Anger and relief intermingled within Kon like a pair of discordant symphonies. His entire body was on fire, his skin flushed with blood and drenched in sweat, yet his mind was surprisingly clear and quiet, his heart light and calm. Without a thought, he walked into the field alongside Armsmaster Topek as the other students left. His fae hovered by the stairs alongside Lafer and Vigor, whom seemed to be watching and waiting for him to join them. The Armsmaster didn’t appear to mind.
‘Don’t worry,’ the man had whispered as he waved Kon to follow. ‘I won’t keep you for long.’
Simply breathing, Kon’s gaze drifted across the ramparts. Emerald winds combed the stretch of verdant grass, returning upturned dirt to the human-shaped furrows in the ground. Birds warbled in the gardens below while hungry clawbills soared around the cloudless sky. He could see the Windwoods from here, a dense forest of askew trees that climbed up the mountain known as Green Peak, which overlooked the valley from its westernmost side. Kon hadn’t noticed before, but a cave was visible on its summit, vaguely egg-shaped and covered in moss. Thick vines draped over its yawning entrance like curtains, swaying open and closed with Zephyr’s luminous magic.
“I see you found her nest,” Topek commented, his voice soft. Despite his airy tone, a deep frown stretched across his face, pulling his sharp face taut. Excel had left him, allowing his golden mane to fall around his dark jade eyes. Sparks of electricity crackled from the cube-shaped trinket around his wrist, illuminating the white X embossed on its side.
Kon sighed, demanding his anger to depart with his breath. As sore and tired as the Armsmaster’s training had left him, Topek’s sullen expression made it seem like he at least regretted it. Still, Kon blinked at him in silence, letting that feeling sink into him.
“If you’re waiting for me to apologize, it’s not going to happen. When Excel inhabited you two days ago, she informed me of your limits. We knew you could handle this and more. But for what it’s worth, you did better than either of us had expected.”
Kon shook his head. “That’s not the problem. I know that I only have three weeks to train. I get that you need to work me hard. But what about Morus? The boy is only eleven. Why are you training him like the rest of us?”
Topek pursed his lips. “Recruit Morus is exempt from these sessions. He doesn’t always come, but when he does, he only pushes himself as much as he’s willing. The boy has it in his head that if he passes his Physical Exams before he’s 16, we’ll let him graduate early. Headmaster Nise has insisted otherwise, but Morus refuses to give up. Still, as a Professor and a fellow Seer, it would be wrong of me to tell him no and turn him away.”
Kon couldn’t disagree more. Morus was still a kid, not much younger than his daughter. After being thrown again and again and seeing the others do the same to each other, he couldn’t imagine Kinjra being here, getting thoroughly beaten and bruised. Jrana would lose her mind if she saw their daughter’s skin black and blue or scuffed with red. Even if it was optional, he knew Kinjra would volunteer against both of her parents' wishes.
“Is that all?” Topek asked. “Or is something else on your mind?” Though he stood with his arms crossed defensively, his words remained gentle. Kon could tell he was sorry even as he refused to apologize.
Sighing, Kon pointed to the mossy cave on the peak. “That’s Zephyr’s nest? I always figured she was the wind itself.”
“The wind is an extension of her — streams of her essence, blown from her lungs — but no. She resides in that cave, only leaving it on special occasions.”
Kon turned away from the mountain to inspect Topek’s face. His frown had deepened, and his eyes were distant.
“Why did you ask me to stay behind?”
Topek’s eyes flicked to Kon’s face as he stretched a hand. Electricity arced over his forearm, sparking with anticipation. “I wanted to reward you for your hard work. You don’t have to stay if you would rather go shower and eat, but it would help.”
Kon grasped the electrified hand. Energy surged through him, his nerves bursting with life and heart thundering like a storm. “Good morning, Kon,” a feminine voice crackled in his ears. “If it helps, I intend for Morus to train with me this afternoon. He earned it, and he’ll be elated.”
While Excel spoke, Topek stepped back, arms hanging limp by his sides and legs spreading in the ‘victim’ stance. “Do your worst,” the Armsmaster ordered, standing his ground and smiling proudly. “141 iterations of each technique, as fast as you can with no breaks. Don’t worry about hurting me. I can take it, and Vigor will come heal me if I need it. If you’re quick, it should only take a handful of minutes. You can go shower and eat with the others, faster and stronger than before. Next time you come here to spar, your muscles will remember how to move and your instincts will drive you.”
Sparks of light coursed over Kon’s vision, not blinding him, but somehow enhancing his sight, brightening the colors and refining details of his surroundings. A second’s worth of glancing over the Windwoods enabled him to count thousands of its trees. Another second later, he was peering at Topek, taking note of each strand of golden hair and the depth of the scars running across his bare arms and chest. Kon looked up into the deep blue heavens, his eyes snapping to the silver blade that parted its center. Shadows flickered on the ring’s infernal surface, the spiritfire flaring to life as it drank in the sunlight. Gray smoke radiated from the Skyblade, leaving a dim stain in the sky.
Kon didn’t want to fight. Despite the Armsmaster’s comments, it wasn’t in his nature. Even so, he’d grabbed Topek’s hand for a reason. Kon needed to be strong, whether he liked it or not.
“Let’s just start with a five percent boost,” crackled Excel. His senses and nerves buzzed quieter in the wake of her voice.
Topek smiled, flicking his head back to move the hair out of his eyes. “Any second now, Kon. I’ve got places to be myself.”
Lafer greeted Kon with a punch to his shoulder. In the wake of Excel’s magic, the world seemed to move a fraction slower, granting him the ability to see the fist coming a meter away. Vigor’s aura provided him the speed to dodge to the side. With a smile, he landed a punch on Lafer’s shoulder instead.
“Show off,” the giant laughed, his armor rattling.
“Good work out there,” said Lafer. “That looked especially fun.” She pointed at the Armsmaster’s back as he ran laps on the track. “I’d have killed for the chance to toss that man around when I was still a student.”
“She’s exaggerating,” added Vigor. “Though I’d be glad for the opportunity too.”
Kon nodded, waving them down the stairs. Though his stomach didn’t ache with hunger, he felt desperately unclean. His fae glided on ahead to scout for voices. “I might take a long shower,” he said. “In the meantime, you two can wait for me in the mess with the others. I’m sure one of them will offer you some food.”
“You sure? Vigor can stay by your door to escort you down.”
“I’ll be fine on my own, but thank you.” He paused for a moment, looking back to find Lafer expressionless. Vigor walked down the stairs behind them with care. “Are you okay?” he asked, remembering the look on Saiet’s face earlier that morning. “Did you talk with him?” Lafer would know who he was talking about without clarification.
“Yup,” she huffed. “I followed your advice last night.”
“So he apologized after all?”
Lafer nodded, her lips neutral and eyes dry. It was an improvement from yesterday, but still not great. “He acknowledged what he did wrong and made a promise to never do it again, but I told him that’s not enough to repair the damage he’s already caused. He asked how he could, and I told him it was impossible unless he could turn back time. I didn’t tell him I forgave him, or would ever, but I left the possibility open. When you saw him this morning, did he say anything? Wilm told me Saiet hardly said a word during change-over.”
“My fae and I didn’t hear a word. He barely looked at anyone.” A floor below, footsteps resounded alongside shuffles and yelps.
Lafer sighed. “Alright. Thanks. I just hope he doesn’t make a scene while I’m waiting for Wilm to finish getting ready.”
“You think he will?”
“I dunno. Maybe. He likes to be dramatic, particularly with an audience.”
“I can knock on Wilm’s door and let him know to meet you in the mess. My fae just heard the twins running downstairs a minute ago, so you won’t be alone.”
“I’d rather be alone than alone with them. I can wait by Lucid’s banner, at least.”
“I’ll let Wilm know. You two shouldn’t have to wait for me long either.”
Lafer smiled, her focus returning to her gait. Kon took the cue and hurried along. They had already passed the Clinic, and around the next turn, the Barracks corridor opened into view.
“We’ll see you later,” said Vigor, waving Kon out of his aura and into the hall. He stepped carefully across the threshold, maintaining his balance despite his aches and striding toward the standing nobleboy. Saiet was behind the desk with his fae, Riposte, laid across it. His eyes briefly flicked to Lafer, then down to the living rapier.
Once Lafer and Vigor were out of earshot, Kon hastened to the Barracks Officer. “Saiet,” he greeted, lingering a step away from the desk. “I think we met during poorer circumstances, but since this is my first day as your fellow student, I believe a new introduction is in order.”
“Kon,” he greeted warily, grasping his rapier and slipping it through a loop on his belt. “Or should I say Professor? I’ve heard you’ll be teaching a subject as well.”
“Outside of my class, you can use my name. How are you doing? Are you hungry?”
“Famished, I’m afraid. I didn’t have the energy to stop Gaj and Rej from running to ask if they could order me something to eat. No one else has left their rooms.”
“I’m going to speak with Wilm now. I’ll ask him.”
Saiet chuckled to himself, sweeping a feathery lock of his patterned, white and yellow hair. “As if Lafer would let him,” he whispered, just loud enough for Kon’s fae to hear.
“I’m confident she will,” Kon said. “Lafer isn’t so cruel. She won’t let you starve.”
Nodding, Saiet reached across the desk, his palm up to hide his glittering diamond rings. Kon grasped his hand firmly.
“I trust you won’t hurt her again.”
“I won’t,” Saiet said with a sullen smile. His bright white eyes remained open, unblinking and distant, as if lost.
Releasing the nobleboy’s hand, Kon stepped away and waved, moving into the boy’s corridor. At Wilm’s door, he knocked a catchy rhythm and waited. A second later, the name placard slid open, revealing a pair of stony eyes.
“Kon,” Rugged greeted. “How can I help you?” The sound of a running shower pattered behind him.
“Lafer wanted Wilm to know she will meet him in the hall outside the mess. I also wanted to ask if he could order breakfast for Saiet.”
“Why?” grumbled Rugged. “He can write down his order for Zephyr to deliver to the chefs.”
“Of course he can,” Kon muttered, sighing. He doubted Saiet was ignorant of that fact. Something told him his lie wasn’t intended to be malicious, however. Kon recognized the craving for someone to care. “Can you ask Wilm to check on him anyway?”
“He says he will,” replied Rugged. “Between us,” he whispered, “it was a fluke that you beat my Seer today. I hope it felt good, because it won’t happen again.”
Kon grinned. “There was nothing good about it. I’m just glad I’m learning and getting stronger.”
Tilting his head lower, Rugged inspected Kon’s face. Again, his gaze drifted lower, scrutinizing his figure and shape. “We’ll see how you handle a weapon during Soldiery.”
Oddly enough, the comment didn’t come off as aggressive. Kon wondered if he may have earned an ounce of the statuesque man’s respect today.
He waved the fae goodbye. The sound of the grate closing echoed down the corridor, accompanying Kon’s steady footfalls. Morus’ door cracked open a moment after he passed it, though he couldn’t see the boy in the open space. “Hello to you too,” he chuckled.
Morus’ hand blurred as he waved. Spinning, he closed his door, as if forgetting something inside.
Kon continued on unbothered. In minutes, he was locking himself inside his chamber. His fae drifted to the open window, trilling along with the melodies of singing birds. Finally alone, he was able to slouch into the door, wallowing in his pain and exhaustion. Sweat made his clothes stick to his skin.
His bed stared at him invitingly. “Not yet,” he muttered to himself. First, he needed to get clean.
Kon stepped into the mess, dressed in his stiff Westwind Academy uniform. For comfort, he folded the cuffs of his sleeves up between his wrist and elbows. His flute was looped through his belt — an idea he’d had after seeing Saiet do the same with Riposte — and his harmonica hung from his neck, recently cleaned and polished. After a long shower and short nap, Kon was ready for the day.
His fellow students and their fae occupied the mess, the majority gathered at the nearest table while Lili, Ora, and Dowen lounged in the furthest corner. Rej and Gaj shouted his name in greeting. Wilm pored through a notebook while Lafer munched on his leftovers. Morus sat a couple seats away, his face buried in another large tome.
Kon ordered a protein-rich salad and joined them, taking the space across from Morus. Unlike his first dinner in the Academy, the twins scooted closer, their dishes and silverware being swept across the table by a magical breeze. Lafer and Wilm stood up, then sat next to Morus and Kon on the other side. The younger boy still peered into the decorative book with gems connected by translucent veins depicted on its cover. The word Crystech twinkled along its spine.
“How are you feeling?” asked Rej. Him and Gaj seemed curious, both idly picking at their food.
“I can’t complain,” Kon said, his salad drifting into his waiting hands. A mug of tea landed beside it, warm steam filling the air with the scent of cooked berries. The others left him alone as he used a fork to spear a pair of crunchy bugs and a bushel of colorful leaves. For the most part, his peers let him eat in peace.
“I still don’t get it,” Wilm grumbled, pounding a fist on his notebook. By the mess’s open door to the gardens, a brooding Rugged turned away from a chuckling Vigor. Both of their gazes settled on their Seers.
“What’s the hang up?” asked Lafer.
“It’s all these dumb formulas. I’ll never understand why a Seer needs to learn how to calculate the mass and frequency of glass circuits. It’s completely pointless for Rugged and me.”
“It’s not pointless,” interrupted Morus. “Every Seer is capable of channeling their spiritual essence into crystech. If you don’t want to overload the machine and exhaust yourself in the process, you’ll have to learn how to gather and release it in specific amounts.”
“I can’t channel anything,” Wilm insisted. “When I try, there’s too much resistance. It’s a price I had to pay when I named my fae what I did.”
Lafer swallowed the last of her food and put down her empty plate. “That’s not true, is it? You opened the laboratory’s gate once.”
“Once,” Wilm grumbled. “Barely, in fact.”
“Professor Meir thinks with enough practice, you can break through.”
Wilm shook his head, shutting away the numbers and diagrams scribbled into his notebook. “Professor Meir thinks a lot of crazy things. Have you heard her latest theory on solar animatics?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Lafer chuckled.
“You’re missing out,” said Morus. “It’s brilliant.”
“Nonsense is what it is,” continued Wilm. “And she expects us to know it for her newly-revised exam. My job is to kill wraiths and arrest Carrion, not craft magical tools and solve the mysteries of the universe.”
“Preach, brother,” laughed Gaj. He dropped his yolk-stained plate, leaving it to clatter on the table. “Her lessons are the worst.”
“I couldn’t disagree more,” sighed Rej, placing his salad bowl down and crossing his arms. “The mind is just another muscle you’re too lazy to exercise.”
Gaj swept a lock of his salt-and-pepper hair out of his eyes to glare at his brother.
“How is it that Rej got all the brawn and brains?” inquired Morus. Huffing, Gaj snatched the book out of the boy’s hands, lifting it over his head and out of reach.
Kon stood and took the book himself, then handed it over to Morus. “I’m sure if the subject is on our exams, it’s for a reason.”
Gaj slouched into his seat. Morus nodded and went back to reading as Wilm scribbled an order on a napkin. An emerald breeze carried it to the kitchen along with the empty dishes, leaving Kon to sit down and return to his meal. Lafer and Wilm shared a pouch of rations while the latter stared at a clock on the wall.
“It’s almost time, isn’t it?” Gaj asked, his face resting against the table. Rej grunted affirmation, provoking a groan.
“I hope you didn’t want seconds,” said Lafer, handing Kon the half-empty pouch of fruits, nuts, and seeds. He ate a handful and handed it back, then took a deep swig of his tea to wash it down. The earthy and juicy flavors mixed together pleasantly.
“This was plenty,” he said, pushing his empty salad bowl into the middle of the table. “I’m stuffed.”
Patting his stomach, Kon rose. One by one, the others stood and bowed, thanking Zephyr. As they moved toward the hall, Lili, Ora, and Dowen remained seated, still eating their meals and chattering quietly. Even if he said something, he was sure they’d refuse to listen. They would finish on their own time, not his. All he could do was hope they wouldn’t be late.
Led by Vigor, Rugged, and Grit, Kon and his companions marched down the corridor and the stairs. Professor Meir’s Laboratory waited several floors below, carved deep within the earth.
At least we don’t have to make the journey alone.
Floating over his shoulder, his fae chimed bright sparks of excitement.
More than a thousand steps later, Kon walked into a rectangular lobby with round tables and crescent-shaped couches. A gate of lustrous steel blockaded the Laboratory, a rubber seam cutting down its middle and a glass handprint on its right side.
“Want to do the honors, Kon?” asked Lafer. While the others wandered to the couches to relax until class began, she and Vigor had led him to the handprint. Morus lingered nearby, his fae-draped body fading as he watched in silence.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the Professor?”
“She’s in there already. Professor Meir sleeps here, most days.”
“Is there a doorbell at least? We should surely warn her.”
Lafer chuckled, shaking her head. Vigor rasped a fast pattern on the metal, the sound reverberating like a gong. “There,” she told him. “No more excuses.”
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do,” Kon said lamely.
“Well you’ll need to learn if you want to pass her class. Just give it a try.”
Sighing, he laid his palm against the glass handprint. Despite Vigor’s aura, it was unpleasantly cold to the touch.
“It helps if you close your eyes. Imagine your soul as a light that’s bottled up inside you, an aura waiting just beneath your skin. Focus on your pores against the crystal. Take a deep breath, and when you exhale, will the light to shine through your palm. Don’t force it too hard, though. You just need to activate the pistons. They’ll do most of the work.”
Kon obeyed, expecting himself to fail. Nothing happened.
“You have to believe,” said Vigor.
Lafer knuckled Kon’s shoulder. “He’s right. You can do this.”
Take a deep breath. Exhale and will the light out. Behind his eyes, sparks of magic twinkled with his fae’s encouraging ring. He tried again.
The gate roared open, gears spinning and pistons pumping. The rubber seam split down the middle, pressing the metal outward to slide into itself. A gap as wide as the stairwell led into a large chamber brimming with shelves and machinery. Embers burned above a distant curtain with the sound of a whirring machine, smoke carried into vents by glowing wind. Bright orbs of cyan light hung overhead, suspended by wires that ran along the ceiling and walls like veins. No wood, no emerald. The entire room and its furniture were sleek and chrome.
“I guess the Professor didn’t hear us,” said Lafer, waving him inside. “Take a seat in that booth while I grab her.”
Vigor remained behind, pointing to a metallic structure with a heavy black curtain hanging over its side. A cushioned stool was inside, opposite a mirror with two round diamonds embedded into it, like a pair of eyes.
“What is this?” he called out.
Vigor approached closer, his crimson radiance filling the booth. “This will capture your face and render it on your identification card. Professor Meir should be here in a minute.”
Nodding, Kon faced his reflection and waited. His brow was scuffed red, his right cheek bruised, and his wrinkles were emphasized by his tight, suntinged skin.
Sure enough, a pair of footsteps echoed a minute later. Unable to see, Kon stood halfway out the booth. Lafer waved him back inside as a pale woman with a nest of curly black hair and a yellow, grease-stained jumpsuit stomped on ahead of her. Professor Meir’s eyes were honed on the booth and the shelf beside it, the color of her irises obscured by a large pair of goggles with bulging, azure lenses. Her expression was flat and her jaw tense, making her heart-shaped face appear severe.
“Name?” she demanded, shuffling through a box on the shelf as she placed a hand on the booth’s wall. The transparent glove around her hand glowed as she activated the machine, causing the diamonds to blink inside.
“Kon,” he replied, sitting back down.
“Lower your seat and align your eyes with the gems.”
Lafer ran to his side, grabbing a lever between the stool’s legs and helping him down.
“Date of birth?” recited the Professor, her tone flat.
Lafer punched Kon’s shoulder encouragingly, then quickly shut the black curtain, leaving him in the dim, diamond-lit coffin. Lingering outside, his fae chimed a duplet of support to affirm she was there.
“Don’t blink,” the Professor’s terse voice rang in his ears.
A bright white light bloomed in his vision, leaving him momentarily blind. Blinking for clarity, a thin sliver of radiance shone on the mirror. An afterimage, not Lucid. Even so, Kon had a feeling the fae was monitoring him anyway.
Lafer opened the curtain, basking him in Vigor’s warm light. “Did you make a face?” she asked, shoving her own identification card into his hands. On a thin metal pane, her face glimmered in the light, eyes drawn in and lips pursed, veins bulging along her temples. Her face shone a bright red, contrasting the matte gray steel.
Smiling, he gave her card back and rose to his feet. Professor Meir waited behind the girl, his own identification held in her transparent glove.
Kon stretched his arm, expecting a handshake. Instead, she dropped the card in his open palm and spun on her heel. “Get the others,” she demanded, seemingly uninterested in a proper introduction. “You’ll hit the ground running today.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, he followed Lafer and Vigor back into the lobby. Thinking back to Wilm’s frustration in the mess and Gaj’s flippant complaints, he was beginning to understand why they dreaded Professor Meir’s lectures. Her voice was almost mechanical, barren of emotion. Kon could imagine himself bored of her lesson already.
Beyond a prismatic metallic cage in the middle of the laboratory, Kon took a chair at a long, horizontally-oriented workbench. Morus and Wilm flanked his sides with Gaj and Rej on his right. The trio joined them at the absolute last minute, sitting at the workbench’s opposite corner. Someday, he hoped they would sit closer, filling that gap of their own accord.
Professor Meir dragged a wheeled blackboard across the room, flipping it top-over-bottom to hide her chaotic white scribbles. She quickly scrawled the word Crystech at the top of the other side’s empty surface.
“Dowen,” she said, interrupting the boy’s whispers with a loud tap of her chalk. A sharp dash of white stood out on the black. “What is Crystech?” The words bounced off the board, her back facing the class.
“Shouldn’t you know that already? I thought you were the expert.”
The Professor turned her head, the azure lenses of her goggles glowing. Dowen’s soft chuckle cut off with a quiet yelp.
“Crystech is machinery powered by magic,” he answered meekly.
Professor Meir wrote it down, the words too small to be legible from afar. “And how does it work?”
“Uh. With crystals and magic?”
She wrote crystals and magic after the dash, then added an extra comma. “What else?”
Dowen shrugged, slouching into his seat. Lili glared at Ora, prompting her to flick the boy in the side until he straightened.
“Glass,” answered Morus. His fae lingered in the back with the others. Grit and Rugged were present, though Lafer and Vigor had left to attend other errands.
“Thank you, Morus. And why is glass important?”
“Like crystal, glass is capable of holding anima, albeit temporarily and with no external effects, due to its amorphous structure. Because of the often volatile reactions of uninhibited crystals, glass circuits are required to conduct power through a device’s protective casings.”
Lili snickered as Professor Meir wrote every word down. Once finished, she faced the class, running her dusty hand through her black hair, leaving streaks of white behind.
“Kon,” she intoned, finding and dissecting him with her glare. “Are you writing this all down?”
He shook his head, his body otherwise frozen. Morus slid his notebook across the bench with an inkpot and quill.
“I am now,” he said, hurrying to copy the information down.
“Zephyr,” the Professor called out to the ceiling. “Please deliver the unassembled devices.”
A moment later, three metal boxes shaped like books floated down to be divided among the students, a wire hanging out of its side, connected to a smaller box with a glass thumbprint. A single ruby pane swayed in the air between them and the Professor, its chrome frame glimmering in the emerald breeze.
Morus shared one of the devices with Kon, pointing out its glass entrails. Its design was simple, a lone continuous vein that wound from edge to edge like intestines. The ruby pane’s frame matched the larger box in shape and size.
“Morus,” the Professor said, flicking a hand in his direction. “Would you like to demonstrate?”
An eager nod prompted Zephyr’s wind to carry the ruby pane into his open hands. Morus fit it snugly into the box, then placed his finger on the glass print. He took a deep breath, willing his essence into the ruby. It burst alight, heat wafting off it like Vigor’s aura.
“Good. Now you, Kon?”
Closing his eyes and imagining flame, he exhaled the warmth out of his body. His skin prickled with goosebumps.
The pane wasn’t as bright or hot as when Morus lit it, but Kon succeeded, much to his amazement. Lifting his hand, the pane quickly cooled and dimmed. Morus removed the crystal and handed it over to Wilm, who grasped it reluctantly.
“Wilm,” the Professor continued, “why is it important for the circuits to be thin and meandering?”
“Durability,” he mumbled, shoving his completed device over to the twins and flipping back a couple pages in his notebook. “Metal casings help, but they’re not enough to protect the glass from any significant residual force.”
“And?” Professor Meir asked, her attention on the board as she and Kon jotted the answer down.
“And…” Wilm began, flipping a page forward. “Frequency?”
The Professor wrote the word five-times as large and underlined it sharply. “That’s right. Frequency. Gaj, why don’t you take the explanation from here?”
Rej answered in his stead, mimicking his brother’s lighter voice perfectly. “The shape, diameter, and mass of charged glass will determine the concentration and induction of anima.” Writing it down without turning, Professor Meir didn’t seem to notice the difference.
“In this device’s case,” Rej added in his normal tone, “the circuits ensure a medium-intensity and gradual rise in heat. If the panel was made of a different crystal, however, the result would be different. For example, if it was sapphire instead of ruby, it would cool the air.”
“Technically it would drain the air’s warmth,” the Professor noted. “It's not called sap-fire for no reason. But yes. I’m glad you mentioned that various crystals have different effects. Diamonds can manipulate light while amethysts impact gravity. Topaz generates electricity, like the gate to my Laboratory, while quartz creates kinetic force. Morus, I trust you to provide Kon with a thorough list.”
“Got it,” he said, grinning widely. She glanced at his tome with the gems on its cover, prompting him to open it to a relevant page.
“I see no one else brought the reading material. Zephyr, would you please deliver my extra copies at once.”
A powerful gust of magic circled the room five times, depositing several packets of bound paper with chapter numbers inscribed on their front page. Morus received one as well.
“Read the next three chapters and answer the questions I attached to the end. After evaluating your scores, I’ll let you experiment with some practical application. Many of you still haven’t finished your blueprints for your quarterly project, so if you haven’t come up with an idea already, you may want to seek inspiration in the text. In the meantime, I’ll return to my own work. Kon? When everyone is finished, I want you to come get me.”
Nodding, he watched Professor Meir walk away, disappearing into that zone of heavy curtains. Machinery whirred inside it, drawing his fae and grinding away at his thoughts. With a thought, she flew around the curtains, manifesting a bubble of silver light that drowned out the noise with silence.
“Awesome,” muttered Gaj.
Morus agreed, giving Kon a thumbs up, then quickly flipped through his packet.
“Can she hear us?” asked Rej. Lili and Ora were staring down the length of the table, listening in.
“Yes,” Kon lied, his voice firm. “Don’t talk until we’ve all finished the assignment, or my fae will cancel her spell. I’m sure we’d all prefer to read in silence, yes?”
Taking the hint, the students gazed at their papers. Kon followed their example. Judging by the size of Morus’s book, there was a lot he needed to catch up on. The packets were marked Chapters 11-13.
As their lesson continued on, Kon realized more and more that Professor Meir wasn’t particularly great at her job. Rather than grade the packets herself, she made the class exchange them with each other - not to the person beside them, but opposite the table, leaving Morus to trade with Dowen and Kon to trade with Ora. Whenever someone got a question wrong, she insisted the grader raise their hand and point them out. The Professor would then make them read a passage from the text aloud.
Ora… got a lot of them wrong. After reluctantly lifting his hand for a third time, Morus whispered in his ear that Professor Meir wouldn’t check the scores afterwards. He saved Ora the embarrassment from then on, and when she lied that he got one wrong that he knew he got right, he didn’t contest it, letting her have her small revenge.
Wilm got a few wrong as well, which Lili pointed out with mocking glee. Neither of the twins nor Dowen and Morus raised a hand, though Kon noticed the self-proclaimed rogue had scribbled nonsense for most of his answers. Each time Morus passed one, his expression drooped with guilt or regret. If Professor Meir saw the look on his face, she didn’t appear to care in the slightest. It seemed like she wanted to get the lecture over with as much as her students.
“Any questions?” she asked the moment they were finished. Professor Meir’s posture straightened like she was ready to leave at the drop of a feather. No one replied, though Gaj sat up in his seat. His knee bounced up and down until he smacked it into the workbench, prompting a yelp. “Good,” the Professor continued over his cry of pain. “Since many of you did poorly on this exercise, I want you all to read the packet again and memorize the correct answers. First thing tomorrow, I’ll test you on them again without the text as a reference. If any of you fail, you’ll all be expected to attend an extra lesson during the second hour of tomorrow’s lunch period.”
Gaj slumped into the workbench, his head thumping against its sleek metal surface. “Don’t worry,” Kon told him. “We can study it together in the evening. I’ll make sure that we all pass.”
“Alright then,” the Professor sighed. “Hand everyone’s packets back and take a five-minute break in the lobby or latrine, then join me at the Artisan Station for practical application.”
Rej and Gaj raced to the latrine while the trio strode away, chattering about Dowen’s stash of snacks. Wilm remained seated and pored through his packet, his face visibly straining as he went over the questions again and again. A moment later, the mechanical whirring resumed. Kon’s fae snuffed the noise out quickly.
“How’d you actually do?” asked Morus.
Kon looked at the boy, finding him blurry. His book on Crystech lay open on its final chapter. Morus seemed confident in his answers, simply pushing his packet aside.
“Perfect,” Kon said. “But all I did is flip back and forth and copy the answers down. I barely understood half of it, so I think I’ll read the previous chapters by tomorrow’s class.”
“I took this copy from the Library,” said Morus, tapping his book. “But I’m close to finishing, so I can lend it to you, if you don’t mind carrying it around for the rest of the day.”
“That would be great, thanks. By the way, did you ever get your Origin of Souls back?”
“He did,” Wilm grunted, falling back in his seat and nearly toppling, having forgotten there was no back on the stool. His legs shot up against the table, giving him the leverage to pull himself back up. “I gave it to him the same evening,” he panted, catching his breath. “What was the point of that, anyway?”
“I’d like to know too,” Morus said. “I’m guessing you found your lost copy?”
“Found is a good word for it. I somehow overlooked it, don’t ask me how.”
“Must be old age,” Morus chuckled, though his heart didn’t seem to be in it. Judging by his pointed glance toward the departing trio, he seemed to have figured out the actual reason.
Letting the comment go, Kon turned to Wilm. “Will you be free this evening to study with Gaj and me?” he asked.
“Sure. Will you be there for my extra training session?”
“Of course,” he replied, smiling. “We can all go down to the library after we shower and eat.”
Morus cleared his throat. In the time Kon was looking away, he’d reached the last page of his book. “Isn’t that when I’ll be tutoring you?” he asked.
“I was actually hoping you’d be there too, to help us. That is, if you don’t mind the company.”
“I do mind,” the boy huffed, shutting the book and sliding it in front of Kon. “But if I’m paid a bit more, I suppose I’ll find a way to suffer it.”
Sighing, Kon picked the book up, testing its weight. The cover was thick and the pages were many. He wished he had a bag to lug it around in. “I can handle that. I’ll bring my wallet tonight.”
“Then it’s a deal,” Morus said, offering a hand. Kon grasped it and shook it gently, then stood from his seat.
“Where’s the Artisan Station?” he asked, looking around the chaotic laboratory. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the placement of machinery, shelves, tables, and stools, and there was barely any color in the room to designate one zone from another.
Morus ripped the page Kon was using out of his notebook and replaced it with his packet. Wilm piled up his things and handed them to Rugged, who carried them in silence as he led them on a path between a table-mounted clamp and hanging chains with hooks. A taller workbench was pushed flat against the wall beyond, a metal cabinet standing beside it, its drawers labeled with colorful tape and the names of matching crystals. Heavy iron locks secured each of the drawers.
“Notice any that are missing?” Morus asked, pointing to the cabinet.
“Onyx and… jade? I can see there’s more, but I couldn’t tell you which.”
“Two out of five isn’t a passing grade. You should memorize them all at your earliest convenience.”
Kon nodded, then turned to discover Wilm gazing at Morus’s blurry figure, listening intently. “Why are jade and onyx missing?” he asked.
Since Kon had remembered them, Morus waved at him to answer.
“Charged jade is toxic. It can eat away at organic matter, similar to Decay’s magic. As for onyx, it consumes anima as much as it does light. If large enough, it can absorb enough ambient power to fuel itself, and at a certain point, it can become strong enough to pull a human’s soul right out of them.”
“It works on fae and wraiths as well,” added Morus. “It should be obvious why both of these materials are controlled strictly by the Regent of Kolod Vor and the Pinnacle’s High Council.”
“Regent Ferona?” Kon asked. “Why not the Fated King himself?”
“He’s busy fighting a war against two forces,” answered Wilm. “Until it’s won, Lafer’s mother is tasked with the political side of his rule. The Fated King is too-often on missions with his vanguard to manage every resource or handle trade agreements.”
Both Kon and Morus glared at Wilm in surprise.
“What?” he exclaimed. “I want to be an Eyrie’s Commander someday. Politics are an important part of the job, so naturally it fascinates me.”
“Any Eyrie in particular?” asked Kon.
“Yeah. I’m from one of the small roosts near Quarrymire. I was recruited by the Seers there, and they left a good impression.”
When Kon had been ‘recruited’ by Lafer, she mentioned he could get stationed at the Coastwatch Eyrie. His wife would be happy to be near the coast, and Kinjra would be able to explore the Sallowoods and visit the grove of ritili. It would be a good place for them to retire in five years, when the war was won.
Footsteps heralded the arrival of the twins. They must have come straight back after realizing none of their friends were in the lobby.
“Why are y’all in here?” asked Gaj in a poor attempt at a rural accent.
“Terrible,” Wilm drawled. “Absolutely terrible.”
“Sorry,” chucked Gaj. “I couldn’t help myself.”
“We’re just discussing the crystals and their effects. Particularly, the ones too dangerous to be stored here.”
“Fun,” said Gaj, walking to one of the locked drawers and fumbling with its lock. “I wonder if the Professor is going to let us play with the crystals today.”
“Do you take nothing seriously?” Rej scoffed, quickly slapping his hand. Above him, Grit’s particulates were being swept around the ceiling by an emerald wind. Gaj’s darker orb of sand launched between the brothers, shoving Rej back.
“I take everything seriously. Unlike you, that includes enjoying my life.”
Rej crossed his arms as Grit floated down to gather behind him. Piece by piece, her body formed, revealing a frown and squinted eyes. She didn’t seem happy that her Seer was tossed so casually.
“Hey!” Wilm shouted. “Save the aggression for Phantom’s lesson.”
Nodding, the twins and their fae backed off. Gaj stormed away from the cabinets, leaving Rej and Grit to stand guard.
In the lingering silence, Kon scanned the labels again. “Pearl is missing too,” he realized out loud. “Why is that?”
“Why do you think?” asked an invisible Morus. The proximity of his voice made Rej jump nearby.
“I can answer that,” Wilm offered. Kon smiled gratefully, nudging them on. “Seers can see glimpses of Fate in their pearlescence, like a dozen overlapping images that shine at different angles and perspectives. These images change rapidly enough that learning anything of use is exceptionally difficult. Not to mention that there’s a history of Seers attempting to change the Fate they see and making things worse in the process, or the fact that simply knowing can change Fate’s course in unintended ways. That's why Diviners keep what they see so close to their chests.”
“Makes sense,” Kon said. Even Morus nodded approvingly.
Across the laboratory, the Professor’s machinery quieted. Four pairs of footsteps marked her and the other students’ arrival. A bloody gauze was taped over the stubs of the Professor’s right thumb, which appeared to be wrapped in a cloth and tucked into the pocket of her jumpsuit, its painted nail sticking out. Her face was as strict as always, not betraying a hint of pain. The transparent glove on her other hand remained immaculate, though a splash of dried blood painted her right cheek.
“Step away from the crystals,” she ordered Rej and Grit. “Everyone stand eight steps back.” Even Lili and Ora listened, perhaps motivated by the Professor’s casual dismemberment. As she unlocked seven drawers and retrieved crystalline cubes to place on the table, Zephyr’s wind brought one of the unassembled devices from earlier. The ruby pane drifted down beside it. Despite the wide-eyed curiosity visible on everyone's faces, none of them asked what had happened.
In her gloved hand, Professor Meir tested the weight of the ruby pane. She placed it on the table, then picked up the diamond cube, then held it in both hands and closed her eyes. Her transparent glove burned with gray light, enveloping a fraction of the cube and reshaping it. A moment later, a diamond pane clattered onto the table, which Professor Meir refit into the ruby’s metal frame.
“Can anyone other than Morus tell me what this device will accomplish with diamond?” Quickly assembling the larger box, she lifted it up with her thumbless hand. Her gloved finger lay pressed against the glass print.
“It’ll blind us?” asked Gaj.
“You’re half right,” Professor Meir said, her glove shining and activating the device. Kon shielded his eyes as the laboratory drowned in white. When the light ceased, he lowered his hand, finding a colorful image of him and his fellow students etched across the diamond’s surface. “Any questions?”
Dowen raised his hand. “I got one. Why are you bleeding?”
Sure enough, blood was dripping from the back of the device. A small pool had formed on the ground.
“Right,” she said, emptying her hands and locking six cubes away. Zephyr cleaned up the blood and left with the machine, along with the two crystal panes. “It’s just a minor injury. Nothing to be concerned about. I should go to the Clinic, however, to see about it getting reattached. Until I get back, you shall wait in the lobby and study. Kon? You’re in charge.”
“Got it,” he said. “Everyone get your packets ready. We can read through it again together.”
Professor Meir nodded, her expression stoic, feelings unreadable. Her eyes told a different story, blinking with her stare.
Kon and Wilm herded the others across the lab and through its gate. Last to leave, the Professor closed it behind her. As soon as she was climbing up the stairs, he turned to Morus. “How does her glove work?” he asked. Only Seers were supposed to be able to use magic, yet Professor Meir did it so casually.
“It’s made of spectral ash, the residual matter left behind by spiritfire. When melted, the ash becomes rubbery and forms a resilience to magic. Professor Meir hasn’t explained the specifics, but scientists in the Pinnacle discovered how to manipulate anima with the spectral leather.”
“That’s incredible,” Kon breathed. “So people without the Sight can use magic?”
“A form of it, yes, but only the High Council.”
Grunting, Wilm pulled Kon toward the ring of upholstered couches. “They probably don’t know she figured it out too,” he said, keeping his voice down. “Our Professor is a fugitive in the Pinnacle. She left against their will, which is never tolerated. Thankfully, she has the Fated King and Headmaster Nise’s protection.”
“That woman is a mystery,” said Gaj as he collapsed into the couch, lying longways. “Beautiful too. Don’t you think, Kon?”
“He’s married, Gaj” exclaimed Wilm, punching his leg until he scooted out of the way. “Besides, Professor Meir is in a relationship with Dr. Zali.”
Gaj straightened, grumbling while he rubbed his injured leg. Rej sat on the other side of him, shoving his brother into Wilm’s shoulder and pressing him tight. “Mercy!” he yelped until both scooted away.
“Enough roughhousing,” Kon ordered, stern yet soft. “Lili, Ora, Dowen! Come take a seat across from us.” He chose not to sit down, leaving space on the couch for Morus as the trio claimed their seats. Lili yawned pointedly as Ora raised a lip in anger. At least Dowen held his packet in front of him, seemingly eager to learn. After witnessing Professor Meir’s unengaging methods, Kon knew how he would handle this lesson.
“Everyone look at the first page. I’ll start off reading the opening paragraph, then say the name of whoever I want to read the next. We’ll each take turns doing this until we get to the end, but you must pick every other student once before you pick them again. No ganging up on one person either. Does everyone understand?”
“Whatever,” muttered Lili, handing her crumbled packet to Ora, who flattened it with hers against her lap.
The girls listening at all was a start. Kon could work with this.
Hopefully the Professor won’t be gone for long.
His fae sang a gentle melody. Once he began reading, she harmonized the music with his soothing voice.