Kon slumbered through the night in peace. Dreamless, his mind gently waded in a calm void of undulating darkness. The aches and pains of his heart and mind had faded into a distant memory. With his truth told and fears faced, his very self was finally able to rest.
His fae hovered outside his cracked window, listening to wood groan and leaves rustle in the wind. When the local birds started to warble their morningtide harmonies, she drifted inside to push open Kon’s heavy blinds. Twinkling sparks bloomed within the oceanic black, beckoning for him to rise.
Kon rubbed his eyes, lifting his head from his pillow and the blankets from his lap. Rumbling footsteps in the corridor heralded Vigor’s approach. Already dressed in his Westwind Academy training uniform — a pair of gold shorts and a shirt with two cursive Ws stitched in green thread over his chest — Kon clambered out of his bed and ran to his door. Loudly fumbling with the lock, he swung it open in greeting.
The blazing knight startled, his armor rattling. “Kon! You almost scared me to death!”
“Sorry about that,” he chuckled, basking in the warmth of Vigor’s aura. “I asked my fae to wake me once the birds started to sing. Neither of us expected you to come this quickly.”
“I get it. You must be so excited. That, or terrified.”
“Both. But I’m ready.”
“Glad to hear it. Did you drink enough water before going to bed?”
Kon nodded, suddenly feeling the weight of his bladder. “One moment!” he said, rushing to his bathroom to relieve himself. He washed his hands in the sink and his face before the mirror. The moisture evaporated from his skin as he met Vigor in the barracks corridor. Already, the giant was leading him away.
Other doors began to open down the corridor. Rej and Gaj stumbled out of their chamber as Morus lingered in his doorway, his fae drawn around him like a cloak. At the Barracks Officer’s desk, Wilm unwrapped the red brassard from their bicep and handed it to a prim and proper Saiet. His Westwind Academy uniform was starched and pressed to emphasize his noble posture and slight frame. As Saiet tied the brassard around the hilt of his golden rapier, Wilm eyed the approaching students. Lili, Ora, and Dowen were nowhere to be seen.
“Kon!” Wilm greeted loudly, their voice pounding against his eardrums. “If you give me a minute to change, I’ll accompany you up to the Training Grounds.”
“You’re insane,” groaned Gaj. “The one perk of B.O. on Endays is that you get to sleep in through morning training, and here you go, wasting it.”
Wilm scoffed at the lanky teen as they hurried into their room.
Kon welcomed the boys’ company as he waited near the unusually quiet and expressionless Saiet. Rej yawned loudly, scratching his fuzzy hair. “Didn’t sleep well?” Kon asked.
“How could I, when this loser is constantly snoring?” the stocky brother replied, stretching up to slap Gaj on the back of his head.
“Says the moron that’s always mumbling in his sleep!”
Kon shook his head, suppressing a grin. “Why do you two share a chamber anyway? There’s plenty of empty ones.”
Both twins blinked at Kon in surprise.
“We’re family,” Rej insisted.
“Moron or not, I trust my brother to have my back.”
Kon nodded. As heavenly as his barrack’s bed was, he’d slept more soundly with Jrana and Kinjra within his reach.
“Alright!” shouted Wilm, slamming their door behind them. “Are ya’ll ready to work up a sweat?”
Morus grumbled as he reached up to lock his chamber shut. Across the hall, Dowen’s door remained closed, the space beyond it completely silent.
“Where are the others?” Kon asked.
“Lili, Ora, and Dowen went up an hour early. Don’t ask me why, none of them would tell me. But if we move quickly, we may be able to see what they’re up to.”
Vigor made a show of stretching his legs, his aura flaring and filling them all with energy. “I’ll get you there in a hurry. Lafer is finishing breakfast now. She’ll meet us there.”
Wordless, Saiet got out of the way for Kon and his fellow students to jog after the blazing knight. No one bothered to greet the noble’s son, so he didn't greet them back.
Kon was the first to step into the open air. His fae had soared on ahead to shed sparks of dark silver silence. Outside, Dowen was standing lookout on the track while Ora lay in the field, curled up and asleep. The boy jumped at the other student’s sudden appearance, then whistled a shrill note with his fingers.
Behind him, Lili was jumping off the largest crystalline wave of Flow’s Trial. Still half-attached to her stomach, Leach reached out to grab and swing off one of the geyser pillars. But instead of using the momentum to launch onto a glistening crystal river, Lili slowed down and grabbed the pillar to slide down. In this, she didn’t seem to want an audience.
Vigor waited by the stairs while Wilm led the others to stretch on the gold, ring-shaped track.
“Why don’t you three come join us!” Kon shouted, his fae tuning his voice to ring gently in the slumbering giantess’ ears. Grimacing, Ora rose to her feet, rolling her shoulders and cracking her neck. Lili and Dowen flanked both sides of her as the girls rolled their eyes.
“No thanks!” Dowen yelled back.
Ora promptly flicked him in the ear, eliciting a yelp.
“We’ve long since stretched,” scoffed Lili.
“Just forget about them,” muttered Gaj. After leaving Vigor’s aura, the boy had flopped onto the ground like a starfish, then turned over so he was facing the sky. Otherwise dark and speckled with stars, color was beginning to smolder on the western horizon.
“Lili, Ora, and Dowen prefer not to associate with us. They say we’re all brainwashed.”
Kon frowned at the bulkier twin as he sat on the track beside his brother. “What do you mean?” he asked, glancing away from Rej as he started to massage his calves and thighs. Kon’s gaze wandered to the trio. Ora reprimanded Dowen for his friendliness while Lili stared at Flow’s Trial in silence.
Wilm grunted affirmation, their voice cleaving his thoughts. “For one reason or another, we all believe in what we’re doing here. We care about passing our exams and fighting in the War. It’s as if that makes us other, somehow. Lesser.”
“And they don’t care?” Kon asked, still watching the distant trio. Lili appeared to be taking Flow’s Trial seriously, and Ora’s attitude made it seem like she wanted nothing to do with the Academy.
“Couldn’t tell you,” Wilm sighed. “Next to Lafer, they despise me the most. I’m too much of a kiss-up to our Professors apparently, so most days, they refuse to acknowledge me. It helps that once the Armsmaster gets here, I take on the duties of his assistant, which means they have to listen. Otherwise, he’ll make their lives a lot worse.”
“Just so you know, Kon,” began Gaj, “the Jade Knight is never kind to his new squires on their first days.”
Rej nodded sternly. "You should expect him to work you the hardest.”
“I’m not so sure. The Armsmaster and I had a talk on Gilday. He seemed amicable, and agreed to let me train with Excel every other day while I’m here.”
“Is today one of those days?” asked Morus. Still and silent as he was, Kon had forgotten the boy was here.
“Then you’re screwed,” Rej remarked, chuckling to himself.
This time, it was the lanky twin who nodded, his upper body rising to stretch his slender fingers to his green-and-gold training shoes. Kon’s own feet were snug in the matching pair that he’d found tucked in the back of his closet.
“Hate to say it, Kon, but the twins are right. Armsmaster Topek is many things, but gentle is not one. I hope you’re ready to be worked to your bones.”
Kon swallowed his fear. Over his shoulder, his fae chimed brightly. “We’re ready for anything,” he insisted. Not to convince Wilm or the others, but himself.
“I certainly hope so,” uttered Morus, his body stirring into a visible blur. “But you should know that your fae can’t help during the Armsmaster’s lessons. Neither can Vigor, unless you get seriously injured.”
Frowning, Kon glanced around the wide-open ramparts. “Is that why Grit and Rugged aren’t here?”
“Yeah,” said Wilm. “Rugged is currently resting. I figured this morning was as good a time as any to let him hibernate.”
Before Kon could ask, Morus cleared his throat and answered. “Now and then, Rugged will tunnel himself deep underground. He says that bearing the weight of the world makes him stronger, but really he’s just absorbing mass from the earth and growing denser.”
“Grit has to grind up new particulates from the mountains if she loses too many,” said Rej. “She could get bigger if she wanted, but she prefers her current size.”
“Where is she, anyway?” asked Gaj.
“Drifting on a breeze in the Windwoods. Apparently Zephyr blowing her around the mess awakened a new passion.”
Mid-twist of their torso, Wilm raised a waving hand. “Sorry to interrupt, but you might want to begin stretching, Kon. The Armsmaster should return from his predawn jog soon. You’ll want to be limber.”
Nodding, he reached a hand toward the invisible Morus. “Come on,” he said, mirroring Wilm’s back twist. “If I can’t see you, that means you’re not moving.”
Blurring to motion, the boy swept a hand through his gray-blue fringe. His only response was a tired sigh, though he did listen.
On the mountain’s westernmost peak, jade-green electricity surged brightly. A thundering explosion of light and energy resounded across the sky, stirring birds from their nests in the trees. Alongside Wilm, Rej, Gaj, and Morus, Kon rushed back up to his feet and saluted. In seconds, Armsmaster Topek was crashing down into the field before them. Excel crackled along his skin, highlighting the former Jade Knight’s numerous scars. The air smelled of burnt acid. Frozen in place, Kon blew out of his nose in a vain attempt to dispel the unpleasant scent.
Armsmaster Topek saluted back, his body shifting, fast as a lightning strike. “Recruits Lili, Ora, and Dowen!” he shouted. “Report to me immediately!”
Dowen ran as Ora and Lili walked the length of the field at a slow, steady pace. It didn’t seem the Armsmaster would cut his salute until every student began theirs, leaving Kon and the others to wait in uncomfortable stillness. Morus’ fae had retreated to the stairs where Lafer and Vigor stood watching. They chuckled as Gaj began to slouch and lose his balance. Vigor’s aura was too far and dim to reach them.
Once the trio were all in position, their leader released a sharp breath. “Recruits Lili, Ora, and Dowen, reporting for Physical Training.”
Armsmaster Topek cut his salute, prompting Gaj to mumble his relief. “Why doesn’t everyone thank Lili and Ora for taking their time.”
“...Sir?” Wilm asked, uncertain.
“Recruit Wilm! I’m surprised you’re here! What do you have to say for your fellow students? Even when they arrive on time, they insist on being late. As my assistant, it’s your responsibility to ensure your peers are ready to tackle me to the ground the moment I arrive.”
Wilm swallowed loudly, their fingers drumming a nervous rhythm on their thighs. “Recruits Lili and Ora came here an hour early to practice Flow’s Trial, Sir. I think we can give them some leeway for training independently.”
“Is this true?” the Armsmaster demanded, spinning to point a finger up at the stiff giantess.
“It is,” Ora lied, her voice terse with confidence. “I was showing Lili how I navigated the trial and giving her tips.”
Each student held their breath while Armsmaster Topek crossed his arms. One by one, he looked everyone in their eyes. His gaze lingered on Kon the longest. “Very well,” he said. “I trust we’ve all met our new Recruit. Do you have any last words, son?”
“How eloquent,” the Armsmaster replied, laughing deeply as he ran to Kon and patted his back. Excel sparked across the man’s lips as he pushed Kon into the center of the track. “Enough time has been wasted anyway. It’s time for Physical Training to begin. Recruit Kon, how about you get a head start? You’re going to need it. Today’s theme is age, Recruits. To warm-up, you will all run a lap for every year that you’ve been alive. The quicker you finish, the fewer exercises you’ll have to perform once everyone is done.”
Kon stared at the man, his mouth gaped open, incredulous.
“That’s an order!” the Armsmaster shouted. In the background, Lafer and Vigor pumped their firsts encouragingly.
“You got this!” the fae exclaimed.
“It’s nothing you can’t handle!” added Lafer.
Ora chuckled while Lili whispered a snide comment.
“Recruits Lili and Ora. For keeping your peers waiting, you’ll run twice as many laps. If you’re incapable of basic mathematics, that'll be 34 and 32 laps respectively. Let’s see if you’ll beat Recruit Kon in the end. Get moving, now.”
Grumbling, the pair joined Kon on the track. Leach still clung to Lili’s midsection, pumping her body with vitality. It seemed her condition made her an exception to the no-fae rule.
At least I won’t be suffering alone.
Kon’s fae remained behind to cheer him on with Lafer and Vigor. Already dreading the pain, Kon waved them goodbye, then took off running. The sun’s rising light was starting to beat against his sweating brow.
Judging by the position of the sun, it took Kon more than half an hour to finish the Armsmaster’s warm up. On the field, he joined Wilm, Morus, and the twins, the first of which was performing sit-ups and planks as they waited for the last students to finish. Despite only having to run twelve laps, Dowen matched a lopsided Lili and lumbering Ora’s slow pace. Armsmaster Topek ran just behind them, encouraging them to finish their last stretch.
“Enjoy the break while you can,” said Gaj. He and Rej were standing and panting with their hands in their pockets. While Morus wrapped himself in his fae and vanished, leaving an imprint in the grass to show where he was sitting, Wilm continued to exercise alone, their skin beading with sweat.
Kon followed the youngest boy’s example. His legs felt like gelatin, and his lungs were on fire. “How long is this supposed to go on for?” he asked, directing his voice toward Morus.
“Another hour, if the Armsmaster is kind. An hour and a half if he’s not. We technically only need fifty-minutes to shower and eat before our first class.”
“Let’s hope the girls don’t give him any more problems,” Gaj groaned. “Otherwise he’ll take it out on us all.”
Wilm sighed, pushing themself off the ground. “Be quiet,” they warned. The trio of students had just crossed the finish line together, and they were now approaching with Armsmaster Topek.
“Get on your feet!” the electrified man shouted, exhaling crackling sparks. “Each of you, pair up! Today you’ll be practicing Defensive Tactics before I let you spar!”
Rej rose, pulling Gaj up with him. Both grunted with the effort.
Wilm offered two hands for Kon and Morus to grasp. “Recruit Dowen!” they shouted. “You’re partners with Recruit Morus!” Wilm punched Kon in his shoulder and led him aside.
“Good initiative, Recruit Wilm! We’ll be starting with everyone’s favorite; the hip throw. By my estimate, your combined age is 141! That’s how many repetitions of each technique I expect to see throughout this lesson! Recruits Rej and Gaj, why don’t you demonstrate for anyone who doesn’t know what that is, or needs a refresher.”
Sighing, the twins squared off, gaining a few steps of distance. Gaj let his arms hang limp by his sides as Rej swooped in, grabbing his brother’s wrist with his opposite hand. Spinning, Rej shifted his weight abruptly, bending down to pull Gaj's hand to his twisting hip. Rej squatted down, then launched upwards, using the leverage to send an off-balanced Gaj flying over his lower back. As he landed in the dirt and grass, Gaj slapped the ground with his arms first. Though it appeared to soften the blow, he still let out a muffled yelp.
“Your form is far from perfect,” the Armsmaster muttered, “but it will have to do. Only 140 left, Recruit Rej, then your brother can get his revenge!”
“I’m looking forward to it!” shouted Gaj, huffing as he threw himself back onto his feet.
“That’s what I like to hear. Where’s the enthusiasm from the rest of you?”
Only Wilm had the mind to answer. “Right here, Sir!”
From their own patch of trampled grass, Lili and Ora cackled under their breaths. To Kon’s surprise, Ora adopted the passive stance, allowing Lili to grab her wrist and perform the throw. Though visibly frail and half the giantess’ height, Leach seemed to provide Lili the strength to toss Ora with ease. When she landed, Ora left a deep furrow in the earth and slid.
“Try not to dislocate Recruit Ora’s arm again!” yelled the Armsmaster. “With Vigor back, I won’t let you use a visit to the clinic as an excuse to leave!”
“Hey Kon,” Wilm mumbled, punching his shoulder again to draw his attention. “Do you want to go first or second?” Behind them, Dowen stood over a crumpled Morus, who’s glasses lay in the dirt beside him. Kon watched Rej throw Gaj again to memorize their movements and positioning.
“You can go, but first walk me through the steps,” Kon said, regretting his answer immediately. Wilm’s exposed shoulders and biceps seemed as rigid as stone. “Just please, be gentle.”
Wilm punched him a third time, hitting the exact same nerve. “I’ll try my best. Promise.”
Nodding, Kon rubbed the soreness from his arm, then dropped his hands to his sides.
“Just make sure to tuck in your head.”
Stars glittered in Kon’s vision as he crashed into the ground. His thoughts spun as his vision swam. “How many is that now?” he wheezed, struggling to catch his breath.
“77,” Wilm answered. “More than halfway there. Do you need another break?”
Kon shook his head, groaning while standing. Wilm’s grin of broken teeth and polished stones was beginning to drive him mad.
“Just 64 more to go,” he mumbled, adopting what Rej and Gaj called the ‘victim’ stance.
Bracing for another crashing wave of pain, Kon was sent flying, his body flipped upside down. With his teeth clenched, chin tucked into his chest, and arms slapping out, he impacted a familiar imprint in the ground. No where else to go, the breath he was holding rushed out of his nose, blowing air down the stretched-out collar of his shirt. For a long moment, all he could see or think about were those accursed glittering stars.
“Get up, Recruit Kon! If you need a break then take it standing! Your blood needs to keep flowing or you’ll pass out!”
Kon suppressed a groan, rolling over to push himself off the dirt.
“Are you okay?” asked Wilm, no longer smiling. Seeing Kon struggling to rise, haggard from his 141st fall, must have finally shook their mood.
Kon met their deep orange eyes - the same color their hair was dyed, the roots bleached and starting to brown - and nodded, unwilling to speak. Instead, he took a deep breath, steadying his heartbeat.
“It’s your turn now, Kon!” shouted Vigor. “You can do this!”
“Show Wilm what happens when he messes with my mentee!”
Kon blinked at the cheering Lafer. A moment later, a fist collided with his arm.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about since she got back,” started Wilm. “I’ve grown a lot since I’ve come to the Academy, and this last season, I’ve felt more like myself than… well, ever. I don’t really want to make a big deal about it, though, so let’s just get back to our training. You ready?”
Kon had never heard Wilm talk so quietly before. At lower volumes, his voice was almost gentle.
Smiling, Kon punched Wilm in his arm, then quickly stepped back. Kon raised a pair of half-open fists in front of his face, widened his stance, and bent his knees to lower his center of gravity. “I’m ready. But I’ll just go slow for now.”
“Good call,” replied Wilm. “Proper technique is everything. Go too fast without the fundamentals, and you might end up hurting yourself more than your enemy.”
“Or my friend,” Kon said. “I’ll try my best not to hurt you. Promise.”
Wilm grinned, revealing his broken smile. Now that it was Kon’s turn to throw him around, he found it maddened him less.
“Any day now, Recruit Kon!” shouted the Armsmaster. In a flash, the man was standing a few steps behind Wilm, leaning forward and watching intently. Sparks of jade-green electricity danced over his risen, golden mane. “Let’s see what you’ve got. Show me the strength of a Recruit who’s already killed his first wraith.”
Everyone was watching now. The twins had both finished, while Dowen let Morus relax, bent over his waist, his hands on his knees. Without his fae obscuring him, a pair of angry red abrasions shone on his left arm and cheek. Ora was halfway done with tossing Lili, though both now watched, whispering amongst themselves. Kon’s fae was too far away to eavesdrop, but their gazes were clearly on him.
I guess now’s as good a time as ever. Wish me luck.
Across the ramparts, his fae sang a bright melody. No magic, just music. It was more than enough.
Kon launched into the gap between him and Wilm. He spun his body to the left, thrusting his right foot between his partner’s legs, and reached out. The skin of Wilm’s forearm, like his palms, had that same texture of sand, providing Kon ample grip to control his body. Tugging him down, Wilm pushed off the ground to help settle his weight on Kon’s back to ease his burden.
With all his might, Kon pulled. Wilm rolled over him, soaring out of reach. When he hit the ground tumbling, a layer of grass was uprooted with him, stuck to his sweat. Laying still and panting in the dirt, a wide grin spread across Wilm’s face.
“Good form, Recruit Kon! That’s exactly what I like to see from my newest pupil. You’ve either gotten into a few scraps more than you’ve admitted, or you’re a natural at inflicting pain. Either way, I want to see it again! Recruit Wilm, get back on your feet!”
“Yes, Sir!” he shouted, kicking himself off the ground.
Lili and Ora cackled softly, drawing the Armsmaster’s attention. His gaze fixated on them for a moment, then snapped to Morus and Dowen. “I hope the rest of you Recruits learned something from all your gawking. Get back to work! Now!”
Morus uttered affirmation and straightened. Before he could assume the proper ‘victim’ position, Dowen lunged in swiftly. In a blur of motion, the younger boy was sent flying.
Despite his momentary surprise, Morus’ expression stiffened, showing no pain or discomfort as he collapsed into the field. Upon noticing Kon, he shrugged, clambering back up and readying himself for another. Again, Dowen swept in and threw him quickly.
“Come on,” said Wilm, waving in front of Kon’s eyes. “I know you can throw me harder than that. I can handle it.”
Maybe you can, he thought, unable to stop worrying about Morus. Although he was light, Kon was sure each landing was just as rough for the boy as it was for him.
Still, Morus let Dowen throw him again and again. With more red abrasions on his arms, he rose steadily, his eyes narrowed and jaw clenched in preparation. “One last time,” Morus whispered, as if knowing that Kon would hear him.
“Okay,” Kon said, exhaling. As the air left him, he leapt toward Wilm, executing his second hip throw ever.
A half-hour of Defensive Tactics later, Kon chugged his sixth bottle of water. Between each technique, Armsmaster Topek gave them ten minutes to rest and rehydrate. Zephyr’s radiant green wind dropped the metal cylinders into their waiting hands, ice-cold and filled to the brim.
Unlike the water from Kon’s bathroom sink, it was refreshing and pure. It even felt great pouring over his bent head. The tiny streams that rushed down his neck and back left his skin tingling pleasantly. Already soaked in sweat, he didn’t even mind his dirty clothes getting wet.
“Six minutes left!” the Armsmaster shouted. “Then you spar! I wonder who the victors will be!”
Gaj began to mumble about his assured defeat. Unsurprisingly, the stockier twin was the better fighter.
Kon understood how Gaj felt. Though he was a little taller than Wilm, Kon was tiny in comparison. His gut was the only part of him that was bigger, even while sucked in. Their battle was lost before it even began.
While the Armsmaster spoke with his assistant, Kon stepped away to join Morus, who stood alone, drinking his water and dabbing his chin with his sleeve. At the start of the break, Dowen had left to socialize with Lili and Ora. With Lafer, Grit, Rugged, and Vigor chattering by the stairwell, Kon finally had a moment alone with the boy to check-in.
“How are you doing?” he asked.
“Fine.” Morus screwed the cap back onto his empty bottle and handed it to a glowing breeze. “You?”
“Fine,” Kon agreed. Compared to earlier, the boy was suddenly terse. “Just wanted to see how you were doing, and ask if you’re still willing to tutor me later tonight?”
“Of course,” said Morus, waving him off and turning. “Though you should worry more about yourself and surviving through the day.”
“You’re probably right,” Kon huffed. “Somehow, this is harder than what I imagined in my head.”
Sighing, Morus began to walk away, his gaze on the mountains beyond Westwind Academy’s ramparts. Muttering quietly, Kon almost missed the boy’s tired reply.
“And thus is the fate of Fate’s Chosen...”
Kon recognized the quote immediately. According to A Heavenly Purpose, the life of a Seer was seldom peaceful or painless.
Seers or not, many of his peers were just children. Morus wouldn’t even be 16 when the War really began. Even so, Fate had given him the Sight so he could fight. And fight he will, it seems. With his tiny fists clenched, Morus glared across the field at Dowen. The look in his eyes made it seem like he was preparing to face a wraith. Afraid? Certainly. But also determined.
Kon felt just the same.
“Come on, pipsqueak! Give me your best shot!”
Morus didn’t take the bait. He knew from past experience that striking first would just cost him his victory. Dowen was too nimble, swift, and quick-witted. Any possible attack would be easily countered, embarrassing him yet again. If Morus were a protagonist in one of his books, no one else could be a more fitting rival. Dowen was everything that Morus wasn’t, and had everything he wanted to obtain. Good looks; confidence; strength… By all accounts, Morus was the underdog, and in the books, that meant he would win.
Blinking, the world spun into a whirlwind of colorful chaos. When he hit the ground, his vision flared with pain.
“Or just stand there and take it,” Dowen muttered, sweeping his gleaming sand-colored hair out of his infuriatingly handsome face. He was just far enough away to be visible, though as he stepped closer, his features blurred with proximity. Morus’ glasses still lay where they fell among the grass. With a thought, Morus’ fae picked them up in her folds and drifted to his side.
“Need a hand?” Dowen asked, reaching out to lift Morus onto his feet.
“No thanks.” He swatted the hand away, then grabbed his glasses instead, donning them while his fae wrapped around his body. I’m not falling for that. Not again. He took off, striding toward the sidelines.
A glance back told him that Dowen was following, his eyes on Lili and Ora as they battled all out in hand-to-hand combat. Rej had Gaj on the ground in a tight headlock. Kon and Wilm circled their portion of the field, the former reluctant and the latter patient. Armsmaster Topek didn’t seem to care about anyone else. His scrutinizing gaze only focused on the middle-aged Seer.
“Come on, Recruit Kon! Let me see what you’ve learned!”
Startled by the Armsmaster’s command, the pudgy man lunged forward and right. Wilm tried to close the distance, only for Kon to abruptly spin left, grabbing Wilm’s off-hand and tucking it into his side. Both men grinned as Kon squatted and pulled, attempting to lift his opponent. Wilm just leaned back instead, falling on his back and rolling across the dirt, his foot rising to Kon’s chest to push him off and send him tumbling.
“Again!” shouted the Armsmaster. “You know the rules, Recruit Wilm. Unless you have your opponent in a hold, you can’t fall on the ground too. Both of you reset. This isn’t over, is it, Recruit Kon?”
“No, Sir,” the man grumbled. Once he was on his feet, he touched fists with Wilm and backed away, gaining enough space to begin circling safely. Kon’s round face tightened as he eyed the Armsmaster in the corner of his eyes.
This time it was Wilm who made the first move. While Kon was distracted, he closed the distance between them. Two hands reached for Kon’s shoulders, only for him to duck and bob. Not away from Wilm, but into him.
In a single fluid motion, Kon’s right arm shot up the side of Wilm's neck while his left arm reached around the back. With his hands clasped tightly, Kon hugged his opponent, clamping Wilm’s neck between his forearm and shoulder. All in all, it was a well executed side-choke.
Wilm didn’t let Kon hold on for long. His elbow lashed out, digging into Kon’s gut. The younger Seer caught his breath while the older stumbled away.
“He’s not bad,” said Rej. While Morus was staring, the twins had finished their match and wandered to the sidelines.
“Too bad he’s fighting Wilm,” replied Gaj, slouching and rocking back-and-forth dizzily. “Even if they hold their punches, Kon will still lose.”
“Even if he holds his punches,” Morus corrected with a stifled breath. The twins blinked. Forever oblivious. “Wilm is using male pronouns now. Try not to slip up in front of him.”
“Good to know,” mumbled Rej.
“I wondered how long it would take.”
Morus didn’t have the energy to tell Gaj why his statement was problematic. Instead, he walked away, releasing his fae to blur the space between them. The twins were an unwelcome distraction, and Morus was trying to watch.
In the meantime, Wilm had initiated another technique, only for Kon to dodge and backstep away, maintaining his distance. It seemed he was still recovering from the previous blow.
Gaj is right, Morus thought, sighing. Kon is doomed.
Kon seemed to be injured, favoring his right side, and unwittingly exposing his left. With teeth clenched, Wilm pounced, swinging the edge of his fist toward the gap in Kon’s defenses.
Morus almost looked away. Instead, he stared at Kon’s face, expecting to see panic or a wince of pain.
Kon smiled, exploding into motion. At the end of his run, Wilm had to bury his shoes in the dirt to make himself stop. Now Kon used that to his advantage.
Bobbing under Wilm’s fist, Kon spun and rose up behind him. He grasped Wilm’s wrist with one hand and brought it with him, striking the connected elbow with his other palm’s heel. Tough as he was, Wilm’s arm crumpled, folding back to get pinned against his lower back. Kon lifted a foot and stomped the back of his opponent’s knee. Letting go, he watched Wilm topple, unable to regain his balance with the dirt covering his feet.
“No way,” exclaimed Gaj.
“That’s my boy!” Lafer screamed. Vigor hollered incoherently beside her.
Morus swallowed, unable to believe his eyes. Kon had actually won. By his weary and worried expression, the man didn’t even understand what that meant. A second later, he was rushing to help Wilm get back on his feet.
Everyone was staring now, even Lili and Ora, who were still in the midst of their match. Dowen’s eyes were as wide as his twinkling smile.
In silence, they waited to hear Armsmaster Topek’s reaction. The man stood, still and silent, his hands lost in his golden hair. He seemed frozen while grasping his scalp in anticipation. Electricity sparked across his jaw as it hung low, mouth gaping open.
“What did I say earlier!? Either you’re a liar, Recruit Kon, or you were born for this. I’m so proud I could almost cry.”
“Huh?” Kon asked, turning around. He startled as he noticed all the eyes gazing upon him.
“I’ve never lost a sparring match before,” said Wilm, congratulating Kon with a powerful slap across his back.
“So you let me win. What’s the big deal?”
Dark green electricity flashed and crackled as Armsmaster Topek appeared beside them. “Is that true, Recruit Wilm? Did you let him win?”
“I didn’t, Sir, I swear. I was pulling my punches, but only because you taught us to only use as much force as necessary. When I elbowed him, I thought I hurt him worse than I did. His body language convinced me, at least. I struck when I did because I thought he didn’t have much fight left in him.”
The Armsmaster nodded, his sharp face taut and unreadable.
Kon wrinkled his brow and waited. Morus could almost feel his dread as he shied away from the former knight and the other student’s peering eyes.
“Recruits! You are dismissed for the morning! Go freshen up and stuff your faces! I’ll see you all back here 15 minutes before Soldiery begins!”
Wilm saluted the Armsmaster, who waved him off to speak with Kon in private. Lili, Ora, and Dowen hurried to the stairs while Gaj and Rej lingered and chattered.
“You three coming?”
Morus nodded to Wilm, his typically busy mind uncharacteristically quiet. As he followed the others to the stairwell, he glanced back one last time, straining to force his thoughts.
Kon had beat Wilm. For someone like Morus, it defied all logic. He knew better than anyone that real life wasn’t like the stories.
Like opening up a new book, curiosity began to swell in his chest.