“Remember to eat everything on your plate, dear. Old Betty has to keep all of you growing warriors fed, so there shouldn’t be any reason to waste food,” the elderly woman advises Luke from behind the serving counter after handing Luke a plate of food. “Now, have a seat over there and watch the stampede begin. Try not to get your feet stepped on, dear.”
Luke smiles at the pleasant woman and takes the plate. On the plate is a thick, yellow mush, a slice of wheat bread, a bowl of vegetables, and an apple. He can see a long table of water pitchers and glasses at the end of the serving counter. The smell of the fresh food pulls at Luke’s stomach, which is rumbling at the scent of a real meal instead of stale trail food.
“Thanks. Would you mind telling me what this is, Betty?” Luke politely asks. She smiles at him as she heaves a large, red clay cauldron onto the counter. Luke can hear the sloshing of mush every time the cauldron teeters on the counter. Four stubby legs magically grow out of the wide bottom to balance the magical cookware.
“I honestly do not know,” Betty admits, tenderly stroking the rim of the cauldron. “This magic cauldron can turn any combination of three foods into a highly nutritious mush that is perfect for maintaining energy and health. On the weekends, I cook full meals for the academy, but those meals depend on what meats and vegetables Selenia purchases.” She reaches out to pat Luke on the cheek. “You don’t have to fret about what I feed you, dear. I know what I am doing. Just be thankful Selenia isn’t allowed to cook anymore. Last time she tried, we had to use one of the dormitories for an extra medical station.”
“I will keep that in mind if I ever see Selenia in the kitchen,” Luke says. He gets a glass of water and takes a seat at a table near the wall.
Luke’s eyes water with joy as he eats his first forkful of the delicious mush. He realizes how long it has been since he had a real meal and even longer since he had something that was home-cooked. It takes a few more savory bites for him to identify the mixing tastes. His best guess is pork sausage, honey-soaked corn cakes, and a tart syrup that minimizes the sweetness of the honey. He can see Betty grinning from behind the counter before she turns to prepare more plates for the breakfast rush.
It is not long before Luke hears a small army jogging toward the cafeteria. A wave of voices hits him as the door opens, leaving his ear ringing. He nervously watches as close to seven hundred sweaty students and instructors swarm into the long building. The students are loudly talking amongst themselves, but there are so many conversations that Luke can only catch a few words here and there. He stops trying to eavesdrop and concentrates on getting a good look at his classmates. He can see members of several races including a towering female half-orc whose flawless blonde locks run down to her knees. She notices Luke staring and growls at him, which reveals her sharp incisors. Luke looks away, hiding his amused smirk. He notices that many of the faces in the crowd are fatigued and most of the students are moving with stiff, jerky legs. Another half-elf sits at the table next to him and begins quietly sipping at a cup of tea. The black-haired half-elf is dressed in dull yellow, priestly robes with a spiraling sun symbol on the front.
“You must be new here. What’s your name?” asks a high-pitched voice, causing Luke to turn away from the priest. Luke looks down at a curly haired halfling who is taking the seat next to him. The smell of sawdust hits Luke’s nose as the halfling rubs an apple on the only clean spot on his shirt. It takes Luke a few seconds to realize that the apple in the halfling’s hand used to be on his own tray.
“My name is Luke. Excuse me, but I believe you took my apple,” Luke replies, snatching the fruit back. The halfling gives him a charming smile and starts whittling a block of wood.
“I’m Nimby. I teach woodworking and sling fighting here,” the halfling cheerfully announces. “So, what brings you to this place? Where did you come from? Where did you get those weapons? Have you been given a schedule yet?” The halfling’s questions are almost too quick for Luke to keep up.
“That’s a lot of questions in one breath,” Luke says once his ears catch up to Nimby’s voice. “I won a tournament and the prize was a reward of my choice, so I requested to be sent here for a semester. I need more combat training and I’ve heard so much about this place that it made perfect sense to enroll. I’m pretty sure I missed the rest of your questions. You talk pretty fast.”
Luke takes a sip of his water and manages to grab his apple before Nimby can get it again. The halfling grins up at him and silently shows Luke the wooden horse that he carved. Luke is about to ignore it when he notices the detail on the saddle and the wind-blown mane. The small statue is amazingly intricate considering Nimby made it within a few minutes.
“The only way to learn about people is to ask questions. You have good reflexes for a newcomer, so I assume you’ll be put in the advanced combat classes,” Nimby claims, his eyes fall to Luke’s weapons. “Those are some fancy and expensive looking weapons. To be completely honest, you don’t usually see sabers of any kind around this place. Duggan sticks to forging basic guard weapons, so none of them are as flashy as your weapons. It looks like the tips of the sabers are weighted without making them unbalanced. Oh, I like the matching stiletto hidden in your right boot too. I prefer knives to swords, but that’s only because of my size. Did you win them or steal them?”
Luke decides to entertain the halfling’s questions. “They were a coming of age present. I left home to go on adventures soon after I was given these weapons. Honestly, I don’t use the stiletto that much. It’s more of an emergency weapon than a main weapon since my instincts work off the sabers. You see, I’ve been training with swords since I was a kid and I know I’m good, but I’m not arrogant. At least, I don’t think I am.”
“No shame in having some pride,” Nimby declares, taking a few quick bites of his breakfast. “We’re all talented around here and Selenia is great at fitting the right person into the right job. Take me for example. My talents are in the area of carpentry, but I was a very good structural designer in my hometown. Selenia acknowledges these other talents, which is why she asks for me to help in repairing the academy buildings if they get damaged. So, which group are you in and what kind of schedule did Kevin give you? If you got him on a bad day and made it worse then you better hope you get kicked out in a few days because the schedule won’t be pretty.”
Someone else takes a seat at Luke’s table as the last of the students make their way to the remaining seats. The newcomer is a very large human with an entire roasted chicken on his plate. The green armband and military haircut make him stand out from most of the other students in the room. A tattoo of an elven face with a star background is on the back of his left hand and a tattoo of a fearsome Sword Dragon covers his entire right shoulder. Scanning the room, Luke notices two other men and a woman who share his new companion’s haircut. They also have armbands, but each band is a different color.
“Leave the kid alone, Nimby. You don’t want to chew his ear off during his first day. Try to give him until tomorrow before you get under his skin,” the large man teases. He slowly rips meat off the chicken, piling it on a thick slice of bread. “My name is Thomas Strogan and I’m in charge of Elfstar group. Kevin took me aside before I got to the cafeteria and told me that you’re one of mine, Luke. Honestly, you don’t look like much from where I stand. You better be able to carry your own weight around here. Elfstar has a long-standing reputation for having the best swordsmen in the academy. Selenia herself admires our blade skills, so you better not mess up too often. We’ll give you some leeway for the first week. Everyone gets in trouble during their first week.”
“Trust me, sir. I can do whatever you want me to do,” Luke assures Thomas, flashing a proud grin. “I don’t carry these swords around for picking my teeth. I’ve already been trained as a forest tracker.”
“You’re a forest tracker, huh? I had a few dealings with your kind before I settled in as an instructor. You guys sure are some dangerous folk,” Thomas says with a wicked smile. He takes a large bite from his open-faced sandwich and wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “Not much in close quarter combat though. Many of you fail terribly when you can’t leap around like a monkey. Once, I met a forest tracker in Gaia and we decided to have some . . . words in a tavern. He was nothing close to a challenge because I stopped him from getting to his weapons and kept him inside the building.”
Luke smiles as he takes a bite from his apple. “He must have been an amateur. A lot of people train as a forest tracker for a few weeks in order to get a feel for two-weapon fighting and ignore the rest of the lessons. Those aren’t real forest trackers. Personally, I could have taken you on indoors without my weapons. Now, I have a very important question for you.” Luke pauses to look around, his face shifting from deadly serious to a friendly grin. “Where did you get that roasted chicken, Thomas? Betty told me that everyone was served the same thing except on weekends.”
Before Thomas can answer him, the entire room becomes silent and all eyes shift to the food line. A middle-aged, female half-elf with a pink brushcut and lavender eyes calmly makes her way across the room. The stoic woman moves on legs of highly defined, corded muscle and her footsteps are barely audible. She sits at a table far in the back with a single chair positioned so that whoever sits there can see everything in the room. Luke hears students whispering about this woman and realizes that this is the famous mercenary, Selenia Hamilton.
“Impressive,” Luke admits as she sits down.
The talking starts up again, but it isn’t as loud as before. Selenia lets her eyes glide over the room, taking her time with her breakfast. At one point her cold gaze rests on Luke and she spends a few seconds examining the newcomer. Those few seconds feel like minutes to the young forest tracker who tries not to make direct eye contact.
“She is pretty amazing for someone shorter than five foot five,” Thomas whispers with obvious pride. “Bet you didn’t realize how short she would be. Selenia has a massive presence about her, so her appearance tends to throw people off. Still, nobody in their right mind would mess with her. A year ago I got to see her fight in an exhibition match against a visiting knight of Serab. She beat him into the ground using a wooden longsword while he was still wearing his platemail. That woman is more dangerous than any demon from the Chaos Void.”
Nimby takes a bite out of a pear and chuckles. “I wouldn’t say that, Thomas. She’s great at kicking butt, but demons are something else entirely. Although, I have heard a rumor that she defeated a Sword Dragon by herself, but I think that is just a rumor. If she was so powerful then she would still be going on adventures.”
“Why go on adventures when training people brings in better money?” Thomas argues as if Nimby had just said the most foolish statement in history. “She has the reputation, which is all you need to get by in this world. I always say that adventuring only gets you a reputation, scars, enemies, and nightmares.”
Nimby sticks his tongue out at the sergeant instructor before going back to his breakfast. Thomas considers continuing the argument until he notices that his food is beginning to get cold. He finishes his open-face chicken sandwich in three gulping bites. Luke picks at his food as he looks over at Selenia who is no longer paying any obvious attention to him. Though, he still feels like he is being watched by the headmistress.
“I agree that there is no guaranteed money in being an adventurer,” Luke says absent-mindedly. “Yet, there is something to be said for people who sacrifice a stable life in order to help others. I personally think that money isn’t everything, sir, but that’s just my way of thinking. Besides, carrying a fortune on your back would break your spine. If you want to make money then you should become a merchant or a soldier.”
Thomas lets out a bellowing laugh causing everyone to look in his direction. He reaches over to give Luke a numbing slap on the shoulder, which knocks Luke and his chair a foot away from the table. The half-elf quickly steadies the chair on one leg before tipping it back to all four legs.
“You’re a strange kid, Luke,” Thomas declares with a thoughtful shrug. “Our goals seem to be different, but I like what I’ve seen and heard so far. You have guts and you say what is on your mind. It is refreshing to hear honesty like that.”
“Thank you. What are your goals?” Luke asks, grinning at the large man.
“My goal is to get the rank and skill around here so that I can join the staff as a full-time teacher. Either that or join an army where I can get money and prestige,” Thomas answers, slowly drinking his water. “I come from a poor farming village that put together the money for me to get trained here. I owe it to them to gain a position where I can help all of them. I guess that means I will be a hero in some way.” Thomas laughs as he notices that the other sergeant instructors are leaving. “Well, I should head out and get everything ready for my quarterstaff class. Remember that you start the morning run and all of your classes tomorrow, Luke. We’re in the dormitory with the green flag and the only free bunk is next to the door, so you will have to deal with a draft. That living space has an extra blanket kept in the wardrobe.”
Thomas gets to his feet and, after wiping his greasy hands clean on a cloth hanging from his waist, shakes Luke’s hand. With a devilish smile, he loudly says, “Good luck . . . Callindor.”
The mention of Luke’s last name starts a surge of hushed conversations and staring that makes him very uncomfortable. He knew it would have been found out by the other students at some point, but he wishes he could have had a day of peace. Now, he would become a big curiosity on campus. Luke puts the whispering and his own worried thoughts out of his mind by concentrating on his class schedule. Only monster lore poses a problem since he had a habit of falling asleep during classroom-style lectures. He is sure that he already knows the information from his grandfather’s lessons, but recalling the facts in a classroom did not come naturally to him. Even with bard’s memory, Luke used to freeze up when asked questions during his childhood schooling.
The half-elf’s thoughts stop when he notices that everyone is quiet and staring directly at him. He looks out of the corner of his eye to see Selenia glaring in his direction. Her hands are on the table, ready to push her to her feet. A feeling of panic runs through him while he tries to figure out what he did to get in trouble. A few beads of sweat start to form on his brow until he hears Nimby start talking to him.
“This is a really nice stiletto,” Nimby announces, waving the naked weapon around. “I haven’t seen craftsmanship like this in a long time.”
“Put that down! I’m going to get in trouble!” Luke yells, slapping the weapon out of the halfling’s hand. Nimby yelps in surprise and sucks on his sore thumb.
The blade spins in the air for a second before Luke moves his leg enough for the stiletto to land in its sheath. Selenia is already storming towards the table before Luke can say anything else to the halfing. She stops at the table, slamming both of her hands down with enough force to knock over every drink. Luke stares back at her without any idea of how to get out of trouble. The only plan in his mind is to put up a brave front and look for an opening to blame Nimby. It wasn’t a perfect plan and he didn’t want to get the curious halfling in trouble, but he had a job to do in this academy. Getting kicked out on the first day would be a serious setback.
“You are new here, little boy, so I will let you get away with your transgression. You probably were not told that carrying real weapons without permission is against my rules. Normally, I would have you run around my academy from morning to night, but it would not be fair. Keep in mind that unsheathing a weapon can be used as grounds for expulsion from my academy after I kick your teeth in,” Selenia warns Luke, her voice dripping with barely controlled rage. “As for you, Nimby, I am very disappointed and I expect you to be in my office after your morning classes. I am giving you detention duty tonight and a pay deduction for the next week. I trust that this will not happen again. Now, do you two idiots understand what I am saying or do you need a translator?” Some of the students around them begin to giggle at the question. Selenia points at them and they immediately begin doing push-ups on the dirt-covered floor.
“We understand. Thank you for the warning,” Luke replies. His eyes never leave Selenia’s until she turns away and walks out of the building. Everyone can feel the front door slam shut.
Eventually, Nimby builds up the courage to look up at Luke. “She’s always like that, but it’s best to watch your step around here for a week. Anyway, I have to go help Kevin update the student files and put in my orders for woodshop supplies. We can get together later if you want an exciting tour of the academy. We’ve already gotten in trouble together, so we’re friends now. That’s the halfling way. Or is it my family motto? I always get those two mixed up. Just meet me by the fountain after dinner. Good luck avoiding more trouble.”
Nimby looks around before jumping onto the table and diving out the nearest window. He hits the ground and rolls, making a dash toward the main building. Luke smiles and shakes his head as he gets up to leave for the dormitory. As the forest tracker walks by, the half-elven priest stops writing in his book and gives a stone-faced nod to him. Luke waves back and drops off his empty plate with Betty, the old woman smiling cheerfully and handing him an apple. Luke leaves the humid building, taking a deep breath of fresh air as a cool breeze whips around him.
He already misses the forest and being surrounded by the smell of trees. His most recent encounters did very little to put him at ease. As much as he enjoys human interactions, Luke never liked dealing with people who battled for superiority in conversations. He also can’t shake the feeling that the academy is going to be a lot like it was in his hometown. He shudders at the memories of never having a moment’s peace and everyone having lofty expectations of him that he would rather ignore. Although, he does feel like he has more freedom in the academy even with the wall blocking him from the forest. Luke breaks from thoughts and sets out across the courtyard, heading for a building with the green flag.
“It can’t be all bad, Luke,” he says to himself. “I already made a friend out of Nimby. He may be blunt and a source of trouble, but I have to admit that I like him. He doesn’t fit in with the seriousness of this place, which is almost suffocating me. I should be fair though. I’ve only been here a few hours, so it could be a lot more fun than I expect. Right, Stile . . .” Luke suddenly remembers that the noble shepherd is no longer by his side. He pushes away the melancholy feeling before it can take hold, making a mental note to visit Stiletto after lunch with a snack or two from Betty.
The dorm is made out of thick logs kept together by long, thin dowels and patches of hardened tree sap. The inside of the narrow building is an open space with nothing to separate each student’s personal space. Every student has a cot, a nightstand, a footlocker, and a small, lockable wardrobe, all made out of oak. At the back of the building is another door, which has the symbol of a drop of water etched and painted on it. No other students are around as Luke carefully arranges his gear in the wardrobe. A clean academy uniform is hanging on each door, so he lays one of them on his bed to look it over. The colors are royal blue and yellow with a line of white down each arm. A piece of paper falls out of a shirt pocket and Luke catches it, discovering that it is his schedule. The only open slots on the schedule are for eating and two hours of daily recreational time. He tucks the schedule under his pillow and locks his gear in the wardrobe, slipping the key into his boot cuff.
“I know that messenger told me to keep my mission a secret, but a lowly student can only do so much without raising a few questions. I can let my pride take a hit if it means keeping the heir safe,” Luke says to himself, lying down and thinking about his situation. “Nimby has access to the files that I need, so I can bring him in after I get to know him better. Thomas, Kevin, and Selenia are not going to work. Although part of me thinks Kevin might have a suspicion that I’m not what I seem. Thomas seems to want fame about as much as I do, so that would cause problems if I decided to go to him. Duggan, Jamie, and Betty would probably go to Selenia, so they’re out. I wouldn’t want to get Jamie and Betty involved anyway. I guess that leaves me with Nimby for now. He seems friendly and maybe he knows other people around here who can help. Of course, the level of trouble he’ll cause will make this whole affair ten times harder than it has to be.”
From the open windows he can hear the distant sound of wooden weapons clashing and instructors bellowing at students.
“Luke, you are in way over your head,” he mutters under his breath.