We need to talk.
Those four words in conjunction were among the scariest in the world. As everyone knew, that never meant good news. Jrana had used the phrase countless times before many of their most difficult conversations. When he was a child, he often heard it from his mother, Miss Sut, Lum and Gin, and various other adults… but never once from a stranger, let alone a Seer or a former Knight. There was no way this could be anything other than bad.
It didn’t help that Armsmaster Topek was just as intimidating as the image Kon had had in his mind. The surging jade-green electricity notwithstanding, his severe expression, sinewy muscles, and the fact that he was still alive despite the hundreds of wounds visible upon his skin made Kon feel so inept. The man was visibly younger than him, yet he’d clearly lived more. Done more as well, and in the most important way. He’d voluntarily sworn his life to Fate, rather than be chosen by Her. That made him a true hero. Someone noble and strong. Someone Kon never believed he could be.
“Are you still there, Recruit?”
Kon blinked as the Armsmaster waved a hand before his eyes. “I am, Sir. We need to talk is one of my wife’s favorite phrases. The conversations we had after were never fun, so naturally, I’m a little terrified.”
“So you’re married. Explains why you have no hair.”
“Not really,” Kon admitted. “I went bald in my twenties, Sir, around the time we got engaged. I took it as a sign from Fate, but I have to admit, I miss it a lot. I was a traveling bard when I met Jrana, and my hair was as much a part of my performances as the instruments in my hands.”
The Armsmaster nodded and turned to face the approaching fae. Grit, Rugged, and Vigor walked in a single file line, the giant in blazing armor trying and failing to shrink behind the statue’s back. His aura seemed dimmer and colder than usual, as did the flicker in his coal-like eyes.
“I’m glad you’re feeling guilty, Vigor. I’m disappointed in you the most. Just because your Seer already graduated doesn’t mean our Academy’s rules no longer apply to you. If you had only waited to ask me to referee for your sparring match, I wouldn’t have to consider rescinding Lafer’s Crest and putting her into remedial classes. I bet Phantom wouldn’t mind teaching you two about control for another season. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The metal sheathe that ‘covered’ Vigor’s neck tightened, making a sound like a gulp. “Please don’t punish Lafer, Sir. Or any of the other humans for that matter. It’s not their fault. We acted without their knowledge or consent.”
“It is their fault, though. It means they have failed to instill you three with responsibility. I’m not even sure I can trust Wilm as my assistant anymore. I never expected this from you either, Rugged.”
Lips motionless, the statue’s voice rumbled out of him like tumbling rocks. The words hammered against Kon’s eardrums bluntly. “I apologize, Sir. If it helps, I also take full responsibility. I knew we would get in trouble and fought anyway.”
“Why is that? And more importantly, was it worth it?” The Armsmaster spoke quietly, his severe expression and flat tone suggesting disappointment. His fists were clenched tightly at his sides, making his knuckles bone-white and biceps swelling with veins.
“Well, Sir. If I’m honest, it’s because Vigor is infuriating. Since he returned, all he has done is gloat about killing a wraith on his first mission. He insisted that was proof he was stronger than me, which is just illogical. If I had the opportunity, I wouldn’t have needed the help of a school teacher and his nascent fae to accomplish the same. I felt it was my duty to humble Vigor. If we had fought a little bit longer, I could have won. Had I accomplished that I would believe it was worth it.”
“Even at the expense of your Seer?” Electricity sparked along the man’s jaw as he shook his head. “You know Wilm has ambitions of graduating early, don’t you? Would humbling Vigor still be worth it if it meant ruining your other half’s success?”
“With all due respect, Sir, I don’t believe that would be fair, considering our Creed. ‘I will forever be committed to excellence in all that I do, so I can set the proper example for my peers. I will demand of myself all the energy, knowledge, and skills I possess, so that I can instill strength and confidence in those I am able to reach. I will constantly strive to ensure the best for our world and our mission.’ It is my opinion that should Vigor continue to believe himself of hotter stuff than he is, innocent people would get hurt, or worse. Other Seers and fae could suffer for his arrogance.”
Kon caught a glimpse of a smile on the Armsmaster’s lips. It couldn’t have been a good smile, however. Veins poked out on his wrinkling brow and along the curve of his neck. His eyes stared at the fae with a dangerous slant.
“Memorizing lines from the Seer Creed is not the same as living them, Rugged. And after what you just told me, it appears you have a long way ahead of you when it comes to understanding that. You speak of Vigor’s arrogance, but what of your own? What made you believe it was your responsibility to humble him?”
Despite the statue’s usual confidence, it seemed he had no good answer.
“Is that all?” the Armsmaster sneered. “Nothing else to say for yourself?”
“I apologize, Sir, and I take full responsibility.”
“You already said that,” the man said, chuckling darkly. His faint smile fell into a stern frown. “I think I changed my mind, Vigor. I’m more disappointed in Rugged now. I would congratulate you on killing your first wraith, but I’m not exactly in the mood. You’re all lucky my new Recruit didn’t get hurt worse by your petty squabbling and insubordination.”
Vigor tilted his helmet while Grit’s face shifted. Both made sounds of regret.
Though she was standing in front, the Armsmaster focused all his attention on the girl for the first time. “What’s your role in this?” he asked, his expression, posture, and tone softening minutely.
Grit’s throat made the illusion of swallowing. “Vigor and Rugged told me to watch, Sir. They’re my elders, so I thought I had no choice but to listen.”
At the word ‘elders’, Vigor audibly gasped. “You little—” he began, only to be cut off by a lightning-fast slash of the Armsmaster’s hand, discharging sparks that crackled in the air.
“Your time to speak is over. Recruit Grit and I are talking now.”
Vigor nodded while slouching into himself.
“Thank you, Sir,” the marble girl said.
“For what? Youth and ignorance are not sufficient excuses. I’m just as upset with you as I am these two. Rej might be newer than most, but he’s no less responsible. Especially since he already named you. The power of fae magic is immense. It is not a toy. If you need a reminder, just look at Recruit Kon’s arm. If I was his wife and saw all those scars, I know I would be enraged. And who would she have to blame?”
“No,” the Armsmaster barked. “She would have us all to blame. Vigor, Rugged, and me. Even the Headsmaster, who oversees us all, and the Fated King above him. For all of Rugged’s talk of preventing Vigor from getting innocent bystanders and Seers hurt, you three did exactly that, didn’t you? I can see an imprint of Vigor where he got buried into the dirt. Don’t think I’m gullible enough to believe this man tripped into Grit because of his own clumsiness.”
Upon being mentioned, Kon startled. While the Armsmaster had been lecturing the fae, his mind had become detached. The entire situation felt surreal and it didn’t help that until now, he’d been just a silent observer.
When none of the fae replied, the former Knight exploded with jade-green light, his golden hair rising higher with glowing static. “Don’t you three owe this man an apology!?”
In unison, each fae shouted, their voices overlapping. “Yes, Sir! I’m sorry, Sir!”
“Why are you apologizing to me?” he screamed louder, electrifying the air.
“I’m sorry, Kon!” they corrected.
“I won’t fail you again!” added Vigor.
Although Rugged’s stony face was unchanging, his yell bore a hint of sincerity.
“The four of us will have a much longer talk another time,” the Armsmaster began. “For now, rejoin your Seers and bring them to the mess. Recruit Kon and I need a moment in private.”
“But Sir—” Kon started, his body freezing as soon as the Armsmaster spun to face him.
“You won’t need Vigor’s aura with me.” The man raised a hand, which Kon stared at skeptically. “This isn’t a test,” he assured him. Kon hesitated as he stared at the electricity flickering across his skin. He hadn’t noticed it before, but a small jade trinket with a white X embossed on one side was hanging from his wrist.
“It’s okay,” a feminine voice crackled amongst the sparks.
“Excel won’t hurt you,” the Armsmaster continued. “She’s essentially magic adrenaline. If you take my hand, you’ll be stronger and faster than is humanly possible. The effect is very potent, however, so please be careful.”
Vigor nodded his helmet. “Go on, Kon. You can handle it.”
Kon steadied his breath and his heartbeat. Both instantly thundered as he took the Armsmaster’s hand. Every nerve in his body trembled as the jade-green electricity surged through him, his muscles suddenly tense while tiny hairs rose on his skin. The former Knight’s golden mane deflated, though his stern features and physique were no less daunting. Kon’s senses buzzed in elation, feeding his mind with information and helping him process it in the span of a second, then immediately react. The Armsmaster was practically crushing Kon’s hand, and instead of feeling pain, the electricity resisted. The Armsmaster winced as Kon crushed his hand back.
“How does it feel?” he asked. “Like you’re invincible?”
“Yeah,” Kon replied, exhaling sparks. He felt like he could do anything.
“‘Yes, Sir’ is the proper response, but I’ll let that go until Valday. Grit, Rugged, Vigor. We’ll see you three in the mess. Go now, before you give me a reason to yell again.”
Upon saluting, all three fae quickly ran away.
The Armsmaster let go of Kon’s hand and waved him in the direction of the toppled crystalline pillar. Even while separated from his fae, the man was fast. His long stride carried him as far as three of Kon’s steps.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kon,” the sparks crackled in his ears. “I can sense nerve damage in your left arm and lower back. If you give me permission, I’ll see if I can repair it, but you may need to see a physician anyway.”
“You have my permission, Excel. Thank you.”
Kon stumbled as an intense shock coursed under his skin. The Armsmaster caught his arm, as if expecting him to fall. “How do you feel now?” he asked.
“Better.” He flexed his left hand’s fingers and twisted his torso at the waist. “A lot better.” The sensation hadn’t even hurt, just caught him by surprise. “What is it you wanted to talk about, Sir?” he asked, quick and confident. His thoughts came and went as fast as lightning.
“Expectations,” the Armsmaster said. “I’m told you only have three weeks to graduate, and that date cannot be negotiated. The Fated King needs you on the frontlines.”
Kon nodded while testing his muscles, his attention on the palms of his hands and the power arcing across them.
“Looking at you, it’s clear that you’re far from ready.”
Kon blinked at the man.
“You mentioned that you were a bard when you met your wife. I’m guessing you didn’t get a more active job after that?”
“I was a teacher most recently. So no, Sir. I’ve never had a reason to be strong or fight.”
The Armsmaster clicked his tongue. “Well you do now. Thankfully, there are powerful Seers here to make sure you’re ready in record time. From Valday on, you should expect to be seeing my face a lot. More than others, in fact. Excel and I will not send you off in anything less than tip-top shape.”
Kon nodded, his voice determined. His breath discharged sparks. “I look forward to it, Sir. Though I do have a concern.”
The Armsmaster raised an eyebrow, then glanced at Kon’s fae. She’d been hiding until now, seemingly intimidated by the man and his fae, but now she flew to her Seer’s side, ringing a duplet of support.
“Let me guess,” the Armsmaster grunted. “You don’t want to train with a weapon, right? I’ve seen that look in your eyes worn by a thousand green recruits before you. You want to do no harm, only protect, correct?”
“I wouldn’t have said it like that. But yes, Sir. I believe that violence only begets more violence. I believe there’s a peaceful solution for every problem.”
“Strange,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t expect that from a man that helped kill a wraith. As someone who has spent most of their entire adult life in the Fated King’s army, I can assure you there is no peaceful solution for their invasion.”
“I can agree that wraiths are the exception, Sir. But ordinary weapons can’t do anything to them. Only magic can help there.”
“True as that might be, harbingers can possess humans covertly and blend in among us, plotting to kill us from within our ranks when we least expect it. If one attacks you with a sword when your fae is too far to help, you’ll need to have a weapon to defend yourself.”
Electricity arced over Kon’s frowning lips, tingling the nerves underneath.
“There are other complications to consider. Wraith sympathizers, the worst of them being the Carrion.”
“Sympathizers, Sir? Who on Tairn could sympathize with the wraiths?”
“A lot more people than you might think. Harbingers are known for making false promises and lying through their host’s teeth. If they see a vulnerability they can exploit, they’ll find a way to control you, even without possession. I’ve seen it with my very eyes.”
Kon’s fists tightened as he listened. It had been a harbinger that took Rin. If the Coastwatch Seers hadn't stopped him, there was no telling how much damage his possessed brother could have done.
“As for the Carrion, they’re beginning to willingly accept possession and working alongside the wraiths. Twisted as it is, they see it as a viable way to gain immense power and transcend. Since our fae can’t actively harm another human being, the grunts are arguably more dangerous. How will you survive without a weapon, then?”
Despite himself, Kon sighed. In some ways his body reacted faster than his brain. “I understand, Sir. Consider my concern rescinded. I have a family to get back to. I’ll learn how to wield a sword if it keeps me alive.”
“Good,” the Armsmaster said, his chin tilted high with satisfaction. “I like it when a recruit is sensible and listens. You mentioned a family. Do you have any children?”
“Just a daughter,” Kon said, lips striking into a smile. “I would do anything to protect her and her mother. Even leave them behind to fight in this war.” Just as quick as the smile had appeared, it vanished. Excel crackled along his skin, sensing his discomfort.
Perhaps telepathically informed, the Armsmaster turned to look Kon right in his eyes. He was frowning too. “I always wanted a family,” he whispered. “Didn’t have one growing up. Ended up in a gang because they convinced me I was their brother, got arrested doing something very stupid, then forced into the Vaska Elik Defense Force since I was nearly of age. They told me if I worked hard, I could have a second chance in society. Somewhere along the way I ended up in the Fated King’s Vanguard, then became one of his Knights. I swore that I would not marry or conceive a child until the War is over. Now I’m a Seer teaching Seers, and it all feels so far away.”
The Armsmaster’s chin was no longer high. When Kon grasped his shoulder, electricity danced up to his face, lifting his eyes and his golden mane.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “This is unprofessional of me. I just— don’t have the chance to speak with people my age and maturity often. Hazen isn’t much older but he’s not exactly the best listener.”
Kon almost grinned hearing the Armsmaster say they were close in age. His back straightened, shoulders rising higher than they’d already been. “We could speak like this more, Sir. I know it’s unusual, given our positions, but my classmates aren’t exactly my age or maturity, either. I could admittedly use someone to speak with myself.”
The man responded with a slight nod, dropping his eyes to Kon’s rising hand. When he took it, he grinned. “When we’re alone, you can call me Topek.”
“In that case, I’d prefer my name over recruit.”
Topek nodded again. Despite shaking hands, Excel remained in Kon after they parted. The man’s grin remained as he faced the toppled pillar. “Would you mind lifting the end up for me?” he asked. “If we work together, we should be able to set it back in the dirt.”
Kon was running alongside the sapphire carving before he could utter a yes. Even uprooted, water still trickled out of the crystal’s pores. Excel’s jade-green energy sparked across the pillar’s surface as Kon slipped his hands underneath it. Crouching, he lifted with his legs instead of his back. Despite the fae empowering him, Kon struggled to raise the pillar above his chest. Electricity pulsed over his shoulders and arms, showering the dim field with crackling light. Behind Kon, his fae assisted by humming a tune of resolve.
Topek had dug the fallen dirt out of the crevice in the meantime. As soon as the pillar’s weight was on the furthest end, it slipped in quickly, only to begin falling in the other direction.
Though not as fast as lightning, Kon was holding the pillar alongside Topek in a flash. They kept the pillar steady while circling around it, kicking dirt in and packing it with their heels.
“Now that wasn’t hard, was it? If you train with Excel and me, you’ll be able to accomplish feats you never thought possible. You will receive all the benefits and more from any exercises. Just lifting this up was as good as a hundred chest and shoulder presses.”
“That’s incredible,” Kon said. “Though I’m assuming I’ll be sore after, like when leaving Vigor’s aura?”
“Not precisely,” Excel crackled in his ears. “You’ll feel sluggish. Almost like time is moving a few fractions too slow.”
“For that reason,” Topek continued, “You’ll need to alternate wielding her. I’m thinking on Eridays and Gildays. Otherwise you train with the strength you have. It should be enough to get you where you want to be.”
Kon nodded excitedly. “In the interest of that, could you tell me about these Trials? Lafer mentioned these sculptures need to be navigated without touching the ground, but she didn’t say more.”
“Lafer told you everything she could, then. You’ll need to figure out how to solve Reap and Sow’s Trials when you get there. Your Physical Exam is two weeks from today.”
“So soon?” Kon asked.
“Yes. Your last week is strictly for your Academics. You’ll have two days to study, then two more to pass. If you use your time wisely, I expect you’ll succeed the first time. You could be free to relax on your final day.”
“I’ll make sure I do then. I have no intention of failing. If I did, what kind of teacher would I be?”
Topek laughed, slapping Kon’s shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Now let’s go get you fed. While you eat, I have a few lectures to give.”
With a dangerous slant of his eyes and a wry smile, the Armsmaster strode away.