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Once Craig recovered from his earlier flight and landing, the two men could finally focus on the ice palace before them.

It was a magnificent crystalline structure with an unearthly charm, but the cold radiating from its walls constantly ruined that first favorable impression. The architecture and finishing touches were exquisite with beautiful ice sculptures representing various, alas, all too familiar creatures.

"Is it me or does that gargoyle look like a Digestor..." Craig cleared his throat uncomfortably.

"Yep, it's the spitting image of a Rank 4." Jake grumbled with a wince.

Apparently since their separation, Ruby had decided to dabble in art. Her artistic influences were... very conspicuous.

The duo trudged resolutely toward the entrance of the palace, and with the first step a searing chill shot through their boots, creeping up through their bodies and freezing their legs in place. Jake discharged a blast of searing heat and pulled his boot free with ease.

At the same time, Craig drew an Aether Symbol in the air with great panache, and after casting it on himself, his body became covered in a fiery halo of flame that repelled the biting cold that had already completely frozen over half his chest. Soon the ice melted away and the blood began to flow normally through his aching limbs.

"You're an Aetherist." Jake commented with unfeigned amazement.

The chubby Player scratched his head in embarrassment and coughed,

"Well, I guess I'm one. Just a beginner though. The army trained me for this purpose because as a kid I didn't like fighting and I had a talent for drawing and memorizing, but many things have changed since..."

"Since you were a kid?" Jake picked up with a raised eyebrow. "You mean the Earth Union determines what kind of Evolvers you'll become in your stead?"

It was now Craig's turn to wince.

"Yes and no. After the False World War in 2084, the Earth government was unified and they created the Prodigies program that you may have indirectly heard about. The virtual video game Trial Worlds was supposed to screen exceptional talents who would be groomed into the next generation of super-soldiers, preferably loyal to the Earth Union.

"In 2089 I was 8 years old and my 219th place in the world rankings got me spotted early on and they made an offer to the orphanage where I lived that they couldn't refuse. Officially, I grew up as a ward of the state with other prodigies selected like me. Some were recruited from Trial Worlds, others were the children of influential generals and politicians. There were also some sons of billionaires. The program is called Prodigies, but only a tad more than half actually fit that definition.

"We were taken to a secret military base somewhere in Antarctica and given additional tests including IQ, physical, artistic, creative, psychological prowess and so on. In their records, I am a type A genius, high intellectual and emotional quotient, photographic and sensory-motor memory, perfect hand-eye coordination and excellent dexterity. Basically, I can draw anything I see and can easily imitate a technique or movement."

"That doesn't sound too bad." Jake said as he began to advance towards the palace again.

Craig cast a few more Aether Spells to solidify his heat aura and ran after the Myrtharian to keep up with him. Once he was next to Jake, he sheepishly admitted,

"It wasn't so bad... At first. I was placed in a group of about 100 kids my age of all nationalities and we soon became friends. That's where I became friends with Ryo and the other members of the team.

"As a kid I wanted to be a boxer. When they started to train us in martial arts and I became a little less cowardly, I started to hate all the boring lessons that were being imposed on me. I drew weird symbols until my hands bled, and was even forced to learn alien languages like Oraclean and all sorts of theories about the Aether and other forms of energy flourishing in the Mirror Universe. As you can guess, it was the content of the Novice Aether Manipulation Manual.

"This is where I really got to know Ruby. She was the only child in my group to take these lessons with me. As a child, because of her disabilities, she didn't talk to many people and many wondered what she was even doing here. Because the person in charge of the project was her aunt, Colonel Hale, she was never picked on. But even then, Ruby was an amazing girl. I've never met anyone so kind and caring. She was funny, she was bubbly, she knew how to console us when we were sad and she always smiled.

"If you would have known her like I and the others did, you would understand why we cared so much about her."

Jake had a hard time reconciling the current Ruby with the one Craig described. The flashback of his first meeting with the white-haired woman popped up in his mind and for a brief moment he could picture such a person.

But soon another memory took its place, the one where she emotionlessly stripped him after he risked his life to save her because of a goddamn Ordeal Mission. While her beauty was now borderline angelic, she looked more hideous and repulsive to him than ever.

"From what you say," Jake resumed with a puzzled look. "I don't feel like you were forced to become a certain type of Evolver. You had to learn more things than the others, but your general training was the same as theirs. I'd be more inclined to say that they were the discriminated kids."

Craig did not respond directly. They had reached the entrance to the palace and the cold radiating from it was such that he was forced to weave several more Fire Spells to endure the icy sensation seeping into his bones. Jake released more heat and the ice was vaporized around him, a plasma sphere separating him from the surrounding cold.

"Aye, that's cool." The coated Player sighed enviously as he looked at the tiny halo of heat coating his hands. "To answer your question, that was true until our First Ordeal a little over a year ago. We are contract soldiers and must surrender all of our Ordeal rewards to the Earth Union. Therefore, with the exception of the special rewards the Ordeals sometimes grant us, no we have no control over our future.

"I consider myself lucky. An Aetherist Brawler with a Djinn Bloodline doesn't sound too bad."

"Djinn Bloodline?"

"Remember the weird alien with the pink-haired chick who hung out with you during our Second Ordeal? The one who spent all his time sleeping, but miraculously always came out on top? Well, my bloodline looks a little like his... only not nearly as good."

" Which means?" Jake asked curiously.

"Basically, I'm just a support. My power has a wide range of applications, but I can only use it to grant the wishes of the person in possession of my 'lamp' and never more than three wishes. In theory, I can free myself from the lamp if the person wishes to free me, but the army follows strict protocols to prevent this from happening. In our team, Alef and Wang, our superiors and instructors alternate with my lamp. After three wishes, Wang takes back the lamp and vice versa. This is one of the loopholes in my bloodline. The sad thing about this is that my bloodline evolves by making as many wishes as possible so I'm screwed..."

"Why are you telling me all this? Aren't you afraid I'll steal your instructor's lamp?" Jake couldn't figure out what he was getting at.

Just as Craig was about to give him his answer, both men suddenly dove to the ground.

BANG!

The ice floor imploded, releasing a blast of negative energy, and their body temperatures instantly dropped below zero.

Jake's cells felt a life-threatening danger, his internal furnace kicked in and veins of lava more blinding than the sun shone through his skin. His temperature soared and he regained his ability to move just in time to block a monstrous claw with his adamantium-covered forehead.

SCREEEECH!

The silver claw scraped against the metal and Jake took the opportunity to grab its arm and swing the monster it belonged to over its head in a jiujitsu-like grip. The creature smashed into the ice floor, long cracks embrittling the entire palace.

Jake didn't hesitate for a second and summoned the God Slayer Katana, then grabbing the hilt with both hands he pointed the blade at the ground and impaled the monster's brain.

The silver chitin plates that made the creature unrecognizable peeled away one by one, and a humanoid Digestor that vaguely resembled Ruby revealed itself to him. As soon as their eyes met, she hissed at him and spat a laser of ice at point blank range.

Jake opened his mouth and responded with his own beam, a mixture of light, plasma and lightning heated to several hundred thousand degrees. The monster's frozen laser was snuffed out instantly and a steaming hole replaced the lower half of Ruby's face.

"Don't say it." Jake chuckled. "I'm glad to see you too."