The grass is still moist with dew by the time Luke and Stiletto come within sight of the military academy. Luke is awe-struck by the academy, which is surrounded by an enormous wooden wall. Even more impressive than the wall is the sixty-yard kill zone around the complex. The forest tracker feels exposed and defenseless as he crosses this land where nothing is taller than a blade of grass. There are no guards on the wall and the doors open to a peaceful courtyard where a few leafy shrubs have been planted. Luke can see the top of several trees behind buildings, but none of them rise higher than the wall. The grass of the courtyard is a crisp green, but it has been matted down from constantly being walked on by the academy’s inhabitants. Luke notices that most of the buildings are made of red brick and pale wood. Each structure is a one-story building that has its front to the courtyard and its back to the wall. As he looks around, Luke can see a dark plume of smoke rising from behind a building with yellow flags along the roof. He assumes that the smoke is coming from a blacksmith studio, but the building is out of sight. The only person in view is an elderly woman who is peeling vegetables by a building with several open windows and a cauldron sign above the door. Luke continues to scan the academy grounds, making his way past a lonely fountain. He stops in front of a four-story building of gray stone that looks more like a gothic castle than an office building. Gargoyles adorn the corner towers while two elven knight statues stand guard at the front doors. The heavily reinforced doors open into a brightly lit lobby that leads Luke to a large, cluttered desk.
“Hello! Is anyone in here?” Luke calls out.
His voice echoes throughout the building as a light turns on behind a nearby door. A gravelly, male voice begins swearing in several languages before the door is kicked open. A middle-aged man with a wooden cane steps out of the back room and makes his way to the desk. His clothes are wrinkled and the ring of salt-and-pepper hair around his head is filled with knots. Only his black beard and mustache are neatly trimmed and groomed. The cane creaks every time the muscular man puts his full weight on the flimsy tool. Luke takes note of the predatory look in the veteran’s light brown eyes. As the man approaches, the only thought that goes through Luke’s mind is that this warrior must be a legend.
“Of course someone is here. Why would I leave the door open if nobody was in here? Now, what the hell do you want?” the grizzled man demands before clearing his throat and spitting into a bucket. “You better not be some brat that’s come to challenge Selenia. If so then you got another think coming because you look like you can barely hold your own against a five-year-old halfling who lost his favored arm to a rabid cat. So, what the hell do you want here?” The man slumps behind the oak desk, swinging his bum leg on top and knocking over a pile of scrolls. This mistake leads to more swearing and a strong fist putting a small dent in the hardwood desk.
“Do you need some help, sir?” Luke politely asks. He bends down to grab a scroll, but the man’s cane hits him in the back of the neck before his mind registers the sounds of movement. Luke slowly gets up from the floor and rubs the throbbing spot on his neck.
“I can handle myself very well. Just because some of my parts are damaged doesn’t mean my speed and reflexes are destroyed. I don’t need some puppy warrior to be my helper,” the man snarls, using the cane to flip the scrolls back onto the desk. “So, do you have a name or should I make something up for you? Better make it quick because I don’t have any patience this morning.”
Luke bows and puts his hands behind his back. “My name is Luke Callindor and I have come to train at this academy. Here is-”
The man starts laughing before Luke can finish his long-rehearsed introduction. “You’re a Callindor? I should have known from those twin blades and your eyes, but I guess I’m not as sharp as I used to be. It’s been a long time since I . . . dealt with one of your lineage. Is your family still living in Haven? It’s been a long time since I ventured out there. I used to be a great adventurer myself, but I don’t get around much these days for obvious reason.” The old warrior pats his leg and grins like a cagey wolf. “My name is Kevin Masterson.”
“I’ve heard of you, sir. You are one of the greatest shortsword warriors alive and the teacher of many decorated warriors. You’re one of the modern day legends who inspired me to become a warrior. I hope you will excuse my admiration, sir,” Luke says, his face turning bright red. Kevin’s amused grin helps Luke compose himself and fight back his awe. “I would like to state my reason for being here and why I should be accepted without my lineage playing a factor in your decision. I do not want to get by on my family name.”
“Interesting . . . proceed,” Kevin responds, a curious glint in his eyes.
“I won a tournament to gain a favor from Duke Solomon. I chose to be granted his sponsorship in attending this academy,” Luke proudly explains, producing the messengers scroll. “Here is the scroll that Duke Solomon wanted me to give to whoever was in charge of accepting new students.”
Kevin takes the scroll and reads it over before another wild grin crosses his face. He tucks the scroll into his tunic, standing up to get a better look at Luke. “We here at the Hamilton Military Academy only take in the best that Windemere has to offer. I agree that your name should not be enough to get you into our institution, but it helps whether you like it or not. Your success in this tournament shows that you have some skill, but I wish the Duke had told us about such a competition. This is the first I’ve ever heard of it and the only one who hates surprises more than me is Selenia.”
“As I said, I chose this as my prize without the Duke’s prior knowledge,” Luke contends, hoping to keep the Duke out of trouble.
“You definitely sound like a Callindor,” Kevin claims, his eyes locking with Luke’s nervous gaze. “There are some questions that I must ask before I agree to let you join us. This scroll tells me that you were involved in a Weapon Dragon hunt. I find that very impressive considering you can’t be any older than twenty and that’s being generous. Weapon Dragons of any kind are for warriors who are more seasoned than a young pup.” His eyes narrow challengingly as he adds. “Care to explain how you helped in this hunt?”
Luke begins to sweat a little while he smiles and silently curses the messenger. A tournament that never happened would have been easy to talk his way around. He entered enough real tournaments to know how they operate, but a dragon hunt was another thing entirely. He had never seen a living Weapon Dragon much less fought one. The more he thinks, the more the idea of trying to make such a claim sounds ridiculous. Any adventuring group foolish enough to take an inexperienced warrior on such a hunt would have been wiped out. Unless they took the warrior along as bait, but that scenario wouldn’t say much for Luke’s common sense. The young warrior continues to smile as a lie begins to form in his mind and roll down to his dry tongue.
Kevin lets out a bellowing cough to get Luke’s attention again. “Well, kid. You better start yapping. I have better things to do than deal with a humble dragon hunter who can only smile like an idiot.”
“I am a forest tracker and my primary role in the hunt was to help locate an Axe Dragon before it could cause more damage to the local villages,” Luke slowly and carefully explains. “It was a job that I received through the Serabian military, so I had a small army to hide . . . I mean, work with. During the actual slaying, I went for the eyes because the rest of the body was too heavily armored for my sabers to get through. At the time, I was unaware that I could slip my blades between some of the underbelly scales until a spearman took me aside after the hunt. Honestly, I did not get involved in the actual battle until the dragon was pinned to the ground. It was my first hunt and I was scared to get close when it had full mobility. That hunt is why I was hoping to train here. It showed me that I needed to learn more than basic sword fighting to succeed as an adventurer.”
Kevin clears his nose with a boorish snort, wiping his hand on an ink-stained rag. “Still, you survived the hunt and you have mentioned two of the few ways a swordsman can do damage to a Weapon Dragon. From the wording of this scroll, we can’t turn you away unless you prove that you are not fit to be here. That means more than just physical fitness, boy. Selenia and the other instructors will want a lot of discipline from you,” Kevin warns him before pulling out a fresh scroll and a short quill. “Now to give you some class assignments. I will sign you up for basic military tactics, advanced archery, blacksmithing, monster lore, handicap fighting, and geography of Windemere. Selenia will decide on your combat classes within a day or two. As you saw, there are four dormitories in our complex and one of them is for the female students only. I will have your jewels on a dagger if I catch you in the girls’ dorm. You will be assigned to the Elfstar group, which resides in dormitory B. Your sergeant instructor is Thomas. Almost everyone is out for the morning run, except for the cook, the blacksmith, the stable hands, and me. Meet with Thomas at breakfast and he will show you where to store your things. Are there any other questions?”
Luke is about to say no until he hears a sudden sneeze from his right. “Where can I leave Stiletto, sir?”
The dog growls at the old warrior, getting a loud roar in return. The large dog slinks behind Luke, keeping his eyes on Kevin. The old man cracks a small smile before fixing a stack of papers on his desk.
“You can house the fleabag in the stables,” Kevin replies with a lazy wave. “They’re in that direction and you can’t miss them. One of the other sergeant instructors has elven greyhounds. There should be enough room for your drool bucket. Now, get going or you’ll miss out on the food. By the way, I hope you rested up before you arrived. Today was the last day you could sleep in. Tomorrow, you join the run.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Luke happily replies. He shakes hands with Kevin and quietly leaves the main building.
He can see that the wooden stables are near the entrance to the complex nestled behind two of the dormitories. As Luke crosses the courtyard, he passes the gurgling fountain made out of white marble. He stops to stare at the marble figure of an angelic woman pointing a longsword to the sky. Some fish are in the pool and Luke takes a quick look around before dipping his hand in to pet one of them. He lets out a small laugh when a few of the fish start nibbling at his fingertips. Stiletto begins barking at a distant raven, reminding Luke that he has to bring the noble shepherd to the stables.
“Sorry about that. I got a little distracted, buddy,” Luke says, patting the dog on the head. “I haven’t seen a marble statue of this quality since I was shown the one of my grandfather in Hero’s Gate. You remember that one. I found you abandoned at its feet when I snuck away to get another look after breakfast,” Stiletto snorts and begins growling at the half-elf. “Fine. I will stop reminiscing. You can stop with the growling. We have work to do and a you-know-what to find.”