Rean dived under the claw aimed at him before unleashing his own blade, the cut powered by the lightning-fast draw and his own momentum. This time his strike was rewarded with a pained growl, as steel tore through the creature's wing. The monster stumbled just as Rean finished moving behind it, ready to take advantage of his new position.

The razor-sharp tail put an unexpected end to Rean's assault as well as the idea that the back of this creature could be a blind spot, almost cutting his stomach open. Still he had created an opening, and as he hoped, Machias was there to take it. With a pale face but a determined frown, the rifle-user rushed forward, thrusting his orbal gun to the monster's still dazed head. The echoes of the shot were almost immediately drowned by a roar of agony, and the gargoyle stumbled back, its face oozing some sort of purple blood. One of its eyes was clearly done for. This was their chance.

"Orbal artes, now!"

Rean activated his battle orbment, and the others were quick to follow his lead. The red quartz in the device glowed as he focused to shape the oncoming energy before releasing it, his three teammates doing the same almost simultaneously.

"Aqua Bleed!"

"Fire Bolt!"

"Air Strike!"

"Needle Shot!"

The four elemental blasts struck true, dropping the target to the ground. The black-haired teen allowed himself to let out a relieved sigh. This had been way too close for comfort. The creature was still moving, but at this point, it was injured and exhausted, finishing it should be easier.

"G-guys? Is it supposed to do that?"

Elliot's worried voice snapped Rean to attention, and a second look at the monster made his eyes widen. No, no it definitely wasn't supposed to do that.

What was even happening was admittedly hard to explain. Rean had some experience with monsters, having spent most of his training in the northern wilderness of the Eisengard Range, but all of those he fought until now had been relatively straightforward. They had claws, teeth, hard skin or wings, and a single glance usually told you all there was to know about them. This one had seemed much of the same, if bigger and stronger than what he was used to. In that respect, the fire breath had been a nasty surprise.

But as he watched the monster stand up once again, Rean reflected that he had never seen a monster skin change during a fight. The grey, stone-like tones of the beast were now tinted with gold, entire portions of its wings and members taking a metallic quality. Activating his orbment once again, he took advantage of its dazed state to send another fire artes, and watched in dismay the previously effective attack being entirely shrugged off.

"Did-did it spontaneously evolve after absorbing too much orbal energy?" Machias asked, eyes wide. "Can it do that?" Rean honestly had no idea.

"Never mind that" said Elliot, teeth chattering and clearly struggling to keep it together. "Is it healing?! Aidios help us!"

He was right, Rean realized with dread. The eye that had been previously mangled by Machias seemed to be whole once again, and the few wounds they had inflicted were closing. This... this was really bad. A sentiment visibly echoed by Machias disgusted groan.

"This is ridiculous!"

Gaius still offered a collected front, but there was no mistaking the slight wobbliness of his stance or the shaking of his arms. Even he was exhausted. "Elliot, you should make a run for the stairs. We'll try to cover you and follow if given the chance."

Was it the best they could achieve, Rean asked himself? Elliot and Machias would probably be safe with this plan, but things would be considerably harder for him and Gaius. Maybe one of them would manage to escape, if the other was in a good enough state to hold off the beast a few seconds. But the remaining one would have little hope.

He drew out a frustrated breath. They were running out of time and options. Already the monster seemed about to attack. With their current level of exhaustion and its own wounds healed, the odds seemed dire.

In that case-

"Stand back!"

The warning was immediately followed by a flaming arrow exploding on impact, ruining the monster's attempt at pouncing. Before it could recuperate, a wave of purple flames washed over the creature, doing little damage but leaving it disoriented and wide-open for the blue haired swordswoman rushing forward. The powerful two handed strike knocked back the beast several paces away as the three newcomers took position among the group.

"You made it!"

The relief in Elliot's voice was palpable, and to pretend this wasn't a shared feeling would have been a lie.

"You certainly have good timing." Gaius quietly chuckled, as Rean nodded in appreciation.

The blonde newcomer sighed in relief. "Seems like you're all okay at least!"

Beside her, the purple haired girl gave them all a shy smile. "I'm sorry we took so long."

It was clear from their scuffed clothes and dirtied faces that the three girls had gone through their own set of challenge during the exploration. The one who had been introduced as Emma was trying hard to catch her breath, preventing with one hand her glasses from falling off with the other gripping an orbal staff, not unlike the one Elliot was wielding. The girl whose ire he had incurred earlier today – Alisa, he remembered – had her blonde hair mucked up with dirt, and there was a faint trace of blood of the sleeve on her uniform; that didn't prevent her red eyes to glare at the monster blocking their path, her mechanical bow at the ready. Only Laura seemed to be mostly unscathed, the tall swordswoman keeping her two handed sword trailed on the opponent.

"So, a gargoyle, is it? I didn't expect to find the Dark Ages alive and well down here." She seemed to size up the monster. "It doesn't seem like it will go down easily."

As if to answer, the beast let out a menacing roar, starting to circle around the group as if searching for the best angle to attack. Still, Rean could feel his hope being rekindled. With this many of them, if they might just be able to find an opening.

"Fine. I guess I'll help out."

The new female voice made Rean risk a glance away from the monster, only to see the small white haired girl standing in the passageway, an impassive expression on her face. The Albarea noble was coming in behind her, his icy blue eyes quickly assessing the situation before slowly drawing his longsword.

"Hmph. So it all comes down to me, then."

The aside glance at Machias was unmistakable, making the later bristle. To his credit though, he did not take the bait, simply clenching his teeth before focusing once again on the monster. Seemingly undaunted by the increased numbers of opponents, the beast took a step forward, and the room exploded into action.

The gargoyle's advance was met with a barrage of projectiles, forcing it to use its wings as improvised shields. Rean moved onward once again, briefly noticing that his battle orbment was now emitting a strange blue light, before bringing his focus back to the fight. As long as it was still in working order, investigating the device could wait. Finding itself surrounded by the Thors freshmen, the creature lashed out all around, swinging its claws and spiked tail in wide arcs while its mouth once again let out a stream of fire. Yet in a surprising display of coordination, the attacks were parried or evaded, while shots and orbal arts kept pouring in, pinning the beast down.

Rean deflected a tail slap meant for Jusis, before retaliating with a diagonal cut, scratching the monster's face. The move left his back exposed to its left paw, but the attempt to take advantage of the opening was simply repelled by Laura's parry. Around them, the silver-haired girl was darting in and out of range, dancing around the strikes sent her way while her dual gunswords alternated between sharp cuts and repeated shots aimed at the creature's joints. Behind them, the ranged combatants kept up their fire support, somehow managing to avoid their close-range allies in the process.

How well this was going was frankly abnormal, Rean offhandedly thought as he delivered another sword slash. While their increased numbers were certainly an advantage, he had expected a lot more confusion and chaos in their ranks. Even when he was just fighting alongside Gaius, they had gotten in each other's ways more than once, despite having a certain degree of familiarity with each other, after fighting side-by-side for two hours in that labyrinth. Similarly, Machias and Elliot had both shown a great deal of trouble to take a shot without risking injuring an ally. With nine of them focused on a single target, those problems should have been exponentially worse.

Yet the exact opposite was happening. Rean saw Gaius stepping aside to give Alisa a clear line of fire when he shouldn't have been able to see her take aim. He watched Jusis instinctively dive into an opening that hadn't existed when he started to move, his path only clearing when Laura broke the creature's guard with a massive overhead strike. He himself managed to somehow coordinate perfectly the timing of his next blow with the blinding flare cast by Emma, despite not knowing she could even do that in the first place. It was as if he was aware of his allies' every move before they were even making it.

In the face of such onslaught, the gargoyle was quickly weakening. Each moment was coming with a new injury suffered, while the few blows that did manage to graze the students were almost immediately healed by a pale, but resolute Elliot. In frustration, it delivered a massive strike from both of its front legs on the ground, cracking the stone floor with enough force to stagger the closest fighters.

The move had put the creature's already injured elbow in Rean's range though, and he didn't let the occasion go. Aiming at the cut, his tachi found its mark, biting deep into the monster's flesh who jerked its head in pain. That was the only opening Laura needed. With a loud battle cry, she swung her massive sword at the creature's exposed neck. The blade only briefly slowed down before cleaving all the way through. The monster's body instantly collapsed as its head rolled away, to the relief of all students.

"Ah!" Machias spat between two hard breaths "Try healing from that, why don't you!"

A collapsing Elliot weakly laughed. "Please don't even joke about it. I don't think I could go on for a second longer."

"We did it!" cheered Alisa while offering Emma a high five, the purple-haired girl hesitantly hesitantly raising her own hand as if not entirely certain of the correct way to proceed. Her relieved smile did mirror her classmate's triumphant grin at least. Well, if this victory didn't warrant some congratulations, Rean didn't know what would. The room itself served as a witness to their struggle,; the floor was cracked in places, the stone walls were showing scorching marks where the monster's breath had hit, and one orbal lamp had been shattered in pieces, courtesy of rifle shot who failed to find its mark.

"What happened there anyway?" asked Elliot, still a little out of breath. "At the end of the battle..."

He had to admit he wondered about that too. And Rean was not alone in that respect, as he watched Alisa frown at the question. "Now that you mention it, I did feel something wash over me for just a second there."

"I noticed my orbment was engulfed in some faint blue light" Machias interjected. "Could that be related?"

Jusis threw him a sceptical look, but the phenomenon was too similar to what Rean had experienced to be a mere coincidence. Beside him, Laura slowly nodded as she minutiously wiped her sword clean.

"I did notice something as we fought. Perhaps it was just the blur of combat, but I felt like I could see everyone's movements in precise details."

Clearly everyone else had the same sensation. In his opinion that could only mean one thing.

"I have the feeling what we just experienced was -"

"The biggest selling point of the almighty ARCUS?" a cheerful voice interrupted. "Give this man a prize!"

Everyone turned to see their smiling instructor standing on the top floor above them, a playful glint shining in her yellow eyes. How long had she been here? Did she watch the whole fight? Rean wasn't sure if knowing she might have been able to jump in at any moment was reassuring or infuriating. Nonetheless, the teacher seemed quite pleased with herself, sauntering down the massive stone stairway to meet them.

"Looks like friendship and teamwork save the day once again! I'm so proud of you guys!" The declaration was only met with deathly silence. "Anyway, that about finishes up today special orienteering exercise..."

Her sentence trailed off as she seemed to become aware of the dubious or angry glares sent her way. Visibly dismayed by the sudden unanimity against her, she looked for a sign of support among her students, only to find none.

"Aww, what's with the long faces? I thought you'd all be happy!" Rean rolled his eyes at her distraught expression, too dramatic to be entirely honest.

"And what are we supposed to be happy about?" retorted Machias, looking unimpressed as he checked his rifle for potential damage.

Alisa massaged her temples. "I have so many questions I'm not even sure where to start."

"I'll take a stab at it." announced Jusis. He clearly was not amused by the whole ordeal. "What exactly is the purpose behind this 'class VII'? And why choose us in particular?"

That, thought Rean, was a pretty good question. He could understand the appeal of trying to mix up nobles and commoners, but that seemed like an awful lot of trouble for simply running a social experiment, especially one that would involve a member of a great house.

"Hm. Well, there's no single, monolithic reason why you all made the list." Sara admitted, looking somewhat more serious for a change. "But if I had to name a major factor, it'd be those ARCUS orbments you've got there."

That word again. Rean was starting to lose patience as well. "And that is?"

"Oh right, I did skip that part over. Well, allow me to introduce you to the All-Round Communication and Unison System, or ARCUS for short." The announcement came with a sweeping gesture at nothing in particular, unless her intention had been for them to pay attention to the bare walls of the room. "The latest generation of battle orbments, developed jointly by the Epstein Foundation and the Reinford Company. Impressive, right?"

That was impressive, Rean had to admit. Technology wasn't his forte, but he doubted anyone in Erebonia wouldn't be familiar with those names. The Epstein Foundation was perhaps the most famous research center of the continent, named after the man who managed to revolutionize orbal science, sending the whole continent through a technological boom. Half a century later, his works continued to inspire researchers across Zemuria, no year passing without a new technological breakthrough occurring. As for the Reinford Company, they were the prominent industrial group in Erebonia, and in a close partnership with the country's military. A joint project from those two groups was bound to be special.

Sara continued her explanation, describing each new point with a raised finger. "Like any battle orbments, they let you use artes. They also have a built-in communication functionality. But their crowning feature is what's known as combat linking. That's the phenomenon you all experienced just now. Doesn't take a genius to imagine how much of an advantage a feature like that would be on a real battlefield."

Well, they didn't have to imagine. After experiencing its effects during the fight, Rean didn't have any doubts about its potential usefulness, though howand why it activated when it did remained unclear. Meanwhile, Sara continued her sales pitch, gushing over her product as if she had been the one to design it in the first place.

"An elite unit that can sense each other's movements, acting in perfect sync even in the most chaotic conditions? You can hardly put a price on that! It could bring about a revolution in the way wars are fought!"

"Hmm" Laura mused, eyeing the device on her wrist with an hesitant look. "It does sound rather..."

"Idealistic" cut the silver-haired girl beside her, looking unimpressed. She seemed to find the monster's body far more interesting than their teacher's explanations, examining it under all its angles while barely paying attention to the ongoing discussion.

"Well yeah," Sara admitted. "The technology is still in its infancy. Some have a natural aptitude for it, others just don't. And out of this year's fresh batch of bright-eyed students, the nine of you turned out to have the highest aptitude. And since aptitude trumps background in class VII, here you are!"

Machias still seemed to have doubts. "But what gives us this 'aptitude' though? How do you measure it? It just seems so random."

"Excuse me, I'd like to get back to something important."

All eyes turned toward Alisa. The twin-tailed archer had seemed to be deep in thoughts for a while, but when she looked at Sara Valestein, Rean couldn't help but flinch at the glint of anger that seemed to lie behind her calm face. At least it wasn't directed at him this time.

"This 'linking' thing is amazing, don't get me wrong. But you mentioned those ARCUS units also being a communication device?"

Come to think of it, that would be rather impressive too. Orbal phones had been a major innovation of the last two decades, but Rean had never heard of a way to make such a device portable.

"Yeah?" agreed Sara hesitantly, as if sensing a trap. "To be honest, I'm surprised you of all people didn't notice this. I would have thought-"

"So let me get this straight," Alisa interrupted once again. "When we ended up thrown into a labyrinth, got split up all over the place and had our life threatened by monsters, we had a way to keep in touch all along and coordinate even at a distance, but you didn't even tell us?"

Sara opened her mouth, closed it, then rubbed the back of her head before laughing awkwardly.

"I kind of forgot?"

Their instructor soon found herself under fire from a constant barrage of outraged complaints, wild accusations and barely veiled sarcasms from her would-be students, answering it all with half-hearted excuses and a sheepish smile.

Why did Rean suddenly have the distinct feeling this was going to be a major fixture of the next two years?

Notes: Those remembering the game might also remember that in it, the students learn about the fact that their magic wands are also cellphones from the get-go. So why did I change that? While keeping the theme of 'Sara is winging it and did not really think things through' is an added bonus, mostly it's because it always struck me as weird that they didn't use the fact that they could have talked to each other whenever during this portion of the game, instead relying on randomly bumping into each other with everyone basically running in circle without even any attempt at coordination. I mean sure, it makes sense for those who decided to go in alone, but you'd think the ones who joined a group from the get-go would remember this option is also open. So here they just didn't know the option existed. Incredibly minor and nitpicky problem solved!

Next time: Gaius and Emma are not in Texas anymore.