Chickadee looked over to where a group of girls had gathered outside of one of the buildings. Harp music could be heard coming out of an open window, along with Alton’s singing. He then looked over to Zaniyah, who could be seen in one of the two dueling fields inside the fort. She was stretching out her limbs and giving her axe a few swings.
“Get over here!” Stonetoe yelled over at the girls with the use of his cone. “You can go back to indulging your heated loins after you’ve won a match!”
A smirk crossed Chickadee’s lips as he watched the girl’s scurry off, only to wince as a spark of static electricity hit his forehead. “Pay attention, Cully,” grumbled Sir Mordiern Pegasus.
He was a tall man in white and silver robes. At the back of his shoulders was a bit of fabric made to look like wings hanging down. To add to his overall fanciness, a sapphire was suspended between his eyebrows, hanging down from a silver circlet. Those in the knight’s squad had similar outfits, and Chickadee realized that Baron Squad, in fact, did not have the most pompous uniforms out of everyone in the barracks.
There were two men in Horsetalon Squad, Naiov Furrow and Trenchall Kindrick. Both were elemental mages. Naiov wore bracers, each with a set of long blades that curved far past his hands. Trenchall had no weapon that Chickadee could see, but there was a metal hoop at his hip with many coins on it. Pegasus had two war fans that were closed and crossed over one another at the low point of his back.
All of them had long hair, which was a normal trait for magic users in general. Those in Horsetalon chose to wear theirs back in a series of decorative braids, with glass beads woven throughout. Chickadee had changed into his old and patched up practice robes, which did nothing but made Pegasus scowl at him at every given chance. His own hair was just in one, messy braid, which was his usual style.
Joining them were Anais Reese of Baron and Chester Compton of Macestar. Neither would be staying long. They were here to meet with Pegasus and answer any questions they had before joining their own squads. Neither were wearing their squad colors, but Anais donned a nice summer dress while Chester wore elegant robes. Seemed like the only knights who didn’t bother to warn their squires about Pegasus’ preferences were Grimhawk and Stonetoe.
The mage knight continued to frown as he glared down at Chickadee. “Show me your weapons.” Chickadee held his hands to show off his forging gloves. “I understand that your signature weapon is a rope dart?” He nodded. “But you’re unable to channel magic effectively through it yet?” Another nod. “Your file specified that a cane is your main weapon. Where is that?”
“Not viable for use in close range combat,” replied Chickadee in a quiet voice.
“What was that?” Pegasus leaned over in an awkward angle so he could better here the shorter mage.
“Overuse of the cane leads to weapon fallout.” What he meant to say was that if he casted too hastily with, the cane had a tendency to explode, but he preferred the technical terms. “Work in progress.”
Pegasus let out a sigh and pulled a smaller fan out from his sleeve. He flicked it open in a smooth motion, revealing the delicate poetry written within, then he started to fan himself off. A bit of ice magic added to his fanning strengthened its cooling effect. “Furrow, escort Cully into the second dueling field so we may better understand his abilities.”
Chester frowned as his eyes darted between everyone present. It was obvious that Chickadee had been immediately singled out for hazing. If it weren’t for taking the risk of making Anais or himself the next target, he would have chosen to speak up. He didn’t know much about Anais, but he knew enough to know she couldn’t hold her own against either Naoiv or Trenchall. As for himself, he didn’t want to waste time getting back to his own squad.
“A-ah...” Anais went to raise her hand, but he grabbed her wrist to stop her.
“Shh,” he replied. “Cully brought this upon himself by coming prepared.”
Giving a nod to his knight, Naoiv moved to enter the field, cracking his neck as he did so. Chickadee followed as he placed a pendant about his neck. It would protect him from serious injuries and even teleport him out of the field if he took a killing blow.
“Begin when ready!” Called out Pegasus. He a shooing motion at Anais and Chester with his fan. “Work on meditations while I watch this.” Again Chester frowned but remained silent.
“Actually,” stammered out Anais. She tensed up when Pegasus slapped his fan shut against his hand and glared down at her. Words failed to come out of her mouth after that.
Chester intervened with a salute. “May we be excused for our individual squad lessons, sir?”
An eyebrow was raised by the elder mage. “Yes, I suppose so. You will be allowed to wear your training gear for next time, as you will be expected to give me a demonstration.” Anais went to say something again, but Chester grabbed her arm again. He forced her into a bow before forcibly dragging her away.
Behind them, lightning had started to build up around Naiov’s body. He ran his blades together, creating a stream of energy between them as they drew apart. Such a sight made Chickadee appreciate being an elementalist. Unlike acolytes, mages had dozens of fighting styles at their disposal. Naiov seemed to be focused on electricity and close combat, while Chickadee preferred to stay at a distance.
Without his cane, that wasn’t an option. No matter how strong a mage was, they all had to overcome the weakness that was their range. Chickadee narrowed his eyes as he gave Naiov a closer examination. The collar of his uniform had a red four-point star embroidered on it. The insignia for Starsons. Alton and Vincent had similar stars put on their uniforms, just like how several other squires carried small trinkets to show of their former schooling.
Caitlin often did work for Starsons students at discount, due to her wanting to get her name out there in the world. If it was one of her weapons, could make the range of Naiov’s spells as far as ten paces, which meant that Chickadee would have to risk entering shock territory if he was going to hit with his stronger stone spells. However, it didn’t appear as though Naiov had a delicate sense of control over his magic. As long as Chickadee focused on defense, he should be alright.
Another slash of Naiov’s blades sent a bolt flying towards Chickadee. All it took was a flex of the blacksmith’s fingers to pull up a pillar to block it. The bolt wasn’t stable. Something was off about the balance of energy between Naiov and his weapon. More data would need to be collected before he could figure out what.
Reaching around the pillar, Chickadee flicked his hand upward and launched the dust of the field upward in a cloud. The distraction gave him enough time to pull up a series of pillars from the ground to act as his defense.
Mages from the Crimson Region focused on either a single elemental style or two that complemented each other. Due to Naiov’s affinity for energy, it was likely he also used either wind or fire magic. This meant that Chickadee was free to sling around as much earth magic as he wanted without fear of it being used against him.
His suspicions were confirmed when a gust of air blasted the dust away. By then he had already moved into a different position. Naiov twisted his winds about himself and jumped high and onto one of the pillars so he could see where the mage had gone. A stone jutted up from below Chickadee to also launch him up.
Chickadee was small for his age. Though he appeared frail, working in the forge had made him strong. He was also agile, being able to dash and jump between pillars as Naiov fire bolts at him, while Naiov struggled to keep his balance. Whenever Naiov would get to close, Chickadee would adjust the pillars and force Naiov to retreat.
This was all part of the plan. He was the only son of Dodo Tuma, and his father didn’t leave him unprepared to fight. Lure Naiov in close, then either toss him to the ground and finish him off with earth magic, or take him out with a fire attack once he was in range.
The plan was working. Naiov continued to use the wind to extend the length of his jumps while working on moving closer. Once he had a feel for the magic that Chickadee was using, he unleashed his final attack. He shot an arm high in the air, and a thick bolt shot from his weapon and high in the air. It snapped apart as it curled downward, showering the field with bolts.
Chickadee was forced to drop down and create a dome to protect to himself. Much to his shock, the dome snapped apart and one of Naiov’s blades was brought down towards him. He barely had enough time to dodge the first. When the second came flying after him, he chose instead to catch it within his gloved hand.
The metal of the weapon quickly began to warp as it became superheated. At the same time, bolts shot off of Naiov’s other blade and directly into the smaller mage. Chickadee stammered for a moment before he fell to the ground, and he was finished off by a swift stab to the gut. Everything began to twist about his senses, and suddenly he found himself outside of the field.
“This is a barracks, Mister Cully. One that you were allowed entrance to because you drew a weapon from the Volo Refuge. If it were up to me, I would have not even allowed you to apply due to your disciplinary issues that were listed by a previous school. It is only due to Lady Till’s kindness that you were allowed to stay.” Pegasus narrowed his eyes. “It was a blacksmith’s knife, if I recall correctly. You and your family are skilled in that trade as well. I will remind you that we train warriors here. Not craftsmen.”
The statement rattled Chickadee to the core. He looked down at his hand, opening and closing his fingers while he processed this information. “... Yes, sir.”
“Are you a craftsman or are you a fighter?”
“Both, sir.” Chickadee stared at the flecks of Naiov’s weapon that were still stuck on his glove. “The metal in Furrow’s blade had become soft due to improper casting habits, making his spells weaker and less accurate as a result.”
Pegasus glance over to Naiov, who gave a hesitant nod in return. “What of it, Cully? It does nothing to prove to me that you belong here.”
“Your left fan has three loose pins due to lack of maintenance. Minimal, but enough that it will alter the course of your wind spells. I can see the weaknesses in every weapon, ally and enemy alike. Such attention to detail will make me a strong addition to any squad.” Chickadee stared down at the ground, clenching his teeth as he did so.
“Yet you failed to effectively use that knowledge to defeat your opponent. Though you appeared to have had a strategy in mind, your lack of experience combating unknown challenges.”
All Chickadee could do was nod his head. Even his father had said that he should take every advantage he could to train against multiple opponents, but that always felt like cheating. The only people he ever wanted to train with were Sybil and Zaniyah. Anyone else was a boring chore.
Pegasus let out a sigh before fanning himself off once more. “I teach the Grand Temple style of elemental magic. Research that carefully and come see me next week. Proper attire this time, Mister Cully. Your hair must be neatly tied back, and these rags you wear do not make for a proper mage. If I do not see any improvement by then, I will ask Lady Till to reevaluate your acceptance here.”
“Yes, sir.” Chickadee turned on his heel and began walking towards Naiov. He thrust out his hands and opened and closed his fingers several times over. “I am confiscating your weapons!”
Naiov looked over to Pegasus, who gave a nod. He pulled off the bracers and handed them over. “Be careful with them, Cully.”
Chickadee twisted them about, muttering to himself as he did so. “Soft metal, warped runes...” He grumbled to himself and looked up. “The blades need to be reshaped, and the runes need tuning. I will need time for sharpening and tempering. You will have them returned Eathaday morning.” He bowed. “Please use a spare staff from the armory in the meantime.”
While he was rambling, Pegasus stuffed his fan back into his sleeve and pulled out one of his war fans. He made a wide motion of his arm, causing a gust of wind to blow through the courtyard. As Chickadee ran off in the direction of the forge, the mage instructor’s face stiffened.
“... I didn’t give him permission to work on them,” Naiov complained. “I’m off training schedule until Eathaday, right? I’m not using one of those shoddy renter weapons.”
A flick of the wrist and the fan closed. It came down firmly on the top of Naiov’s head. “Get a staff from the armory and spend two hours levitating heated rocks. You will inform me the next time your weapons are beginning to fail you. Such lack of foresight would have us killed on a mission, and I do not keep useless tools within my squad.”
Chickadee ignored the banter as he rushed to start his work. He already had a dozen redesigns dancing in his head, and Caitlin was here to tell him what she had done with the weapon when it was first created. Normally he would spend the entire night experimenting with designs and arguing with Caitlin, but he worried he would fall behind on his studies. He was no longer in a position where he could prioritize his own interest.
He gave a nod to Zyris as he set the blades down on an anvil. The leather straps needed to be pried off first. Afterward, he would inspect the metal and then request any materials he needed from forgemaster Ira Knut. With more people working in the forge, it was more difficult to move around. Care was needed not to get in the other’s way. Without a word, he stepped around Zyris and stole his leatherworking kit.
“Caitlin is seeing how her adjustments to Zani’s axe are panning out.” Zyris didn’t mind. He was used to both Caitlin and Chickadee doing that. The mage replied by waving a hand in acknowledgment. “Is Sybil around? Caitlin needed her advice for one of the revisions.”
“Hunting with Moontear,” he replied, carefully cutting the leather that held the blades in place. “Naiov Furrow needs to be measured for new forearm straps. Horsetalon Squad member.” He had strengthened his magic casting abilities and had had a growth spurt since coming to Braytons. Lack of adjustments made to his weapon to accommodate for this is what had made it falter.
Zyris put his hands on his hips, still lost in his own thoughts. “Be great if she’d come talk to me. She’s been avoiding the forge since you and Zani came back.” He looked over, hoping to get at least some pity. Instead, Chickadee only shrugged. “Let her know about Caitlin when she gets back. If you’re interested in extra projects, there were a few ‘emergency’ orders that came in. Maybe some torc bracelets will appease them. I remember when you and Caitlin would sit around all afternoon weaving those.”
Another shrug came from Chickadee. “Mother made us do those as forging practice.”
“Guess that would explain why I never saw Caitlin make one after she got permission to work in the forge full time.” He glanced at the brass one that he often wore. “I always thought she had a talent for them.”
Chickadee gave him the side eye. It was totally because Caitlin had better projects to work on and absolutely not because she had given one to Zyris, only for him to start dating Sybil a week later. Absolutely not that. A chill ran up Chickadee’s spine at the member. Caitlin was not a fun person to deal with during that time.
“Sorry!” Zyris held up his hands and took a step back. “You’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’ve got to make several dozen leather charms.” He turned back to his workstation, where he continued to rub at a length of leather with a stained rag. “Because someone here thinks we need extra spending cash for the trip back.”
Pulling off the blood iron charms one by one, Chickadee buried himself in his work. There were plenty of different knights out there who served all sorts of purposes. Pegasus was wrong about there being only one way to be a proper mage. Chickadee did have a right to be here, but all he could do for now was to bide his time until he could prove it.