Swaths of grass tumbled across the sweep beyond the open air windows of the carriage. Lavender eyes gazed out at the landscape, a freckled mosaic of cattle and farmland. The agrarian view made for a diverting ride. It took Essairyn back to childhood days of apple and pumpkin picking, horse and hayrides, and growing and eating fresh produce. Although her experience with farms was infrequent, no more than the typical person who visited them for holidays like Halloween or simply during the autumn, a sense of nostalgia billowed through her. Coupled with the soft breeze and balmy weather, Essairyn felt exceedingly content. Her eyelids drooped shut as she leaned out and let the wind glide across her face.
“Only about five minutes ’til we reach Farinheld,” announced the driver with what must have been the accent of this world’s countryside.
“Okay!” Darren called back before turning to his seating partner again to continue their conversation.
“So mine is about as big as that farm with the blue shutters we passed by previously. Our family has been living there for generations. That’s how Farinheld came about; it was a farming village. And that’s why there’re so many farms down this road, too.” Leœss gestured toward the outside.
Nodding, Darren remarked, “No wonder why Byar’non is supposedly considering whether to include Farinheld as part of their territory for when they eventually expand. There’s basically a stretch of civilization from here to Farinheld. But doesn’t that contrast with the current configuration? To include rural land as part of a city?”
“True, but these farms provide most of the city with food, so it’s easier to integrate them for economic and trade purposes.” Leœss slouched on the cushioned bench with his hands behind his well-tamed mop of wavy auburn hair.
Essairyn retracted her head from the window at the mention of town economies. “Do you think Byar’non will eventually establish a state with the surrounding towns including Reisparte?” she interjected thoughtfully.
“I wouldn’t be surprised. Neu’arth might be a special case, but it still shows how versatile and beneficial a larger network of municipalities is for humans. The more that As’pyze develops, the better it is for drawing out humans in elemental kingdoms. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to gain true independence as a race.”
Reflecting upon these speculations, Essairyn could see the realistic truth behind them. Humans living in elemental kingdoms never rose up in social or monetary status even after centuries. They simply couldn’t compete with elementals who were both inherently smarter and more physically and magically blessed. The lowest rungs of labor were entirely occupied by humans. Without the proper support in these kingdoms, humans were fated to remain as the lowest stratum of intelligent species. Even spirit and demon civilizations fared better within the same lands. Unlike Earth where humans were the most intellectually gifted species and could reign at the top of the food chain, they held no advantages in this world. Being demoted to the level of talking animals was beyond shocking to the first waves of displaced humans from Earth during the war.
“Well, as long as there isn’t any infighting over occupation and sovereignty with these town mergers, it sounds like a good strategy,” concluded Essairyn.
“Yes, we can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves at the benefit of the elementals,” agreed Leœss.
“The only problem lies in the environmental erosion to the west of As’pyze along the border,” interposed Aispin, opening his eyes from a light slumber.
“Oh sorry, did we wake you?”
Aispin shook his head at Essairyn’s question. “I was just resting and heard the driver earlier. So I needed to wake up now anyway.” He flexed his stiff back as Leœss commented on his remark.
“You mean the Borderlands right? Yeah, that place will eventually become a problem for the westernmost cities of the Southern Province. Even the ocean degrades the land at a slower rate.”
“Heaven’s Fall.” Essairyn almost whispered the name. While ethereal sounding, the sinister undercurrent divulged the true nature of the northwestern corner of As’pyze. The place even matched its name and connotation. Beyond the guileless glimmer of the seashore laid misty crags with waterfalls that evaporated into the void. It was the abyss where the fabric of the world had been wrenched free by water and light. The very foundation of the land had been torn and stowed away into another dimension, leaving behind a forsaken beauty of nature. Both Heaven’s Fall and the Borderlands deteriorated the adjacent land. But the latter was ruthless in claiming fertile land and reaping it of all bounties. Lifeforms withered into dust and rose as occasional miasma in the heart of this barren stretch between the frozen kingdom and human nation.
“Those lucky ice elementals don’t have to worry about the erosion. Their magic type preserves their land for the most part.”
Adding to Leœss, Aispin chuckled, “They only have to worry about the heat from As’fyre at their northern border.”
“Even As’eryt to their south has to worry about that though,” laughed the auburn-haired boy. “With only four elementals, the kingdoms are bound to touch. Luckily, As’rien and As’pyze are right next to one another. Otherwise, either being sandwiched in the other kingdoms wouldn’t bode well for us.”
Darren sighed. “Why does this discussion remind of the War Game?” After the first run of the exercise, the knight cadets ended their two week training period with another to test their progression of combative and tactical expertise.
“Huh.” Essairyn tipped her head to the side. “You’re right, it does in a way.”
“Hard to forget now, isn’t it?” Leœss smirked teasingly. He was referring to the Knights training in general as well as the War Game.
“Yeah, most brutal two weeks of my life.” Darren breathed out heavily with a contrasting blithe air. “But a memorable one. I certainly learned enough in that short time. I never thought it would end, but the long days were actually short because of how much we trained.”
Essairyn frowned in the middle of Darren’s words. “That reminds me,” she began slowly, “I forget to tell you not to target the face.”
“Hm? But I didn’t the second time even after being on the opposite team.” He raised his eyebrows as he reflected back to the last match.
“I mean ever! That’s really cruel you know! Imagine having a scar, a permanent reminder every time you wake up and look in the mirror!” Although Essairyn was being serious, her tone was lighthearted, so Darren chuckled and opened his palms in an apologetic gesture.
“My bad! I just didn’t know how else to distract you well enough in that fight! You would’ve never flinched if it was on your arm.”
“True…” Essairyn looked off pensively for a fleeting moment before jumping in her seat as she exclaimed, “I’m still mad at you for that you know!” Her bright smile gave her away as Darren knew it was all in fun now that they had long past put their quarrel behind them.
“Right, right.” He grinned, matching the mirth in Essairyn’s eyes. Ever since coming to a deeper understanding of each other that day, they hadn’t disputed and instead trained determinedly for one shared cause. No matter what the future held, they would take it together in stride, for they only had one another to depend on in a foreign world.
“Ah.” Aispin whipped his gaze from Essairyn’s smile as he felt the carriage jolt going over a rock in the road. Peering reflexively out the window, he noticed the town outskirts coming up quickly. “It looks like we’ve arrived.”
Essairyn hummed her agreement as she spied the approaching shape of a lively but quaint village. The horses soon stopped at the town entrance. The driver and his team would rest up before finding passengers for the ride home. Since Essairyn was seated across from him, she and Darren exited on the left while Leœss and Aispin exited from the right of the carriage. Simultaneously, they observed their surroundings before looking toward one another.
“We have to meet up with everyone else at the inn, but we also need to buy supplies on the way,” instructed Aispin. “Although this town is small, so I doubt that it would take long, but any volunteers for shopping, finding the inn, or helping Leœss back to his place?”
“Oh! That’s fine. I can go back on my own,” Leœss cut in with a wave of his hand.
“Are you sure? You might not be able to join the mission, but we were still tasked with looking out for you along with everyone else in this town.”
“Pft, I’ll be fine, seriously. Those knights worry too much.”
“Yeah, man. Even if something happens, I’ve got your back.” Darren smirked lopsidedly with a friendly shove to the other boy’s shoulder.
Leœss jabbed him right back with a crooked grin. “Just don’t get in my way.”
“Ouch, that’s harsh!” Darren laughed along with Leœss. The two had gotten close ever since the first War Game. Because they shared similar circumstances on rising to the advanced class, except that Leœss had more ‘legitimately’ moved up, they had found a confidant in one another. Despite Leœss constantly having a gloomily sharp expression that seemed to be cursing the world, he actually had a good sense of humor. He was much easier to talk to than Aispin.
“I volunteer for the shopping!” Essairyn raised her hand cheerily. She was excited to see what kind of adorable knickknacks might be found in the store of a small town.
Aispin smiled and inclined his head. “Sure, we’ll be needing ten dozen mid-potions. A set for each member plus an extra. Are you able to store them all in your inventory?”
“Yup! It shouldn’t be a problem!” She gave a thumbs up, almost bouncing at the action due to her eagerness to set out for the local magic convenience store.
“Then I guess it’s you and me for the inn,” chuckled Aispin, turning his head from Essairyn to the two boys who were still chatting with one another before they departed in separate ways. Seeing them deeply engaging in their conversation, Aispin smiled and looked back at the ebony haired girl. “Maybe I should’ve tried convincing Bodraig to let Leœss join.”
Essairyn giggled cheekily. “Yeah, those two are inseparable in class. I wouldn’t be surprised if Darren decided to quit traveling with me if he could with Leœss,” she quipped.
“Hey! I heard that!” shouted Darren over his shoulder. Essairyn made a face at him in response, garnering an amused, unamused look from the sandy-haired boy.
“That girl.” Darren exhaled with a shake of his head. “Anyway, we’ll catch up later after the mission is over okay? I’m sure she wouldn’t mind us visiting your farm before we set out again.”
“Sure thing! It’s just my siblings and I at the farm. So it’ll be a fun time I promise.” Leœss winked, concealing the hidden pain of no longer having parents to scold or embarrass him when he had friends over. “I’d like to join you guys, but eldest son duties, you know?”
Darren understood completely. Although Leœss was just twenty one, he now had the responsibility of taking care of his younger siblings. Only one sister was older than him, but she was married and no longer lived at the family farm.
“I got it. Maybe one day, Leo.” Darren smiled at his friend. While the sounds were different, Leœss’s full name reminded him of Leo, so Darren thusly nicknamed him that. “Although Akari’s a fox spirit, at least Essairyn has a girl with her. Kinda makes me feel left out, you know?”
Leo laughed with a hand on his stomach. “I know exactly what you mean. I feel that way all the time with my sisters; even though, I have one brother, but he’s still just baby really. So he can’t understand my pain, haha! Although…” He paused in thought. “You and Aispin aren’t all that close despite being roommates?”
Darren pursed his lips in strained smile. “Haha, is it that obvious?” He scratched his head.
“Uh yeah. You two barely talked to one another. It was mostly just Essairyn. Although admittedly, the guy was snoozing most of the trip.”
“I guess it’s just… a little hard to talk with him.”
Leo raised an eyebrow. “Why? He seems like a pretty easy going guy.”
“That’s….” Darren hesitated with his mouth open to speak. Before he could say anything, Leo answered his own question.
“You feel like it’s awkward, right? Because he’s a higher knight class?”
Leœss’s discernment rendered Darren unable to reply, only to sheepishly chuckle his confirmation that his friend was right. Because of his uncertainty about his own abilities and potential, Darren struggled to open up to Aispin who reminded him of Essairyn’s nonchalantly confident nature. That quality of theirs was something he wished he had for himself.
“I get it. But then what about me?” he laughed with a slap to Darren’s back. “How do you think I feel around you guys? I don’t even want to meet the rest of your mission team at the inn. I got enough of the condescension back at school!”
If it wasn’t for Leœss’s playful tone and grin, Darren would have genuinely felt bad, despite having undergone most of the same criticisms. He also knew that Leo was just joking to make him feel better.
“Haha, no worries. I’ll be representing for us D class, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. See you later, man.” Leœss abruptly waved goodbye after realizing that Aispin had been patiently waiting for him. Essairyn had already left for the store.
Picking up on the cue, Darren returned the wave before jogging over to Aispin.
“Yeah, see you.”