Needless to say, when Darren was informed of the change the next morning by Hætherin, he was surprised. Apparently, this decision was made because they found out he was planning to join the Farinheld mission. Because they deemed his current training path as unfit preparation for the mission, they requested he take the advanced courses to make up for his lack of experience and expertise.
Although the reasons were logical, Darren questioned how they found out and why they still allowed him to join after that discovery. No matter what angle he looked at the situation from, his current self was unsuitable for the mission. The Knights might as well be sending him off to his death. And as far as he knew, that was the opposite of their creed toward safety. His deliberation naturally progressed in the direction of Essairyn and Aispin, the only ones whom he shared his plan with besides also partaking in the mission themselves. Did they tell the Knights? Maybe Aispin is sworn to inform them of decisions like mine? I doubt Essairyn would take the initiative to do so or that she has enough sway to convince them as someone so new to the Academy. But still, I expected some push-back… He shook his head. Maybe I’m just underestimating myself, and they saw enough potential in me for this mission. Yeah, let’s stop being so cynical about this now.
However it happened, Darren couldn’t focus on the cause of this circumstance. He already had enough to concern himself with after his bold decision to join the mission. Ah, really, why do I get myself into these situations when I can avoid them? He ruffled his hair in agitation. This competitive streak of his always clashed with his more rational self. Even in a world more dangerous than the previous, Darren still felt compelled to match those around him. He thought he gave up most of this unhealthy compulsion after not making the college basketball team, but that sense of defeat always lurked under his easygoing facade.
Deciding that this class change was a lucky turn for him, Darren immediately set about finding his new classroom. As he trod the path that Essairyn had taken the other day when they split, his mind briefly flashed back toward her. To be honest, he was curious and a little excited to see what this advanced class was all about. And it would be nice to see a familiar face again. Because this was the second day into classes, the advanced students began the day with hands on training inside the field house. Darren wasn’t allowed much of an introduction to the course, so he had to jump right into the exercises. The beginning stages were basic, so he didn’t have much difficulty keeping up with the rest of the students. But he wasn’t able to find a chance to speak with Essairyn because he came in a few minutes late.
An hour later, the class split up into knights and mages for more specialized training. So once again, Darren was only left to sneak glances at Essairyn without being able to directly talk. Since her concentration was too strong for him to break with any gestures and facial expressions of his, Darren assumed that it must have been Aispin who told the Knights. Otherwise, knowing her, Essairyn would have found an opportunity to meet up with him. It was only during break, well over four hours later since the start of class, that he was finally able to catch up with her.
“Essairyn!” he called out and waved his arm almost frantically at the sedentary girl on the bench. She looked up with round eyes and blinked twice before awkwardly waving back with her sandwich and then switching to her free left hand after realizing.
“Hi, Darren,” she greeted with a slow, deliberate tone, trying to mask her rising nervousness.
“I was moved up to the advanced classes. Surprising, right?” He peered directly into her eyes and smiled.
Essairyn stopped herself from stuttering, “Y-yeah,” and replied as enthusiastically as she could. “That’s awesome! Congrats! I’m glad that someone I know is here.” She jerked her thumb at the posse of students by the water fountain. “They’re not very friendly, haha.”
Darren’s breath evened out after holding it unconsciously. “Yeah, they really aren’t!” he laughed in relief. It seemed that Aispin had been the one after all. “Anyway, this class is pretty rigorous, huh?” He sat down on the bench next to her. “They barely give you any time to rest! It’s pretty interesting stuff, but I’m not sure whether I prefer yesterday’s lectures over this or not.”
Restraining the urge to cough, resulting in her gulping discreetly, Essairyn replied, “For sure. It really feels like we’re in the army or something.”
“At the rate we’re going, I think we’ll be more than enough prepared for the mission.” Darren crossed his arms behind the back of his head, not noticing a flash of unease cross Essairyn’s face as she took a bite of her sandwich. “Tomorrow we’ll be doing a mock battle in the woods. That sounds like fun, but at the same time, I bet it’ll be excruciating like when we were with Hætherin the first day.” He chuckled lightly and looked over at Essairyn who returned the comment with a small smile and bob of her head. She seems a little distracted, he fleetingly observed before getting up from the bench.
Essairyn traced Darren’s movements as he made his way toward the water fountain. Oof, I’m acting so weird. Did he notice yet? Her eyebrows furrowed slightly in vexation. At the sight of the nearby boys elbowing one another when Darren bent down to drink, her eyes narrowed too. They better not be up to something…. But luckily, he returned from the water fountain perfectly sound.
However, her dark eyes didn’t go unnoticed by Darren who turned around to see where she was glaring. By then, the boys had surreptitiously resumed their previous poses, looking perfectly innocent. A little befuddled, Darren just continued walking toward Essairyn. By that time, she was looking the same as usual while chomping down on her sandwich.
Suddenly, she halted eating and shot up straight in her seat. “Wait! Did you eat yet? Do you know where to get the food?”
Darren couldn’t help snorting at her random reaction. “Nope. I’m new, remember?” His words were fringed playfully with sarcasm.
“Ah sorry! Let me show you! We only have—” She looked down at her wrist before realizing she didn’t have a watch. Her eyes then shot up and scoured the room for a clock. Finding one and quickly counting the time, she grabbed Darren’s arm and tugged him toward the doors.
Back in the hallways, she quickly led him to a large machine built into the wall. The machine consisted mostly of a large screen on the same surface level as the wall and a turntable dispenser behind a transparent, plastic-like window. Essairyn briefly explained how it worked. The menu options were as listed. After clicking any combination, including customized orders, and then pressing the finish button, the items would be deposited behind the window.
“Whoa…” Darren gawked at the interface and food being distributed. “Can’t someone just order as much food as they want? What’s stopping some random person stealing all the food?”
Essairyn held her belly as she laughed. “I had the same question too! But this machine has some smart detection feature that knows how much each person took, so if you try ordering more, it won’t let you until later!”
“Wha? That’s pretty legit!” He grinned and spun the platform around to take his food. “Can it even tell if someone tries stealing your food?”
Essairyn’s eyes lit up in remembrance. “Oh my gosh! You should’ve been here yesterday! One kid actually tried doing that, and it was hilarious! The machine actually rebuked him in a voice that didn’t sound robotic at all! He was scared out of his wits!”
Darren nearly choked on a bite of his pizza when he laughed while imagining the scene. “Man, I wish I could’ve seen that too. I would ask you to try stealing my food just to see what happens, but that’s probably not a great idea.”
She shook her head with beaming smile. “No, but when class is over, you can see the dessert options open up.” Essairyn clasped her hands together dreamily while almost squealing, “I tried a chocolate ganache cake the other day, and I almost melted it was soo good! I would have gotten more desserts to try, but I didn’t realize you could pick more than one until today!” She snapped her fingers at the memory of the students in front of her picking more than one main course option for lunch. She had been so infatuated with the system yesterday that she didn’t even bother to test out its limits.
Darren smiled as he chewed. “Well that’s one thing to look forward to after this day is over!”
Essairyn nodded brightly and reached for the door handle so that Darren could pass through with his food. But before he could take step through the open doors, a boy popped out around the corner, nearly colliding with Darren. The two uttered their apologies out of reflex. Thankfully, Darren hadn’t dropped the food.
“Oh! Leœss!” exclaimed Essairyn upon recognizing the short-haired boy who always seemed to have an annoyed look on his face.
Leœss eyed Essairyn and responded with the most subtle of head nods. The corner of her mouth quirked up briefly in irritation before masking it with a smile.
“Hm? Someone knows you in this class too, Ace?” Another boy with raven hair followed by a second one with curly brown locks appeared behind Leœss. At the sound of his disparaging tone with his nickname, Leœss clicked his tongue and brushed the guy forcefully off his shoulder before storming past Darren.
Essairyn tipped her head to the side, extremely curious why Leœss was suddenly in the room for advanced classes and how these students knew him. It didn’t look like they were really friends too by the way Leœss acted.
A sudden expression of enlightenment arose on the black-haired boy’s face. “Wait, are you the girl that he was talking about who made him supposedly perform badly during the first day evaluations so that he didn’t make the advanced classes?”
Her stomached turned at the boy’s attitude toward Leœss. So much of a friend you are by revealing everything like that in one breath, tsk. She sneered inwardly and shrugged. Giving a fleeting glance toward Darren, she stepped past the two boys leaning over in the doorway.
“Oh whoa there!” The boys dramatically backed off as she went through. “So sorry to be blocking your way.” Instead of responding or glaring back at them, Essairyn merely ignored their taunts and struck up conversation with Darren once they were out of earshot.
“Geez!! What the hell was that?!” She resisted stomping her foot in aggravation. “And who the hell do they think they are? Hmph, just watch your backs at tomorrow’s mock battle, peh!” The last syllable almost made it look like she was pretending to spit on the ground.
Essairyn whipped her head around at Darren who was desperately struggling to withhold his laughter. Caught in the act, he waved his hand, saying, “Sorry! That was just so funny! From Leœss’s bitch face to your—” He clamped a hand over his mouth and snickered.
“All right, all right, I get it,” Essairyn responded dryly, the creeping smile on her face giving her away. “Well I do wonder what that was all about. I guess you weren’t the only one who was moved to the advanced classes?”
Now composed, Darren murmured his agreement. “Looks like it.”
“Anyway, you better finish your pizza because we only have about five minutes left.”