It was a quiet night indeed as the three of them sat around their campfire. Damien had liked Elias. Even in the short amount of time he had known him, Damien came to respect the man for his skills in leadership and patience in teaching. But his grief was nothing compared to Maya’s. She had been uncharacteristically silent since she had said goodbye to Elias, only spoke to shell out orders since the incident. Even now, she brooded to herself while eating her portion of food. Laying next to her was Elias’ sword, double-edged and fashioned from steel. It was nothing special in terms of design, but it was sentimental because it had belonged to their friend.
Damien could relate to Maya, the anger she felt. The pain of such an unfair and untimely loss.
“Were you close to him?” Damien asked after a long while. Maya glanced up at him with eyes still reddened with tears.
“What kind of question is that? He was my captain, and a good mentor. No one had recruited me to a team before Elias. No one really wanted me working with them.”
“I understand,” Damien nodded. “Being the outsider.”
After finishing her meal, Maya placed her copper dish down and leaned back. “Even so, this is what it means to be an agent. We willingly place ourselves in danger, we’re all aware of the risk. It’s not the first time I’ve lost a teammate, but still… Elias deserved better.”
“Did he have a family?” Damien asked.
Maya nodded, concealing a tear dripping from her eye. “Me.”
Careth was more breathtaking than Damien had originally pictured. Even from a far distance, the city landscape glorified the sky and the mountains it sat upon. It was like all of civilization had come together to build a beautiful city with shiny domed tops and sharp metallic steeples. The largest building the skyline had to offer was the Fighters Academy, renowned for its complex design and grandeur. It was fashioned from all sorts of materials including sanded stone, white and blue marble, glass, steel, and of course, gold. All the buildings that framed it made the Academy stand out even more as a central pinnacle.
Maya brought Damien and Naelen as far as this building and even entered inside with them before saying her farewells. They had stopped by the Agents Office first to settle their contract and collect their payment. By the time everything was accounted for, Damien and Naelen had earned six pieces of gold between the two of them. Their names were printed on the contract as mercenaries, otherwise getting paid for their services would have been reported as illegal.
“Well…” Maya faced them both as they all stood in the wide, arched doorway of the Academy, “I suppose my contract with you is done.” She unstrapped Elias’ sword and handed it to Damien. “I think he would’ve wanted you to have this,” she said, striving not to tear up right then and there. “You were his only student, you know. Never had an interest in taking a pupil until you came along.”
“Probably because I was that terrible,” Damien chuckled, mostly to himself. He took the sword, feeling grateful for the honor. “Thank you, Maya, for all you’ve done. We wouldn’t have made it here without you and that’s putting it simply.”
“I know what you mean,” she nodded, then showed them a smile. “You two boys got me through as well. The trip would have been so quiet, so dull. This isn’t a true goodbye, I’ll probably linger here in Careth for a few weeks, so feel free to stop by any time.”
“Uh, where?” Damien asked, causing Maya to giggle for the first time in days.
“At the Agents Office, you dimwit. We tend to hire mercenaries when we strictly need them. There’s a shortage of agents around these parts, despite all the fighters that come to train here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
After giving them both kisses to their cheeks, Maya made her exit and disappeared into the crowds of the city. Damien and Naelen shared a brief glance before stepping further into the opulent building.
“Shards.” Naelen scanned the magnificent space, the banners, the second floor walkway set with arched windows. “This is the first time I’ve ever set foot in Careth, and I could walk around here for days.”
“And…I’m pretty sure that was the first time you’ve been kissed by a girl you’re not related to,” Damien teased.
Naelen laughed and shook his head. “All too true.”
Neither of them really knew where they were going, but Damien let Naelen lead as they searched for someone in authority to talk to. After asking a few people they passed along the way, they were directed to a portion of the school that led them into a wide, rounded courtyard that was packed with potential students. Most of them carried visible weapons and bags on their person, as if they had just traveled here themselves. They came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Different races mingling together in one place. To Damien’s shock, many of them were not elves. The majority of the people around him were human, which could probably be expected in a human dwelling, but it was still jarring given that Damien had spent his life around elvish-dominant culture. He would have commented on how nice it was to be around people that were more like him than anything, but he didn’t want to offend Naelen. Especially not here.
“Ah, there you are. Finally!” A familiar voice made them both turn. Lila appeared from within the crowded space and wrestled Naelen into a hug. Gave him a noogie. “By the Fates little brother, you keep growing up on me. Stop it.” She kissed the top of his head before letting him go. The most shocking thing about seeing Lila was that she now stood an inch smaller than her younger brother. Even so, the sight of them reunited was definitely worth hundreds of miles of travel. “Glad you made it safely,” she said. “After receiving your note, I was worried out of my mind. The troll country? Are you seriously mad?” Then her voice let out a squeak when she noticed that the person standing near him was none other than Damien. “Ah! What are you doing here?” She examined Damien’s face, his hair, his sword– all by touching it, of course. “By the Fates! What’s going on?”
“Surprise.” Damien rubbed the back of his neck. “It was Naelen’s decision not to tell you.”
“And you have a sword.” Lila gaped at the weapon strapped over his back. “Am I missing something here? Are you enrolling in the Academy?”
“No,” Damien admitted. “I ran away from home, Lil. I’m not supposed to be here but, Naelen let me come with him.” He was about to go into the story when Lila stopped him.
“I’m just glad you’re both safe. And here together.” She glanced around, suddenly wary. “For now, I suggest pretending to be a student so they don’t throw you out immediately. We’ll get through this event and then we’ll talk in private.”
“Alright.” Damien nodded. “Thank you, Lil. I knew you’d understand.”
“Of course.” She kissed his forehead and took his hand. “Come on, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Naelen followed them as Lila went over to a young man with sandy brown hair and a clean, annoyingly handsome face. He was human, and by his tall, noble posture, Damien figured the man was older than him by a few years. “Brandon…” Lila caught the young man’s attention, presenting Damien and Naelen with a beaming smile. “These are my brothers. This is Nihilan, but everyone calls him Naelen now. And this is Damien.” With a firm push to his back, Damien moved forward, almost crashing into this Brandon person.
“Uh, sorry.” Damien felt the need to apologize.
“For what?” Brandon asked. He scanned over Damien, a curious look forming in his blue eyes. “Hold on…you’re Lila’s brother too?”
“In a sense,” Damien said. “I was adopted.”
“Oh, right.” Brandon lifted his chin. “Lila did say something about that a while ago. Excuse me for forgetting.”
“You’re excused,” Lila said, rubbing the top of Brandon’s slick hair. “As you can guess, they’re here to take their entrance exams.”
“But I thought those started yesterday.” Brandon squinted. “They must’ve arrived late if I’m just now meeting them.”
“Uh, we were delayed by a troll,” Naelen said. “And other things.”
Brandon didn’t seem to believe him, so he shrugged it off. “Right. Well, they’ll be running exams all week so I’m sure you’ll get your spot. Especially if you’re Lila’s brother. Your reputation proceeds you, Nihilan– uh, Naelen. As a fighter that is.”
“Really?” Naelen rubbed his chin. “Interesting.”
“You though…” Brandon gestured to Damien, as if the boy’s presence here were a puzzle. “I’ve heard nothing of you. Lila’s only mentioned you one time, but not as a potential student.”
“That sounds about right,” Damien nodded. “Being the adopted one.”
His words made Brandon laugh. The young man had an ornate, paper scroll but it wasn’t open at the moment. More like decoration attached to his waist. “Well, I hope you both enjoy yourselves this evening,” he said to Damien and Naelen. “As a chaperone, I’m here to answer questions and generally make sure you don’t get into pointless quarrels with other students. Political stuff, really.”
Damien chuckled. This Brandon was humorous himself. “Hm. I almost expected a tour of this place.”
“Oh, well, the tour is conducted for those who are accepted. Usually as a class.” Then Brandon winked. “But for Lila’s brothers, I could maybe show you both around– unofficially, of course.”
“No, it’s alright,” Damien said. “I was joking with you.”
“Ohh.” Brandon’s expression changed when he realized. “A fellow joker I see, I think I like you.” He smacked the side of Damien’s shoulder. Playfully, of course. “If you need anything, let me know. I look forward to watching your exams.” Brandon grinned at Lila before walking off.
Damien felt a pit in his stomach. How far was Lila expecting him to go for this pretense? Surely not all the way to the entrance exams, otherwise he would be forced to embarrass himself.
“I didn’t know students were allowed to watch,” Naelen said, growing confused.
Lila turned to him. “Brandon gets to watch because he’s a chaperone. They only let fourth tier students serve as chaperones throughout the year. Which is why I thought you should meet him right away, make good ties and everything.”
“Oh. I thought there were other reasons why you wanted us to meet him. He seems quite fond of you.”
Lila understood his meaning and rubbed the top of his golden head. “Look at you. So paranoid. Brandon and I are close, but, not that close.”
Naelen held up his hands. “I don’t want to know. Whatever’s between you, just keep it between you. I’ll be able to sleep better.”
“Haha,” she cackled. “You are so paranoid.”
Damien mingled in the courtyard for what must have been an hour before anything eventful happened. A man dressed in a red, armored suit stepped onto a dais and called the guests to attention. At first glance, Damien thought the figure to be female due to his effeminate up-do with stiff, curly black hair poking out from a pony-tail, but it was unlikely because the man also had a trimmed beard. His cheekbones were powdered with shiny dust and the linings around his eyes were painted gold. The man was oddly beautiful with his slender, muscular figure and gold-painted fingernails. His white-covered lips complimented his dark skin tone and, like Damien, the stranger had deep brown eyes that carried a bold fierceness.
“Welcome!” The man spoke with an elegant, deep tone laced with a foreign accent. He pressed his palms together while waiting for the chatter to die down. “I am Headmaster Luvian, your gracious host this evening, and I bid you all a very profound welcome!” He joined the audience in their applause before speaking again. “Here at the Fighters Academy, we strive for excellence. You all have the wonderful opportunity to attain excellence, and to that I give you my most heartfelt blessings. May you all find your place here, if not at this time, then at a later one. I hope you have enjoyed the party so far, made good attachments. Friendships are essential to being successful here, along with diligent practice, and a willingness to expand limitations.” There was a brief pause and Damien noticed the crowd now hung on this man’s every word. “Now…” Luvian shifted, gesturing to a group of young people as they came and filed in front, “The first order of business is to introduce this year’s selected chaperones. They will be available to help you throughout the session, especially during this week. They are your companions, your training partners, your connections to higher tiers– which will be explained at a later time.”
Damien counted twelve chaperones once they were lined up on the dais. He recognized Brandon standing third amongst the group. The young man looked even more clean and charming now that he was under the glaring light from above. He favored shades of dark blue and tan, had a few chains of gold clasping his wrists and lining his neck. The other chaperones were dressed similarly, like nobles trying to impress.
Headmaster Luvian went through the line of chaperones, giving out their names to the public and letting each one speak to the crowd for a few seconds. The only chaperone Damien cared to know about was Brandon. As it happened, his full name was Brandon Liam Buchanan, and he was of a noble line. His parents were stationed in Tauros as members of the royal Council. As a boy, Brandon had received an expensive education that included learning the sword, playing the lute, riding a horse, and studying every battle tactic known to mortals. At the age of sixteen, he had enrolled at the Fighters Academy against his own parents’ wishes. They wanted him to be a politician, but Brandon had other plans for himself. He intended to be a soldier on the front line, serving the army of Tauros instead of the Council.
Once the student chaperones had all been introduced and shared their brief stories, they were dismissed the way they had filed on and dispersed back into the crowd. According to Headmaster Luvian, the chaperones walked with the authority to break up unsanctioned fights and assign punishment to those who broke the rules. From what Damien could tell, those twelve chaperones had been selected because they sat at the top of the board. Both their fighting and social skills were impeccable, and they would be sent out into the world with the highest of recommendations.
“And now we shall introduce our main instructors,” Luvian transitioned. Upon his cue, seven adults filed in front and stood in a line just as the chaperones had done. Damien watched as the headmaster moved to the first instructor standing in line. It was a middle-aged man, balding and quite scary-looking with dark eyes and a thick goatee. He was decked in his full equipment, complete with steel plated armor and a heavy sword on his back.
“This is Vanor De’Lumenon,” Luvian said. “He is our master in sword combat. If tendencies hold, many of you will be assigned to him.” Then he moved on to the next one, a lady elf with long brown hair and a thin, lean frame. “This is Sabine of the Southern Realm. She specializes in elvish weapons and techniques, typically our most second requested skill base.” On and on it went, covering all the bases and weapon styles: bows, daggers, spears, even the blunt ones like maces and mauls.
Each instructor had a style they specialized in, and it was explained that each student would have a main skill, along with three side skills they would be required to study through four tiers. These side skills did not strictly have to be weapons, though. For instance, there were healing studies available, riding skills, and even magic if you had the innate ability for it.
By the time it was all done and the instructors had left the spectacle on the dais, Damien could picture himself as a real student here. He thought of Captain Elias, his dangerous line of work as an agent of the Crown. The man had laid his life down every time he took a contract, but all for a greater purpose: Justice, protecting the innocent. Perhaps carrying Elias’ sword was now messing with Damien’s head, but he became eager in that moment to fill the gap that the captain had left behind. He wanted to train here, he wanted to be a fighter.