Rowan’s premonition was immediately proven correct.
Surprisingly, the roles each person would play in the party were decided rather easily. As the only one among them who preferred the use of a shield, Droon was designated the vanguard, a position he promised he would work hard to succeed at.
Going by their performance in combat class, both Morgana and Reinne were made slayers. Morgana was a no-brainer, her skill with both weapons and magic near the top of their entire year, let alone their party. Reinne was also no slouch, a talented swordswoman in her own right that routinely left Rowan in the dirt when they were paired up in sparring.
With three out of four roles filled, Rowan naturally found himself left with the archaeologist position, which for the sake of the group, he took without complaint. It was not the position he had dreamed of, but it was the position he had known would likely be his, especially when he realized that with his fighting style he was not suited for the vanguard role the way Droon’s was and that he could not compare to either of the other two in terms of battle effectiveness.
Still, the roles were decided and submitted to Professor Rockhammer without issue, and for a moment, Rowan actually dared to think that maybe their party would work together without issue.
How wrong he was.
The curriculum for dungeoneering was fairly simple while also being surprisingly comprehensive in what it covered. Basically, anything that was useful for keeping a party of brand new adventurers alive within a dungeon was taught, studied, and practiced during their time in class. Time which, quite ironically Rowan felt, was often spent outside of the classroom.
First aid, dungeon traps and how to dismantle them, common flora and fauna within brass dungeons as well as the best methods to dispose of them, Rockhammer taught the class all this and more with her usual brusque effectiveness.
A month removed from the day they had formed their parties, and Rowan was cursing himself for ever considering what they had done in their first month as spartan. This new course load was the true spartan training. The number of readings and essays assigned by Rockhammer had doubled, and their other professors were not slacking either.
Magic class had started to focus mainly on combat spells, focusing on the versatile magic missile taught in the previous semester, as well as a basic spell of each of the four elements. Similar to Rockhammer, Typh had increased the number of assignments, not willing to allow his pupils to learn only what was required to cast spells, but also drilling the principles and techniques behind proper spellcasting into them whether they liked it or not.
In history class, the focus on dungeons and their relationship with the various empires and kingdoms throughout history had increased. The focus now was more practical in scope, with lots of emphasis placed on the lessons their forefathers had paid a price in blood to learn about dungeons. Thankfully, this was at least more interesting than the dry memorization of names and dates that they had been doing the semester before, so Rowan did his best not to complain, even as they were assigned another reading to be done over the weekend.
Despite her class being an elective, Kanna was well aware of the struggles faced by her students, and with what Rowan could only interpret as sadistic glee, she added to them. Those within her class were expected to be the elites among the the mages produced by Faebrook, and she treated them as such, forcing them to study important topics such as the theory behind rune formations, hidden spells, and the magical users, mechanisms, and traps encountered within brass-rank dungeons.
Rowan got it especially hard, as Kanna had taken it upon herself to find him several new parties to porter for, along with a few of the better ones that he had joined in the first semester, citing that no student of hers would enter debt just to buy a weapon.
Despite this, she had also agreed with the smith’s assessment that the arcanowhip suited him well as a weapon. Her exact words being: “For someone such as yourself who lacks the training with conventional weapons that the competition has received, this will allow you to bridge the gap. And having an enormous mana pool makes a magic weapon such as an arcanowhip a shrewd purchase, for those with the funds to afford it.”
Rowan shivered as he remembered the look Kanna had given him to punctuate that last sentence. The number of dangerous dungeons he had been sent into had increased recently, but so too had his compensation at the end of them. Like this, he could probably have the whip paid off by the end of the semester, so long as his body kept up. Dungeons on the weekends, along with classwork during the week and individual training at night, had meant very little time for sleep recently, and his grades were slowly suffering as a result.
Combat class now involved them dividing up into parties to practice formations and tactics as a group to build chemistry, while the various roles decided what each person needed to do for individual training.
As the archaeologist, Rowan had a very general training regimen, focusing on the basics just as he had been doing before getting forced into a party with Morgana and Reinne.
The slayers were the most populous group and also the most eye-catching. All manner of fighting styles were put on display here, and Egil and his assistants stressed an emphasis on real combat. Both Morgana and Reinne were a part of this group, and Rowan would occasionally catch glimpses of one or the other from afar, their weapons sharp as they assaulted training dummies, instructors wearing armour, or other students in their quest to slay everything that moved.
Droon, on the other hand, was ecstatic to be receiving special instruction on defensive techniques with the other vanguards, his use of a shield regularly praised by Egil. Apparently, many nobles had tended to skip training with the boring shield in their youth, and thus Droon’s abilities and dedication at last allowed him to stand out.
Although the training done by the archaeologist group sounded boring, it was exactly what Rowan needed. Attack, defense, endurance, and sparring, the archaeologist group learned them all in equal measure. For Rowan, who lacked the basics, it was perfect, and he took advantage of it to throw himself into training with even greater vigor than before.
Despite the immense price tag it had carried, Rowan did not practice with the arcanowhip in combat class. Nor did he do so in his nightly training sessions with Droon and now Dugan, who had joined them in their sparring sessions much to the joy of Droon and the dismay of Rowan’s body, which now sported several additional bruises thanks to his overeager friend.
In class, his reasoning for not employing the whip was to avoid displaying his expensive weapon to others. If Klou, or anyone else who had it out for him, found out that he owned such a thing, there was a good chance it would disappear. An all too familiar scenario for Rowan, who had learned this lesson the hard way back in Taureen.
With Droon and Dugan, he had initially planned to use the arcanowhip, but his lack of familiarity with the weapon had given him pause. A vivid image of Droon’s severed head rolling across the ground after Rowan failed to control his weapon had been enough to turn that pause into resolve. Until he had mastered the basic use of the weapon, there was no way he could use it around others. Except maybe Klou.
Like this, Rowan’s life returned to routine, only the routine was torture and the professors the torturers.
Rowan hurried through the hidden passage, mindful not to make too much noise as he aimed for the sliver of light visible at the end of the tunnel. A handful of gold coins jingled in his pocket, his pay for accompanying the Frost Blades on the dungeon they had just completed.
Under normal circumstances, the Frost Blades would not have returned to a brass-tier dungeon, their party having reached the silver-rank after their encounter with the climber in Rowan’s first ever dungeon. However, Dillo’s cousin, a first year in Hafgufa, had tagged along, for the purpose of learning how to be a proper vanguard and thus the party had returned to their old stomping grounds for one run.
Naturally, given Rowan’s continued friendship with Fiin, he had been invited to porter for them, and he had gladly taken the opportunity. The Frost Blades were still one of the best parties he had joined, and with their skill level, a brass-tier dungeon offered little danger so long as there were no climbers.
Of course, there was one downside to today’s run, and that was time. For Rowan, time was currently his most valuable resource, and there was never enough of it for all the things he had to do in a day. Because they had been using the run to help Dillo’s cousin with the upcoming final exam, their dungeon run had been a lot more leisurely than normal, the entire party chipping in to give Sallo, the cousin, tips.
Fortunately, Rowan had learned a lot from this, his keen ear listening closely as Dillo had explained how to manage a group of monsters so that they would not overwhelm the party, or Jaro and Patri’s advice on formations that would allow the slayers to maximize their damage output.
Fiin had even taken it upon herself to give Rowan some advice on how to execute his duties as archaeologist, something that was much more impactful in the depths of a dungeon than it had been in the musty library where they usually discussed such things.
Still, the run had taken longer than normal, and Rowan now found himself without much time to finish the two assignments he had left to do this weekend. Assignments that were worth a good chunk of marks in History and Dungeoneering. Given the current state of his grades, these were not marks he could afford to lose.
Thus, he used the secret passages to quickly traverse the academy, making up for lost time in the only way he could. The tunnel he was in right now was one of the four he had found since starting his search for them, a search that was currently on hold due to the number of other activities he had to attend to.
With grades slipping, a large debt, and duties as both archaeologist and leader to learn, something had to give, and his search for the secrets of Faebrook had been that thing. As much as Rowan missed it, for the search had been fun, it was nowhere near as critical as his grades or the debt that loomed large whenever he practiced with his whip. Plus, he had found five hidden shortcuts in total, which gave him a decent way of moving around the academy.
A larger passage, the tunnel he was in right now was one of two that Rowan had found that bore evidence of recent use. The dust beneath his feet was not as thick as it had been in the first he had found, and it showed signs of footsteps that from a glance appeared to have been made no less than a day before.
Initially, Rowan had been surprised when he discovered this fact, fearful even that perhaps he was doing something he was not supposed to and would soon be found out and punished for it. But he had quickly calmed down. There were several pairs of footprints in the dust, and from the looks of it, they had been made at different times, with some of them so faint they had almost disappeared, while the most recent were almost as fresh as Rowan’s own.
This meant that the tunnel was known to several people, all of which found it appropriate to continue using it as a means of traversing the academy. Since they were doing it, he could too, probably.
It did not hurt to be safe, so Rowan always exercised caution when he entered the two passages that were in use, checking for any signs that others were inside before committing himself forward with soft footfalls. He was doing the same right now, his movement soundless as he ran through the passage, making for the other exit which came out in the grounds near the Draigwyn dormitory, where it was hidden behind a canopy of vines that hung down behind a statue of a mustachioed former headmaster.
There was no one around when Rowan emerged from the passage, and he brushed the frozen vines aside, dislodging some snow which fell lightly onto his coat. Sliding past the statue with its elaborate mustache, he dashed over the grounds towards the dormitory and its promise of warmth.
He was only a scant three feet from the door, his hand already outstretched to open it and propel him into a world of fireplaces and linens when the door swung open to reveal the form of Morgana, her gaze upon him as he came to a stop.
“We need to talk.”
Rowan’s eyes strayed to the sliver of light emerging from the cracks of the door behind her. “Can we talk inside?”
“I’d rather talk where there’s no people around.”
Rowan raised an eyebrow at this, which caused Morgana to scowl. “I’m not asking you out if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I assure you,” Rowan replied dryly. “I was thinking no such thing.”
Morgana harrumphed, but let the matter drop. “Follow me.”
Obliging, Rowan followed her. They did not walk far, stopping about thirty feet from the dorm, in the shadow of the academy walls where the wind could not reach them. Satisfied that they were secluded enough for whatever it was Morgana wanted to talk with him about, Rowan turned to her.
“So, what’s this about?”
“It’s about the party,” Morgana replied, shaking off some snow from her cloak. As she did, Rowan spied the hilt of her sword poking out from beneath her furs. It was likely that she was going to train after this, at that private classroom where he had observed and nearly been caught by her before.
Although Rowan had not followed her there since his close call, he had seen her leaving the dorm late at night on several occasions, only returning hours later in the wee hours of the morning. Right now, the hour was still early, another three hours remaining until curfew, so it was surprising to see her departing so soon. But if she had been waiting to catch his return, then it made sense.
“The party...” Rowan echoed. “What about it?”
“We need to do extra training.”
Rowan frowned, but did not reply. Taking this as a sign, Morgana continued.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed it as well. Our party is not working well together. We’re lagging behind the others in combat class, and if this continues, I’m not sure we’ll pass our final exam.”
“The dungeon,” Rowan said softly.
“Indeed. I know you enter them as a porter, so you should understand me when I say that with things the way they are, we’ll struggle to complete even the easiest brass-tier dungeon within the time limit.”
Rowan nodded. Much as he hated to admit it, Morgana was right. Although things were progressing, their party was indeed lagging behind when compared to other first year parties. To start with, they only had four members instead of the usual five, they were already at a disadvantage compared to others. A single injury might not cripple other parties, but for them, it would be devastating, which meant that they needed their teamwork and execution to be top notch. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Droon was acceptable as a vanguard, but had a tendency to panic when he was overwhelmed, a tendency that he had not yet managed to shake despite both Rowan and Dugan doing their best to help him with it. On defense, he was fine. But his offense was lacking, and he was unable to contribute to thinning enemy numbers in the same way the more talented vanguards such as Dillo or much as Rowan hated to admit it, Klou were.
Morgana did not really need to be mentioned. Her abilities were top notch and her execution was flawless. The problem lay in her teamwork. Her coordination with Droon was shoddy, due to Droon’s lackluster skills, and although she did her best, it was clear to Rowan that she hated working together with Reinne. Thankfully, she seemed able to put her biases aside and do so, but it was a reluctant acquiescence, and their party suffered for it.
For her part, Reinne was average or slightly above average in everything she did. Her swordplay was excellent, and she made for a fine slayer, but it was tough to tell if she would be able to rise above her best if the situation called for it.
Thankfully, she was fairly easygoing, and had no qualms with her place in the team, though she did seem to delight in taking any opportunity to antagonize Morgana, something the fae girl refused to take lying down. Half of Rowan’s job as leader seemed to be mediating for the two, while the other half was figuring out ways to get them to work together for the benefit of the team.
As for Rowan himself, he felt that he was performing adequately as an archaeologist. His contributions in combat were not quite at the level of a slayer, but they were above several of the less talented archaeologists he had partied with. When it came to the actual duties of an archaeologist, he was more than capable, thanks in large part to Fiin as well as his own experiences as a thief.
Indeed, individually every member of Nightshade was decent at their role. It was as a team that they fell apart, and thus it was as a team that they needed to practice. The only problem was finding time to do so, and convincing the remaining two of the necessity.
“Rowan?” Morgana’s voice cut through his thoughts, bringing him back to the present.
“Sorry,” Rowan apologized. “Was just thinking about what you said.”
“You agree then?”
“I do,” Rowan acknowledged. “The way we are, we’re going to have trouble making it to the boss room, let alone defeating it. I’m just not sure the others will agree to training. We’re all pretty busy right now with assignments.” Especially myself, he added silently.
“If you tell them to do it, they will,” Morgana replied. “Droon would probably do whatever you say, and Reinne can’t ignore your orders since she’s the one who voted to make you leader.”
Rowan frowned. “I’d rather not force them. Our party atmosphere is already strained enough as it is.”
“We need to do something,” Morgana insisted. But her eyes did not meet Rowan’s, instead glancing down and to the side. Did she realize that she was the reason for their dysfunctional party? Or perhaps she was just embarrassed to have been rebuffed. Whatever the reason, Rowan seized the opportunity.
“I’ll ask them,” Rowan re-iterated, “but no guarantees. Like I said, we’re all busy with assignments. If they say no, I’m not going to force them.”
Morgana wore a frustrated look. “Don’t you care about your grades?”
Rowan’s gaze narrowed. “I do, yes, and it’s because I care that I’m telling you this. So long as we don’t fail the exam at the first hurdle, we’re not going to fail the class. We can’t afford to sacrifice our other grades just to make sure we get a perfect grade in the final exam. Now then, I’ve got assignments to work on, so if there’s nothing else, then I’ll be going.”
Morgana pursed her lips, but offered no rebuttal. Taking this as a sign to leave, Rowan did so, leaving her standing under the eaves of the academy for a moment before she too turned, heading in the opposite direction from Rowan and the dorm.
The dorm was just as warm as Rowan had hoped, and he quickly peeled off his coat and furs, savouring the heat from the flames on his skin. Allowing himself a few moments to bask in the warmth, Rowan moved aside to allow a fourth year to pass, his eyes snapping back to focus as he began to look for his other party members.
Despite what he had said, Rowan hoped that Droon and Reinne would be amenable to participating in extra training. Although he had told Morgana that they would pass the course even if they didn’t ace the exam, that didn’t mean he would be happy with barely skating by over the pass line. Or worse, under it. If he wanted a good grade, they needed to do well in the dungeon exam.
Plus, as the leader, the party’s performance reflected on him. No one wanted to be responsible for the failure of a mission, least of all him. Or perhaps least of all Morgana, given that she had been the one to confront him about this. Pushing the thought aside, Rowan hunted for his missing party members.
Reinne was by the fireside, a lucky break given her propensity to spend time in the girls part of the dorm. Around her were her friends, Tianna, Aidan Cannis, and the other members of Tianna’s posse, all chatting about whatever the latest gossip involved. Some third year who’d asked a girl from House Turul out.
Reinne was curled up against the couch, not sitting on it like the others, and Rowan waved at her to catch her attention. Seeing that he wanted her, Reinne nudged Tianna, saying something that Rowan didn’t catch before climbing to her feet and coming to see him.
“Did you need something?”
“Yeah,” Rowan replied. Quickly, he sketched out Morgana’s plan, doing his best to sound convincing as he did. The only thing he omitted was the originator. Something told him it was best if Reinne did not know that Morgana had been the one to suggest this.
Chewing her lip for a moment, Reinne seemed to deliberate before nodding. “That sounds good. What do the others think?”
“Morgana said yes. I haven’t asked Droon yet, but he should agree. He’s always looking for ways to improve himself.”
“Well if they’re in, then I’m in too. Just tell me a few days in advance, so that it won’t conflict with wardance club.”
“Will do,” Rowan promised. There’s a wardance club at Faebrook? Wondering idly what wardance club involved, he bid Reinne goodbye and went in search of Droon.
He found Droon in his bed, reading a book for history class. As predicted, Droon was quick to say yes, eagerly asking when they planned to start the extra training. To this, Rowan found he had no answer. Neither he nor Morgana had discussed this, both too engrossed in whether or not their party mates would say yes to wonder what they would do once they had.
Making up an excuse to Droon, Rowan eyed his bed longingly before grabbing his own books and sitting down at the nearby desk. His body wanted nothing more than to sleep, but his grades demanded he stay awake and suffer. Stifling a yawn, Rowan settled in for what promised to be a long night, two empty sheets of parchment beside him waiting to be filled with mangled metaphors and bullshit.