Chapter 45 – A Pressing Need

“I’m going to enroll for the exams.”

When Damien announced this in private quarters with Naelen and Lila, they both stared at him awkwardly. The three of them were in what seemed like a nice lounge, furnished with four sofas sitting in a square and a knee-table in the center. It must have been a common space during regular training hours, but that evening the lounge was all theirs, away from the students in the courtyard. Damien, Naelen, and Lila each had an entire sofa to themselves, all facing each other.

Lila was the first to speak a reply. “Damien, let me explain something to you: enrolling in this Academy is not something to be done on a whim. You have to work for it. The students you’ll be competing against for a spot here have probably trained much more than you at this point. The school won’t take just anyone, especially not those with no reputation as a fighter.”

“Well, I have been practicing,” Damien said. “And, I’m basically a mercenary now. There’s even a record with my name on it.”

“Wonderful,” she said sarcastically. “One piece of paper. You’ll probably need twelve more of those before they deem you worthy of consideration.”

Damien detected her mockery and rolled his eyes. “I’m not joking with you, Lil, I intend to earn my spot and I need your help.” He glanced between Naelen and Lila. “I need both your help.”

“Sure.” Naelen shrugged. “I’ll help you as much as I can, Damien, but don’t get your hopes up. It might not happen for you this year.”

“That’s okay,” Damien decided. “I’m motivated to work towards it. Build up my skills.”

“I’m just missing something.” Lila shook her head. “You’ve never shown an interest in this before, Damien, so why now?”

“A few reasons.” Damien hunched over in his seat, folded his hands. “One, I refuse to go back to Gumber so I’ll need some way to make a living out here. Two, I want the skills to protect myself and the people I care about. Three, my friend Elias died so that I could be here, so I could seek out my own life in the north. I won’t let it go to waste.”

Lila leaned back on her sofa, let out another sigh. “I’ll admit, I was hoping you would want to learn the sword, but hearing you say all this, I’m just scared for you. Your hopes will be crushed up here, Damien. This is not the right place to be a beginner.” Then she sat up again and looked at him. “It would be a miracle if you entered in at the first tier for this session.”

“Then I’ll put in my best,” Damien said. “And if it’s no good, I’ll spend the year training and try again.”

“For that you’ll need a sword master, and they’re quite expensive up here.”

“Well, good thing I have skills as a weapon smith, it brings in good money.”

“That’s true…” Lila said, holding her chin. “The biggest problem is I can’t help you with your exams, Damien. Not directly. I’m not a chaperone.”

“Then perhaps…your friend Brandon?” Naelen suggested. “He’s a chaperone, yes?”

“Yes.” Lila’s eyes brightened at that thought. “Not a bad idea, little brother, but Brandon would have to work with Damien at his own discretion. He’s not required to help people get into the Academy, but he can be approached for practice. We need only ask.”

“Alright,” Damien nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”

3 August

Damien had slept in a room with thirty other males, and his nose signaled just how many of them had not bathed recently, including himself. He couldn’t wait for his turn to bathe and wash all the dirt off. Because there were so many other young males needing to do the same, however, he now waited in a long queue outside a large, tiled washroom that held fifteen people at a time.

Outside the washroom, he sat on a wooden bench squished between long rows of bodies on either side. They were all naked, save for the red towels that covered them. While waiting, Damien noticed the wide range of figures and frames that now surrounded him. In Gumber, the Lor elves typically had one build: tall and lean, but here, male fighters came in all sizes. Even the short, thinner ones seemed capable and dangerous in their own right. Not to mention the wide spectrum of skin color– ranging from the darkest brown to the palest, lightest papery tone.

Damien had to admit he rather detested being near naked in such a populated place, but it appeared that this was the norm here at the Fighters Academy. The male dorms were packed, especially inside the washrooms.

“Ah, there you are.” Naelen spoke to Damien as he entered the waiting room and sat down on a crowded bench somewhat across from him. Unlike Damien, Naelen had always been comfortable being exposed. Even now, he sat up tall with a red towel covering him from waist to thigh, unwary of his open skin. His shirtless figure was more muscular than Damien cared to realize. The elf had physically matured a lot over these past few months, and it was difficult to not think of Naelen as a man. Such was the norm for male elves, they usually matured around this age. Damien wished he could be so grown-up.

“What?” Naelen grew skeptical once he noticed Damien staring. “Am I too dirty for your eyes?”

“No. It’s just that Lila’s right, you’ve grown up. Both of you have. It’s…weird.”

“Well, it’s not like you haven’t grown up too, Damien. Look at you, you’re nothing close to that scrawny weakling I met you as.”

“Yeah, but I’m still stuck in this teenage body while you and Lila get to be adults. It’s not exactly fair.”

“I never thought of it like that,” Naelen said. “You somehow feel we’ve left you behind?”

“Exactly.” Damien looked down at the tiled floor beneath him. “I’m always the odd one out.” Then, he noticed Brandon entering the waiting room dressed in the same scarce get-up as everyone else: the red towel.

“Hey.” Brandon showed an obvious, plastered smile at Damien and Naelen as he passed by them. “Lila’s brothers, right? You arrived here yesterday?”

“Yes, that’s us.” Naelen crossed his arms as Brandon sat down on one of the benches and slid off his sandals.

“Usually the shower line isn’t this long, but it is admissions week. More people to board.” Brandon glanced between the two of them. “How was your night in the dorm?”

“Not too bad,” Naelen said, bouncing his leg up and down.

“You said shower?” Damien puzzled. “What’s shower?”

“Um…” Brandon scratched his smooth hair, “it’s like a waterfall produced by pipes.”

Naelen became excited at the idea. “Ooh, I’d like to see this waterfall. Bet it’s like the one back home.”

“No…” Brandon shook his head. “Whatever you’re picturing, scale it down by a lot. It’s a tiny waterfall meant for bathing. Nothing grand about it, really.”

“Still. I’ve heard of some modern, human inventions and I’ve been looking forward to seeing them with my own eyes. An ingenious technological world, what a treat this is!”

“Yes.” Brandon looked over at Damien with a teasing grin. “I take it he’s never been outside Gumber before?”

“Never,” Damien told him. “To be fair, I haven’t seen much of the world either.”

“But probably more than this fellow, right? You are human after all.”

“I guess.” Damien shrugged. “Hey, I’m supposed to ask you something. Would you…help me prepare for my exams?”

“Of course.” Brandon clasped both his shoulders and started drumming on them. “Anything for Lila’s brother. Might as well earn the extra coins I’m making this year.”

“You get paid to be a chaperone?”

“Well, yes, it’s a very time-consuming job constantly monitoring students.”

Damien’s eyes became small slits, he wanted to make sure. “You’re alright with helping me?”

Then Brandon came over and stood in front of Damien, the young man’s figure was more intimidating in that moment than friendly. “Lila gave me a heads-up about this– about your predicament. We’ll start by getting you registered and finding a peer partner. Usually we pair the newcomers off after they’re admitted but if we start early, you’ll have an advantage that most students don’t consider at this point in their training.”

“A peer partner?” That wasn’t exactly what Damien expected to hear.

“Yes,” Brandon nodded. “Trust me, you don’t want to let them choose a peer for you, we need to make you look better than you are. Though, from what Lila tells me, you’re pretty skilled.”

“That’s not true,” Damien said. “I’m as unskilled as they come.”

“Not from what I hear. I depend on Lila’s eye for talent, and she’s vouched for you.”

Damien scratched his neck. “Then who am I to complain? She knows how important this is to me.”

Brandon came forward and grasped Damien’s shoulders, yanking him just a little. “Lila’s brother, I will do my best to help you, and not just because I’m a chaperone. Lila is my peer partner, and I’m lucky to have her as a good friend too.”

Damien’s face went flat. “You don’t remember my name do you?”

“Eh, I’m sure it’ll come to me. Davion or something.”

“No.”

“David? Daemon? I know it started with a ‘D’…”

“It’s Damien.”

“Ah, yes! Forgive me.” Brandon beat himself, and behind him Naelen began chuckling.

“Daemon, that is a good one,” Naelen teased. “Translates to ‘evil spirit’ in the common tongue. That could be your nickname from now on.”

“No.” Damien shook his head. “I don’t have a nickname.”

“Oh, so you can change my name but Fates help the person that tries to change yours?”

“Pretty much.”

Brandon laughed at them, rubbing his eyes. “Ah, I can’t believe myself. I forgot you even existed until yesterday.”

Damien shrugged. “I get that a lot.”

Showering had been an interesting experience and somewhat painful due to the scalding, powerful water that blasted Damien from a grated pipe in the wall. But he survived it nonetheless, and after a bland, nutritious meal the humans deigned to call breakfast, he and several other applicants were ready to start practicing for their exams.

After taking care to officially place his name down as an applicant, Damien was given a red band to wear around his arm which denoted him to faculty and chaperones alike. Then he was escorted to the training field along with a small group of other applicants like himself. One look at the training field made Damien want to hold his breath. It was perhaps the largest, grassiest space he had ever stepped on, and it dwarfed the glorious manor he had spent the last few years living in. Even the manor’s outfitted backyard was nothing compared to this.

It was easy to feel lost out here, even while stepping in a group of students as they passed by rows upon rows of trainees. The field had room enough for them all– and then some. Both Damien and Naelen had the fortune of not being separated as they moved through the busy field. The chaperone leading their group was Brandon, explaining the layout as needed. Once the small tour was concluded, Brandon stopped and turned to face his people.

“So…” Brandon clasped his hands together, “for those intending to specialize in the sword, go to the far left corner. Spears and lances the far right corner, bows and long-range weapons the middle left corner, daggers and throwing knives the middle right…”

Once they were given leave, Damien and Naelen followed Brandon with an even smaller group toward the far left section of the field. Their portion was already packed with students, it was hard to find a place to stand without being in the slashing range of another bladed weapon, but Damien settled into the sideline with everyone else and awaited the next order.

A stranger ended his current spar with a trainee and stepped over to the new students. Damien pegged the man as a Lor elf right away, tall and golden with prominent green eyes, mid-length, wavy hair and a wide jaw. Like most Lor elves, the stranger had sharp, linear angles that made him seem more lean than muscular, but Damien suspected this man was stronger than he appeared. The stranger also seemed kind, with a constant bright grin on his face.

“Ah, I love meeting new students!” The elf spoke in an accent that threw Damien off, more like a mountain elf than a Lor elf. “Let me introduce myself: I am Lanisthir, one of the sword trainers here at the Academy. Today I’ll be overseeing your pre-examination practice, so we’ll start by pairing everyone off. Find a partner and spread yourselves out.”

The group did so, breaking off into pairs and finding their own places within the sector. By instinct, Damien turned to Naelen and lifted his brow. “You want to pair up?”

“Uh, that’s not what I had in mind.” Brandon cut in by literally moving between the two youngsters, then dipped his voice. “Damien, we need someone more equal with you in terms of skill. Impressing Lanisthir is not an easy feat, but it is our first step to success.”

“Most everyone is weaker than me,” Damien teased, despite how ill-placed it was.

“How about that one?” Brandon pointed to a girl standing several paces away. What struck Damien about the girl was not how thin or scaly she seemed, it was her eyes: shiny and glazed over like gray mist. Her chin and cheekbones sharpened her face almost like that of an elf, but this girl was clearly not an elf. Her ears were webbed like aquatic fins, and her hair was the color of crimson blood. Her skin was a unique mixture of smooth, metallic flesh and rough gray scales that seemed to camouflage her into the background. The girl stood clutching her arms across her chest, keeping up a defensive guard.

“Uh, I don’t think it’s fair to pick someone who’s blind,” Damien said, looking up at his new mentor. “I would crush her.”

Brandon shook his head while chuckling. “Not blind,” he said, “not in that sense. Haven’t you ever heard of the merfolk? I assure you she can see even in this open, dry air. Better watch out for a merfolk warrior.”

“Okay, then what makes her a good match for me?”

“Well, she’s obviously out of her element and she’s not a realized warrior yet. Neither are you.”

Damien sighed. “There are lots of people here that aren’t realized warriors, so why that one?”

“I have a good feeling about it.” Brandon gestured him forward. “Come on.”

Great, Damien thought to himself. As if I’m not already enough of a freak.

The mer girl turned as they approached, her stance shifted as her murky silver eyes widened. “Have I done something wrong?” she asked, obviously spooked by Brandon and his authoritative presence.

“No.” Brandon had to scoot Damien forward just a bit. “I’ve come to pair you up with this fighter here, he needs a partner, and from the looks of it, so do you.”

“I prefer to work alone, actually.”

“It’s not optional,” Brandon said. “This is the process, we pair newcomers off so they can practice.”

“Ugh!” She rolled her eyes. “Fine then, but just for today.”

“I guess we’ll see,” Brandon smirked, then gave Damien another shove, nearly causing him to stumble. The girl stood fairly level with Damien’s head, and she hadn’t let her guard down while facing him. Scanning her, Damien began to notice the emerging vulnerabilities that Brandon must have seen upon first glance. The girl wasn’t muscular in the least and had a personality that seemed on the scared, submissive side. Quite opposite of Damien if he were being honest.

He reached out his hand and introduced himself. “I’m Damien.”

“Narissa,” she said while taking it. “I also go by Ris.”

Damien tried to control his shock while staring at her webbed fingers. “I have no need for a nickname,” he said to ease the tension welling up. “If I may ask…aren’t the merfolk much more indigenous to the southeast? Why come all the way out here?”

“Oh, you want my backstory now do you? How about we just fight?”

Damien couldn’t restrain his grin at her. A unique woman not wanting to share about herself, he could understand that well enough. Saying nothing, he drew his sword and fixed his stance. Narissa did the same, glancing over at Brandon as she took position. Damien was no empath, but he could tell Narrisa was nervous under a chaperone’s watch.

“Don’t worry about him.” He gestured to Brandon. “He’s here for me, not you.”

“Um…very well then.” Narissa crossed her complex mer blade with Damien’s and bent her knees. She took the first strike which Damien blocked, and their spar became a string of fluid motions one after another. Hitting, blocking, pivoting, they were well matched in the basic skills. Damien was able to relax a little during the spar because Narissa didn’t throw anything surprising or difficult at him. He predicted her moves and responded without having to struggle. She was the epitome of a harmless beginner, all about form and motion rather than attack. In fact, her forms were so basic that Damien grew rather bored, so he dealt a quick slash to her side, boosting the steady rhythm they had established.

Narissa’s arm jolted as she blocked, and her silver eyes drew into deep focus. She rose to Damien’s challenging attacks and moved back as he rounded in on her. For a moment her footing faltered and her body angled back while fighting to maintain balance. Damien was about to go for the winning strike before he was interrupted by an abrupt scream and a gust of wind that swept him back a few inches. His opponent’s screech was so loud it even brought some pain to his eardrums. Damien grunted while padding at his ears, blinking back into focus. He saw the tip of a silver blade running toward his chest and flinched to dodge it before Brandon called out from the side.

“Alright, that’s good.” Brandon ordered a halt and stepped between them. “A match well-made I’d say.” He turned, smiling at Damien. “She makes you look capable, and in turn you made her up her own game.” Then Brandon turned to Narissa. “You’d make a good peer partner for him.”

Narissa shot Brandon a pensive glare, holding one arm while letting the other hang. “But I told you, I train better alone.”

Brandon shook his head once again. “Everyone gets a peer partner here, there are no exceptions.”

“So you’re saying I have to train with him?”

“Uh, yes,” Brandon said. “As a chaperone I can do that. Check it if you want.”

Narissa rolled her eyes at the young man and put a lot of distance between them. She returned her blade to its sheath and reformed her guarded, reclusive stance.

Damien found himself coming up to Brandon, still soothing his eardrums. “What are you thinking!?” he criticized. “That woman could kill me with her scream if she wanted. I’d be lucky to keep my hearing through all of this.” But Brandon ignored the comment and formed his plastered smile.

“I think that went rather well.”