Beyond the Outer Gates Lies... Only a Test?

Monday was fairly normal. Other than Ophis sitting off to the side, staring. Rias and Sona went over the laws governing Devil contracts. Then they talked about how and why Extra Demon families were selected to repalce the extinct Pillar families.

It was actually an interesting process. Extra Demon families applied for what territory and rank they wanted. First they were screened based on how many family members and vassals they had. A Duke or Prince had to have greater numbers than a Baron or Viscount. Then the candidate families who passed muster submitted three champions into a round robin gladiatorial team combat tournament. Finally, the top three finishing families were voted on by the surviving Pillar families, and the (at least back then) newly appointed replacement Satans. So it wasn't pure politics, they had to have the resources to actually control their new seat. But for those who did qualify, having the support of the existing nobles was the final key. Support, or I suppose, bribes or blackmail.

Then I went over the British Invasion, and the rise and decline of hair metal. After that, Rossweisse and I covered Devil and Black magic school curses and hexes, and the difference between them. Which on a simple level boiled down to complexity, duration, and how difficult they were to remove. But we made sure my friends would be able to give more complete and complex answers if it came up as a short form question on the Magic test.

Later that night, I was lying in bed, trying to get to sleep. Unfortunately, I was more than a little nervous.

"Three and a half days to study," I muttered, "And so much to cover."

Mister didn't seem concerned. He had decided this February night was cold enough the he would deign to let me help warm him, so was resting half asleep next to me. Lash appeared on the other side of my bed, looking at me.

And I didn't miss that she was only wearing a copy of the t-shirt I had gifted Serafall. Gifted in that my Maou never returned it and I didn't expect she would, even if I asked.

'Unfortunately, there is little we can do, Harry,' she said gently, 'Gremory Rias might be willing to pull the members of her Peerage out of Kuoh Academy to study for this. But Sitri Sona will not, nor would she allow you or Rossweisse to play hooky. Well, she could not stop either of you, but she would certainly make her displeasure known.'

"Yeah," I agreed, "Not that I would. Helping Ise and company while two of my girlfriends who need the same help are stuck in regular classes? Even I'm not that oblivious or dumb. If only we had a police box... Or at least a DeLorean."

'You want to go the Bill and Ted route?' Lash prompted incredulously.

"More the Bill and Ted 2 route. Take a few months via time travel to study. Or maybe jump forward and get the answers, so I know what to teach them."

'Harry,' she gave me an exasperated look, 'If you are going to cheat, at least do it properly.'

Then she paused, adopted a thoughtful expression, and asked, 'Why haven't you asked to accompany the Devils to the Underworld to observe the Middle Class Devil exam? I know you are curious, and also wish to cheer on your friends.'

"Well," I hemmed as I considered the question, "Honestly, I hadn't really thought of it. I almost asked if I could take the test, but that was definitely a non-starter, so I guess I never dialed it back to just going and watching."

'Why is you taking the exam a 'non-starter'?' she prompted.

"Well, for starters..."

Lash rolled her eyes at me.

"... I imagine it would be pretty hard to arrange. Considering how some of the Devil families, especially the ones with major politic heft, feel about Humans, it would be hard to get approval. The Sitri and Gremory houses not withstanding. Serafall and Sirzechs would probably need to call in, or offer out some pretty big favors to make it happen. If they even could. But beyond that, it's a lose-lose situation."

'How do you figure that?' my brainmate pressed.

"Well, if I lose, then all the favors were for nothing. And all that political turmoil falls harder on Serafall, because I'm no longer a special case for fighting the Brigands. And if I win... Well, then I go from being the first Wizard in a century, to being the first Wizard in a century with both the knowledge and power to be a Middle Class Devil. The factions of the Brigade that have ignored and discounted me so far won't be able to anymore. And even the non-Brigaide asshole Devils will probably have it in for me. And the rest of the Devils will more than likely start actively trying to convert me."

'As to your point about be allowed to take the exam,' Lash countered, 'You seem to be forgetting the debt the Baal family heir owes you. And while they are lower in noble rank, both the Marax and Furcas families are friendly towards you, and likely feel they also owe you a debt.'

"That's true," I admitted.

'Possibly the Lamia family as well,' she added. Then she sighed, and waved her free hand, 'That said, I cannot properly refute your scenarios for if you were to pass or fail the exam. I fear either result may be worse than you expect.'

"Great," I groaned. Then shrugged, "So it's a good thing I'm not asking. But I think I will at least ask if I can go down with them. See how Tsubasa and Reya do. Celebrate if they pass or comfort them if they don't."

'Are you thinking about rescheduling your data with Yura Tsubasa for a hotel in the Underworld? Or perhaps a room in the Sitri manor?'

"I not sure I should even consider the latter," I groused.

Now I was going to have a hard time falling asleep. Damn it, Lash.

Tuesday, after our regular classes let out, we all headed to Hyoudou House. And on our way...

"Sona, Rias, I have a request."

My King addressed me seriously, while Ise's King's eyes sparkled mischievously.

"I realize it is late notice," I prefaced, "But I'm hoping it will be possible for me to come with you guys. Go to the Underworld with you, observe the Exams. Be there to cheer everyone on, and for whatever comes after."

Rias sighed and hung her head. She looked at Sona, and told her friend, "You win."

We all looked at them.

"We had a wager," Sona explained, "I knew you would ask to accompany us. Rias believed you would want to take the Exam."

"To be fair, I did think about that," I admitted, "But I figured there would be opposition to that. And I also thought that it would be problematic if I was able to take it."

"Why?" Asia asked, confused.

"Now I am the mysterious Wizard who hangs around with some Devils and is probably on par with them," I told her, "If I fail the test, I'm the weak hanger-on Wizard leaching off some Devils, which would be a problem on the political front. If I pass, I'm the Human who is at least as strong as a Middle Class Devil. Which makes me more of a target on both sides. And either way, I'm less mysterious. And that is a definite no-no for a Wizard. Goes against the code. I could get demoted, or even have my membership revoked."

Asia nodded right up to the end.

"That's a joke," I admitted with dismay, "There's no Wizard organization or code. I'm the only living Wizard we know of, right? And I'm not part of any of the Magicians' groups."

"Oh, yes," the former nun looked looked disappointed.

"Either way," Sona put us back on topic, "We were prepared for your request. You are more than welcome to accompany us, Harry."

"Thanks, Sona, Rias," I smiled.

"Thank our siblings," the red-head said.

"I will," I assured them both.

"Well I for one, am very happy Harry is coming with us," Tsubasa latched onto my arm, as we continued out way. Reya and Sona both looked like they wished they could have, too. But neither of them wanted to look suspicious in front of my neighbors or even just the random strangers on the street.

Sona got my arm Wednesday, and Reya on Thursday. I guess they were counting on those neighbors or strangers to have short memories. Not that I was complaining.

We talked about the Cold Wars; the one on Earth between Russia and the US, and their respective allies. And also the three part conflict where the Devils, Hades, and Hela all subtly opposed and tormented each other. It made we wonder if Stalin and Truman were influenced, directly or not, by the inhabitants of the Underworld.

We discussed how shadow, dark, and gravity magic were similar and different, and most importantly where video games and RPGs got them wrong.

That was all Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were less focused, instead of topics, we reviewed and had our students memorizes specific questions that had been on both of the last two exams. Or at least appeared with slight variation; "who was the 40th president of the United States?" and "which former actor was elected US president in 1980?" were different questions with the same answer. Or, like we had discussed on the first day of study; "what sea separates Hell from Helheim?" was essentially the same as "which domain of lies north of the Sea of Gehenna?". We wanted to make sure everyone remembered a handful of questions we deemed likely to appear.

As we wound up for the evening Thursday, Sona addressed me and her three Peers.

"You should all bring your overnight bags when we meet here tomorrow," she instructed us, "We will be leaving from here for the Underworld. We will be resting in a hotel near the testing facility Friday night into Saturday morning, and then again Saturday night before returning Sunday."

"I'm right next door," I shrugged, "but I'll pack tonight and grab my bag after class."

"Maybe I'll pack my bag tonight and then drop it off at Harry's," Tsubasa gave me a look as she said that.

"Fine by me," I said nonchalantly. Then I told Reya and Sona, "You two feel free to do that too, if you want."

"I may take you up on that," Sona said, "Rather than take it to school or expend magic to teleport home."

"What about me?" Tsubaki looked annoyed.

"Well, you don't have the key to my wards," I shrugged, "For multiple reasons. But maybe if you ask, Sona would wait for you to drop your bag off and bring them both over. Or Tsubasa or Reya would come to get it, since you can't be teleporting to their houses."

"I will come get your bag, Fuku... Tsubaki-san," Reya told the Queen, "Just text me when you are ready."

"Or you could just bring it here," Ise suggested, "You, too, Kiba."

I remembered that unlike the rest of the ORC, or as of last week Ravel for that matter, Kiba didn't live in Hyoudou House. Gaspar either. But the little vampire lived in the old schoolhouse, and I didn't know where the Knight lived.

"Are you coming, too?" I asked Ophis, remembering she was there.

"I watch the Oppai Dragon," she said after a moment, "I will accompany."

My three youngest girlfriends dropped off their bags and only exchanged only brief kisses with me, before leaving for the night. Tsubaki ended up taking Reya up on her offer, so my Bishop had both bags. I didn't snoop, but I did cast a few detection spells on the Queen's tote.

Friday classes were normal. Our group had a buzz of energy that our regular and regular-ish classmates did not. They were just learning for the weekend. We had bigger fish to fry.

Serafall was waiting for us outside of the gates to Kuoh Academy. And she immediately latched onto my left arm. I guessed someone had been telling tales. I glanced at Reya and Tsubasa, and my Rook had a smug look.

We split off in front of my house. The Gremory crew went straight to Hyoudou House, while I led the Sitri Peerage plus Serafall inside. My Maou didn't need to come in, but I knew she wasn't just going to wait outside, either. The five of us collected our bags, and then we all went next door.

"Where are Miki and Gorou?" I asked Mittelt, when she let us in.

"Since Draco-perv and the harem are all going out for the weekend," she said dismissively, "They went out to get some... Well, they said dinner, but it's a bit early and they said not to wait up, so I'm guessing they're going to a kinky love hotel or something. Come on, I'll take you down."

I frowned slightly at that. The petite Fallen led us to the stairs, and down to the third basement level. Everyone was waiting for us. And by everyone, I mean that there were more than a few people I wasn't expecting.

Ise, Rias, Akeno, Asia, and Kiba were there as expected. Rossweisse I also expected, but wasn't sure about. Xenovia and Koneko I was not expecting, but I wasn't terribly surprised; the Knight was close with Asia, and Koneko was one of Issei's girlfriends.

"Where is Gaspar?" I asked about the only Gremory Peer missing.

"He is training with a couple of Grigori scientists who are also Vampire experts," Azazel answered, "He has been meeting them every weekend since we got back to Earth, trying to better understand and control his Balor transformation."

Yes, Az was here too, standing with Ophis, Le Fay, and Fenrir. The two members of the Vali group making their first appearance before us since Saturday. Though I understood they had been staying here to guard Ophis, but I hadn't seen them. Ravel was also waiting, though I wasn't sure if it was for our brief study session, or if she was also coming with us.

Beyond that, I was surprised to see Sirzechs and Grayfia. I guess they were in Japan for some reason and were travelling back with the rest of us.

I turned to Mittelt, and prompted, "Are you coming with us, too?"

"Ah, no," she said quickly and firmly, "I didn't ask, and wasn't invited. Even if I had been invited, unless it was an order I would have declined. My job is to keep this mansion clean and keep the Hyoudous safe. Besides, I don't particularly care about the Devil's noble ranks and the games they play with them. Though I guess if Draco..."

Then she suddenly dropped into her maid act, "If Hyoudou-sama and the others were to be promoted, it would reflect better on my employment. And maybe I could ask for a raise."

Then the mask dropped again, "So I'm going back to work. Let me know if you need anything before you leave."

She turned and walked pertly back into the stairwell.

"You know, I actually think she is enjoying this job," Az mused with a combination of surprise and amusement.

"Tsundere," Koneko said. I struggled not to call her out on that.

"Why are we down here?" I asked, "Are we going to study something in the library before it is time to head to the train station? And when does the train leave?"

Everyone just grinned. Well, not everyone; Ophis didn't emote at all, and LeFay seemed as out of the loop as I was. But even Fenrir gave a doggy smirk of amusement.

Rias waved us on, and we moved to the end of the hall. She pressed three seemingly insignificant spots on the wall, and a hidden door opened. We all went in, and my jaw almost dropped.

The room was square, about fifty feet on a side. Most of the room was simple, thick granite structure to stabilize and reinforce the place. No decoration. Cheap fluorescent lights in the ceiling.

But what stood out was the floor. There was a forty foot diameter mandala carved into the stone. The main circle had 55 layers. There were also three sub-circles with three layers, and another one with only two layers. All total there were over a thousand runes; Lash was still cataloging them at the moment, but the number didn't really matter. The circles and lines and runes were also filled with gold, platinum, ruby, or emerald. I estimated the circle to be worth more than any three other houses on the block.

"Stars and stones... What is this?" I mumbled. Then quickly, before one of the various smartasses present could comment, I added, "I mean, I know it's a magic circle. A really, really complex teleportation circle..."

I trailed off at it hit me.

"That's it, isn't it?" I demanded in shock, "This is a spell to teleport to the Underworld."

Serafall squeezed my arm tighter and said proudly, "That's my Harry-chan."

"Technically," Sirzechs said, almost apologetically, "It is translocation spell. It can take you to one of three similar circles in the Underworld, as those circles can take you here or between each other. This connects to the main Gremory home, a certain Gremory safe house slash summer home, and my family's primary home."

I studied it, silently and rapidly conferring with Lash.

"Those three embedded mandalas," I said, "Those are the destinations. And the smaller sub-circle is the location or key to this circle."

"Very well done," Az complimented me.

"Since Sona told me about this, I've been wondering," Reya said tentatively, "If this circle exists, why even have the train? Why not just put this in the train station, and just let people transport instantly?"

"Even with the circle, it still takes a lot of power to teleport to Hell, right?" I prompted.

"Correct," Sona confirmed, "Reya, you would not have enough mana to use the circle without using Self-Promotion. The only ones here who could are Sirzechs-sama, Grayfia-sama, onee-chan, Azazel-sensei, Ophis-sama, myself, Rias, Himejima-san... and maybe Harry."

She gave me a contemplative and worried look.

'Soulfire,' Lash said, 'She does not think you can activate the circle with your own magical energy, but you have access to a secondary source she is less familiar with.

"For the mana to activate this circle once for a single person," Grayfia explained, "The train could make one round trip, carrying hundreds of passengers and their luggage."

"They actually came here earlier," Serafall gestured to Sirzechs and Grayfia, "To help Az and me teleport the rest of you down. They came early to have time to recover."

"Even with the four of them," Sona said, "Rias, Rossweisse, and I will be providing as much mana as we can. And the rest of you will still need to provide some."

"Unnecessary," Ophis said, "As thanks, I will power the circle."

That didn't frighten me. Nope, not at all. And no-one else looked nervous either.

Okay, I'm lying. Sirzechs, Az, and Le Fay were the only ones not disturbed by her casual offer to provide almost as much energy as everyone else here combined. Even Grayfia and Serafall flinched.

"Thanks, Ophis," Ise said, "That'll help a lot."

"The energy cost aside," Azazel reverted topics to distract us, "The circle has limited destinations, while the trains effectively do not. There are twenty five active trains, traveling between thirteen places on Earth and four in Hell. And I understand they are in the process of adding routes to Valhalla and Heaven."

"Besides," Rias pointed out, "sometimes it is nice to kick back and take a more leisurely and scenic method of travel."

"And some of the Devil families like to show off with their private cars," Serafall said, a bit more softly and seriously than usual.

"To make sure everyone is aware and in agreement," Sona said, "We will first be teleporting to the Gremory summer home. Then, after paying our respects to Lord and Lady Gremory for the use of the circle, we will be teleporting to the hotel within the Glasya-Labolas territory. It is within walking distance of the exam site. Since we will be losing three hours, even when teleporting, dinner will be waiting for us when we arrive at the hotel. We will do one last review this evening, and then turn in early, to make sure the seven of you are all well rested for the exam tomorrow."

She didn't ask if we had any questions or objections, but did pause and glance around.

"So-tan is a good planner," Serafall said happily.

"Sounds good to me," Azazel agreed, "We can have some fun tomorrow night, after you all pass."

The teleportation was quick and painless, but also more than a little draining. Lash and I watched very closely as the circle powered up, and a flash of blue purple energy moved us to a similar but not identical room in another plane of existence. We also made note of the differences in the source sub-circle, as well as the destination sub-circle for Hyoudou House on Earth.

I was nowhere near having the money to reproduce the mandala, but that knowledge might still prove useful.

We said hello to Zeoticus and Venelana, thanking them for the use of the circle.

The hotel was expecting us, and we had some of the must most tender steaks I'd ever had, and something that had the shape and texture of a potato, but was a deep blue color, and tasted like a blackberry more than anything else I could think of. Serafall and Sona assured me the tuber was completely safe and nontoxic. I didn't doubt them. And if they were wrong, I could think of worst last meals.

Alas, I woke up in the morning, well rested. And entirely alone.

Our seven students left early, each having their interview before they would be allowed to take the written exam. The rest of us met for a leisurely breakfast, though neither Maou nor Grayfia joined us. Then we left for the exam site. Along with the families and friends of the other participants, we could observe the written exam, and then the practicals.

The very first thing I noticed was that there were only sixteen participants in the shielded classroom we were overlooking. All seven of my friends and girlfriends had made it through, but there were only eight unfamiliar Devils plus Alivian from the Agares Peerage with them. Sona had said there were ten other candidates, so did that mean one didn't pass the interview? Or just dropped out for other reasons?

After everyone, both candidate and observer, was seated, the written exams were handed out. Both to them, and also to us to confirm that there was no trickery in the tests. Which allowed me the chance to take it.

The Math/Science and Magic exams were a cakewalk, and I aced them. The Underworld History and Politics sections were tougher, but I still scored about eighty on each, by Lash's count. And the Earth question was about what we suspected. Twenty questions I would expect any ten year old Human to be able to answer. A bunch that Japanese high school students still should have known. And then a number of questions about politics and pop culture from the 1930s to 1980s. All in all, I got 97 points, and if everyone else remembered what we studied, they should have gotten at least 80. I missed one on the French Revolution, and forgot the year Prohibition ended.

And the last question was one that stumped Lash and me both. "Three Killer Monte, a collaboration between Doyle and Christie, features Sherlock Holmes and Miss Jane Marple accidentally meeting in what city? A) New York B) San Francisco C) Shanghai D) Melbourne E) Athens"

The thing was, there was no such book in our previous universe. We later learned that Doyle lived seven years longer here, and wrote three more Holmes novel, including the crossover. Lash and I suspected Devilish interference.

Time ran out, and the tests were collected. They were graded. All sixteen passed. Tsubaki got the highest score. Ise and Asia were both close, but still made it. One of the other Devils scored lower then them, but again, still passed. It was time for the practicals.

There were seven copies of the practical course. And it was only possible to observe one at a time. Sona whispered that it was partly an issue of space and keeping the spells from interfering. It also helped limit cheating. I was a little annoyed we couldn't watch and cheer everyone on, but there wasn't much I could do. And the practicals were being recorded, for both grading and future adjustment purposes. We would be able to watch everyone's runs later. It just wasn't the same.

At least Tsubasa was in the first group and Reya was in the second. That made the choices easy. I didn't feel too bad about not watching Kiba in round one, since he'd have the full support of Gremory team. But Reya and Tsubaki were in the same set, so I felt a little bad about that. Not bad enough I wasn't going to watch my girlfriend. Sona was torn, but ultimately we decided that Sona, Rias, and Xenovia would observe and cheer for Tsubaki, since Sona and Rias had known her longer, and Xenovia trained with Tsubaki in the weapons group. And Rossweisse, Koneko, and I would observe Reya. Rossweisse was also Reya's teacher from the magic group and... well, Koneko was sort of left over.

The third set had Akeno, Ise, and Asia. Naturally, all four Gremory ladies wanted to watch Ise. And I was torn between Ise, my best male friend, and Asia, my surrogate little sister and student. We decided to split up again. Rossweisse and I watching Asia, again as her magic teachers. Sona and Rias watching Akeno, again for the length of their friendship. And Koneko and Xenovia winning the chance to watch Ise. Xenovia was briefly torn between Ise and Asia, but ultimately wouldn't give up the chance to study her desired mating partner.

Oh, and Ophis and Le Fay were sticking with me the first two sets of practicals, and watching Ise in the third. That was Ophis's choice, and no-one argued. Azazel split off, revealing that he helped design the final portion of the practical course, and needed to help oversee it.

There were six events on the obstacle course.

The first was like 'Knock-knock' from Takeshi's Castle. Four walls, each with a deceasing number of doors; five down to two. Instead of the doors being fake, each door had the name of a rune on it. Cast a spell on the door that uses that rune, and the door opens. Cast a spell that doesn't have that rune, and the door locks for 50 seconds. So each wall offered fewer choices, and it was possible an under prepared candidate could get trapped completely.

I worried for Ise.

The second event was a climbing valley. A series of linked climbing walls and rope nets. There were multiple paths up, and use of spells or wings was an instant disqualifier.

I was slightly worried for Asia and Reya. Though Rias had said her Bishop had been doing more jogging and stretching since Kyoto.

The third event was target practice. Destroy five of ten targets, any way you wanted, other than crossing the line. The targets were in five rows of two; the closest targets were larger, but were made of steel. Each successive row were smaller but weaker. So you could go for good aim or destructive power.

The fourth event was a series of five, two hundred meter conveyor belts. Only you were running against the conveyor, not with it. And each successive belt moved a little faster and had in increased incline. And for this one too, no spells and no wings.

Then there was an underwater maze. It was a bank of five by six boxes, each three meters square, and five meters tall. Half of the boxes had a half meter of air at the top, and the rest were full, in a gird pattern. Each box had a door on each side (not the top and bottom), at the bottom, underwater. The trick was that some of the doors worked, and others did not. Naturally the doors on the outside edge were all fake. Nothing special, but this obstacle allowed magic, though destroying the maze or the water was prohibited.

Finally, the arena. A no-holds-barred fight against an artificial opponent. Basically a high-end golem designed to perfectly mimic some sort of monster. Or monsters. They didn't say if the monsters were random, or chosen to be a challenge each individual contestant. But the contestants were also not told that their opponents were replicas.

Those were the events. But the big, major rule was that the Devils only had seven minutes to finish. Anyone who finished within seven minutes would get promoted, unless you were caught cheating, either live or in the review of the tape. Even one nanosecond over 420 seconds, and too bad. Good luck next time.

And therein was a certain rub, I suspected. You got the boot if you were caught cheating. But if you weren't caught? Maybe it was just because Lash had made me watch Naruto (until she got bored during the second tournament sub-arc of the Chunin Exam arc). But it seemed like the inverse of the first test in that story. The practicals were made to be passable without cheating. On the other hand, they were Devils. "If you are sneaky enough and think you can get away with it."

Which brought me back around to Rias's last instruction before we split up in the morning.

"When it comes to the practical, do your best to show off," the red-head told our friends.

"Onee-chan?" Asia seemed confused.

"We don't know what the practicals will be. The events, or the rules," Rias explained, "But whatever they are, make it look easy. Don't break the rules, but do anything else. If there is a wall you have to break through, don't just make a small hole, destroy the entire wall. If they say 'cast six of these ten spells', and you know eight? Cast all eight."

They all nodded.

Tsubasa was has changed into a sports bra and bike shorts. She dropped into a sprinter's stance, as the clock counted down. At zero, she burst forward like a cheetah. Instead of turning when the wall curved, she cast Dermis Elastica on herself and bounced around the bend without loosing any speed. Then she came to the first set of doors.

I was reminded of the first day of study, because three of the doors had the specific runes that completed the Core of Ruin variants we had discussed from the past exams. Our Rook recognized them, too.

Bolt of Ringing Thunder, Bolt of Enduring Flame, and Bolt of Caustic Sharding hit the first, second, and fourth doors, respectively, and they all burst open. Tsubasa darted through door number two, since it was the most direct route for her.

She reached the final room with more than five minutes left. The climbing walls, opposed run, and swim were all cakewalks for the Rook.

And her solution to the targets left me laughing. She used a spell to break the stand on one of the large, steel targets, and then another spell to pull it to her hand. Then she snapped it in half, scoring her first of five. Then she threw the two halves like boomerangs, each one tearing through one target on the third, fourth, and fifth rows. It was just too bad the second row didn't also line up. Still, she got seven of five target in about ten seconds.

Our Rook entered the arena. And any thoughts I had that the monsters were random flew out the window. The door opposite Tsubasa opened, and a floating sphere of tentacled eyes drifted out. Despite her catharsis the previous summer, Tsubasa's lips curled into an enraged snarl.

"Well that was just stupid of them," I rolled my eyes.

"I almost feel bad for the golem crafter," Sona agreed.

Tsubasa didn't have her gloves, but had long since memorized one specific spell I used to make them. The circles appeared over the backs of her hands. She jumped forward. The mock Beholder pointed its eyestalks at her. Three bolts of TK shot out. One missed. One grazed her. One hit her square in the forehead. Tsubasa's wings flashed out. She powered through the TK. Sped up instead of being slowed. The monster appeared to vanish. And heedless of its intangibility, Tsubasa tore right through it. Two chunks of well carved stone crashed to the floor.

Then, for good measure, she kicked the larger half, smashing it to rubble. And then crushed the golem's core.

"Two minutes, four seconds," Sona said proudly.

"That will be tough to beat."

No-one in her group beat it. Kiba was forty seconds behind Tsubasa. And of the other three Devils in group 1, two finished in about five and six minutes, respectively. The last didn't even make it to the arena until eight minutes had passed. And he gave up in fear of the giant spider golem.

There was a thirty minute break to reset everything. Unfortunately, the contestants were kept in isolation until everyone was done.

Reya took longer than Tsubasa, 3 minutes and 41 seconds. But in her own way, her run was more impressive.

My Rook was wearing a white, cotton tank top, and loose, grey, nylon workout shorts. Also I could see a matching grey sports bra under the tank top.

She only cast four spells in the Knock-knock test. But each spell contained all of the runes on the new doors and all of the previous doors. And she hit all of the closed doors. She calculated the spell for the last wall on the fly; Arctic Hurricane naturally contained twelve of the fourteen runes she as being tested on, but she refactored it in about three seconds to use the other two.

Her alternation to Magic Missile mid battle was one of the reasons she was offered the chance to promote.

She also destroyed all ten targets with a single spell in the third room. She was slower on the climbing and running tests, but used a spell to find her way through the water maze faster than Tsubasa. She reached the arena after just over three minutes.

"What do you think she will face?" Rossweisse asked.

I had met up the Valkyrie and Nekoshou, and we had chatted before Reya started her run. They let me know that Kiba's golem looked like a Catholic priest wielding a copy of Excalibit Destruction. It gave him pause, but he ultimately destroyed it, and finished eight seconds after Tsubasa. I told them about Tsubasa's fake Beholder enemy, and not too smugly noted that my Rook finished faster than their Knight. Both Gremory Peers ignored that.

"I don't know," I said, "She doesn't have an obvious trauma and enemy like those two... Unless they made a Transformers golem for her to fight."

Rossweisse and Koneko looked at me oddly. I guess they weren't privy to the details of Reya's near death and transformation. Ophis just watched the screen, not commenting or paying us much attention.

"Or maybe a book? Or swarm of flying books?" I thought about how much time she spent reading, and how Reya took good care of her tomes. So she might hesitate to attack a book.

It seemed the organizers went a different route. After Reya entered the arena, the door opened, and the golem monstrosity stepped out of the shadows. It was distended, spindly, scarred.

To be fair, it was a pretty good likeness. The copy of my staff was missing the runes, but the duster looked great. And Reya immediately recognized me. She paused, and studied her opponent cautiously. She knew I was here, but hadn't been told that she would be fighting a golem. She might have thought it was really me, mind controlled or just talked into testing her. And I wasn't necessarily looking forward to watching one of my girlfriends beat me up in effigy.

The golem raised its staff, and I saw a metal pipe sticking out of the end.

"Fuigi!" it declared with my counterpart's voice, and sprayed an obviously non-magic gout of flame towards her.

"Screw that," I snarled, "Destroy that thing, Reya."

"Biting gusts of winter, rending tornados of summer! Destroy all fools who stand before us, slighting the power of wind! Howl, my Tempest!"

Reya was not happy either. The first wind ball deflected the fire away. And the other three wrapped around the golem and tore it apart. Then there was an explosion in the whirlwind as the petroleum tank ruptured and the fuel was aerosoled into the lighting mechanism.

With the second set of practicals done, Rossweisse and I stayed put, Asia being slotted in the same course Reya had run. Koneko and Le Fay took Ophis to find Xenovia and the viewing room for Ise's run.

"How do you think Asia will do?" the Valkyrie turned Rook asked me in English.

"I don't know," I admitted, "I'm not sure how good a swimmer she is. She has been jogging, so I don't think the conveyors will be a problem. The climbing I'd guess she may be okay with. According to Ise, she has quite a grip when she gets jealous."

Rossweisse nodded at that.

"And what about the first and third tests?" she prompted.

"The first one should be easy for her," I said, "after all you just have to cast a spell on the doors. It doesn't have to be an attack spell, or even very powerful. As for the target range, she killed a Beholder with Magic Missile, that should be enough to take out the four most distant targets. If she remembers it. I'm not sure what Asia has that would be strong enough to take out the others. Maybe a barrage of Magic Missiles at one of the row three targets? Or has she learned any attack spells she didn't tell me about?"

"If she has, I am not aware of them either," the silverette replied.

"I guess we'll just have to see what she does."

We both forgot something.

Asia walked up to the starting line, wearing a pair of red bloomers, and a form fitting runner's tank top of the same color. I expected her to be nervous, but instead she wore a look of determination.

I was right and Asia got through the doors and the climbing rooms easily. She was not quite as quick as Tsubasa or Kiba. But she was on par with Reya; a bit slower through the doors and faster up the walls and ropes.

In the third room, Asia fired up a circle I was familiar with, but had almost forgotten. Pun intended.

The sprite dragon Raissei appeared. Asia worked up a Magic Missile circle that took down both of the fifth row targets, two missiles each. And her familiar destroyed the fourth and third rows, and even one second row target, just as she released her spell. She dismissed Rassei for the running room, just to be safe. She completed it faster than I even expected, though she was a bit winded in the end.

Then she summoned Raissei again. And cast a shield spell and a pair of wind spells so she could breath under water. She and her partner split up, and while she wasn't as fast as Reya, she finished the maze quicker than Tsubasa.

That led her to the arena. She had about half her time left. And she kept Raissei with her.

Which probably saved her. Because before the golem was even out of the gate, the miniature dragon attacked it. I wouldn't have expected her familiar to be so aggressive, until I remembered the dragon's peculiarity. Or should I say, jealousy.

Similar to Reya, Asia's golem was a duplicate of her boyfriend. Ise. I guess they decided against Deidora or Raynare. And like every time they had been together in the past, Raissei attack 'Ise' on sight.

Asia started to call her familiar back, but Raissei took a big chunk out of the golem's face and ear, revealing it was a stone fake. The blonde began to launch her array of debuffs on the golem, weakening it. Slowing it. Trapping it. Covering its head in darkness.

Then she launched her best offensive spells, while Raissei bit and clawed and shocked the golem. Though neither Asia nor Raissei were ever in any physical danger, they didn't have a surplus of DPS. Raissei did most of the work, and between the two of them, they managed to wear down the copy and destroy its core with only twenty seconds to spare.

But a win was a win, and I was proud of her.

Everyone passed. Asia was the slowest. And Akeno edged out Tsubasa by one second. But she was a Queen, so it barely counted.

We gathered together briefly, and then split up for a late lunch with our respective groups. The Sitri Peers and I would be meeting Serafall and her Peerage at a local restaurant that Sona and Serafall liked. And the Gremory Peers would be going to back to the hotel to eat, along with Az, Ophis, and Le Fay. Because Fenrir had been left in their room. Dogs were not allowed in the exam observation, because they might be familiars used for cheating. And we couldn't exactly reveal the truth about him.

The food was good. The style seemed French inspired; or maybe the other way around. But the flavors were like nothing on Earth. All original Underworld produce.

We chatted about the exams, especially boasting about the practicals to Serafall and Behemoth.

All in all, it was a good meal, and a good wind down from the morning's events. Right up until the giant Annihilation beast started tearing up the city.

Next: Beyond the Outer Gates Lies... An Actual Emergency?