Alliances were commonly confused with one another, particularly so when it came to guild and crafting halls. Though separated by their prefixes alone, the art practiced inside could be said to be stark opposites.
One existed as a place to sharpen a blade to fight off the dangers varying from rift to rift. The other honed the creative mind, enabling the flame of creativity—as Lesedi once put it during the Rookie Competition—and translating concepts into existence with a deft hand.
That distinction was the sole reason Val could align with Age of Atera and Runic Mead, despite the whispers demanding absolute loyalty. Naturally, that ensured her time inside the scribal branch never infringed on activities besides card games and routine reading, as her crafting skills are wholly and entirely now dedicated to another affiliation.
Lingering on the idea for too long brought a pang of guilt, even if Master Winsford assured her no feelings were hurt. According to him, the leaders of the scribal branch hoped she continued her upwards ascent in bronze and green as much as she did in blue.
No such thing as a free spell, though. The white-bearded Master heavily implied the move came with the unspoken agreement that Val, should she be willing, would in due time become the liaison amid the factions.
Of course, the details still needed a little straightening, as her status lingered between the cracks till she accepted an institute to enroll in. Far off concepts to her, even as university deadlines were hot on Novices’ trails.
“Welcome to the Pen.”
Lost in her ocean of thoughts, it took Lowell's voice to discern the change in scenery. Countless hallways sprawled from the administrative headquarters, connecting several facilities in a style more elegant than effective. Cut from Runic Mead’s atypical love for refractive dark glass, the entire corridor acted like an underground tunnel, hemmed by the light flooding in at its openings.
The sleek interior design paled in comparison to the pixelated aquatic life that swam by, stealing the ephemeral light offered with them. Captivated by the fleet racing down the dark stretch, she couldn’t react in time as one rammed its dome straight into the zipper line of her hoodie. She let loose a short yelp as the IBR creature exploded into a spray of radiating light.
Lowell’s poorly-stifled snickers came shortly after, to Val’s dismay. “Looks like they chose Sea of Pixels this time,” he noticed amid ebbing chuckles. “Shame. The Cat Cuddle setting is a serious hit.”
She gestured to the glowing goldfish taking laps around her midriff. “Is there any without these things?”
“Weird,” he shot her a wry grin. “I didn’t take you for an animal hater.”
“I don’t think pixels count,” Val huffed.
“They sure scare you the same way.”
Resigning to a tired smile for an answer, she trailed his figure—an easy task, given he possessed three healthy inches on her. This just has bored artificers written all over it, she grumbled internally, and she’d never been so thankful to keep her thoughts private when a pair of footfalls signaled company.
Of all 500 members within the high-end crafting hall, it was Grandmaster Reign who strolled down “The Pen,” flanked by sea-life acting as stand-ins for lamps. Similar to Lowell, he tucked loose-fitting pants into protective boots, and a worn metalsmithing apron hung off his tanned neck. “Good morning, crafters.”
She failed to answer as her attention gravitated to the guest beside the Grandmaster. The presence she met seemed… expective. Anticipation lingered in the man’s hazel eyes, and as the seconds stretched on, the feeling shied away from the pressure of a hopeful teacher to one of a waiting wolf.
A weight seeped off his easy breathing, and the world itself bent under the gravity of his presence. Meeting his firm gaze set off alarms and Val’s aura flared to life at once, the thin layer of protection as futile as a cheap umbrella in a thunderstorm.
At last, Grandmaster Reign’s dry cough gave Val a reprieve from the mounting pressure. “I’m sure you already know the man, seeing that he’s your guildmaster.”
No wonder he looked so familiar, she thought, slowing her breathing to a normal tempo, hastened under the force of the guildmaster. As a trainee entering the Hall of Eons daily, Val breezed past his plaque on numerous occasions. Even so, the picture in mind depicted a youthful mage, lacking the silver streaks in his comb-over haircut and the wrinkles stretching from his nose.
Promptly, she struck a mage’s bow and reigned in her aura. “Good afternoon, Magister Thorne.”
“It’s morning,” Lowell whispered, and she hid a wince. Thankfully, Magister Thorne saved her the trouble and cut the awkward moment short.
“Not bad.” His lips quirked upwards, and he shot her a horribly-hidden wink. “I’ll let Magus Hawke and Kane know that you’re adventurer material.”
“T-thank you, guildmaster!” she managed to squeak out, despite the cold dribble of sweat making its way down her hoodie.
“There’s no need for all that,” he disregarded the formality with a casual wave, carrying on down the tunnel. “No need. As you were, young mage.”
She did as told, letting the Magister and High Crafter walk for the admin building without further delay. Rigid as she was, the strangest urge to glimpse behind overcame her, if only she could witness the sheer ease a mage of his calibre could affect the surroundings once more. Not a word came out of his mouth, and yet he conveyed his drift loud and clear.
I’m watching you.
There it was again, not the threat Xiandra Clementine sent her way on the podium, but the gaze of a guild master wishing the best for those under his care.
While inspiration struck at the oddest hour, the best teachers nudged the students under their wing toward it purposefully. The ‘test’ Magister Thorne implemented seemed no different, prodding at dormant desires and dead dreams.
And—by the saints—it worked. She found the smallest hints of envy taking over the guilt sitting in her stomach.
The rush associated with learning new spells, the joy gained after ascending a rank, the status earned as accolades were achieved—the climb, as many aptly summarized. It never meant a whole lot to her, not after the treatment she experienced for her magical aptitudes.
Crippled by the devastation of Deduction Day, she’d long since ceased striving for higher heights. Nevertheless, beholding the possibilities that lay ahead in the ranks above toyed with her thoughts, planting the idea that maybe—just maybe—she, a metal Striker, could want strength simply for strength itself.
It was small, the notion still buried by the verdant pursuit of Life’s Hymn, but the seed existed, and it could definitely grow. Things were changing, beyond what she thought possible. Can’t believe I’ve caught the bug.
Lowell hurried out of the Pen, Val hot on his heels as the apprentices fled the scene. Runic Mead’s elegance continued outside its navigation routes, cushioned benches lining the linked chamber, the tiled flooring akin to stained glass. The sharp ticks of Lowell’s protective boots ceased as he inhaled a lungful of air. “That was… a little awkward.”
“Just a little?”
A buzz distracted her from his response, and she retrieved her phone to survey the screen. Central Court Middle Tech, the caller I.D. read. Kenneth’s school.
Did she miss a memo? Can’t be, she shot the idea down as swiftly as it came. Why would a school holding two thousand kids worry about the thought of one kid’s caretaker? Truth be told, they handled business themselves, unless a reason dictated a relative’s presence.
Usually not the positive kind of reason.
“You coming?” Lowell asked up ahead.
“Sorry to bail midway,” Val pocketed her device and whirled for the exit. “Family emergency.”
The cultural depths of Atera knew no bounds, and often on the few breaks allowed to the Efron siblings, they scoured the city for unique sights and scenes. Through sheer luck, they happened upon a gemstone of a noodle shop, low prices for savoury goodness any day, anytime. Fortunately, that included the dead hours of midday, void of the city’s perpetual traffic.
It let Val easily drag her younger brother to his favourite restaurant, empty as the periods transitioned from early morning to late afternoon. Torches lined the wall-to-wall bar, casting a soft glow throughout the corner shop. Val repeatedly dipped two fingers into a tub of fluffy balm open on her lap, turning on her stool to take in Kenneth.
Unlike most his age, the twelve-year-old could not care less about his image, frequently sporting messy hair, unlaced shoes, and rolled-up sleeves. Still, a piece of her broke as she flew into the public school to behold his face looking worse than the rotten side of a plum. The memory inflamed a sudden burst of rage she’d barely managed to suppress at the time, leaking into her actions as she applied the salve on his cheeks.
“Ouch,” a grimace flashed on his face. Even with the harsh appliance of the ointment, the item’s potency came through as the yellow branching from the nasty bruise on his cheekbone receded to reveal deep purple, and then fresh red. She carried on, massaging in the luxurious item customarily used on adventurers, not a boy merely attending class, eager to learn. Damn it.
“Ow, ow, ow!” Kenneth backed away in his seat, wary eyes on her oily fingers as if they were needles full of venom. “Okay, now you’re just doing it on purpose.”
Val raised an eyebrow. “Are you finally going to tell me why you got into a fight with your classmates?”
Finished sipping his drink, Kenneth squeezed the plastic cup. “It was over nothing.”
Val couldn’t help the frown on her face, best suited to understand that nothing existed as a code word for something. Familiar with the tactic, she knew better than to goad an answer. If words couldn’t loosen his tongue, perhaps a rich bowl of Zingese noodles would do the trick.
So, as the pot-bellied shop owner placed two bulbous plates of steaming food before them, the pair of siblings—almost like an unspoken agreement—dug in with no further remarks. She scarfed down the flavourful, strings of doughy goodness, keeping a keen eye on her sibling.
Half a bowl in, as predicted, Kenneth set aside his chopsticks. He chewed his noodles idly as the restaurant owner retreated into the backroom, waiting until the atmosphere promised a degree of privacy. “Insults don’t get to me,” he managed past his clenched jaw. “They never will.”
Val twisted in her seat to listen in to her brother—really listen.
“I know I’m a little lanky for my size and yeah, I’m midborn,” he stated. “Honestly though, they’re all numskulls thinking they could get a rise out of me. I can live with myself, rather easily actually.
“But I should give them some credit where it’s due because they seemed to have finally switched tactics,” he released the poor cup out of his, now crumpled and shriveled. “They talked about you guys. Pretty standard stuff when it came to Caro and Dad—but when they got to you…”
Anger flashed in his eyes. “I don’t even want to repeat the stupid things they said… I just wanted them to stop.” He raised his bruised knuckles to showcase the fact. “So, I made them.”
“I was waiting for Deduction Day,” he cut her off in a rush. “I don’t know why you inherited our supposed latent genes and struck diamond. If you’re high silver, though, how far off would I be?” he asked, more himself than her. “It would’ve gotten them off my back for sure—it’s just the delays made it real hard. Too hard.”
Normally, the event existed parallel to New Year’s, conducted on the first of Janos alongside the Tripartite Trial. Deferred to the summer due to rift-related troubles, the postponement offset the twelve-year-old’s plans entirely.
A pit grew in Val’s stomach, and she wondered how much he endured for him to rely on such a wildcard to save him. How did I not see this?
In hindsight, the signs appeared obvious—glaring even. Complaints about his classmates, constant grumpiness that never abated, and no outings to anywhere with peers.
It was all there.
Saints, she cursed internally. Self-absorbed in her problems, she failed to see that her brother was drowning in troubles of his own. Hell, she was doing it right now, ruminating on the discovery and letting the twelve-year-old stand by for her response.
“I won’t say I condone the violence, because I don’t,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “With the rumours surrounding our family name—even as unknown as it is in this halo—we have to hold ourselves to a better standard. You know this.”
She gave him one of her signature, sisterly stares, and he crumpled under the force. “Val, I’m—”
“I only have one question, however.”
There was an audible gulp. “And that is?”
“Do they look worse?”
Lines marked Kenneth’s brow. “Come again?”
Val pointed to his bruised forearms. “Those bullies of yours. Do they look worse than you right now?”
A lot to process for the twelve-year-old, his face remained blank until it clicked, and a wicked grin spread wide across his lips. “I gave them the Efron special.”
“Good,” Val ruffled his hair. A long talk waited at home, one that dove into the topics undealt with. For now, though, she figured the kid needed some form of encouragement. “Stay strong.”
A jingle cut across Kenneth’s growing complaints, followed by a “Hey Miss—I mean—Val!”
She turned to the entrance, smiling as she recognized the little fellow walking inside the store. “Close call there, bud,” she muttered. “How’d you find me anyways.”
"Oh, I was passing by. My family’s arranging an auction and it is so much work,” Rowan groaned, plopping on the adjacent seat. He arched forward to survey the unfamiliar face, sucking in a breath. “Duuuude. You don’t look so good.”
Kenneth snorted. “No shit?”
“Language,” Val cut in automatically. “Don’t let his injuries fool you, he’s an upcoming prodigy in his own right.”
“Is he now,” Rowan smirked, taking the opportunity to steer the conversation away from the sensitive topic. “Now I’ve got to know your sparring record.”
“34-6,” he replied, a tinge of energy returning to his voice.
“Hand-to-hand?” Rowan sat straighter in his chair. “I don’t believe you.”
“Then don’t,” Kenneth said in turn, and the genial attitude vanished quicker than a skilled Hunter could ever hope to achieve.
Rowan, for his part, pivoted completely. “Fine by me, it’s gonna be old news anyways after the trials. On that note—do you have a gate or element in mind?”
“Anything not metal, sand, or magma.”
“That’s oddly specific.”
“For good reason,” Kenneth promised, and Val smiled at that. Bratty till the end.
She watched as the pair bounced off each other, though Rowan carried the conversation like a trooper, rolling off her brother’s three-worded replies. Sentence by sentence, coaxed out of his shell, Kenneth deemed Rowan differently than the stuck-up classmates he’d grown to ignore.
Val knew his hackles had been up the moment the Zingese boy walked in, littered with more charms than she had in jewelry. He proved Kenneth wrong, dissociating himself from the standard conversation starters—status, plans, talent—and playing on the common ground he found, namely magic lingo and comics.
He’s going to be fine. The notion came unbidden, calming the brewing maelstrom of worries taking over Val’s insides. If her guess proved correct, Rowan could become what Caro was to her in the darkest times of her childhood.
“No way,” Kenneth shook his head. “A ‘for-sure’ takedown move doesn’t exist.”
“Yes way,” Rowan chuckled, jumping right out of his stool. “I’ll show it to you right now.
Yup, she thought as the boys fell into a good-humoured argument. He’ll be okay.
First Halo of Ciazel,
Hall of Eons,
-One month later-
Val’s expression dropped into a sullen frown as she took in the scribal branch. Grandmaster Reign allowed her four weeks to say her farewells and spread the word of her departure. She had only begun planting roots, the hardly-furnished desk an obvious sign of the fact. Yet, clearing the few belongings scattered around her space panned out a harder task than she originally assumed.
She purposely snuck into the common rooms late on a Monday, a period when the long desk sat empty, and the sprawling cubicles unoccupied. The silence should’ve eased her into a grove as she packed her things. Instead, it served as a glaring distraction, sharpening the noise that came with packing up.
Lowell spared the time to tour her new office in the past weeks—yes, even an apprentice like her earned a room in Runic Mead. Though the room seemed just perfect—an ergonomic chair, adjustable lighting, ample breathing room—it lacked a vital essence she couldn’t pinpoint until now.
In the privacy of her room, enchanters wouldn’t be there to notice Val gnawing on a pen and drag her into a card game, nor would the older scholars be present enough to drop insightful advice. Runic Mead felt less a place of learning, and more a space to sharpen one’s craft—a business, rather than a school.
You can’t have it all, she thought with a prolonged sigh, shoving the last of her framed pictures into her box when a familiar gait drew her attention. It was double-pace, rapid enough to imply either excitement or urgency, and it didn’t take long for a 5 '11 Striker to pace into the darkened atelier.
“Caro,” Val hissed under her breath, dropping her things. “You can’t be here unsupervised—and before you say it, no. I don’t count as supervision,” she said as the magma mage raised an indignant finger. “How’d you even get in?”
“A friend,” she replied, deflecting Val’s ireful gaze to the bundle of linen envelopes in her grasp. “I have something way more interesting,” she half-squealed, half-whispered, making a bee-line for the unnamed hallways. “I’m sure Winsford wants in on this.”
“I don’t have an appointment,” Val countered. “Plus it’s late, can’t it wait till tomorrow?”
Caro led the way down to Master Winsford’s study, apparently memorizing the odd sequences of doors in the single visit she made months ago. Turning the knob in full, Val’s gaze caught on the emblem emblazoned on one of the packages, an intricate set of interlocking A’s.
Aether Academy, she recognized. A university? Val’s heart skipped a beat. That only meant one thing.
Master Winsford came to the same conclusion in the mere moment the two barged into his room. Raising his head from the massive book laid flat against his quartz table, his gaze flickered to Caro. “Acceptance letters are out?”
“You betcha.” She strode for his desk, and placed two piles on either side. “The left one’s mine and the other is Val’s.”
Caro’s confirmation nearly knocked the air out of Val, and her hands grew clammier by the second.
What looked to be a combination of fifteen colourful envelopes ensnared their full attention, roughly seven for each Striker. As far as applications go, they applied to an obscene number of schools, but the acceptance rates of their desired programs dictated they cast their nets wide for safety’s sake. So much so, Winsford repeated the doubting voice whispering in their heads.
“You both applied for Advanced Combat programs,” he said. “I trust I don’t need to clarify how difficult it is to claim one of the two hundred seats available in those institutes. However, I believe in you more than you know,” he inhaled a long breath, holding it for a moment, and releasing it at once. “Let’s see.”
Top three unis, c’mon she thought as the enchanter flipped through letter after letter. The mantra replayed constantly in the back of her thoughts, and she considered it useless once they passed halfway, the brass-rimmed burgundy of Reynor University and the shaded silver of U of A nowhere to be found.
Absence, in this case, meant declines, and the implication doubled the stakes. C’mon. Her inward wishes bore fruit in the end, the very last envelope adorned by a lopsided ‘T’ on its side, replicating a mountain. Winsford, not one to celebrate early, opened the letters without hesitation, scrutinizing the offer for any hidden hitches the Strikers would miss in their anxious frame of mind.
His eyes flickered back and forth as he skimmed through the lines—and after what felt like an eternity—he sifted a hand through his beard, split by a broad smile. “It seems like a certain pair of Strikers are going to be wearing grey and purple come September. Full-ride.”
“Saints,” Val breathed. “Cee this is—urk!”
The millisecond of manic laughter gave her little time to dodge the tackle-like hug, Caro’s larger frame all but smothering Val in an excited brace. “Hell yeah!” She jumped up and down, giggling. “We’re heading to Thales Academy!”
Val gave a little shake of the head, throwing a hand to the fourteen other envelopes. “Nothing’s certain yet.”
“Oh hush you.” Caro didn’t have any of the negativity, pulling back to wag a finger. “This is the start, V,” she whispered and the earnestness in her tone hammered it home. “The start to higher things.”
Hairs stood on end across Val’s forearms. Indeed, a field of opportunities awaited them on Mt. Azura, the highly-regarded institute crowded with first-class teachers, state-of-the-art facilities, and elite company to boot. Heavens, she swore internally, summer couldn’t be longer.
Putting the jittery anticipation to rest—a difficult feat, once she held the letter in her own two hands—she elbowed her best friend. “University Games, here we come?”
Caro’s face lit up at the question, realizing her friend’s competitive streak—not solely against her, but against everything Ciazel had to offer—showed signs of being on the upswing. “You’re damn right.”