By the end of his climb, Kon was practically crawling up the stairwell. He used his arms as much as his legs, though his fae did hum a pleasant tune to ease his pain. If only he had brought his lute with him, he could empower her magic by playing the song that helped Miss Sut flee from the spiritfire.
It was hard to believe that had been only four nights ago. He’d only slept twice, but during his three-day journey, enough had happened that everything before seemed like a vague blur. He could barely recall the test he’d administered before discovering Kinjra had the Sight. Even his memory of their trip to the ritilis’ grove was beginning to fade.
A small room and an open door waited at the top. Beyond it, a flash of deep red light heralded a loud crash. The air was hot and reeked of smoke, and as soon as Kon caught a whiff, he mustered the last of his strength to run and push himself outside. Vigor’s aura washed over him, rejuvenating his body, and his senses burst and buzzed as if he’d just drunk a caffeinated tea.
Kon exited one of the rear parapets of the castle’s ramparts. Only a stretch of emerald stone and a yellow track separated him from the burning field of grass. Halfway in, a wounded Vigor was huffing in a crater of dirt and ash. One of the giant’s arms was missing, the hole under his shoulder closed with hardened lava. With a bellowing laugh, his coal-like eyes ignited into blazing torches. Steam hissed through the gaps in his helmet with his panting breaths.
Above the crater, Rugged was looming, his stone flesh looking unscathed in comparison. In his left hand, a massive claymore with a jagged blade as tall as the fae hung parallel to the ground. It seemed chiseled rather than forged, and must have weighed a ton. Rugged’s other hand was clenched into a fist behind him as he stood, his back straight and chin high. His statuesque expression was rigid with pride.
“I can’t believe you finally hit me!” yelled Vigor. He sounded more jubilant than angry. “I guess there’s a first time for everything!”
“What happened once can happen again,” his opponent rumbled. “I wonder if you’ll still be laughing after I take off your head.”
Another flash of molten luminescence forced Kon to raise a hand in front of his eyes. A breeze of warm air rushed by him as a blast of heat shot up with the giant’s leap. Rugged twisted his torso, swinging his claymore to block the attack, only for Vigor to dance out of the way and land a fist in the statue’s side. The fae neither flew nor collapsed, though his body was propelled across the field at an incredible speed, carving giant furrows into the soil in the wake of his dragging feet. The fae made no grunts and expressed no pain; he was as stiff as always. By consequence of his angle and position, Rugged could see Kon watching from the sidelines. His eyes brooded as he looked down at the small man.
Vigor failed to notice Kon’s arrival, his gaze too focused on the burning field. In the background, the giant was running back and forth between the many smoldering fires — not to stomp them out, it seemed, but to peer inside them. “Grit!” he shouted. “Did you see where my arm went? Lafer will get mad if I come back without it!”
Hidden among the smoke drifting above, grains of white sand and golden particles floated down to the ground. Beside Vigor, they all gathered, coalescing like a jigsaw into a marble girl with coarse skin and a long tunic made of white and gold specks, those same minerals forming long, streaking hair. Her height and limbs matched the lanky twin Kon had seen briefly. That must have made him Rej.
Gaj would be the bulkier twin, then. Lafer had mentioned he thought of the name Grit, though Rej stole it and named his fae first. Beside the marble woman, a smaller orb composed of darker particulates hovered, each grain swirling upon its shell with no consistent pattern or speed.
“I’ve no idea,” the girl intoned, a faint crackle to her contralto voice.
Vigor sighed, huffing flame. “Were you even watching?”
Grit crossed her arms, her face shifting like sand and settling into a frown. “How can I when you bleed light that’s too bright to look at?”
“You don’t even have real eyes!” the one-armed giant exclaimed, raising his one good hand and splaying the fingers. The spikes that jutted from his knuckles were either broken off or blunted — a few shattered in Vigor’s last strike. Despite the power behind the blow, Rugged strode toward the other fae unharmed.
“Our vision works the same as any human's,” he interrupted. “Wilm and Rej imagined that much for us. It’s just you who sees the world differently than it is.”
“I like my vision, thank you. Especially if it means I don’t have to see your ugly face.”
“A lot of good heat vision does you if you can’t even find your missing arm — not to mention see your friend watching from the sidelines.”
With a gasp, Vigor’s torch-like eyes quickly extinguished to burning coals. He spun around and found Kon, whose hand began to droop to his side. When the fae’s eyes ignited again, Kon covered his face, then listened for the steam and crashing footsteps of Vigor’s hasty approach.
“Kon!” the giant yelled, his voice loud enough to make his body shake with its vibrations. “You’re finally awake!”
The man lowered his hand to gaze up at the fae. “Didn’t Lafer tell you that already?”
“Well, yes. But as you can see, I was a little distracted.” Vigor raised his remaining thumb and pointed it to the flames and craters behind him. “I seem to have lost my arm. Would you mind helping me find it?”
Kon stretched his arms and rolled his shoulders to ease the last of the pressure out of his limbs. “I suppose I can, but why are you two fighting?”
Vigor cocked his helmet sideways, as if confused. “Because it’s good training and great fun. Why else?”
“I guess I can’t really argue with that. Just… won’t someone be mad at you for ruining the field?”
“Nah. This kind of thing happens all the time. The Groundsmaster and Lush will fix it up by morning.”
Kon nodded, then peered around the ringlit landscape. Somewhere beyond the eastern horizon, the sun was nearly finished setting. There were no clouds over Zephyr’s Cradle, but in the shadow of the mountains, everything seemed as dark as night.
His eyes were drawn to the soft azure glow radiating from the statue of Flow and the crystalline rivers and waves that surrounded it. Water was pouring from the serpent’s mouth, filling a large pool beneath it, as moisture leaked from the obstacles and soaked the ground. Just as curious, his fae glided in that direction. They could hear Lili and Dowen whispering there, hidden from sight.
“It’s too big,” the girl said derisively. “There’s no way you’ll get away with the whole thing. Just take the fist and leave the rest.”
“Don’t underestimate me,” the boy replied. “None of them saw me grab it in the first place. Can you peek around the corner and tell me what they’re doing? All I need is a moment when they’re distracted.”
Kon clicked his tongue. On the nearest side of the tallest crystalline wave, his fae clicked too. She could hear both of the kids startle behind it.
“I think I found your arm,” he told Vigor. “Follow me.” Brimming with energy, Kon ran until he rejoined his fae. With a flick of his wrist, he directed the giant to walk around the other flank of the curling wave. “Hello?” he called out, then turned the corner abruptly and found… nothing.
Footsteps pattered behind him. Kon spun again and found a mass of slime lunging at his face.
“Stars!” Kon screamed in falsetto, diving out of the way. Leach’s cold blue form passed just over his face, continuing onward toward Vigor, who quickly spun in surprise. Before the fae collided, the slime opened the writhing mouth on its underbelly and began sucking, absorbing the light and heat of Vigor’s aura. With a loud burp, it cast a beam of fire back. Both were propelled away.
Leach flew over Kon’s head and into Lili’s waiting arms.
Vigor was cast back into a sapphire geyser pillar, nearly causing it to topple.
“Don’t stop running!” the teenager screamed. Far behind her, Dowen’s slight figure was sprinting toward the stairs, a huge metal arm grasped against his chest. Though no longer muscular, the arm was still bigger than him.
“Grit!” Vigor shouted. "Don't let Dowen get away!”
Before the boy could reach the parapet’s open door, a tendril of particulates shot across the field and plucked the arm from his hands. Dowen grunted in defeat and collapsed to his knees. Leach spread himself over Lili’s ribs as she jogged off to check on her friend.
When Kon had imagined meeting his fellow students, it certainly wasn’t like this. Vigor and he rose to their feet together. In a flash of light, the giant rejoined Grit and his arm. Kon chased after the kids while calling their names.
Lili and Dowen turned, neither looking guilty. The girl strained her face in pain as the boy stroked the hair out of his face, a wry smile on his lips. He almost reached the same hand out in greeting before Lili gave him a paralyzing look. His hand froze in place.
Kon stepped forward and took it anyway. “That was some good footwork,” he complimented, trying to get on the boy’s good side. From what Lafer had said, Dowen was a good kid, just under the influence of bad friends.
“Thanks,” he replied, smiling proudly. “I was so close to getting away!”
“That I’m less happy about. Why take Vigor’s arm?”
“Don’t,” Lili interrupted. “Say any more and you risk self-incrimination.”
Dowen pursed his lips as he let go of Kon’s hand.
“Who are you, anyway?” asked Lili. “And don’t you know it’s rude to sneak up on people? You almost gave me a heart attack!”
Kon opened his mouth, then left it gaping. “If I almost did, I’m sorry. But that doesn’t mean you should throw your fae at me. I’m the new student, Kon.”
“A bit old to be a student, aren’t you?” Dowen said it in a manner more curious than rude, though Lili chuckled with disdain.
“Just a bit, yes. I’ll be 40 next season.”
Lili sneered under her breath. “As interesting as that is, we were just on our way, Kon. Dowen and I are famished. Isn’t that right, Dowen?”
The boy sagged and grabbed his stomach. “Oh yes, sir. We’re starving, sir.”
“Go eat dinner then. Wilm, Lafer, and I will be down shortly. You can save us a seat.”
Lili snorted, grabbing Dowen’s wrist and leading him away. “We’ll see you there, then.”
“We will?” the boy muttered, perking up again. “It was nice to meet you, Kon!”
The girl dragged him inside and down the stairs before chiding him. Kon’s fae was close enough to hear faint echoes. It seemed they wouldn’t meet him in the mess after all. Frowning, he ran over the yellow ring and into the no-longer-burning field. Rugged was leaning against his claymore, its blade plunged into the dirt, while Vigor raised and tested his reattached arm. Grit was reforming beside him after snuffing the many flames.
“Thanks for the help,” Vigor exclaimed, then faced Rugged. “Now we can get on with our fight!”
“Are you serious?” asked Kon.
“Of course he is,” Grit sighed. Rugged grunted in confirmation, pulling his massive weapon free. “Come with me,” the marble girl continued. “We can watch the children from the sidelines.”
Vigor and Rugged scoffed at once. “Children!” the giant yelled. “You’re younger than us both in every possible meaning!”
“Doesn’t mean I act like one,” Grit retorted, strutting off. Her arms and legs only made the illusion of moving, each individual particulate shifting instead. The other twin’s fae soared alongside Kon’s, leading him away.
Vigor and Rugged gained some distance as the bystanders walked over to the ramparts. “It’s nice to meet you,” Kon said.
Grit’s lips shifted into a smile. “I’d shake your hand, but I hear the feeling isn’t very pleasant. Vigor told me your name already. Rej says he’s sorry he ran by you, but he needed to win that race. I swear, all boys are children.”
“I think it’s alright to let them have fun,” Kon said, thinking of Kinjra and Belen roughhousing. “But only so long as no one gets hurt.”
“Sadly Rej often does. At least Vigor and Rugged are an even match.”
Kon hummed, turning his attention to the battling fae.
Vigor was fast despite his size, even without flaring his magic. It helped that he was slightly top-heavy. He barreled toward Rugged, leaving smoking footprints with every resounding step.
Though Rugged was slow in comparison, he was undeniably strong. With a minor flick of his wrist, he swung his stone claymore around the front of his body quickly, forcing Vigor to erupt with light. Kon shielded his eyes just in time to see the giant leaping into the sky above his hand.
Instead of falling headfirst, he flipped until he faced the sky. A belch of radiant flame cast him into Rugged before he could react. Beneath Vigor’s weight, the statue crumpled into the ground, scattering dust and dirt into the air and leaving a massive crater.
“Hah!” the giant bellowed. “I finally got you!”
The ground rumbled beneath him in protest. Rugged pushed himself and Vigor up, then stood on trembling legs. Grunting loudly, he slowly lifted the blazing knight over his head, his arms struggling to extend.
Kon glanced at Grit in the corner of his eye. “They do this a lot, don’t they?”
“Every chance they get,” she answered. “As childish as they are, I’m glad Vigor’s back. Rugged has been grating my nerves since he left.”
Kon covered his ears as the statue howled, tossing Vigor into the crater’s lip. Limbs flailing above him, the giant carved a long fissure. The dirt collapsed over him, burying his body and light.
At once, pain surged in every muscle of Kon’s body. Stunned and gasping, he fell toward Grit, one arm reaching out for support. He passed through her hand instead. Sharp pains raked his arm before each one of her particulates scattered to the air. Kon fell on his side as Grit reformed behind him.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice cracking with concern. His fae shrieked while soaring around his arm, lighting it up with sparks of light.
The sleeve of Kon’s sweater was torn into ribbons. Lines of blood ran over the exposed flesh. He was too shocked to move his fingers.
“Not really,” he mumbled. Some of the cuts were bleeding more than others. Beneath his fae’s light, they shined a darker red.
“Rugged!” Grit yelled. “Dig Vigor out of there! Kon is hurt and needs his aura!”
In spite of their unfriendly interactions, Rugged obeyed without hesitation. As slow as he was, his arm moved through the dirt with ease. Grabbing Vigor by his ankle, the statue pulled as hard as he could. The lower half of the giant’s armor slipped out, the legs kicking madly, while Rugged fell onto his back.
Vigor’s aura washed over Kon, filling him with warmth. In seconds, his skin healed over, leaving faint pink scars. A puddle of blood had formed on the stone beneath him, soaking into the side of his sweater.
“Thank you,” he breathed in relief. Still a little dizzy from shock, he turned onto his back and gazed up at Grit, his eyes on her hand. “You weren’t kidding about it feeling unpleasant.”
The fae’s head shifted left and right. “I should have warned you better, or at least stood farther away. I’m sorry, Kon.”
“It’s okay, but… I’m a little confused. I thought fae couldn’t hurt humans.”
“Not actively, no. But I’m sure you know that if you touch Vigor’s armor, it will burn you. My body works similarly. Each piece of me is like a tiny razor. Usually I get out of the way in time, but I wasn’t paying enough attention. I hope you can forgive me.”
“I do,” Kon said, lifting his scarred arm and his tattered sleeve. “No harm done, though my sweater has seen better days.” At the bad joke, his fae chimed a duplet of relief.
Grit didn’t seem amused. Her expression showed worry, though she was looking away. Kon followed her gaze and saw a jade-green bolt of lightning arcing across the sky. Electricity crackled on the ledge of a distant mountain.
“What is that?” Kon asked, pushing himself up onto his feet.
Grit grumbled to herself. “Who is it, you mean.”
He grumbled back when she didn’t continue. “Who then?”
Before she could answer, the bolt of lightning crashed into the crater. In an explosion of jade sparks and upturned dirt, Rugged and Vigor were sent flying in opposite directions.
The blazing knight hit the geyser pillar a second time. Already loosened, it toppled. Dust was kicked up, though it did not shatter. Vigor and Rugged both groaned as they climbed to their feet.
From the crater, a brawny man with sun darkened flesh launched up to level earth. That same jade-green electricity coursed over him, lighting up his emerald vest and billowing trousers. Long plumes of golden hair stood up, crackling with static. His eyes glowed the same color as the sparking energy. The air smelled like burning acid.
“Armsmaster Topek,” Grit whispered. “It seems he finished his evening marathon early today.”
Kon blinked in the Armsmaster’s direction. His sharp face was taut with stress as his eyes flickered quickly, darting between everyone present before honing in on the unfamiliar man.
Kon gulped. For a breathless moment, he waited for the former-knight to start yelling. Instead, the electricity coursing across his body surged brightly. In the blink of an eye, Kon was startling away from the Armsmaster’s hand.
The former-knight laughed deeply. “Calm down, Recruit Kon. I’m not going to hurt you. I’ve been ordered to let you rest until Valday morning.”
“Lush mentioned that,” Kon said, hesitant to grab the Armsmaster’s hand. At first it was because of the countless scars that marred every inch of his skin, not including his face. Then it was because of Vigor waving his arms beyond them. As soon as Kon looked over the Armsmaster’s shoulder, the giant quickly saluted.
Kon mirrored the stance: two fingers raised to his forehead, his other arm folded behind his back.
The Armsmaster smiled, electricity crackling across his teeth as he returned the salute, and dropped it. “I’m happy to see that someone briefed you, Recruit Kon. I’m assuming we can thank Private Lafer?”
Kon dropped his salute and smiled. “That’s correct, Sir. Lafer and Vigor have both been a great help to me.”
“That’s good. I’ll think about letting them off the hook for ruining my Sanctuary.
“As for you, Recruit Grit,” he barked, turning on his heel to point a finger at the fae’s stiff expression. “As punishment for letting this happen, you will help put every piece of my field back where it belongs. Now.” Apparently the fae weren’t as free to destroy the Training Grounds as Vigor had insisted.
Grit’s body shifted into a salute before crumbling and soaring off to obey. Vigor continued holding his salute as Rugged joined him. The Armsmaster turned and laughed again. “As if that matters!” he shouted, electricity crackling in the air. “Get on your faces, recruits! You know the drill!”
Both fae dropped immediately, their muscular arms pressing their torsos up and down like machine pistons. Neither got tired, and the Armsmaster never told them to stop. By the time the man faced Kon, Vigor was just breaking a hundred. His sharp eyes peered at Kon keenly.
His next words were spoken low in warning. “Why are you here, Recruit?”
“Lafer and Wilm sent me up here to wait with their fae while they shower for dinner. I unfortunately slept through Wilm’s session, and my body is still sore from our travels, so I came here to benefit from Vigor’s aura.”
“And what of your arm?” he asked. The Armsmaster glared at the red puddle and Kon’s bloody sweater.
“That was an accident, Sir. I fell and touched Grit, but I’m okay. It shouldn’t affect my training on Valday.”
The burly man clicked his tongue. “It better not. But just in case, ask Lafer to bring you to the nurse for a proper inspection. Vigor’s healing isn’t perfect. I’d prefer it if you didn't die under my watch.”
Kon swallowed. “Will do, Sir. Just… when will they be done exercising? Lafer and Wilm should be ready soon, and I haven’t eaten in over a day.”
The Armsmaster turned away, already barking. “Vigor! Rugged! Grit! You three are going to escort Recruit Kon and me to the mess, where we will meet your Seers! I expect all three of you to tell them what I found you doing! You know better than this!”
Vigor and Rugged shot up to their feet and saluted. Beside them, Grit formed to match them. “Yes Sir!” they shouted in unison.
“As for you,” the Armsmaster muttered, not looking at Kon, though clearly addressing him.
Electricity sparked over the man’s lips. “We need to talk.”