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Kon read the words on the ground below him. Enclosed by a round path of golden bricks, ‘Welcome to Westwind’ was arranged in bushes of soft pink flowers, their fuzzy, featherlike petals flapping open in a glowing green wind. Though unusual to find in this clime and place, Kon recognized the flowers immediately. They shared their name with his friend, Laferil.

“Very funny, Hazen!” the girl shouted. Instead of walking the dirt path with Kon and Vigor, Lafer let gravity carry her down the grassy hill. Her blood-red armor rattled with each one of her bounding steps. “Where are you and Lush hiding?” she continued. “I know the two of you are around here somewhere!”

Without so much as a word of warning, Vigor ran to join his Seer. Hot dust was kicked up in his wake.

Kon halted immediately, shutting his eyes and coughing.

“Sorry!” the fae exclaimed.

Kon grumbled to himself as he waved the cloud of dust out of his face. When he opened his eyes, Lafer and Vigor were standing in front of the flowers, the former on her knees and grasping a bush like she was about to rip it free. The brick path continued on beyond them, stretching through a gap in the trees of a well-kept and flourishing garden. Every single tree was different, and as the path went deeper, increasingly more strange. Most of the trees Kon recognized shouldn’t have been able to grow here, and the ones he didn’t were unusual. Sparks of magic were glinting in their patterned bark and colorful leaves.

“I swear, Hazen, if you don’t show yourself now, Vigor will set every one of these flowers aflame!”

“...I will?” the giant rumbled.

Lafer shushed him, slashing the air between them with her free hand.

The former princess must have really hated her full name.

Kon’s fae glided on ahead, drawn to the sound of wood groaning, followed by an exasperated sigh. One of the trees behind the flowers was opening. Its thin layer of striped blue-and-white bark chipped and peeled as a crusted figure stepped into view, bits of wood falling as moss shed from the man’s skin.

Hazen was shorter than Gul and significantly more plump, his gut visible through a branch-woven tunic. Though most of his head was still covered in long, mangy hair, the top of his head was balding, making his wrinkled brow seem impossibly large. Various gardening tools were sheathed in numerous belts on his trousers, including a trowel, shears, and a hand rake. Jrana used many of those tools in her line of work. His feet were dirty and bare, as were his arms. His biceps drooped like he had recently lost weight.

Compared to every Seer that Kon had met so far, Hazen was a tad underwhelming. He didn’t look fit enough to fight in a war.

“I’m right here, alright? Don’t you dare harm those innocent flowers, Vigor. Lafer! It’s good to see you. But who’s this, standing awkwardly in the distance? Come say hello! You’re the whole reason I’m waiting here, after all, strange man!”

Hazen drawled out the words sleepily. Tiny bits of wood fell out of his blinking eyes, tumbling down his face and bulging stomach.

Behind the Groundskeeper, the tree he hid in continued to unfold and reform. Kon stared as the trunk wrapped backwards around itself, moss spreading out from its center while the branches lowered to its sides. Roots pulled themselves free of the earth, joining the branches as they coalesced and twisted into four distinct limbs. Leaves spiraled to the ground as the trunk molded into a slim torso. Not long after, a head with mossy skin and bushy hair sprouted at the top. Sap glistened in the fae’s eyes and on her smiling lips.

Lush’s voice sounded like rustling leaves. “Hello new friend,” she greeted, lifting an arm and a branching finger for Kon’s fae to land on. On contact, the orb of gold and silver lute strings trilled happily. The music beckoned for him to join them.

Kon obeyed, but mostly because he was at the edge of Vigor’s aura. If the giant had run any further, his body would have probably collapsed with exhaustion.

Hazen rounded the arrangement of flowers to, of all things, fist-bump Lafer. He turned to Vigor and gave him a lazy bow. As Kon approached him with a hand outstretched, Hazen turned suddenly, lunging to embrace him.

“Welcome to your new home,” the man said, his arms suddenly hanging over Kon’s shoulders. Fingers gently clenched his upper back. “I’m the Groundsmaster of our humble Academy, but I’m sure Lafer already told you that. I am her favorite. Aren’t I, Lafer?”

Kon sniffed as the man pulled away, catching a hint of aromatic smoke. Though Hazen was dry, his tunic smelt of earth soaked with rain.

Shia.

“You know it,” Lafer replied, her voice tapering off with a giggle. The Groundsmaster proffered a fist for her to bump again, which she hit reluctantly, then bowed to Vigor, as if he was just seeing them for the first time.

Hazen faced Kon abruptly, then lunged to hug him again.

Stepping out of the way, he plucked the Groundsmaster’s hand mid-motion as it flailed out beside him. Clutching it firmly, he pulled him back and balanced him, then briefly shook it. “Kon,” he greeted, forcing a grin.

“Hazen,” the man answered, laughing as he grasped Kon’s hand with both of his. “Don’t worry about any fancy titles with me. Groundsmaster isn’t too bad, but Sir, Seer, and Professor are far too formal. Unlike my colleagues, I prefer to use the names our parents intended. Hazen, offspring of Zena and Hael of the Green Beaks. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kon, offspring of...?”

“The late Kir and long-departed Non of the Pale Hawks,” he murmured, letting go of the man’s hand.

Hazen nodded as he straightened, his slack expression becoming sober in an instant. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Before he could reply, Lafer cleared her throat, drawing both of their attention. “Hey Kon. How about you show your new professor your first Westwind Academy salute?”

Vigor chuckled at the look on Kon’s face.

“That’s alright,” Hazen interjected. “Save your first salute for someone more appropriate. Either Nise or Topek should do. I prefer normal human interaction.”

The Headmaster and the Armsmaster. Apparently Hazen was on a first-name basis with everyone.

And normal human interaction? In what way was this normal?

When Kon wasn’t looking, the Groundsmaster’s fae snuck up behind him. He turned and startled at her moss-covered face.

“Lush,” she greeted. “I can sense your fae is ripe with potential. She’ll be so beautiful when she blooms.”

In the background, Vigor raised his arms and bellowed. “I said the same thing!”

Kon reached for Lush’s free hand. Instead, the fae used the other to place his fae on his palm.

Lafer stepped into view and cleared her throat again. “I’m surprised no one else is here to greet us. I’m sure the Headmaster is busy, but where’s Wilm and Rugged?”

“Nise is quite busy, yes. He’s currently holding a meeting with the Fated King and the other Headsmen. As for Wilm and Rugged, they’re serving as the Barracks Officer today.”

Kon cocked an eyebrow at the balding Seer.

“Don’t worry about that now,” said Lafer. “I’ll explain the B.O. to you later. How are you doing, Lush? Sorry about threatening to set your babies on fire. Vigor wasn’t seriously going to do it... right Vigor?”

He pumped a molten fist in the air. “I would never do such a thing! Promise!”

Lush sprouted a fan of leaves from her hand and swept it in their direction. “You better not. I’m doing well, Lafer. Thriving in fact. I’m glad to see you and Vigor made it back from your mission unblemished.”

“That’s all thanks to Kon,” said Vigor. “We killed our first wraith because of him. Kept it busy and crippled it just before we struck it down!”

“Really now?” Hazen grabbed Kon’s shoulders from behind, then pulled him down to embrace him. “Very impressive. Only a few budding Seers have managed to cripple a wraith. Ripe with potential indeed!”

Kon shook the Groundsmaster off him and gained distance. “Thanks,” he muttered, feeling restless. Unless he was performing a song, it was embarrassing to hear praise from a stranger. Especially one that was so touchy-feely. ‘A bit crazy,’ Lafer had said.

More than a bit.

“Any orders from above?” asked Lafer. “For me or your new student?”

Hazen strained his face, humming in thought. “Not that I can remember. Do you recall anything, Lush?”

“Lucid ordered Topek to leave his new recruit alone until Valday. In the meantime, Kon and Lafer have the next two days to relax and acclimatize. Topek expects his new recruit to meet his fellow students on the Training Grounds at sunrise, when everyone is back from Enday break.”

“Wait, really?” snorted Hazen. “I don’t remember any of that.”

Lush smiled and nodded at her Seer. “You must have not been paying attention. She told us while you were busy fawning over the new avokado sprouts.”

“Ohoho, I remember now! They’re so long already, it’s almost like we grew them with magic, but that wouldn’t be half as fun!”

As the exchange went on, Kon observed the Groundsmaster and Lush with scrutiny. It seemed that Kinjra’s fae shared many similarities with Lush, though she and Hazen couldn’t be more different. His daughter was only half as friendly with the people she was close to, and because of Jrana’s teachings, extremely wary of strangers. The excitement in his voice when he talked about his plants, however… It reminded him so much of Kinjra when she talked about nature; wondrous and full of love.

“Well, Hazen and Lush, as fun as it's been catching up, we’re going to bring Kon to the barracks now. We’ve had a long journey and he’s very tired. Right, Kon?”

His heart had been pounding, so naturally, she felt it. “Oh, yes,” Kon said, nodding quickly. “Very tired indeed.”

Hazen peered into Kon’s eyes, blinking. “Alright then. We’ll have to wait ‘til Valday for us to speak at length. My class will be meeting here at Eleven. Don’t forget!”

“I won’t.” Before Hazen could try hugging him again, Kon ran to join Lafer and Vigor, who quickly led him around the flowers and into the garden. A quick glance back showed the Groundsmaster and his fae kneeling in front of the laferils. Hazen smiled as he poked at one of the unopened buds, oblivious to the world around him.

“Thank you for getting me out of there,” Kon said.

“No problem. At first, Hazen can seem a bit… much, if you catch my drift.”

“Yeah. He seems pretty harmless, though.”

“In that sense? Yes.”

Kon frowned. “What other sense is there?”

“Well, let’s just say that Hazen and Lush have killed more wraiths than the rest of the Professors at Westwind combined.”

Another glance back revealed the Groundsmaster lying among the flowers. Lush sat beside him as they watched their garden sway in Zephyr’s glowing breeze.

“You can’t be serious,” replied Kon, pointing a thumb in Hazen’s direction. “That man has killed more wraiths than a former Knight and a powerful Sorcerer?”

“Yup. Though the Headmaster has the second most. Seers can really surprise you if you let them.”

“I’ve heard the adage. Don’t judge a book by its cover, right?”

Lafer smiled and nodded, then looked ahead. Kon followed her gaze and was not disappointed. After their long descent into the valley, Westwind Academy was both closer and higher. They could only see the top two floors, yet it was three-times as tall as Vigor. The castle’s variegated, emerald walls shined with their own inner vibrance, though pale in the sun. On either side of a massive, half-opened door, panes of reflective gold cast back a surreal image of the gardens. Kon and his fae could hear multiple voices chattering inside.

“Right through those doors is the mess,” said Vigor. “Hazen and Lush grow all the food for our Academy. You’ll often see chefs picking ingredients from this garden. When Lafer had time, she would even offer to help, knowing fully well how sad I was that I couldn’t help too.”

Whaaat?” shrieked Lafer. “Don’t you dare try to make me feel bad for being a good person! The chefs work hard to feed us humans every day! The least I can do is help them pick some fruits and vegetables!”

“Hey now,” Kon interrupted, waving a hand to get both of his friends’ attention. “There’s no reason for you two to fight, especially about something like this. Just calm down and-”

Lafer smiled. Torches flared in Vigor’s eyes.

“You two are messing with me, eh?”

Both nodded eagerly.

Kon flashed them a smile of his own. “In that case, I’ll have to retaliate.” He glanced at his fae. “You know what to do. It’s Quiet Time.”

“Quiet Ti-” Lafer started. Before she could finish, a loud ringing overpowered her voice. A faint sheen of silver light resounded from Kon’s fae and enveloped the both of them. Lafer’s lips continued to move, but no words came out. Vigor waved his hands, then grasped his throat, the torches of his eyes burning even brighter.

“If you two promise to behave, I’ll let you speak again. The second you break that promise, though? We’ll make sure you can’t speak for an hour.”

Lafer and Vigor nodded more eagerly than before.

Another loud ringing dismissed the effect.

Kon walked on proudly.

“When did you learn to do that?” Vigor exclaimed at his back.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, though my fae and I never tried it before. A bit surprised it worked, honestly, but when you were fighting, she was genuinely worried, like me. Emotions make for stronger magic. Right?”

“Right…” muttered Lafer. “Sorry for making you two worry. I thought it would be funny.”

“It was,” Kon conceded. “But still, not cool. Especially when you promised to find me a bed.”

“Right! In that case, we won’t stop to get something to eat. By the sound of it, Lili, Ora, and Dowen are in there, anyway. Better that we just wave and walk on by.”

“Alright. You can take the lead then.”

Vigor ran on ahead instead, opening the thick emerald door with a quick sweep of his hand. As Lafer and Kon passed by, he bowed over them. “M’lady. M’lord.”

“Why thank you,” said Lafer, curtsying like a proper princess. Her armor rattled and shone bloody under Vigor’s light.

Within the wide, open space of the mess, breezes of glowing wind circulated near the ceiling. Every now and then, one would glide down to fetch empty bowls from the solely occupied table. As they were carried to the open counter of a kitchen, smaller winds caressed the ground and vacant tables, picking up dust and sweeping it outside. Kon felt a gentle tickle as the wind passed around his feet.

Kon recognized his fellow students immediately from Lafer’s explanation. Ora was the giantess sitting on the far end of the long table. Knotted dreads of obsidian black hair flailed around her as she hungrily gulped the contents of bowls in a single bite. The uniform she wore - emerald green with gold trimming - had its sleeves torn at her shoulders, revealing large arms dense with corded muscle. Whenever she finished a bowl, she left it tipped aside on the table for a bright pink glob of a fae to slide in. When the glob left them, the bowls looked as if they’d been licked clean.

Lili sat two seats beside her, her thin, sun-darkened figure slumped over the empty portion of the table. Wisps of grey hair curled down over a giant mass of writhing slime. Her fae, Leach, was wrapped around her midriff, his skin a cold blue that ran and glowed with crimson veins. Her Westwind Academy uniform was torn to give the fae access to her back and stomach.

By process of elimination, that left the small boy with the dirty blond hair sitting across from them as Dowen. Though Lafer had mentioned he was an orphan, he had the posture of a noble. With a napkin over his lap and a spoon in his hand, he ate from his bowl like a noble too. A rigid backpack was strapped to his back, which seemed to help him remain upright. It moved and jingled like an animal was inside it, playing with the backpack’s contents. More likely it was the kid’s absent fae.

“Hey you three,” Lafer shouted, drawing a glare from Ora and a turn of Dowen’s head. With a breathy sneer, the giantess yanked the boy’s attention back to his food, then began chewing her food louder than before. Lili didn’t even bother to look. “We’re still on a mission, so we can’t talk right now! I know you’re all excited to meet your new colleague, but he will have to introduce himself another day.”

For a moment, Dowen looked like he was about to turn again. A sharp look from Lili reached him first, causing his gaze to fall. She looked close to Lafer’s age, yet her face was as gaunt as Commander Sap’s. Her uniform hung loosely over her emaciated form. It seemed like Leach was draining her rather than feeding her. Her upper lip was drawn back as if in pain.

Vigor didn’t bother waving as he led them between two long tables. Through an open door, they entered a wide hallway.

Kon barely heard Lafer’s whisper. “Like I said. Not a very talkative bunch.”

They walked down the variegated corridor in silence, passing a gold door etched with the word Kitchen on their left and another with Professors’ Lounge on the right. Judging by the corridor’s length, both rooms were as large as the Mess. Clattering and rumbling could be heard on both sides.

Banners hung from above, spaced out along the tall ceiling, waving in a soft, glowing breeze. There were dozens of them, and each depicted a Seer and a fae. On one, Hazen and Lush were woven in root-thick threads as the silhouette of a plump man inspecting a leaf under a flowering tree with glassy eyes and a grin. On another banner, a bald man in green and gold robes with a long, colorful beard was slumbering in a bed under a mirror — an actual mirror, stitched into the cloth. Lucid waved a hand as Kon, Lafer, and Vigor halted underneath.

“You finally made it,” her voice rang. “I was wondering how long the Groundsmaster would keep you. I trust you’re all doing well?”

Kon spoke before Lafer or Vigor had the chance. “As well as we can be, thanks. Lush told us we don’t have to be anywhere until Valday, but I was hoping to meet the Headmaster sooner rather than later. If it’s not too much trouble, could you ask him to see me before then? I’m hoping to ask a few questions.”

Lucid chimed brightly. “I can do that for you, Kon. Nise is excited to meet you too, and he has many questions of his own. He’s already made time for you on Enday. Just let me know when you’re ready by using the mirror in your barracks chamber, and I’ll make sure he’s available.

“As for you, Lafer and Vigor, Nise would like to see you both at your earliest convenience. Your old chamber is ready for you. Wilm is waiting upstairs with both of your keys. The three of you go on and get some well-deserved rest.”

All three nodded in unison, prompting Lucid to fade. In her place, a dim sliver of light remained, as if the mirror was embedded with radiant silver.

Smiling, Lafer motioned them onward. At the end of the hall, four pairs of stairs waited, two sets going down, the other two going up. Steps half as tall as Kon sat next to steps that only reached his calves. It was only when Vigor began climbing the giant steps that he realized why, though Lafer bounded up them, too, glowing with brief flashes of strength.

Kon took the smaller stairs. There were a lot of them.

After what seemed like his most rigorous climb yet, Kon finally reached the next floor. At the lip of the last stairs, a statue of a man wearing nothing but a loincloth waited, his bare legs, chest, and arms jagged with muscle. Though not as large as Vigor, the statue had an aura of its own that made it just as intimidating. A kind of heaviness or resistance. Slowly, the statue turned its head toward Vigor. Its throat made a sound that resembled grinding.

“I heard you coming a league away. You’re getting slow, old friend.”

In a blazing flash, Vigor leaped up and crashed into the statue, hugging him at first, but eventually pulling him to the ground. Kon stumbled as the stone rocked beneath him, both palms slapping against the wall for support. Lafer ran up the remainder of the stairs to stop them.

“What are you doing!” she screamed. “Come on, Vigor, go for the headlock!”

Kon sighed deeply as he crawled up the last of the trembling steps.

“That’s enough!” boomed a voice from down the hall. “Vigor! Let go of Rugged this instant!”

Grumbling, the giant obeyed, unwrapping his arms and legs from around the statue and rising. Vigor clutched Rugged’s open hand and pulled him onto his feet.

At the end of a short hall, a figure was standing within an enclosed desk. Wilm’s face was stern as they leaned over the counter, both palms laid flat against it. Their Westwind Academy uniform was unblemished, compared to the others Kon had seen, although it was undeniably tight around the bulges of their arms, shoulders, and abs. Like Rugged, Wilm’s muscles were jagged, the angular edges making their biceps seem like boulders. Both wore long orange hair pulled back into tight ponytails, though in Rugged’s case, it was just painted stone that ran down his spine. A red brassard was tied around both of their right shoulders.

“I don’t care if you’ve graduated, Lafer! You know the rules: No roughhousing in the barracks!” Wilm’s voice pounded against Kon’s eardrums like a hammer. Though they sounded angry, they wore a broken smile. Multiple teeth were missing and replaced with dark, polished stones. “Get over here so I can hug you already!” they shouted. “You know I can’t leave the desk unless it’s an emergency!”

Lafer giggled as she burst across the room in a flash of red light. Kon blinked until his vision was clear. Across the hall, Lafer and Wilm were clutching each other by their shoulders, jumping up and down with glee.

Vigor and Rugged bumped fists before walking off, leaving Kon to stand in stunned silence.

What just happened?

Singing a bright duplet, his fae soared off to join them. Sparks of light beckoned for him to follow.

The Seers and their fae talked like best friends reuniting after years of separation. Kon caught bits and pieces of Lafer and Wilm’s tumbling whispers of gossip. It was as if they were trying to fit an hour-long conversation into the span of minutes. He could hardly keep up.

All was quiet by the time he reached the desk. Vigor and Rugged wandered down the hall on their right and began comparing biceps.

“Anywaaay, like I was saying. This man right behind me is Kon. He’s kind of awesome? I think you’ll like him a lot.”

Wilm straightened and appraised him. Though they were nearly as short as Lafer, they exuded that same aura of intimidation as Rugged. Kon hesitated before taking Wilm’s outstretched hand. He felt so heavy and small in their presence. Though Wilm’s palms were as rough as dirt, they clenched his gentle and quick.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Kon. It feels like I know you already. Lafer has told me so much about you.”

The girl chuckled beside them, bringing a smile to Kon’s face. “I’ve heard a lot about you as well. Vigor mentioned you do extra training sessions in the evenings. I need a lot of help if I’m going to get strong, so I’m hoping to get to know you better then.”

You're welcome to join us any day,” Wilm replied, their widening grin revealing more polished stones. “But don’t worry about that now. I know you’ve had a long journey. Vigor and Rugged will take you to your barracks chamber so you can finally get some sleep.”

“Perfect,” Kon said. “I assume you’ll be here if I need help?”

“For the next nine hours, at least. Ora is Barracks Officer tomorrow, though it was supposed to be Saiet’s shift. Bastard keeps paying the others to take his for him. I’m thinking of bringing it up to the Armsmaster.”

“Do it,” encouraged Lafer. “Let him burn.”

Wilm nodded, then suddenly looked beyond Kon. “Speak of the devil…” they muttered. “Greetings Saiet! When did you get here?”

“Only this very moment,” came a voice over Kon’s shoulder.

He startled and stepped aside, finding a lean young man wearing a pristine academy uniform that was trimmed with actual gold, not just golden string. Two pairs of diamonds glittered on his fingers and the hilt of the golden rapier on his hip. A wide mane of fluffed-up hair cascaded behind him in feathery patterns of white and yellow. As Saiet moved past Kon, his hair flapped against his lower back like a cape.

Soundlessly, he walked before Lafer and bowed deeply, his right hand clenched in front of his chest and his left arm bent up and over his back. “Seer Lafer,” he greeted, his tone gentle. “I’m pleased to see you’re in good health.”

“Well duh,” Lafer sneered, pointing at Vigor. “What else would you expect?” By the time Saiet rose upright, the girl had crossed her arms and taken a step back.

“I’m sure you’re eager to relax, so I won’t get in the way of your bed any longer. If it’s not too much trouble, I would also be pleased to walk the gardens with you on Enday eve. I’m very curious to hear about your excursion to the Coastwatch Eyrie, and truth be told, there’s a personal matter I’d like to discuss.”

“Not gonna happen,” she told him curtly. “I gave you a bridge and you burned it already. Go find someone else to walk the gardens.”

Kon had been watching intently enough to catch the momentary frown on the boy’s face. As if noticing Kon for the first time, Saiet looked and faced him. Perhaps expecting someone younger, he took a step back and blinked, then bowed formally.

“I’m sure you’ve heard my name already. Alas, I am not so fortunate. Who might you be, good sir?”

“Don’t answer him,” said Lafer. “He’ll just find a way to use your name against you when you least expect it. Right, Wilm?”

Wilm grunted noncommittally. “This is between you two, and frankly, this isn’t the place for it. Saiet, I assume you were going to your room? Don’t let us keep you. I just need to give our new rookie a rundown of how things work here real quick.”

Saiet faced Wilm and saluted, two fingers held against his forehead and his other arm crooked behind his back. Wilm returned the salute and dropped it quickly.

Without making a sound, Saiet moved toward the hall where Vigor and Rugged stood, their arms crossed as they leaned against either wall. As he passed by, he whispered. “We’ll speak another time, Kon. Get some well-deserved rest.”

The way he said it… Lucid had said those very words, hadn’t she? He knew his name too, despite asking for it. Had he been hiding and listening? If so, where? And why reveal it now? Kon stared as the young man squeezed his body through the gap between Vigor and Rugged’s hulking forms. Neither Lafer or Wilm seemed to hear his comment.

“Anyway, let’s just give him a few minutes to settle, then I’ll let you two go. Kon! Lafer told me that you’re a musician and that you’re interested in going dancing with us. Well, she and Vigor, to be honest. Rugged and I are usually standing at the edge watching everyone else like a couple of rocks.”

Kon smiled at the pair as Saiet faded into memory. “I’ll be standing at the edge with you, then. I’m assuming not a lot of people my age go to these events.”

Lafer chuckled. “I’ve met a couple of grandmas and grandpas, actually. I think you’ll find that Zephyr’s Cradle often defies your assumptions.”

“I’ll keep that in mind then. So, what’s this Barracks Officer thing? Some kind of guard shift?”

“Essentially,” said Wilm. “Every day, a student has to be here for twenty hours straight, though we do get a few hours of relief from a Professor shortly after midnight. It’s our job to make sure nothing crazy happens, like students breaking into each other's rooms and setting everything on fire. It’s pretty nice because I get to miss classes and people bring me food every few hours, but it also means I can’t work out. I’m trying to use the time to study, but it’s kind of hard to focus. When it’s quiet, Rugged and I end up filling the silence with useless chatter. When it’s loud, it’s probably because Gaj and Rej are fighting again. I just yelled at them for roughhousing ten minutes or so before you got here. Your room is next to theirs, so don’t be alarmed if you hear one screaming in the middle of the night.”

“That’s alright,” Kon said. “My fae can use magic to silence people and enclosed spaces. Did Lafer tell you that too?”

Wilm smiled. “She did. Quiet Time? Love it. I’ve often wished for that kind of power when she gets maniacal. I suspect we’ll need it often during my training sessions.”

Kon looked at the girl. “You’ll be there?”

“Of course,” said Lafer. “Assuming that Lucid doesn’t give us new orders, Vigor and I will be there tomorrow. If you’re feeling up to it, you’ll likely find us there. Otherwise, I’ll send Vigor knocking on your door to keep you updated.”

He nodded. “Halls are separated by gender, I’m guessing?”

“Yeah. My room is the second door on the left in the hall behind me. Barracks Officer is here to stop anyone from crossing that boundary. You’ll have to send your fae to ring at my door if you want to find me.”

“Got it,” Kon said. “Sounds reasonable enough.”

A loud thump in the hall behind Kon indicated that Saiet had entered his room. After that, Lafer’s posture visibly relaxed.

“In that case, I may see you two tomorrow. Before I go, I just need to know one thing. When is food served in the mess?”

“Whenever you want it,” answered Lafer. “Thanks to Lush, we’re never low on ingredients, and the Headmaster pays the staff well enough to man the kitchens twenty hours a day, five days a week. You saw the counter for the kitchen, yeah? Just go there and ask for a menu. It changes day-to-day.”

“Got it. That should be everything, then. Does Rugged have my key?”

“He does,” said Wilm. “Rugged! Show this nice man to his chamber!”

“Wilco!” the statue shouted. It sounded affirmative, but Kon had never heard the term before.

He waved goodbye, then followed after the already-walking giants. His fae stayed behind to chime a bright melody. It took less than a second for her to catch up.

Kon’s room was the last one at the end of the hall. Ten doors stood on both sides, all golden with rectangular slots meant for placards. He passed Wilm’s room first, then Morus and Dowen’s. After a gap of empty rooms, Saiet’s stood alone, and after another gap, Kon found Gaj and Rej’s. One room, not two. Both were yelling, a sound like hands slapping on the floor reverberating through the emerald walls.

Across from them, Kon discovered his own placard. Vigor and Rugged stood on either side of him, the latter retrieving a golden key from a pouch on his loincloth. Kon took it reluctantly, glancing at the flapping cloth for only a moment, before unlocking the door. A wide, open room waited inside, its corners stirring with a gentle breeze.

Kon looked up at Vigor’s burning eyes. “Can you wait here until I yell that I’m in bed? I don’t want to pass out before I’m ready.”

“No problem. In the meantime, Rugged and I will say hi to Grit. He knows better than to let the twins get this loud.”

“Thank you,” Kon said. “You too, Rugged.” Facing the statue, he outstretched his hand.

Rugged appraised him much like Wilm had, though his gaze lingered on Kon’s gut, his lips curled with a hint of smugness. Though gentle, his giant hand was as cold as his stare. “I look forward to seeing you on the Training Grounds.”

“Me too,” Kon lied. Lafer, Vigor, and Wilm? Sure. But at this moment, he wasn’t excited to spend any time with Rugged.

“There’s a window you can slide open on the inside of the door,” said Vigor. “If you tie a string to the bolt, Rugged can close it when we leave. Has to be thin enough for him to snap though.”

Kon nodded as he stepped through the door. He had seen the golden windows from outside, but within, they were all transparent, with dark black curtains hanging in tied-up bundles at their sides. A lacquered desk stood beside a bookcase, the former stacked with notebooks and a green-and-gold manual, the latter filled to the brim with large tomes and texts. Two smaller rooms lined the opposite wall, their open doors revealing a bathroom and an empty closet. Beneath the windows, a rounded bed was set into the floor, covered in thick blankets and pillows.

Upon further examination of the desk, Kon found a one-legged, circular picture frame that spun top-over-bottom to reveal a mirror on the other side. Lucid had said he could reach her here. As he turned it back over to the empty frame, he considered what to put there. Kon had carried many photos with him, though he hadn’t looked at them since leaving his family behind.

Tomorrow, he thought. Right now, I need a string.

Kon unslung Gul’s sack and gently poured its contents into the empty closet. He would organize his clothes and instruments tomorrow, too. Whenever it was that he woke up, exactly.

From the haphazard pile, he dug out his oldest tunic, found its fraying sleeve, then slowly unraveled a string. At the door, he slid the window open, looped the string around its bolt, then closed the door.

“Good man,” said Vigor, stepping away as Kon threaded the string through the window. “I’ll turn around so you have some privacy.”

“Thanks again.” He watched the giant step back and spin, leaving the only visible part of him his molten backplate.

Beyond, Rugged began knocking at Gaj and Rej’s door. Kon waved to his fae, conveying the thought. She rang loudly, filling his chamber with silence.

It had been a long time since he last showered, rather than bathed. A decade at least. Not since Jrana’s and his honeymoon phase. He retrieved his best smelling sleeping tunic and washed himself up quickly, not pleased by the unusual sensation of bursting rain. A green-and-gold towel was folded on the sink, ready to dry him.

Fresh and clean, Kon stepped out of his bathroom. Vigor was patiently waiting at his door, so he wasted no time getting to his bed. Before jumping in, he untied the blinds and let them fall. They slapped heavily against the foot of the wall, shrouding the light of the setting sun. Kon lifted a blanket with his foot, grabbed and pulled it to his waist, then jumped right in.

The bed felt heavenly. Kon was sure he’d never felt something this soft in his life.

It would be so easy to ask Vigor to leave and slumber, but there was still one thing he had to do. Kon beckoned for his fae, drawing her away from the instruments in his closet.

You want me to dream again, don’t you? To stop avoiding my reality and face it?

Slow, the orb of glittering strings nodded, keening softly. The sound rang in Kon’s ears like a request.

Alright then. Time to face the music, I guess.

His fae buzzed happily, then soared off to burst the bubble of silence.

“Hey Vigor! You can have Rugged shut the window now!”

“Got it! Sleep well, friend!”

“You t-” Kon began, only then recalling that fae didn’t usually sleep. Especially not Vigor.

The giant chuckled as the window suddenly pulled shut. In darkness, Kon lay.

But only for a moment.

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About the author

Amanuensis

Bio: Author of the fantasy web serial, False Prophecy.

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