Without magic, the spars with Hætherin lasted about one or two dozen seconds. It was due to her physically enhanced body that Essairyn was even able to keep up this much. If it had been her body from Earth, even a second would be a victory.
In between these fleeting spars, Hætherin would pair up the arriving stragglers. Darren reached the main group shortly after Essairyn’s tenth magic-less spar. When he saw that she was training with the senior knight, a dash of rancor twisted his gut. Since he hadn’t seen her after they departed for the hills, he could only surmise that she quite literally, magically arrived here before them all. Now, as expected, she was the only one capable of properly challenging the knight.
“Wow, that girl is pretty amazing,” commented one of the trainees while taking a breather with his sparring partner. “That man is a top-tier, Class C Knight! Even Leœss here couldn’t last more than three seconds against him!” He jabbed a thumb at the aforementioned trainee who was a few meters away with his partner. Leœss glared at the other boy, and his sparring partner whacked him teasingly in the side.
“Hey, don’t pout, Ace. A girl beat you, but it’s okay since Chaera is your idol, right?” His partnered laughed and dodged a kick from the peeved Leœss.
The first boy who mentioned him added to Leœss’s annoyance, saying, “But first, he needs to get past Classerth!” Everyone who understood the inside joke and was within earshot erupted in laughter. Only Darren stood blankly amidst the banter in confusion.
Leœss rolled his eyes and retorted, “That’s a one-sided relationship anyway. Chaera has no interest in him.”
“Haha, and what makes you think she’ll be interested in you?”
“More than you, you—!” Leœss smacked the back calf of his partner with the blunt of his sword. The other boy instantly jumped up on one leg while holding the other.
“Okay, okay, you win! My bad. I guess we’re all just frustrated.”
At these words, everyone’s teasing smiles faded. For sure, the training was more rigorous than presumed. They had all entered the Academy aspiring to become upper-echelon knights. But even for Leœss who had a regular m’u worthy of rank C but an overall score of top-tier rank D, the road to become an A class like Lieutenant Classerth Ajenak was inconceivable. For starters, Leœss was twenty-one, just one year younger than Classerth. The lieutenant was a genius child who was rank D before turning double digits in age. Most people rarely grew more than a class from birth to adulthood.
However, the apex of genius was none other than Chaera Ch’tahur, the lone “true” S-class human currently living in Sol’h’meyr. Many believed that she was the last of the true S-classes who were noted for having one million or more in regular m’u. The previous one who reached that peak of strength was nearly three generations ago. Usually, at least one S-class arose in every generation of humans, but the number had dwindled drastically over the years.
Thus, the top echelons of knights were regarded as real-life heroes of old. Commander Ch’tahur and Lieutenant Ajenak were some of the sole beacons of hope for a race that scraped by due to the goodwill of the neighboring kingdom of As’rien. The abundant magic existing among all peoples in the ancient days of Sol’h’meyr when elemental gods still prowled the world had trickled down into these remaining powerhouses. It was human nature to admire and crave such all-encompassing power. It was power that was bountifully bestowed upon elementals and sparingly on humans. Struggling like underdogs, humans wished to return to the top of the food chain.
Leœss patted his partner's shoulder. “Yeah, I know. For the sake of your parents, you became a knight. I’m sure everyone here has a reason for putting through with this crap.” He turned his head and looked stoically at the trainees before him. They all nodded one by one in accord. The accumulating demon attacks, escalating pressures from neighboring kingdoms, and vanishing magic from their race, everyone felt the silent weight of impending doom. The human kingdom of As’pyze had to fortify the last frontier of their existence. No one spoke of it, but they all knew that peace could never last. Whether it took a day, a year, a decade, no one knew. They merely felt it in their bones and in the air.
“Hey! All of you over there! What are you all doing just standing about? Get back to training! Or did you want to train with me instead?” Hætherin broke the strange, sudden silence, and the trainees jolted in full attention. They quickly began sparring with one another as none wanted to face the senior knight.
Darren too started exchanging blows with his partner, but he couldn’t get the trainees’ conversation out of his head. Since he hadn’t fully exerted himself in the previous run and hike up the hill, he had been paired with a weaker trainee. Thus, he was free to think about the content of the conversation while fighting. His partner, who had previously pushed himself to his limits, was relieved for the break. Darren sunk into his thoughts and ruminated the meaning of the bizarre silence. Did that guy’s parents die? Why did it seem like everyone understood Leœss and shared that other guy’s feelings? Just what is going on here? Going in circles, he frowned and halted his thoughts. He didn’t know enough about this world to answer his questions. Other than being Knights of the Order, he didn’t know who or how strong Classerth and Chaera were. All he was sure of was that the trainees idolized them. So, he struck up a conversation with his sparring partner. The slightly younger boy readily explained who they were in the backdrop of the Knights and society. But even with this information, it still didn’t clarify everything.
“Do you know what happened to that guy?” asked Darren.
His partner followed where Darren was pointing. “Oh Leœss?”
Darren shook his head. “No, the guy sparring with him.”
“Oh him.” The younger boy paused in momentary hesitant. “Not really. But. Apparently he’s from Farinheld. His parents were murdered by that rotten group going around kidnapping mages.”
Surprise mixed with sympathy spread over Darren’s face. He almost wanted to apologize for asking about the whole matter, but his partner wasn’t the one involved in such tragedy. “Why did they kill his parents if they’re after mages? Were they mages or just regular people?”
“I’m not really sure either since they were just regular folks minding their own business. That group… they’re a bad lot, all of them. Anyone who stands in their way gets torn down.” The boy shook his head sadly.
“How do you know so much? Did you encounter them too?”
The boy’s eyes quaked a little, but he shook his head again. “No, not personally. My best friend was visiting his relatives in Farinheld, and….” His lips trembled as he finished, “they were all slaughtered.” Bleakness shadowed his eyes as he remembered seeing their sunken corpses. It was like the energy had been sucked out of them.
Realizing that Darren was speechless, the boy waved his hand in assurance that he was okay. “Actually, a lot of people have family from Farinheld since it’s so close by. It’s a small town in comparison to Byar’non, but because of its proximity, lots of families opted to live there since it’s less expensive than the city. Most people think that Byar’non will expand to include it one day, but with everything that’s happened there now… Well, people are afraid that something similar will happen in Byar’non.” The boy sighed and cracked a smile to lighten the mood. Darren pursed his lips, reduced to silence once more. The situation was more dangerous than he initially thought. He would have to talk to Essairyn about this again. But whether that would repel or attract her was uncertain. Considering her daredevil streak, he bet on the latter.
At this point, Hætherin announced to the trainees that it was break time. Relieved, everyone broke out in cheers. The senior knight grinned while adding, “Ten minutes. And then we start three versus one training.” The trainees’ overjoyed faces turned sour in a flash. Their survival instincts kicked in, and the ones who didn’t prepare a water bottle retraced their steps down the mountain to locate the fresh spring of water they had passed.
Meanwhile, Essairyn whipped out her container of water from her magic cache. She observed that a few others also retrieved water bottles from their inventories. I guess the magic cache really is an ordinary facet of living in this world, she noted as she took a sip. Just as she capped her the container, she spied Darren making his way over to her.
“Yo!” she greeted with a wide smile. She hadn’t been able to talk to him since departing early in the morning from the Academy campus.
Darren gave a small wave and forced a convincing smile onto his face. “Hey,” he greeted back before sitting down on a rock next to the one Essairyn was sitting on. He opened his mouth to talk but then closed it as he didn’t know how to start. He searched her bright face for any signs of mental fatigue from training with Hætherin. But he was merely met back with an expectant, smiling expression. For a moment, he thought about ditching his planned conversation subject, but Darren withstood the urge.
“About that mission, I heard about what happened to some people in Farinheld. That group after mages kills anyone regardless of who they are. So, do you still want to go ahead and join the mission?”