A note from meidogeometry

I'm going to be unemployed come Monday. I'm not super torn up about it (at least, not beyond the hilariously depressing circumstances under which this happened); I have a history with that place that...honestly isn't super horrible or anything, but is tied up with a lot of my own personal anxieties. I'm almost semi-glad this chapter of my life is coming to a bit of a close.

There are still...things I need to do. I need to look for a new job. I need to get my ducks in a row with regards to my doctoral thesis. I need to not murder myself. But between now and then, I'm going to try to focus hard on writing.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if there ever was a time you've thought about trying to help me and my writing, please consider reading my works and sharing my stuff with all your friends, even those who aren't on Royal Road. Thanks, and sorry.

[x] Help Wendy defeat the direwolf.

"I-I'm going to help Wendy!" you shout to your squadmates, even as you dash through the darkness without waiting for a reply, your buster sword in your hands. A shout comes from behind you that's maybe from Stephanie, but it's difficult to identify even your roommate's voice in the cacophony. Separated from the rest of the apprentices by a distance of seventy, maybe eighty meters, they are too far away for most others to help without a coordinated push. You are taking a risk, but at least you have a buster sword, a weapon that has had a proven record against direwolves thus far, even if it involved dropping a giant weight onto a trapped victim.

Your eyes take in the skirmish before you as you close the distance between you and Wendy. She and her squadmate sport several cuts on their body but are largely holding on; the sluggishness in their movements seem borne more of injury than of fatigue, even if both are panting. Both are trying to face the direwolf while covering their flanks. The beast, meanwhile, dances around on four legs with only seemingly superficial wounds that ooze blood but don't seem like they're actually any real hindrance. It certainly doesn't seem to slow down the direwolf any as it charges at Wendy and her squadmate, looking like it's ready to simply knock the two over by barreling through them.

Wendy thrusts her spear, trying to use the weapon's range as a defense - you have been on the receiving end of the enough during your sparring sessions, her spear keeping your advance in check before she's even in range of your greatsword - but the counterattack is sluggish, and the thick fur on the direwolf seems to force the spearhead to merely slip harmlessly past. It grazes the direwolf's side, but the beast shoulders the thrust aside, getting off with barely more than a long scratch as it continues its forward momentum, jaws wide to take off Wendy's partner's terrified face.

It sees you at the last minute, or hears you, maybe even smells the blood still all over your clothes. It cranes its head over towards you with a snarl, even as you jump into the air, not terribly high, not at a point where you'd lose control, but just enough to give you that extra push forward. Your charge is accompanied by a strong swing of your arms - you're actually swinging the sword properly now, not inelegantly dropping a weight on a crippled beast - and your buster sword scythes through the air in an almost mesmerizing arc in a diagonal line from the upper right to the lower left, the giant blade gracefully cleaving through...

...absolutely nothing but dirt, coming down heavily where the direwolf was. The animal itself manages to spring to the side, dodging with surprising and alarming speed, slipping past your buster sword as if you were swinging underwater.

At least isn't biting anyone's face off, but you are recovering from your first swing, attempting to brace yourself into a defensive position to cover Wendy's side, when your vision is suddenly filled with fur and teeth.

You brain doesn't even realize that the direwolf has suddenly turned from its dodge to target you instead, at least not until a moment after the fact, after it bounces off against your buster sword and sends you crashing backwards onto your hindquarters. There is no maw clamping down on the blade of your weapon, not when it's a metal blade instead of a wooden simulacrum. You squeak in alarm as you try to scramble back onto your feet, trying to realize what happened as Wendy and her squadmate try to shield you from any follow-up to the direwolf's previous attack, and already the direwolf has turned around once again, coming in at the three of you with terrifying speed.

This time, you tell yourself, you're better prepared. You raise your blade upwards and back once more, resting the blunt side of your sword against the fulcrum that is your shoulder, turning slightly to the side. You wait until the very last second, after the direwolf charges the three of you yet again, after the direwolf twists its body mid-stride to allow Wendy's spear to deflect off its thick fur, after its snapping jaw turns aside her squadmate's sword-thrust while a claw digs into her shoulder and draws a scream of pain. You wait until you think the direwolf has exhausted its options, until it has been funneled down a narrow path of both offense and defense, until it has nowhere else to go except into the blade of your buster sword, swung in a clean arc through the chilly night air...

...And the direwolf slips away like a veteran tavern dancer mockingly spinning away from a bumbling, lecherous drunkard. You watch in disbelief as the large mass of flesh and fur and teeth and claws simply steps out of the arc of your buster sword faster than you can swing it, its jaw bouncing up and down as if it's laughing at you. And a shout of warning from Wendy - you're not entirely sure what she says as blood pounds in your head, only that she says it - alerts you to the sudden, terrifying fact that two more direwolves are rushing your way.

And, with mounting dread, you begin to suspect - begin to realize - why Ashlyn tried to get the apprentices from the West Wing to stop, why she tried to prevent them from going outside, why everyone is having so much trouble with these direwolves, why you managed to kill two direwolves with help but now this one is dancing circles around you. Because the corridors in the West Wing are enclosed, because a direwolf had nowhere to dodge at the time, because they could not take advantage of their speed and agility.

Here? This is where direwolves are really meant to be, where they're really meant to hunt. Out in the open. And now, with reinforcements, they're hunting for stragglers, for isolated prey. Like you and Wendy and the squadmate who is clutching at her bleeding arm, barely managing to still hold onto her sword.

And then suddenly, without warning, a series of lightning bolts crackle and twist in jagged lines through the air around you, as if a lightning storm suddenly touched down in your general vicinity and yours alone. Light and deafening thunder overwhelm you and Wendy and her squadmate, a spectacle so loud and terrifying that the three of you instinctively shield each other in a crouching, defensive formation. And the bolts of lightning strike out at all three direwolves like whips, complete with loud cracks when the lashes finds their mark, sparks flying, and suddenly the direwolves are snarling and yelping and backing up, glaring at the source of the lightning that floats down beside you.

Yes, float. Elizabeth Irivich Zabanya, surrounded by sparks of light, literally glides down from whatever height she achieved, her tiny feet softly touching down on the ground, electricity flowing from the soles of her feet to the blades of grass for just a moment before she lands. Small trails of electricity form and dance and bristle and disappear between her fingers, her arms raised by her sides, brimming with real power.

This is not Elizabeth deciding she needs to teach four lower-class bullies a lesson. This is not Elizabeth during a field exercise. She breathes heavily, the amount of magecraft she is conjuring all at once clearly taking a toll on her stamina. But it doesn't matter. This is Elizabeth letting loose with deadly intent. And if that wide, dark, dangerous grin - one that stretches from cheek to cheek, a complete mismatch with her tiny, angelic image, one that sends shivers down your spine - is any indicator, then she is totally enjoying every moment of this.

The direwolves aren't down, but charred scars create trails of smoke, and the air wafts with the smell of burning fur and singed flesh. So too are they cowed, regarding Elizabeth and her show of power with wariness, and you are - almost absurdly - reminded of what she told you at the start of your first year here at Faulkren, her justification for "teaching" Squad Twelve a lesson: That if harm need to be done, then let it be so severe that retaliation is unthinkable. You are not sure that Elizabeth's lightning in this instance is quite severe enough, nor that retaliation is already unthinkable for the direwolves. But instead of moving quickly to attack, they instead circle around you, growling and snarling and trying to find an opening instead of rushing the four of you from three different directions.

But Elizabeth doesn't stop at lightning as her arms spin and intertwine and twirl in intricate, dance-like motions, and spears of ice begin erupting from the ground, angled to cut at the direwolves. The spectacle reminds you of Aphelia, back during the Roldharen field exercise when she used similar magecraft to funnel the boar into your greatsword. Except Aphelia uses magecraft to complement her fencing, and Elizabeth's version of ice magecraft - from a mage who focuses specifically on the elements - looks far more powerful, the icicles larger and sharper as they jut out. They're not so fast that the direwolves can't avoid them, but Elizabeth conjures almost a dozen of them every few seconds, just enough to nip and cut and scrape away at the direwolves who can't quite manage to dodge from every direction.

And the show of raw power, of overwhelming magecraft is so mesmerizing, that the three of you can only stare for a long moment, at least until Elizabeth snarls, "Neianne, are you just standing there and touching yourself again!?"

Jolted out of your stunned staring and fighting down a blush, you barely register the fact that it is no longer just Elizabeth who has joined the fray. Stephanie and Sieglinde rush forward as well, the former having acquired a real katana and looking absolutely dangerous with it. Wendy stays behind to protect both Elizabeth and her own squadmate while you rush forward with your elven and aseri partners. Sieglinde lunges forward first towards one direwolf - the one closest, taking advantage of the two other direwolves having to contend with a barrage of lightning and ice - sliding in with a quick spin as her polearm, a glaive, slashes across. The power and speed with which Sieglinde swings her weapon - combined with the injuries and obstacles the direwolf faces - gives her attack more purchase than Wendy's, a deep gash appearing just above its right foreleg, the proverbial shoulder, causing the direwolf to stumble to the right just a little bit.

Then Stephanie appears, her aseri movements seemingly almost as quick as Elizabeth's lightning, her very silhouette a blur, dashing beside and beneath the direwolf from one leg to another, the slashes of her katana quick and precise. Her cuts are not as deep as Sieglinde, but the katana's swiftness allows many of these more superficial cuts across the direwolf's legs, with Stephanie darting in and out, dodging the direwolf's attempts to slash at her with injured claws, to bite her with its maw, to stabilize itself with so much damage inflicted onto its legs.

And in Sieglinde lunges again, this time with a leap up and forwards, and she lunges down spear-first, driving the glaive's blade into the direwolf's already-wounded shoulder. The direwolf howls, its leg giving out as it begins to topple onto its side, barely catching itself with its lower legs. But it is wounded enough, it is immobile enough, its head bowed enough for you to charge forward with your buster sword, ready to deliver the final blow to the head now that it's in no real condition to dance around you anymore...

...And then there is a shout of alarm from multiple voices - you can't identify them all individually - and out of pure instinct, you halt your charge, digging in a booted heel into the dirt. You look around, trying to assess the situation after developing tunnel vision between you and your target. And at the first sign of fur and teeth and claws, you slam your buster sword tip-first into the earth, just in time for the blade to bear the full brunt of a charge of another direwolf, one that has finally escaped Elizabeth's arcane barricades, one that decides that you are the easiest target.

The direwolf slams into the buster sword in a manner akin to slamming into a wall, even as it bounces off and to the side of your oversized weapon. But the ground is not so sturdy that there is no recoil; the force of the charge snaps your buster sword against you, knocking you against the ground, and you are struggling to climb back onto your feet, trying to dislodge your weapon before the direwolf beside you tries to recover from its daze, tries to recover from slamming into a small makeshift metal barrier, and...

An arrow flies in seemingly out of nowhere, simply and abruptly materializing against the side of the direwolf, a part where you imagine the ribcage and the vital organs would be. The direwolf howls, losing its footing as it collapses, its legs flailing in an attempt to get back up. A second arrow then appears in the direwolf's neck just as suddenly, causing the beast to convulse and literally topple over, as if the arrow severed its spine.

Turning to the source of the shot, you spot a squad of four on the walls of the academy, sixty meters away and a dozen meters up. You can just barely make out the more familiar figure of Nikki among them, the tall girl with a slightly darker complexion, standing with two others in a defensive formation on the ramparts. There is another silhouette that is less familiar to you: Wilhelmina Adelaide Marienberg, on a knee, her powerful longbow in hand and a quiver of arrows across her back.

The elven archer draws her bow again, and a split-second after she releases her bowstring - the wooden shaft snapping back with tremendous power - an arrow finds itself lodged through the eye of the crippled direwolf and into the brain. The beast twitches and convulses on the floor, but otherwise stops moving.

Just to be sure, you crush the direwolf's head with your buster sword. It really is a lot more efficient when the blade is metal and sharp.

Wilhelmina's support is desperately welcome, even if it soon becomes apparent that her attention is divided between different groups of apprentices in trouble, as well as with Squirrels trying to dislodge her squad from her vantage point. Elizabeth's original monster of a thunderstorm has now died down to single blasts of lightning. A look in her direction confirms that even tiny Elizabeth - barely managing to stand upright with an arm stretched out - can't maintain so much raw power for so long. But it did enough; Stephanie and Sieglinde are finishing off the grievously wounded direwolf, the one you first targeted before, and the third is now limping, cuts and charred flesh across its body.

The third charges you, seeing you as the relatively isolated target. You wearily adopt a defensive posture with your buster sword; the fatigue of combat is getting to you, eating away at your endurance, and you know that you have to take care of this beast soon. Yet just as you find your footing, there's a blur that goes right by your head, and a sharp burning sensation in your shoulder subsequently causes you to stumble backwards against your will, the muscles in your legs momentarily shocked into laxness at the sudden pain. You barely manage to use the flat of your blade as a shield between you and the charging direwolf - you can't quite manage a proper swing as you settle down onto a knee - as you fall backwards onto the ground, the impact of the beast's momentum nearly crushing you under your own sowrd. The direwolf jumps off, circling around in preparation for another go. Almost immediately afterwards, something strikes your buster sword and bounces harmlessly off. An arrow, you realize, fired by a shortbow. You quickly try to assess the wound on your shoulder, and you're thankful that the arrow that grazed your shoulder wasn't fired from a longbow; that would've created more than a scratch across your skin.

You manage to get back onto your feet, holding your buster sword in front of you in a manner not dissimilar to a tower shield, even as you feel the impact of two more arrows ricochet off the flat of your blade; you spot the archer now, a Squirrel tucked away behindone of the gates into the Academy thirty meters away, using a pillar as both cover and a leverage point for her arm. The direwolf charges at you once more - it's hard to spot it from around your buster sword - but before it can achieve maximum speed, lightning bolts from Elizabeth sizzle against it, causing it to howl and whimper and retreat, trying to find some form of refuge against an exhausted elven mage's powerful attacks. Single bolts though they may be, they still keep a direwolf at bay, charring its skin and burning its fur.

You have just enough time to shout in the direction of your own archer on the wall: "Lady Marienberg!"

It takes only a moment. From the wall, Wilhelmina looks in your direction. Then at a single arrow striking your buster sword again. Then she traces the fired arrow back to the shooter. Then she draws her bow, fires her arrow. And then there is a scream, and suddenly you aren't pinned down by shortbow fire anymore.

That just leaves the direwolf, who has taken advantage of the fact that Elizabeth has stopped zapping it with lightning. And it starts charging towards you again.

So you do the only reasonable thing: You start running away.

It is, of course, folly. You're not going to outrun even a limping direwolf. Even in your boots, you can feel the uneven footfalls - or pawfalls - that hammer the ground beneath you, increasing in sound and tremor with every step, drawing ever closer. Time itself seems to slow down as your mind goes into overdrive. You hear a shout from Wendy, crying out your name in warning, although that by itself seems like such an abstract fact in the heat of the moment as blood pounds in your head. You know, naturally, that she's trying to warn you that the direwolf is catching up and will soon pounce onto your vulnerable back.

It's too bad that you don't really intend to escape.

Stephanie and Sieglinde seem to know this too, because the two of them - standing beside the corpse of a direwolf they've just slain together - shout together almost simultaneously, "Neianne, now!"

Your left foot pushes out to the side, propelling yourself a meter to the right at just enough of a distance. Your right foot slams against the dirt, trying to stop yourself mid-sprint, and for a split-second, it seems as if your foot doesn't find purchase against the ground, as if you're going to slide across the damp soil. Your feet arrest your forward movement, but not so much that your momentum dies, not so much that both your arms don't swing the buster sword in your hands, not so much that the buster sword can't begin its forward slash from your right. Your right foot finally finishes bleeding your forward momentum, your torso swivels, and a scream escapes your lips - a primal, desperate, warrior scream - as your arms strain and you bring that giant hunk of a buster sword around towards your left in a half-circle, dragging that mass of sharpened metal through the air as fast as you can with all your dryad strength...

The sword strikes catches the direwolf's maw at an angle. There's a fractional instant of resistance...then, nothing. Just the sheer weight of the sword parting fur and muscle and bone like soft cheese as you strengthen your grip and finally push forward with the buster sword's momentum, letting physics do the rest. A horrible, gaping tear forms down the direwolf's flank, nothing like the clean cuts left behind by Stephanie's katana. The beast continues forward, carried by momentum more than any conscious intent, and with one final scream of what almost resembles barbarity, you finally complete the swing of your buster sword just as it exits the tail end of the direwolf. The sword comes free wetly, and your victim collapses onto the ground on the other side. Or, more specifically, two halves of the direwolf collapse onto the ground, the centerpiece in an otherwise bloody mess.

Almost instinctively, you give the buster sword a bit of a flourish with a downwards swing, and the residual blood from your weapon forms a crimson arc on the ground.

And then you subsequently collapse onto the ground, catching yourself on a knee now that all three direwolves are gone. The adrenaline rush has passed, leaving you with only the fatigue that swiftly catches up, even as you gasp for air, not only from the physical exertion of combat, but also the terror of real combat. A glance at Wendy at her squadmate shows that both are alive, if somewhat injured, one more severely than the other. Stephanie is the first to reach you, dropping onto a knee in front of you and quickly reaching for where the arrow grazed your shoulder, where blood has stained your clothes. "Let me check that," she demands, ignoring your feeble, half-hearted attempts at a protest, easily brushing your hands aside despite the fact that she's probably just as tired as you are.

She isn't the only one. Wendy may be a human, but she was fighting the direwolf longer than Squad Four has, and she's only barely managing to carry her wounded squadmate in the direction of the armory, where hopefully a healer can tend to the latter. Elizabeth also looks exhausted, even though she's brushing off any attempts by Sieglinde to help carry her; the latter, too, is breathing heavily. In fact, as the elven mage starts walking past you on her way back to the armory, she gives a curious look at the bisected direwolf on the ground just behind you and seems to give it - and you - what looks almost like an approving nod.

There's screaming in another direction, and you look over in dismay as you see Penelope - with bloody cuts across her body - barely managing to drag her own squadmate across the ground, calling for a healer with clear panic in her voice. You can see why; the girl Penelope is dragging looks like she's bleeding out, with deep gashes in several major vital areas. You don't think she needs a healer so much as she needs a shrine maiden for her last rites, and in your fatigue, you can't stop yourself from thinking an absurd line of thought, that being which faith the girl subscribes to.

But as Stephanie tells you that you're alright and starts dragging you in the direction of the armory, you can at least breathe a sigh of relief as you see that the apprentices of Faulkren Academy are already in defensive formations. There are no Squirrels or direwolves in that direction - your instructor beat them off - and now she's shouting orders for squads to get into position and to move out for a counterattack. "Alright!" she bellows, even as the rest of you rejoin the crowd. "Everyone listen up. Archers and healers, you will take your own positions regardless of where your squad is sent. Archers, spread yourselves up on the walls. Stay there regardless of where we send the rest of your squad. Healers, you too. Get in the West Wing, now. Take the wounded, and I mean the seriously wounded. If you can stand, if you can still draw a bow, if you can still cast magecraft, you fight. If you see our stragglers, someone who's late, someone who isn't here now but finally got out of bed, you tell them to stick with you instead of trying to find their own squads. Squads One, Two, Three, and Four, you're with me. Help get the wounded into the West Wing with the healers, and then get ready to sweep the buildings to the west. Squads Five, Six, Seven, Eight: You go with Instructor Ana, sweep the east side of the Academy. Squads Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve..."

And, with that, apprentices begin to move out in squads, in groups. They try to drive the enemy from the open courtyard, to uproot them from where they may be hiding inside the Academy buildings, to repel them from the walls, to block them at the gates, to assist their wounded. The shock of the Squirrels' surprise attack is over, and now that the apprentices - most of them, as far as you can tell, with around a hundred of you outside - have proper leadership in the form of your instructors, they move like a well-oiled machine. Sporadic fighting still happens here and there, particularly against the direwolves still running wild, but already the apprentices are fighting in coordination, are covering each other's flanks, are following up on each other's attacks, are supporting the frontlines with arrows and magecraft. It took all of you quite some time to recover, but unlike most victims of ambushes, the apprentices of Faulkren Academy did not panic and break. They pulled through together, and now all of you are going on the offensive.

As healers rush past the squads, heading towards your dormitory building while trying to carry the wounded, Stephanie pulls you in the direction of Vesna, shouting, "I need a healer over here! Vesna!" And when she catches the human mage's attention, the aseri drags you forward, pointing at your light wound, explaining, "An arrow nicked her shoulder."

But before Vesna can do anything about it, one of your instructors - ever with keen eyes - steps in, pushing you apart. "Bear with it," she tells you with a grimace, giving Vesna an encouraging shove in the direction of the West Wing. Tilting her head towards the wounded being moved to West Wing - several of them looking very much like they may not make it through the night - she quietly adds, "We have apprentices that need healing now."

Looking at Stephanie and Vesna, you try to sound reassuring as you say, "I-I'm alright." The wound stings, but you don't think it'll even really hold you back in combat, at least not anymore than fatigue already has. Stephanie looks unhappy about it, and Vesna leaves only reluctantly, but the healers are already moving on. You hope that it makes a difference for those too injured to fight.

"We'll rotate healers around once they've stabilized the others," the instructor promises you and Stephanie as she begins to take charge of the surrounding squads. "You two are Squad Four, so just hang on and get the healers into the West Wing. When we can spare healers, we'll get them to those lightly wounded, like you. Now come on."

The battle lasts for hours, even though the serious fighting lasts for considerably shorter. By the time the counterattack by the apprentices of Faulkren Academy really hits its swing, the Squirrels have seemingly all fled in the cover of night. Only the direwolves remain, at the mercy of a hundred-or-so apprentices, organized and fighting for their home. It takes almost two hours to fully sweep every room, every closet, every corner of the academy, all to ensure that there are no more Squirrels or direwolves hiding in the darkness, ready to ambush all of you again from the inside in the dead of night.

It is thus hours later, as the sky slowly begins to glow, as the darkness slowly begins to recede at dawn, when all of the remaining able-bodied apprentices are manning the walls: Watching for any further attacks to come against an exhausted defense force, a bunch of apprentices without sleep or coffee, having maintained high alert for so long, having fought against saboteurs and beasts. Your squads take turns keeping the watch, as some of you watch the nearby hills for an enemy that may reappear while others slump against the parapets to rest your sore bones.

Yet when dawn breaks - as the fatigue of dozens of apprentices manning the walls at Faulkren Academy sinks to their very bones; as the grim, morose atmosphere becomes so palpable as to be an oppressive weight on your shoulders; as apprentices huddle with each other for warmth and comfort - a cry goes out, fingers pointing towards the horizon.

At first, it is a cloud of dust behind a small hill. But then the road curves and turns towards the academy, and a small army of riders emerge, your instructors rushing home on galloping horses. Teenagers shout and wave and cheer, hugging each other in celebration and relief.

The nightmare, finally, is over.

Or so it seemed.

As dawn turns to daybreak, as things settle down and the situation assessed, there is an effort to seek rest and relief. The Academy staff - those that reside on campus, survived the attack, and aren't terrified wrecks themselves - are quick to roll out food and drink for hungry, exhausted apprentices and instructors, even as they try to tend to their own casualties. Townspeople from Faulkren arrive with similar relief supplies, bringing in more refreshments and medication, despite the fact that they themselves were also attacked, tending to your own while your instructors maintain high alert. You recognize few of them and can identify even fewer by name, but they spare no effort in providing aid, comfort, and relief. Strangers insist that you are all heroes. The Academy swarms with faces both familiar and otherwise, and their presence is greatly appreciated. You yourself are huddled with a very nice quilt around your shoulders, given to you freely by a stranger despite the bloodstains on you. Others brought snacks and other little treats in a show of solidarity. Similarly, a mug of hot chocolate rests in your hands; you were sharing a goblet from the kitchens with Stephanie, Sieglinde, and Elizabeth earlier, huddling against each other, but then you're all given a mug along with a hug of relief by the familiar elven face of Nicole from the Aroma in town.

"You're not hurt, are you?" the elven adult asks, looking you over, realizing that she can't tell whether the stains on your skin and clothes are the enemy or yours. You don't blame her; even here in the Great Hall - where some of you are resting because there's food here and you're too tired to go back to your rooms - there are several apprentices who have very obviously been wounded, and it's hard to tell at a glance.

"N-No," you reassure Nicole, managing to work up a tired smile to give credence to that claim. "No, I'm f-fine."

Nicole looks you up and down again, eventually satisfied that you're not lying - or perhaps accepting that she can't tell either way - before giving a relieved smile of your own. "You dryads are tougher than you look." Pointing out the doors of the Great Hall towards the courtyard, she adds, "I'm sharing a wagon with another shopkeeper who's also bringing supplies in. Please don't hesitate about coming over and getting another cup, alright?"

"Th-Thank you," you murmur. You mean it. You feel like you could use another cup of hot chocolate if your exhausted body will allow it. Then, worriedly, you ask, "Is Miss Tiffany a-alright?"

"She is," Nicole assures you, caressing your cheek affectionately. "It was frightening for a while, but most of the attack was in a different part of town, and it turned out to just be a lot of smoke and mirrors. Not to say there were no deaths, but..." she takes in a deep breath, looks around, and sighs. "I think you've had it worse. I think we were just the distraction, the fake-out."

Despite the exhaustion and shock, there is a underlying current of low-level excitement running amongst the apprentices. Slowly, as stories are shared and questions asked, the apprentices around you piece together a rough sequence of events last night: News of an attack reached Faulkren Academy, reports of beasts running amok in Invermere, the next town over, a bit more than an hour away on horse. Of course, the attack on Invermere turned out to be more spectacle than harm, causing much alarm but ultimately doing little damage. But it had the effect of drawing out most of the instructors at Faulkren, the only Caldran mercenaries in the area, too far away to respond to any calls for help that may arise out of Faulkren. Only the token guard that remained - three or four other instructors - needed to be lured away as well, but the Squirrels overplayed their hand; the fire they started at Faulkren instead clued the remaining instructors into how there was something terribly wrong with the situation, and that a defense needed to be mounted. There were altogether too few instructors to properly defend a complex encompassing ten acres, but the armory was successfully defended, and instructors woke and alerted enough apprentices to arm up with real weapons and fill in the gaps, enough for a successful counterattack that drove the enemy from the Academy.

The realization that the apprentices have seen action and survived to tell about it also drives the excitement. True, you outnumbered the enemy, but the enemy included weathered Tenereian veterans and a pack of direwolves larger than any apprentice. And in spite of this, you - all of you, who have been here for less than a year, you who eventually transformed a pack of panicked girls into a defensive formation of Caldran mercenary apprentices - managed to prevail in a contest of strategy, tactics, and arms. You - all of you - may not yet be Caldran mercenaries, but you are most definitely warriors and victors. Apprentices exchange stories of how they fought, of how they prevailed, and sometimes merely of how they survived despite the odds. Firsthand accounts circulate of how some of you stood out, how they triumphed in the fighting, and you are completely unsurprised as certain names - Sieglinde, Elizabeth, Aphelia, and Wilhelmina among them - are brought up frequently. You are, in fact, mildly surprised, proud, and yet also horrified when your name, too, is brought up once or twice, mostly on the account of you thwacking two or three direwolves to death with "a giant club".

It's true that there is no longer a direct threat to your lives. As your instructors fully secure the academy and send out patrols to search for any fleeing Squirrels, there is, at least, confirmation that no Tenereian - person or beast - will come out to harm you, no lingering ambushes or traps to ensnare the unwary or unlucky. But that doesn't mean the nightmare is entirely over, nor that the consequences of battle have thus evaporated. When Nicole looked around and you followed her gaze, she undoubtedly saw the injured, battered apprentices all around her. Everyone is exhausted, many are wounded, more are shaken. And although you are spared from the sight here in the Great Hall, there are those who are still grievously wounded, barely clinging onto life even with the assistance of mages and healers. And some didn't make it; several died before the fighting was even over, while others sustained grievous wounds beyond the capabilities of even an apprentice mage.

Even from here, nestled within the Great Hall, you can hear the crying and sobbing of distant roommates, squadmates, and friends over those who have been lost.

No one really close to you has perished, and in that you are lucky. But those among the dead still include people you have trained with, people you have talked with, people you have laughed with, people you saw everyday for more than half a year. It is still painful to see the mourning of your friends, of your fellow apprentices. This realization hit you an hour ago, as you stumbled your way across the courtyard to the Great Hall in the aftermath of the battle, past several instructors collecting the bodies of the dead, lining them up on a stretch of soiled linen even as nearby adults cried and grieved for them. And to your horror, you saw a tiny body among the corpses, shorter than even Elizabeth, too small to be an apprentice here at Faulkren. Collapsing onto your knees beside the body, you could barely recognize the mangled body, nearly torn apart by the teeth of a direwolf. Dorothy: The enthusiastic, curious child who led you to your room when you first arrived at the academy, who tried to pluck the leaves in your hair because she had never really met a dryad before. Who brought your meals, washed your clothes, swept the floors, ran all sorts of chores and errands and odd jobs across campus, all with a cheerful smile on her face. She was not an apprentice nor an instructor, and was not even involved in the war effort. She was a child - only of twelve or thirteen summers - and completely innocent in all of this. And yet now she is dead, alongside several other bodies that you recognize to be amongst the academy staff: The clerks, the maids, the cooks, the cleaners.

You forgot about them in the heat of the battle, remembering only your fellow apprentices and your instructors, the people who fought in the battle. And now they count casualties among themselves too.

"I-Is her family in town?" you shakily asked one of your nearby instructors supervising the collection of the dead, even as you fight back tears and gently caress Dorothy's cold cheek.

But your instructor shook her head sadly. "Orphan," she explained. "One of our mercenaries brought her back from Elspar two years ago out of pity; the orphanages there were quickly running out of room. No extended family we could find. We thought she could grow up here, do some work, maybe grow up to be a real staff member here, or at least find a job in town." She sighed. "I didn't expect it to end like this for her. I don't think anyone did."

And even if your friends survived, it doesn't mean their friends have. Just as you saw Dorothy's tiny corpse in the courtyard, you watched as Penelope, Wendy, and the other remaining survivor of Squad Twelve sobbing over the corpse of their fallen friend, the one who was dueling several Squirrels with Penelope, similarly laid to rest on a linen sheet. She didn't survive the encounter, with two bloody gashes in her throat and chest. Even as you pass unnoticed, the display of tragic sorrow twisting a knot in your gut, you wonder if it's your fault that she died. You made a conscious decision to help Wendy instead of Penelope, even though your assistance was not asked for. Did you make the wrong choice? Would the girl who laid dead on the ground, surrounded by mourning squadmates, have survived if you had helped her and Penelope instead of Wendy? Would you have merely traded one life for another? Or was it just her time?

And then there was Lucille, having collapsed onto her knees before two dead squadmates even as the other remaining survivor was bawling her eyes out. The Celestia looked like she wanted to cry too, but was too shocked and tired to do so, the tears welling in her eyes. Those two fatalities had already been crumpled on the ground the last time you saw them, when you saw Lucille, her remaining squadmate, and an instructor dueling a squad of Squirrels. Were they still alive then, barely clinging onto life? Was there anything you could've done for them had you helped them instead? Was this your fault?

When Lucille - barely lucid enough to register her surroundings - looked at your passing squad, you flinched, suddenly terrified at the idea that the elven highborn - always kind, considerate, unprejudiced - might blame you for not having helped them. But when her eyes narrowed in cold anger and exhausted despair, you realized it was Sieglinde she addressed. "You knew I couldn't do this," she whispered, her voice hoarse, her words sharp, just loud enough for Sieglinde to hear. "You knew I wasn't up for it, but you just sat by and let it happen anyways. There would be people alive today if you had stepped up, if you had done something."

You'd like to think that - after all the time you've spent with Sieglinde - you can read her better than most, even if that ultimately doesn't amount to much. And when Lucille admonished Sieglinde in her grief, you were almost afraid that there would be a fight. Not that you expected Lucille to win, but you like both of them, don't want to see either of them hurt, and knew even then that this was the worst time to start something. But Sieglinde's expression remained impassive, guarded; and you realized that, after all this time, you really can't tell what Sieglinde is thinking - never mind feeling - at all right now. There was nothing but the stoic expression of an elven lady who may very well have been chiseled from stone. She merely looked at Lucille for a moment - a gesture that wasn't dismissive, but may as well have communicated nothing either way - before turning and continuing to walk towards the Great Hall. Elizabeth merely snorted and walked on. You and Stephanie exchanged weary looks.

The tragedy continues. Lucille and Penelope and Wendy are hardly alone, as friends, squadmates, and colleagues mourn victims, apprentices and staff alike. An attack has been committed far from the frontlines, a strike in the heart of Caldrein itself. People died, including innocent civilians and apprentices training for war, in a seemingly indiscriminate attack against your Academy and two towns. The cries of the injured and the sobbing of the survivors are still audible even as you slump tiredly in the Great Hall, waiting for this nightmare to end.

And you feel...

[x] ...guilty and mournful. That none of your closest friends died is irrelevant. You have still seen the deaths of floormates, of classmates, of people that felt like a second family after all your time here. Now they are gone, and yet you've survived, whether you deserved it or not.
[x] ...disturbed and fearful. The enemy managed to sneak all the way into Apaloft, far from the frontlines of Elspar, to attack your academy. You could've died, like many others. It's not safe even here, nowhere is. Home, if that's what you call the Academy, will never be the same again.
[x] ...angry and vengeful. Maybe you and your friends are actually military targets, but the Tenereians clearly did not care whether innocent people were caught up in all this. This attack on Faulkren drives your hatred against the enemy like you never thought possible.
[x] ...resigned and philosophical. This is ultimately what war is like; and although you've never experienced it before, deep down inside, you probably always knew that this has always been a very real possibility. The Tenereians did what all soldiers do during wartime.
[x] Write-in.

A maximum of two choices may be selected. Votes will be counted as a set.


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