(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
The commotion inside the lecture hall continued regardless of what Kaleena or Katrina thought, many kids clamoring to speak and if possible, befriend the girl as soon as the lecture ended.
A school day was divided into three parts. The early morning session between Eighth Hour until Ninth Hour and a Half was called the Theory, while right after until the lunch was called the Application. After lunch, a session of the Reflection was held.
As the names suggested, during the Theory taught by Zeos, learners were subjected to a bombardment of information. Things like memorizing the Requisite Words for spells, gaining a deeper understanding of how Aeterna and the related Elements worked, history of certain spells, that sorts of things were discussed and taught during this session.
During the Application, learners were brought out to a training ground and told to put what they learned into practice.
The Reflection was reserved after that, a session designed to let the learners who had tried their hands at invoking spells reflect and analyze the experiences, see what they got right and wrong thereby further improving their skills.
As the kids moved on under supervision from the lecture hall to a nearby training ground reserved exclusively for this particular class, many children were surrounding Kaleena and Katrina, asking equally many, many questions.
Like, where she was from, or like which Elements she had Affinities with.
Lizbeth taught both girls that asking about one’s Affinities openly was a bad thing unless the Invoker willingly spoke up first, so Kaleena simply smiled and didn’t answer. But she was happy to oblige other questions.
In fact, she was getting along with pretty much everyone who approached her with friendly intentions quite easily. And that was slightly getting on Katrina’s nerves.
Jealousy was one thing, but being brushed aside by the eager crowd wishing to talk to her cousin was becoming really annoying to her.
All the way to the training ground, she maintained a sour face, occasionally glancing over at the face of her smiling and happy cousin, wondering how could she be so carefree under the circumstances.
In the end, it was Katrina who gave up trying to understand. She sighed out loudly, and shook her head. Kaleena was a mystery not even a deity could solve at this point.
And it was also at this point Katrina noticed a few hostile eyes firmly trained on her cousin’s direction.
Almost all of them, she couldn’t recognize, but Almeria’s gazes, full of intense jealousy was as naked as it got.
The Benedict Henson girl carried a twisted and ugly expression that spoke of how humiliated she felt about Kaleena taking the potential spotlight away from her.
Her dark emotions stemmed from the kind of upbringing she had received. Back when her results from the test of Invocation talent arrived, she shook her household by possessing an unbridled potential by having two Affinities as well as three Quasi-Affinities.
Her entire family celebrated this blessing from the gods like there was no tomorrow. After all, being an Invoker brought a great deal of prestige to any family regardless of the social standing.
Everyone in Almeria’s family told her that she was special, that she was without a peer, that she was destined for even greater heights. And she believed those words unreservedly.
Yet when she took one single step into the world of Invocation, the truth was revealed. She was not as special as everyone around her made it out to be. She met other kids with two Affinities like her, but possessing higher number of Quasi-Affinities, putting her firmly in the inferior category.
Then there was that one boy in the very same class as her who possessed three Affinities. He was the proverbial king of the hill, lording over the other, lesser kids with a pompous attitude to match his natural talent. Which was might as well, seeing that he had quite a formidable background to begin with.
However, Almeria didn’t feel bitter about that. A boy from a superior family possessing a superior talent sounded just about right to her. But with Kaleena here, everyone, even that pompous boy, was relegated to that of playing a supporting role. Such a thing obviously did not sit well with the kids who were told of their absolute superiority from the moment they started crawling in their diapers.
So it was only natural for some of these children to harbor ill thoughts towards those of lower social standing possessing a better natural disposition than themselves. Not all, though – there were others who got over the hurdle of understanding that there were always someone else who happened to be better than them regardless of peerage.
Katrina was mindful of the hostile gazes as well as the envious ones. She really didn’t know why she was feeling nervous here, instead of Kaleena. Her cousin should have been the person wilting under the supreme weight of scrutiny from her peers.
Yet, whether due to naivete, or simply because of a good-natured personality, she was all smiles and only happy to talk to other kids like it was an everyday occurrence and nothing to fret about.
This whole first morning at the school was turning out to be a rather infuriating day so far for Katrina. And it wasn’t even her fault to begin with.
Accompanied by teacher Zeos, the whole class arrived at the massive training district. Zeos was inwardly rather nervous. For some reason, he was told to bring his class here, rather than the usual ground just behind the school building. It was not according to the normal protocol but the Grand Elders assured him there was nothing to worry about.
The training district within the Academy was split into two types of grounds, with one on the open grasslands flanked by a forest and an artificial swamp, and the other an enclosed laboratory.
The usual school’s training ground consisted of a field designed for sports-like activities which would be beneficial in developing sturdy bodies for the students. But here, within the training district the aim was to build battle experiences. A place for combatants, in other words, not for these children not yet ten years of age.
Their destination was the grassland portion of the training district. The class observed various training happening around them on the fields, lots of spells exploding and littering all over the place. Seeing all this cacophony of noise and tremor, it couldn’t be helped that many kids were getting agitated, some in a good way while the others, not so much.
The grasslands weren’t simply a flat piece of land. Rather, several items of note were erected here, such as a handful of small houses clustered into a layout of a typical village, training dummies that looked like enemy soldiers and Fiends for target practices, a false wall made to resemble a wall of a fort – that sort of things.
There was another Invoker waiting for the class there. Tall and broad-shouldered, she looked fierce and her expression, cold. Her eyes swept across the children that had arrived with an indifference before instructing them on what her role was – to supervise while under practical application of what they have learned during the Theory session.
“The rules are simple. You do exactly as I say, and everyone gets to go home safe and sound. Understood? In here, my words are the law. Remember that, you little tykes.”
The Invoker in charge of this particular training ground grumbled icily at the kids, causing a few of them to frown in dissatisfaction.
Ignoring them completely, the Invoker introduced herself. “I’m the Pinnacle Expert ranked Invoker, Sonorra. From now on, always address me as ma’am. No exceptions.”
While she said that, she released an intimidating aura that pervaded the air with a thick killing intent. Of course, the children were affected by this sudden emission of powerful negative energy, and almost all of them became pale faced, their knees trembling in shock.
Zeos frowned and quickly intervened. “Expert Sonorra. That’s quite enough, don’t you think?” He released an aura that countered Sonorra’s killing intent, the two clashing and negating each other.
Clicking her tongue, she turned on her heels and pointed towards one of the mock fort walls. “I’ll call out three names. You will then cast spells you think you’re good at. Doesn’t matter if it’s an attack spell or for defense. So, just go all out.”
She called out three random names, and the kids with shaking knees slowly came forward. And as told, they each fired off spells they were most confident in – or, at least tried to.
They were still badly affected by the deadly aura from Sonorra before, and could not, for the life of them, recall the relevant Requisite Words properly. Inevitably their attempts at casting Invocations were a collective failure.
Seeing this, Sonorra became even more aggressive.
“Pathetic. I knew you were all a bunch of pampered rich kids with no backbone. It’s depressing to think the future of Invocation lies with a lot of you. If you can’t even handle a simple pressure like mine, how were you planning to withstand something far more scary than me in the future? Useless!!”
Zeos’s frown only became deeper. But he didn’t rebuke his colleague for stepping out of the line. After all, she was well known for her hardline approach. He had to wonder, though – why did the Grand Elders saw fit to assign this particular class to be supervised under this tyrant of a woman. Usually, she’d be handling much older kids, not something like his class.
Sonorra snorted derisively, and trained her eyes on Kaleena instead.
“Hey, you. Come over here. You the one with all those amazing Affinities, right? Show us what you’re made out of.”
Once more, everyone turned to see Kaleena. She stood there, tilting her head slightly. She narrowed her eyes, after feeling that something was not quite right with the way this supposed lecturer was talking to her and her classmates.
She and Katrina were two of the kids who weren’t affected by the pressure released by Sonorra. Derrick, Damien, and even Lizbeth, sometimes emitted intense aura like that plenty of times before, such as when they were sparring for real, or when the family was discussing Kain’s passing. So, that much wasn’t anything to write home about.
But the tone of Sonorra’s words got her pondering. It didn’t feel like something a lecturer should say, and instead, sounded more like a provocation. Kinda like what a kid might say in a playground.
In other words, it all felt like an attempt at bullying.
When she realized this bit, her cheeks puffed up in defiance. A not-so-nice lady was trying to bully her and other kids into submission. How could she not take up the challenge? Of course she would.
So, Kaleena bravely walked out in front, ready to cast all the spells she knew she could with no hassle. But then, she hesitated. One or two spells needed her to touch the target where the Invocation’s effects were to take place. Besides, she didn’t know any spells from Darkness Element at all. That one was one of the Affinities she had.
Watching her hesitate, Katrina frowned a bit more than before. She sure didn’t want to see the idiot cousin of hers get into a tough spot she couldn’t get out of, although it was hard to tell how anyone could help her out at this point.
Funnily enough, Katrina didn’t want to worry about Kaleena at all. She had her own problems to think about, so why should she care what happened to her clueless cousin?
Somehow, though, she just couldn’t look the other way.
She wasn’t a girl to suffer indecision so Katrina made up her mind to step out and help Kaleena. However, even before she could take one step, Almeria decided she’d have a crack at making a disparaging remark or two first.
“Ho. So an acclaimed and talented Miss Lomax can’t actually follow up on her lofty evaluations now is it? How disappointing. And here I was, thinking that it’d be wonderful to receive some pointers.”
Her cold words were soon echoed by the others spewing similar kind of venom. They were taking this chance to bring Kaleena down a peg or two. The pettiness in their actions was rather unsightly to behold but no one was there to point that out. Except for Katrina, that was.
Still, she had no chance to speak up.
“Hey, silence!! Let her do her thing, and then criticize if she’s found lacking. But as far as I can see, she’s better than the lot of you!! She’s not even that affected by my aura, while you, you, and you wet your pants like some little babies. You don’t get to raise your voices at her yet!!”
Sonorra injected a little bit of Aeterna in her voice and shouted loudly, instantly silencing the class.
After achieving the quietness she wanted, the cold-faced Invoker turned to Kaleena and spoke as if she was seeing her in a new light.
“I’m impressed. You’re not scared of me, are you? You must have been around a few fierce men. I’m guessing your father is one such person?”
Kaleena nodded. “Yes, my father and mother are both Gold ranked Adventurers. And my uncle is a Silver ranked Divine Knight as well.”
“Is that so?” Sonorra snorted. “You’ve been around a rough crowd, is that what you’re telling me? You think I’m impressed in the slightest? Your mommy and daddy aren’t here to help you. You are on your own now. So, do your thing, or if you can’t, go slink off to a corner and disappear from my view.”
Kaleena became angry when she heard that. Without thinking, she raised her hand and pointed at the mock wall.
Her eyes sharpened, and breathlessly she uttered the Requisite Words.
“Come, come forth in a wave,
Mount and fall in a dance,
Recede, break, grounds pave,
All lost, in meetings of chance,
Shake free, and roar for me – Water Cannon!!”
Suddenly, Water Elements in the air, serenely floating until now, congealed into a fast-growing orb. It rapidly grew to a size of a basketball, and shot out forward like a speeding bullet.
With a loud bang, it struck the wall, shaking it hard.
There was a noticeable indentation on the surface, a testimony to how strong the impact actually was. The mock wall was constructed out of real stone and bricks so it had almost the same toughness as the real fort walls it imitated. To damage it, even if slightly, at her young age was a shocking achievement to say the least.
Of course Kaleena didn’t stop there.
She then rapidly fired off Flame Javelin, the only non-beginner spell she knew. She even knew the shortened form of Words for this spell, so the whole firing sequence only took a blink of an eye.
Plus, her Aeterna Pool was vast enough to support firing off such a strong spell with no penalties whatsoever.
Next, she cast an Earthen Wall that would make Kain quite proud and surrounded herself with it. She expertly held the spell continuously for a few minutes before activating the one spell she cherished the most – Light Heal. The spell she learned from her mother.
Of course there was no injury on her or anyone around her for that matter, so it ended up only as a pretty light show, but still, a healing Invocation spell from Light Element Aeterna caused no small stir among the class.
She could go on, but that’s where Kaleena stopped. Standing proudly, she looked at Sonorra, asking her whether that was fine for a demonstration.
“Is this good? Or should I continue, ma’am?”
Her tone gave Sonorra something to chuckle about, albeit in her usual cold manner.
“You’re a feisty one, aren’t you. Taking after your parents, huh? Well, I’ve met little tykes like you plenty of times before. And I know just the way to handle the likes of you.”
Sonorra glanced at the stunned kids and shouted once more. “You see what this girl did, right? Now, if you can’t fire off spells as strong as her, then I’ll have you run laps around this training ground until you can!! Or, you’ll fall down and die!! Now, get to it, or else!!”
Her bellowing voice boomed out, boosted by Invocation causing the kids to falter even more from the immense pressure.
“Expert Sonorra, that is going too far!!” Zeos finally rebuked his colleague, having had enough of her trying to scare his students like some sort of a terrorist. “I won’t allow for your rough handling of these children. Please reconsider your words immediately!!”
Sonorra snorted coldly and waved her hand. “Fellow Expert Zeos. May I remind you that you are a guest in my class? Your authority doesn’t extend til here. I also allowed you to partake in my lessons out of kindness on my part. You don’t agree with my methods? Then I advise you to excuse yourself and go away. You are getting in my way as it is.”
Zeos’s face reddened. “Is that the stance you are willing to put up? If so, then I’ll be more than happy to report your conduct to the appropriate channels.”
Sonorra simply shrugged her shoulders. “Do what you will. I’m simply doing my job, preparing these kids for the harsh world out there. And that doesn’t include coddling them, last time I checked.”
Zeos frowned deeply, before storming away in a huff.
Katrina thought he looked really mad. He wasn’t the only one, though, as the entire class was also roiling over at the new command from Sonorra the Expert ranked Invoker. What she asked for was basically impossible to achieve. No one present could match up to Kaleena’s natural born talent for Invocation. It wasn’t even worth mentioning the discrepancies regarding Aeterna Pool sizes either. Hers was simply as big as over half the class here combined together. Maybe more.
It was inevitable kids began to throw resentful glares at Kaleena, their eyes asking her why she had to go and show off, making the others suffer like this.
To this kind of stares, she had no answer. Not even her anger could stay inflamed, nor her feeling of pride.
As her face reddened up and tears began forming in the corners of her eyes, Kaleena trembled in humiliation but didn’t know how to vent it out. She couldn’t help but wonder how her mother would deal with a situation like this.
Or, for that matter, her father.
She gritted her teeth, hoping Damien would come back from his trip up north quickly and return to her. And maybe show this meanie a thing or two about the consequences of bullying people.
In the meantime, Damien was stepping off the platform of the Sky Ark Station in the city of Marlborough. The disembarking crowd was thin, not many tourists opting to come to this neck of the woods especially as the long and harsh Winter months rapidly encroached.
And as to reinforce that point, the winds brushing his face was quite chilly, a reminder that the Summer here was short and the warmth of that season lasting only for a proverbial blink.
The source of that coldness, the imposing mountain range, capped off in permafrost stood majestically in the distance. There were a dozen peaks that reached up into the heavens, their inhospitable sides pockmarked by countless defensive walls built to keep the Northern Barbarians away.
And in between the two tallest peaks, a gigantic glacier as wide as an ocean rested. From there, a river of some note flowed to the city, becoming its freshwater supply.
Good thing I brought a coat, Damien chuckled to himself wryly. He had gotten used to the temperate climates of Riverfield, and it’d be difficult getting reacclimatized in the short time he planned to stay here.
Also, he was somewhat weary of the fact that the so-called terminally ill father of his managed to live until now, a good few months after Dukakis sending that letter.
To make the matters worse, he was all alone, Lizbeth deciding to stay behind in the Capital to look after the girls instead.
As he stepped out of the station, a black stagecoach was waiting for him. Next to it, a butler with a familiar face, although it had aged since the last time Damien saw it.
“Young Master Damien,” the butler smiled warmly and bowed slightly. “Welcome home, sir.”
“It’s been a while, Cassius. How are things?”
Cassius the old butler scanned the sparse crowd and smiled bitterly, realizing that the Young Master of the Lucius Lomax bloodline didn’t come with his family. But right away he straightened up, and opened the stagecoach’s door, smartly stepping aside as he did so. Maintaining a wry smile himself, Damien climbed in and saw that it was empty inside. Besides the butler who raised him when he was little, no one else came to greet him.
With Dukakis, it was understandable – he must have had a crap load of work to do, seeing that he was the lord-all-but-in-name of this territory. But as for his sister…. Or, for that matter, his other cousins….
More than that, though, he was searching to see if any of the members of this organization called the Children were here. Obviously he wouldn’t be able to tell who’s who, but as long as someone was giving him a suspicious air, Damien was more than prepared enough to pounce and find a lead.
If not, he’d stick to his original plan and do it the hard way by finding that merchant Mikael talked about.
Cassius entered after Damien and sat across him, giving the signal to the coach driver to get a move on.
After that, though, the old butler sighed as he took a closer look at Damien’s missing arm.
“Young Master. You should’ve come home right after all that’s happened. There’s always a place for you here, sir.”
“Hmm. Thank you for your words of concern, Cassius. But in all honesty, you know as well as I do father is not that kind of person. He’d look at my arm and go, ‘what a weakling. You should have been stronger’.”
Cassius sighed again. Taking a deep breath, he cleared his throat and nodded solemnly. “In any case, you are back home, with your family, sir. Master Dukakis and Master Donatella should be delighted to see you again after all this time.”
“Yeah, well. Dukakis might be happy to see me, but as for the big sis Donna…”
Suddenly remembering his older sister’s face, Damien couldn’t help but shudder in faint terror. He recalled the powerful arm lock she used to punish him with way back when. That attack really hurt. Even imagining it now gave him thudding ache around his neck where she used to apply the inhuman strength of hers.
“How’s the old man, anyways? I only came because Dukakis told me about him being sick?”
“Indeed, Young Master. It is a…. particular illness that has been slowly eating away at the Master.”
“So it’s real? Huh, well, I’ll be. Never expected to see that man suffer something like that.”
Damien leaned back, slightly shocked at the revelation. He briefly remembered his father’s stern, unforgiving face, always frowning, grimacing, narrowing his eyes and scrutinizing everything Damien and his siblings did. All of that for producing a worthy successor to himself and nothing else.
Count Caleb Lucius Lomax, Damien’s father, was a military man through and through. He may only be a measly Count but it was a well known open secret that he wielded not inconsiderable power all due to him being the protector of the Northern borders against the Barbarian threat.
A long time ago, when Damien was still living at home, Count Caleb had high hopes for his last born to succeed him. Dukakis was simply not physical enough, and Donatella was far too much of a musclehead to effectively lead a territory as crucial as the one he was entrusted with.
Damien ably showed off that he had what it took to lead a county just fine – his personality was good, his martial skill was exemplary, and had a good head on his shoulders.
But because of his good personality, he rebelled against the expectations thrown his way unreservedly. It turned out that Damien liked the free and open world a little too much. Besides, because of the way Caleb placed all his expectations on him, naturally the rest of the siblings were discarded like an empty carton of milk.
How many times did Damien see his brother and sister shed silent tears of anguish? How many times did he see his father tyrannically oppress them both, fearing that somehow, his own children might rebel against his rule?
Damien had enough, and so he bolted. Some might say he took a cowardly way out, but what he did effectively forced his father into reevaluating his children and perhaps, even his priorities.
After leaving home, Damien came to the Capital, applied to work in the Adventurers’ Association there, and eventually met Marquis Phillips. Then one thing led to another, meeting and falling in love with Lizbeth, going on many grand adventures together, finally settling down in the small village of Riverfield.
Looking back, Damien had a small feeling that if his father wasn’t such a piece of work, maybe his life wouldn’t have been so interesting after all. Maybe that was something to be grateful for, Caleb being an a-hole.
The passing street outside the windows of the stagecoach remained largely the same from Damien’s memories. The cobbled roads were used to be somewhat rutted and broken, but it seemed rather smooth and well maintained. He could hardly feel any bumps. No doubt it was Dukakis’s doing.
Now and then, though, he spotted a heavily armored platoon of soldiers on patrol, which raised Damien’s eyebrows. There seemed to be more than what he’d remembered. Their equipment carried was no joke either.
“Cassius, did something else happen? Why all the heavy security?”
Damien asked as he leaned forward. Now that he noticed, there was no family crest on the stagecoach they were riding on, which was odd as well.
After all, this vehicle belonged to the lord of the territory. It was only a normal occurrence that such a fact was as widely advertised as possible to all the passersby.
Yet, their ride was devoid of all markings. And it was painted in the shade of dour black, if such a thing was even possible. A coach taking a grieving family to a funeral might be more decorative than this very coach, Damien figured inwardly.
Cassius carried a heavy expression, only nodding slowly. “Young Master, there have been…. incursions of the Barbarian agents to our city in the past few months. Their targets so far had been the nobility residing within the city of Marlborough as well as the surrounding towns and villages.”
“Are you telling me that the matter has become serious enough to warrant removing all the Lomax family crest off the carriage?” Damien asked back, clearly astonished. “How did the things devolve so badly? What is Dukakis doing?”
“Master Dukakis is doing all he can. Master Donatella is currently leading the suppression squad and has been successful in subduing unrest but it seems that the enemy has had enough time to infiltrate quite deeply into the territory. It is an ongoing struggle, Young Master.”
Damien suddenly felt a headache incoming. Leaning back now, he massaged his temples, before asking again.
“How come this news is not known in the Capital? Dukakis could have requested for an assistance. Why didn’t he?”
Cassius shook his head. “I am not at liberty to speak regarding this matter, Young Master. But…. please, have a chat with Master Dukakis, Young Master. I believe he urgently needs your help.”
Damien let out a long sigh, listening to this. So, now he had to worry about not only these Children bastards, but the Barbarian agents, too?
The timing seemed too good to be true, according to his gut feelings. But since this was the first time hearing of such a massive problem, he had no evidence nor facts to reinforce his suspicions. That would have to wait a bit.
“We’ve arrived,” the coach driver announced as he brought the vehicle to a halt.
Damien leaned out of the window to take a look at the grand residence of Count Caleb Lucius Lomax and his family, now surrounded by enough garrison to call the mansion a military barracks instead.
A thick, foreboding rain cloud was gathering up ahead in the tall mountain peak that served as the background. In a few hours, the unceasing rain would begin its assault on the city.
It was indeed a damp and dour welcome rolled out for the return of the prodigal son. Not that he felt that way, mind you.