[x] Write-in: ...to change yourself. If you did not leave your home and strike out like this, you would remain forever the shy dryad, ignorant of the wider world.
[x] ...Sieglinde Corrina Ravenhill...
[x] ...the elven girl napping in the Great Hall on your first day at Faulkren Academy.
Cliques begin to form within the apprentice body. Many of them are unsurprisingly centered around the most privileged in no small part due to their social standing and relative wealth. Aside from the obvious "benefits" that are perceived to come from having a friendship with some of the Confederacy's most powerful, there's also the fact that they tend to be the most capable of the apprentices at Faulkren; many of them have had private tutors and personal trainers throughout their respective childhoods, and most already know basic tactical doctrines and are at least somewhat proficient in at least one weapon of their choice, something that becomes apparent as the young aristocrats practice their martial skills on their own time despite such classes not having started yet at the Academy. One obvious example is someone from your own squad, with Sieglinde not only already learned in the theories of warfare, but also deadly proficient in the use of a spear. Similarly, word is already spreading that Aphelia has a similar level of competence in both her scope of knowledge and her ability to wield a rapier while also spinning a dose of magecraft.
Most who are heavily involved in the social scene at Faulkren Academy gravitate towards the social circle surrounding Aphelia and Lucille, even though the latter herself seems to be more a follower than a leader. The few other ladies here are also subject to varying degrees of attention, all of which they handle in different ways. Some bask in the attention, others try to play it off. Sieglinde herself seems indifferent to what popularity she has, and most of her fans are eventually limited to those who are fine with admiring her from a distance.
Even if it is representative of the social advantages she has enjoyed since birth, you respect how far ahead Sieglinde already is as someone who has been groomed since youth to be a competent leader. Alas, it certainly doesn't help your sense of confidence. You decided to embark on the path of a Caldran mercenary for what may be considered a selfish reason: You want to change. More specifically, you are unhappy with how you're the shy little dryad. All those grand goals that people have for becoming a freeholder - wanting to be of use like Vesna, wanting to embark on an adventure like Emilie, wanting to earn your own livelihood like Nikki, wanting to help your country like Sieglinde - are probably nothing more than lofty dreams if you yourself are a sheltered little girl, uncertain and unconfident, ignorant of the wider world around you. Ascending the ranks of the Caldran mercenaries is, for you, both a means and an end; it is a potential confidence-booster and character-builder through which you can find the insight and the personal fortitude to pursue true goals of your own.
This is proving to be a difficult prospect already, given the makeup of your squad, which has been designated Squad Four. Sieglinde goes without mention. Your very own roommate, Stephanie, is also more physically fit and already knows her way around with a katana; she reluctantly but quickly admits that she doesn't hold a candle next to shining stars such as Sieglinde and Aphelia, but that's still much better than where you are at present. Both are outperforming you where calisthenics are concerned, and while you find solace in the fact that you and Stephanie are on the same page academics-wise, it doesn't exactly help your sense of confidence.
The only real source of comfort you have is Elizabeth Irivich Zabanya, Sieglinde's roommate and the fourth member of your squad. Your impression of the tiny, elven girl with fair blond hair and doll-like features is that she seems to sleepwalk through life. Well, no, that's an exaggeration; she mostly only sleepwalks through the morning, and typically gets better - at least a bit - at lunch. Really, though, she does seem to resemble a slightly grumpy and pouty kitten that perpetually never gets enough sleep. You try to talk to her at times, but although she never entirely brushes you off, she mostly seems a little disinterested and maybe a little bit sullen. You try not to hold this against Elizabeth, and take solace in the fact that it seems like you're not the weakest link in the squad.
There are, however, warning signs. There's the fact that her name indicates that she is highborn. There's the fact that trainers and instructors only seem mildly exasperated when she doesn't show up for classes or training, something that you initially assume to simply be one of the privileges of being born an aristocrat. And there's the fact that when you try to make small talk with Sieglinde and ask about how she's getting along with her roommate, Sieglinde sees fit to calmly but cryptically warn, "Do be careful around Zabanya."
As it turns out, Elizabeth's temperament has led you into a false sense of security.
It's during lunchtime on the third week that Penelope - a human apprentice from another squad, scruffy in the way girls from laborer families tend to look - passes by Elizabeth in the Great Hall and "accidentally" spills a bowl of soup down the latter's dress. It's "accidental" - complete with quotes - in part because Penelope is smirking as she feigns a sarcastic apology, even as her friends giggle. It's only later in the day that you begin to hear explanations and rationalizations of why Penelope apparently took offense with Elizabeth; some say that she was unimpressed with the girl who slept through the lectures and training that they've struggled to get through; some say that the offending apprentice was slighted by Elizabeth's rejection of an invitation of friendship; some say that Penelope has a chip on her shoulder against the highborn or perhaps just elves in general, and Elizabeth seemed like the easiest target.
You are already seated at your table when you see this happen to Elizabeth, and you are still nervously debating whether or not to go over there and comfort - if not stand up for - a fellow squadmate. However, the only warning sign you notice is from Sieglinde, who - rather than reacting with anger or disgust or even indifference at the sight - seems a touch alarmed.
"Sorry, are you?" asks Elizabeth, and there's a smile on her face, but the smile is cold and cruel and terrifying, out of place on a small girl with features as angelic as hers. Her voice drops to a whisper, but you're still close enough to hear the elven mage whisper to Penelope, "If you're begging for forgiveness, shouldn't you be doing so on your knees, like a mongrel?"
Penelope and her friends exchange astonished laughs, as if offended by Elizabeth's words but also humored by the thought of the small elven girl managing vengeance in any way. "Don't get ahead of yourself, runt," snorts Penelope, giving the small elven girl a rough shove in her shoulder. She easily has more than a head over Elizabeth, and the push is forceful enough that the latter actually falls backwards onto her backside, prompting a few laughs from onlookers. Stephanie, however, finally emerges from the crowd, looking displeased at the scene and seemingly ready to come to Elizabeth's aid, but the elf casually rises back to her feet and reaches out to grab Stephanie's arm, stopping her.
Stephanie shoots Elizabeth a bewildered look, even as Penelope and her friends laugh and march off in celebration of their mischief. "Why did you stop me?" demands Stephanie, angrily shaking Elizabeth's hand off her arm.
But rather than look apologetic or offended, Elizabeth merely smiles sweetly at Stephanie, and for no reason you're sure you can explain, there's just something about it that sends chills down your spine. "If you're going to do something dumb," chimes the elf happily, "then make sure you aren't caught doing it by the people who matter."
This answer, unsurprisingly, doesn't satisfy Stephanie, but she lets it drop. And the incident may even have been forgotten as the day otherwise progresses uneventfully. But it's well into the evening, just before dinner, that the true meaning of Elizabeth's words becomes known.
You and Stephanie return to your rooms in preparation for your evening meal, running a little late as you are doing so; already, most of the students have vacated the dormitories for the Great Hall, and after two weeks of acclimating to the new training regime, few of the Academy's apprentices now collapse exhausted into their beds just before mealtime. Nothing seems entirely out of place, except on your way out of the West Wing, you find one of doors to the dorm rooms left slightly ajar. Specifically, the dormitory belonging to Penelope. Even more strangely, you hear a strange mixture of muffled sounds: The crackling of electricity, the moaning of pained suffering, the sobbing of desperate begging. And stranger still: A chill wind was flowing out from the dorm room.
The sight that greets you as the two of you open the door is chilling: Blades of ice protruding from the floor and walls and ceiling of the room where they have frozen over, threatening to impale those who come near; Penelope, a sobbing wreck curled up on the ground, whimpering near-incoherent apologies; her friends, sprawled across the floor as they writhe and twitch. And Elizabeth, standing in the middle of the dorm room, magecraft tome in hand against her chest, icy mists and sparks of electricity swirling around her a naked threat, a naked show of arcane power, a foot placed on the back of Penelope's head.
It's only after seconds of you and Stephanie gaping in stunned silence that Elizabeth finally notices - or at least deigns to notice - both of you. The smile she offers both of you - even as she playfully places a finger on her lips as if to suggest that this is a secret between the three of you - is as sweet as ever.
Elizabeth is never directly implicated in what happened in Penelope's dorm room: In spite of their pathetic, defeated states, there are no wounds or marks on any of the girls, and no any other evidence of harm aside from psychological trauma. Elizabeth closed the door on them, their absence from dinner goes almost completely unnoticed, and they remain unnoticed until hours later, when someone decides to look for them in their rooms. Any trace of magecraft had long dissipated by then.
After a short stay in the infirmary, the four girls are released, traumatized but refusing to name their attacker or even to acknowledge that they were, in fact, attacked. Elizabeth is among the apprentices who are eventually brought in by instructors for questioning, but there is no proof that points conclusively to anyone, and the matter is eventually dropped. You hear someone mentioning that as the daughter of Viscountess Zabanya of Marloch - the heiress, even - it's unlikely than any reprimand directed towards Elizabeth for a "teenage prank" would be overly severe in any case.
But the conclusion that comes out of all the rumor-mongering that follows is clear: Elizabeth Irivich Zabanya is not to be slighted. Like Sieglinde and Aphelia, Elizabeth is yet another prodigy this year at Faulkren Academy, said to be a natural with magecraft ever since her tutors began to teach her the art of miracles.
It's also how you realize for a certainty that, yes, you are the weakest link in Squad Four.
There's something awkward about finding yourself on the same squad as Elizabeth and Sieglinde. It's not just limited to the fact that you have two faraway examples right next door who feel like unreachable goals, "role models" - for the lack of a better term, even if Sieglinde will probably refuse to embrace that term and Elizabeth is perhaps not exactly someone to emulate - whom you feel like you'll never be able to catch up to. This concern, at least, is addressed in passing by your instructors when they assure apprentices from less privileged backgrounds that everyone is being taught at their own pace and in accordance to their own abilities. "Very few people fail to become Caldran mercenaries once we've had three years with them," one instructor promises. "And we don't lower our standards or hand out pity points."
No, what's also awkward is that if squads are also considered a form of social circle amongst apprentices, then you - and, to a degree, Stephanie as well - are vastly overshadowed by the two proverbial giants - especially proverbial in the case of tiny Elizabeth - on your squad. It doesn't matter that your interactions with Stephanie are only beginning to warm into something less awkward, or that Sieglinde still seems ever-distant in spite of her willingness to respectfully engage with you, or that Elizabeth still regards you as little more than a squadmate she'll have to work with for three years. The very fact that the four of you are in a squad means that you're perceived by others to be in "that group", and that - compounded with your very own shyness - sometimes makes you feel like your existence has been forgotten, a molehill unnoticed at the foot of two mountains.
This is made even more awkward as Elizabeth and Sieglinde continue to attract attention, with Elizabeth's reputation being upgraded from "sleepy elf girl" to "terrifyingly powerful mage for her age". This means that you, as her squadmate, are on the receiving end of a lot of hushed questions about Elizabeth from other apprentices who suddenly seem interested in how she is and what she's said and what she likes. Stephanie also gets some of these questions, but you are the primary recipient of these questions. It's all a little overwhelming, and you aren't at all displeased when Stephanie impatiently cuts through a crowd of curious girls surrounding you and drags you away by the wrist, giving a cold glare at your interrogators as the two of you leave.
"You're allowed to tell them to sod off, you know," she sighs in exasperation, not at all bothering to wait until the others are out of earshot before lecturing you.
You try to feebly start, "Th-They're just curious..."
"They're just using you to get to someone they want to suck up to," cuts Stephanie right in. "Especially with Elizabeth. It's obvious they just want to leech off her power as opposed to anything else." She makes a sound that resembles some halfway point between a sigh and a groan, declaring, "I do not want to be next door when those two get into a fight."
After spending several days recovering, Penelope and her squad finally return to classes. You've heard that most of the "damage" done was psychological rather than physical, and it shows when they finally reappear after days from the infirmary. Despite trying to coolly play it off when they walk into the classroom, they are notably more quiet and demure than before. Penelope in particular only ever gives one quietly hateful but terrified glance in Elizabeth's direction before looking away just as quickly and never turning back again.
Elizabeth, for her part, doesn't even look like she notices anything at all; if anything, the mage seated behind you and next to Sieglinde looks like she's dozing off again. The elf is clearly not a morning person.
Watching Penelope's squad send dark looks in your direction before the instructor comes in to teach her next lesson, Stephanie - seated beside you - sighs and mutters under her breath, "What are the odds that they'll retaliate against the two of us instead?"
"A-Against the two of us?" you whisper back in shock, daring to send a furtive glance backwards to make sure Elizabeth isn't listening in. You don't think either of you are being loud enough for her to hear, at least.
"Well, we are part of Squad Four," Stephanie grimaces. "And we are easier targets."
"I-I don't think..." you start, but you're very quickly interrupted.
"Then stop being easier targets," Elizabeth suddenly chimes right into your conversation, startling both you and Stephanie as your heads swivel back; the elf looks entirely amused and pleased with your reactions.
Stephanie manages to gather her wits first, scrounging up her bravery as she neutrally but firmly fires back, "I was thinking you could maybe not hurt people for the tiniest provocation."
"I've heard them talking about me for a long time," Elizabeth shrugs nonchalantly. "Just words, nothing of interest or of consequence beyond mewling kittens. But it did confirm that this was deliberate and premeditated. So when they acted on it, I retaliated accordingly."
"By electrocuting Penelope so hard that she couldn't stand straight for days?" scowls Stephanie, but quietly. It's not just her being careful not to offend Elizabeth; the instructor is beginning her class on the history of warfare.
"If harm must be inflicted," sniffs the elven mage, "then let it be so severe that future retaliation is impossible or unthinkable."
"That," adds Sieglinde quietly and impassively, not even bothering to even send a sidelong glance at her roommate seated besides, "and you enjoyed it."
"Yes, that too," smiles Elizabeth, utterly devoid of guilt or shame; if anything, the casually pleasant way she says this seems no different from her casually noting that she also likes chocolate. "If she has a problem with it, she can get stronger." And then, to you and Stephanie: "And if you are afraid of them seeking the two of you out instead, then you can get stronger."
Sieglinde exhales; had it come from someone else with less control over her temperament and demeanor, it may well have been a sigh. "Truly spoken like the daughter of a viscountess who could afford to get her daughter the best instructors in magecraft," she observes. "How righteous it is to have those born common tremble before you."
"I did nothing that was without provocation," smirks Elizabeth, "which is certainly more righteous than anything the world has to offer. And I'm sure the Tenereians shall care so much about whether you're highborn or low - and whether or not you're strong - when they're trying to kill you with their spears."
"Yes, indeed. Why wait for the Tenereians to show you the injustices of life when you can see it here?"
But Elizabeth, unbothered at the verbal jab, merely takes Sieglinde's words for her own as she happily declares, "Truer words have never been spoken. If you're going to come to an educational institute, you may as well learn something important."
The good news is that in spite of a heightened sense of self-preservation and nervousness around Elizabeth, the mage doesn't actually seem to mean you any ill or harm. There's an almost casual dismissal of your presence on her part. Nothing so flippantly rude as outright ignoring you, but it's clear that you are not yet someone whom she considers worthy of her sustained interest. Nor are there any signs that Elizabeth or Sieglinde are anywhere close to fighting; relations between them are devoid of any semblance of friendliness, but there is an almost unspoken degree of respect for each other's capabilities, even if such is not extended to their respective temperaments. You even catch them exchanging witty banter from time-to-time, although they seem to be laced with casual barbs rather than coated with camaraderie.
Better news is when you catch a lucky break. As the weeks progress, and as a strict regimen of calisthenics brings everyone up to an acceptable level of physical fitness, the physical component of your education begins to delve into the basics of survival training, encompassing little things like how to forage and find shelter in the local woods and hills. After only two weeks, however, after it's ascertained that you at least know the basics of tracking and map-reading, you and a few others - about ten of you altogether, all sharing one particular commonality - are pulled from this course even as most of the apprentices at the Academy are required to continue. You'll still have to come back for future group exercises, but you've otherwise been opted out of personal wilderness survival courses.
"Why do they get to skip out?" complains one of the elven girls when the news is announced, as the great host of apprentices begin shuffling towards the surrounding wilderness. Not that you blame her; survival training has thus far resulted in long, supervised stretches without easily available food, water, or shelter, and plenty of people have become tired and dirty as they are coached for days through the wilderness outside Faulkren.
The small smirk on the responding instructor's face tells you that she gets this kind of question a lot. "Tell me, apprentice," she demands. "Are you a dryad?"
"Can you survive a week or more without food or water?"
"Can you continue to carry out your duties effectively with only sunlight for nourishment for days?"
"Then get back in line and ready to march."
The ten-or-so dryads you're with quietly exchange smiles.
The courtyard of the Academy has already been set up for weapons training, with racks of practice weapons having been pulled out of storage. Dull blades, wooden arrows, and other fake tools of war have been brought forth to acquaint yourselves with your weapons of choice without accidentally taking someone's hand off. A few weaponmasters are already there waiting for you when you show up, and they waste no time getting down to business as soon as all of you are there.
"Through the three years you are here at Faulkren Academy," one of the weaponmasters declares, "you will learn to use at least two types of weapons, if not three or more. Some of you here have had your own personal combat instructors, and already know your way around your weapon of choice. To which I get to say: Lucky you. You will only need to learn how to use one more weapon to reach the bare minimum standard for graduation. I do hope you don't intend to graduate with just 'the bare minimum'."
This particular point is no doubt used to address Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine, the lone highborn dryad here among you who is rumored to be a talented mage, although the rumors don't seem to agree on whether she uses tomes for offense or staves for support. Although she doesn't have the kind of reputation that people like Elizabeth, Sieglinde, Aphelia, and Lucille have, she nonetheless is well-known and well-liked enough at the Academy, regarded as a kind and helpful member amongst the ranks of the nobility here at Faulkren. Still, you can't deny that Azalea - and every other apprentice of noble birth here at the Academy - has already begun this training with a significant advantage over everyone else; a traitorous part of your mind can't help but think back to Elizabeth's cavalier comments about the unfairness of the world and the need to become stronger. Still, Azalea is popular and friendly enough that there isn't much in the way of resentment or jealousy amongst those present; this may not have been the case with most other apprentices of noble birth.
"No two Caldran mercenaries are alike," continues the weaponmaster, "and what weapons you will end up mastering are your choice. However, you will need to consider what kind of role you expect to have on the battlefield, what weapons are useful for which situations, whether or not you expect to have a weapon ready for purposes of personal defense or close quarters combat. A poleaxe will let you crush foes on the battlefield, but good luck getting anywhere in tight urban environments. You won't find much use for daggers as armies crash into each other, but they're easy to hide and wield for quiet kills if you're sneaking around in infiltration missions. Bows are useful for picking off faraway enemies, but unless you have a secondary ready, you're in trouble once the enemy closes. So on, so forth.
"Once you choose your weapon, you will be under the supervision of a weaponmaster who specializes in that weapon. You will report to her, and you and any other apprentices who have chosen such a weapon - whenever they return from survival training - will be instructed and assessed through the year. Only after she is satisfied with your performance will you allowed to choose a second or even third weapon to master." The weaponmaster's eyes narrow. "You will not graduate from Faulkren Academy unless you are able to wield at least two weapons at a level of proficiency acceptable for an apprentice at the end of three years. If you do not, congratulations: Your three years here will have been for nothing."
There is a moment of quiet as the weaponmaster makes sure that her words are taken dead seriously. No one laughs, or thinks she's joking or just making idle threats. You're pretty sure that a few of the dryads here quietly gulp. You yourself feel a tight lump in your throat.
"Now, then," the weaponmaster gestures towards the weapon racks, "go ahead and choose the first weapon you're going to master."
[x] Straight Sword
[x] Dual Daggers
As each week goes by at Faulkren Academy, you become increasingly accustomed to the schedule and expectations that have been thrust upon you. You are becoming increasingly fit and knowledgeable, even as you are subjected to tests and examinations on both your mind and body. You also begin to grow closer to fellow youths gathered here at this institution who are also driven to become some of the best warriors ever produced by the Caldran people.
You've settled into the Academy well enough that you - and most of the apprentices here - grow comfortable enough to make use of your own weekend time. You're determined to make new friends here, perhaps even beyond the confines of your squad. You and Stephanie are getting increasingly accustomed to each other; it seems that the serious, unsmiling demeanor that she possesses is a permanent fixture, but she doesn't seem to mind that much about speaking her mind in front of you anymore. Sieglinde remains ever an enigma, someone whom you look up to as a role model, even as she keeps you at a respectful distance. And Elizabeth...well, she's certainly intimidating, especially after you witnessed the whole Penelope episode, but at least she hasn't turned that serene wrath on you, you suppose? The four of you will find some way to foster a semblance of camaraderie simply by virtue of having to work together for three years, but there's no reason why you can't help speed this along.
Unsurprisingly, Emilie, Nikki, and Vesna have not been put into the same squad; that's just the inevitability of probability. You've shared some courses and training sessions, and greeted each other in the halls and during mealtimes, but you haven't really had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with any of them. The weekends give you a chance to change all this.
There are also the other apprentices whom you've come to know by name but haven't really had any meaningful engagement with. There is, of course, Azalea, the dryad highborn with whom you've skipped out of survival training with. As far as you know, everyone seems to regard her as an elegantly poised lady of gentle kindness, albeit sometimes with a hint of teasing. You haven't seen anything that runs contrary to this impression, and you suppose the fact that both of you are among the ten-or-so dryads here at Faulkren Academy at least gives you an excuse to approach her in a not-so-blatantly awkward manner.
Azalea seems to be "closest" to Wilhelmina Adelaide Marienberg, an elven highborn who is rumored to be an excellent shot with a longbow. Contrary to Azalea's warm demeanor, Wilhelmina gives off a more serious impression, as if her duties and obligations as a viscount's daughter are a constant weight on her mind. Nothing suggests that Wilhelmina herself is unkind, but despite her calm demeanor and excellent capabilities, there seems to be a sort of awkwardness in terms of how she has situated herself socially amongst so many apprentices of varying socioeconomic backgrounds.
And then there is Aphelia Meredith Treiser, the closest thing that Faulkren Academy has to a celebrity. Despite a seemingly cool aloofness that many other girls find attractive, her reputation is that of a perfectionist role model; if Sieglinde seems reluctant - if not outright resistant - towards being an example for anyone, then Aphelia has taken the adage of "lead by example" to heart. Her status seems to compel her to keep most other apprentices at a respectful distance, but that seems to be more of a matter of social protocol rather than something that resembles Sieglinde's preference to keep to herself.
By contrast, Lucille Lorraine Celestia - most often found by Aphelia's side - seems to be much more openly friendly compared to the other ladies at Faulkren Academy. Whereas Azalea is kind but reserved, Lucille seems to have eschewed the existence of socioeconomic status altogether, happily mingling with just about anyone and everyone who joins the social circle surrounding Aphelia and herself. Curiously, despite rumors that she has been trained in the use of the shortbow, there are no passionate stories about Lucille's prowess with the weapon, or with anything else. In fact, what draws much more curiosity are the rumors that Lucille - unlike the many other ladies who seem unfairly talented - has thus far struggled with most of the training thrown her way.
And then there are the many dozens of other apprentices whom you haven't met yet. Faulkren isn't a major city, but the locale isn't tiny either; the town has a respectable population and some sights of note. The woods you sometimes train in are a popular scenic spot, a river runs through the landscape half a kilometer away along which many take a stroll, and the bathwater used in the Academy's shared bathrooms are apparently drawn from a local hot spring. Surely you'll run into someone, no matter what you do here in Faulkren.
[x] Aphelia Meredith Treiser
[x] Azalea Cherilyn Charmaine
[x] Elizabeth Irivich Zabanya
[x] Lucille Lorraine Celestia
[x] Sieglinde Corrina Ravenhill
[x] Vesna Rainer
[x] Wilhelmina Adelaide Marienberg
[x] Take a walk around the town of Faulkren.
[x] Take a walk in the woods.
[x] Take a stroll along the river.
[x] Take a bath in the hot springs.
Choose any two from any category.