Chapter 3:

the exam

Aboard the Winnow

6PM, Winnow, navigation room. Ysh’vanna taps on the email icon, scrolls down a kilometre-long list of junk, then empties her entire inbox into the trash. She taps back into her draft right after. Her fingers hover over the keyboard, poised to type—yet she can’t figure out for the life of her what she should be typing.Bookmark here

Her eyes flit over to Auren. The thought of asking the big, sensitive Gallian for help crosses her mind for only the briefest of seconds before she wipes it clean from her head with a quick shake. He’s an Eldrak Gallian. His only parental figure growing up had been the ethereal world in its raw, unfiltered glory—and you can’t exactly email a mountain.Bookmark here

She rubs her face. The email window closes and the navigation panel flickers to a dark blue. “Sure wonder how Avett’s faring with Lili,” she mumbles.Bookmark here

Auren answers, “I would imagine them to be just fine, Ysh’vanna.” Bookmark here

That dark, sinister feeling’s starting to get really uncomfortable in her stomach. “If Avett doesn’t pull it off—” She stops herself. She’s spiralling again. Bookmark here

“Then I will train her myself. Perhaps you should focus on your own ordeals. Such as that email to your mother.”Bookmark here

“You saw,” she says. Her hand slaps the table as she picks herself up from the seat. “Well, whatever. I’ll just get it done before our mandatory leave, it’s—whatever.”Bookmark here

Auren looks like he’s about to say something, but he looks away from Ysh’vanna at the last second. “Avett… is a smart boy. I trust in him, more than I would like to admit. You should do the same.”Bookmark here

She forces a smile. As she always does. “Right. Believe in Avett.”Bookmark here

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“How many motherfucking drinks can you fuckin’ hold down, princess?!” Bookmark here

Fourth shot. Fifth shot. If Lili drinks them all in quick succession, she won’t feel the effects of the alcohol, allowing her to quickly slam back another three or so before she starts getting faint. The next shot’s scent shoots straight up her nostrils, leaving her with a crazy migraine; she has to pinch her nose just to get it down. The bartender clicks his tongue and returns to his idle conversation with a ram-horned woman; Palerians, she’d learned that they were called. She’s dressed to impress. Maybe Lili should find some new clothes to wear—her baggy sweater and ankle-length jeans are just not cutting it here.Bookmark here

But she digresses. Seventh shot—shit. By the eighth, Avett’s finally cracked and holding her wrist flush against the table. “Okay, okay—I get it. You drink. That’s enough.” Bookmark here

Drink? She’s hardly even feeling that sweet spot between feeling buzzed and being absolutely trashed. “I don’t feel anything,” she admits.Bookmark here

“Seriously? Is your liver made out of iron?” He raises an eyebrow and places a hand against her forehead. Lili hadn’t been watching, but he’s definitely had more than one shot. “Are you meant to be flushing like that?”Bookmark here

“Don’t feel anything after Ava died.”Bookmark here

She senses the concern in his eyes. Shit. Gotta backpedal fast. “I meant alcohol doesn’t hit as hard anymore. I dunno why.”Bookmark here

“Who’s Ava?” he asks after a while.Bookmark here

She stares down the piss-yellow liquid in her shot glass. Ava. Ava. Her name sends cascades of fire licking up her back and into her head, makes her teeth clack together. She hates her. She’s well aware of what she’d done to her for eighteen years. So why can’t she fucking forget her? Why is it that whenever she’s upset, she can hear this bitch’s voice in her head, talking and talk— Bookmark here

Lili’s wings unfurl, glowing a beautiful cyan blue. Her ether rushes down her veins and into her hands, meeting her newfound anger like she’s trying to mix diluted watercolours together. They roll and collide into each other; they eddy and turn to brown.Bookmark here

The shot glass explodes into tiny shards. Pain arcs through her hands. Blood follows not a moment after.Bookmark here

Avett jumps back. He spares one look at the bartender—still chatting away with the Palerian woman—before sliding off his seat and guiding Lili out of the bar by the shoulders. Once they’re well and clear of the bar’s golden glow, he guides her body down against a wall, underneath a faintly flickering lamp post. Bookmark here

“Hand. Out.” Bookmark here

When Lili doesn’t respond, he wraps his fingers around her wrist again and pulls it out into the open himself. It’s then that she realises that he’s got a pair of dull tweezers.Bookmark here

“Fuck. I’m fine.” She makes no effort to pull her hand back.Bookmark here

Sharp, red-hot pain sparks through her hand again. Avett lifts something into the air—a small cut of glass, glittering in the shitty lighting.Bookmark here

She grits her teeth. “I can do it myself.”Bookmark here

“Seven shots in? Nice try.” He drops the shard and starts picking at another.Bookmark here

“Why do you care so much?” she asks.Bookmark here

“Because,” he answers. Another bright shock of pain spreads outward; Lili’s jaw stiffens. “You’re fucking injured.”Bookmark here

She blinks; her eyes stay closed for a millisecond too long. “I’m not asking about that. You changed your mind about me so quickly at the store.” A one-eighty heel turn like that feels off. People don’t just change convictions like clothes. Bookmark here

Avett taps his soles against the pavement. “You’re a lot more aware of things than you let on, princess.”Bookmark here

“I’m drunk.” She shrugs. “I was worried I was wrong… but obviously I’m not worried anymore.”Bookmark here

He sighs, his tweezers stopping their prolonged assault against a particularly deep shard. “Had a bad run-in with some humans. My first day here. I was nineteen. I’d heard from my seniors that the majority of humans that I’d meet on Earth would be less than hospitable towards off-landers… but—fuck. We had to stop in the Hive for some quick repairs, but I got curious and snuck off into one of the stores.”Bookmark here

Lili’s reminded all too soon of her own encounter with the Draconian store owner. Bookmark here

Avett continues—the shard pops free from her skin. “Don’t mean to brag, but that day? Found out just how far you could get with an empty blaster and some fast legwork.” Bookmark here

Silence. Even as the alcohol starts to make its grand, numbing tour around her body, she can’t think of anything witty to say. Even in her current state, she knows what he’s planning; behind those honest words is a test to see if she’ll give a single shit about how he came to be the asshole he was today. If she’ll side with her own people—or with him. “So that’s why you’re wary of me.”Bookmark here

“I’m wary of you because you look like the type of person who’ll just run into something, guns blazing, without thinking.” Another shard comes free—this time, she winces. Avett presses a ball of cotton into her palm. “Now I know that you think. You’ve just got poor judgement. But I’m sorry for shoving a gun into your mouth, if that’s what you’re referring to.”Bookmark here

Ouch. Brutally honest, and he’s not even four shots of hard liquor in. She’s gotta change the conversation before it ends with him berating her to no end. After several beats of silence, she says, “I used to fantasise about stuff like this.” Bookmark here

“What, slamming seven shots in front of a handsome, strapping, capable lad?” His ears twitch.Bookmark here

Ignored. She continues, “I went to an all-girls high school, so shitty young adult novels were all I had. I always… had this fantasy that a dark prince with tousled hair and light stubble would just sweep me up at the annual spring ball, and we’d dance around our emotions—pretending to hate each other, because loving the other person was just too hard to accept.” It’s not as if she means any of the stuff she’s laying down, but at that moment she lets her eyes float towards Avett’s in the most earnest way possible. Bookmark here

It works. His grip tightens, just a little. Then, with a sudden jerk, he quite literally wrestles another shard out of her skin, this time with little to no care for her wellbeing at all. She winces. At least he’s distracted. “You’re a fucking deviant. Sheltered to shit. You’ve got no idea of how you’re meant to talk to guys, do you.”Bookmark here

“I dunno how to talk to anybody anymore, really.”Bookmark here

“Can tell.”Bookmark here

The lights are so unfairly bright when she looks out onto the street. They’d chosen a well known area, far from the narrow streets and shady, towering apartments. For good reason too—she hadn’t realised that at exactly 6PM, the overhead floodlights would turn off and the street lamps would flicker on, simulating a faux day-to-night cycle within the sanctuary. The people around them have changed from young, strapping mercenaries to people in tight pencil skirts, in clothing that just seems to glow rebelliously against the backdrop of the night. Bookmark here

Finally, after what seems to be an eternity of sudden pains and bloody glass shards, Avett starts to wrap his bandages around her hand. His leather gloves feel warm against her pulsating skin. Bookmark here

“Don’t you hate me?” Lili mumbles. Bookmark here

“You asking because you want approval, or because you’re thinking about getting off to it later?”Bookmark here

It feels unbearably hot. Maybe doing seven shots of hard liquor back to back hadn’t been the best idea after all. “Asking for a friend.”Bookmark here

He knots the bandage. “Figure it out yourself when you’re sober.”Bookmark here

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Day two of being in Australia. Ysh’vanna’s driven them all the way out to an empty spread of grass—or at least, that’s what Lili had seen at first. When the ship draws closer to land, its engines whirring into action, she sees the land for what it actually is. Or was; a forest, each tree levelled to the ground. She hadn’t seen earlier because of the overgrown grass, encroached on the stumps like knock-off rows of ivy.Bookmark here

Not surprisingly, when Lili comes to pick Avett out of bed, his ears start twitching uncontrollably at her mere footsteps. A groan leaves his lips not a moment after. “Aren’t you hungover?” he asks.Bookmark here

Lili shrugs. He mumbles something incoherent under his breath and rolls over. Guess he won’t be training her today.Bookmark here

Good thing there’s Auren. Getting him to go outside had been easier than the former.Bookmark here

The Gallian man is dressed in a perfectly ironed-out red cape that buttons up on the side. He’s wearing something with long sleeves underneath, and for pants, he’s got a pair of baggy slacks that taper at the end near his shins. His slender arms are folded. “I am surprised that you are not hungover, Lili. I did, however, expect you to have better judgement than to drink after training.”Bookmark here

She looks to her left hand—still bandaged, though she knows that if she lets Auren look too closely, he’ll know that it’s not a sparring injury. She hides it behind her back. “I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t have let Avett talk me into it.”Bookmark here

“What matters now is that you are here.” He readies himself, though it’s not a fighting stance that he’s assuming—he folds his arms in front of him. “I want you to hit me with your blade.”Bookmark here

Auren isn’t exactly the sturdiest fighter around. One misaimed hit, and it looks like he might actually end up with a few broken bones. Lili shuffles on her feet awkwardly. “S-seriously?”Bookmark here

“What are you waiting for?” He squares his shoulders. “Perhaps if you need to warm up, to stretch your limbs before exerting strength—”Bookmark here

“I mean—I hit hard, I can hit hard.” She lets the world’s ether rush into her wings, her veins, to mingle with her own personal reservoir of it before concentrating all of that energy into a bright, faintly pulse blade. “I don’t know if you want that.”Bookmark here

“Are you underestimating me?” The Gallian raises his chin. He’s already at least two heads taller than her, so this is pretty unnecessary, Lili thinks. Doesn’t make him any less intimidating.Bookmark here

Her heel taps on the ground twice. “Ok, I’m coming,” she calls out. With her sneakers slapping against the grass, she readies a swing, her blade aimed right for his upper arm—Bookmark here

No. She can’t do that. Her first hit goes wide, directed towards the empty space between his neck and shoulder. Only it doesn’t go through. She’s hit something. Something hard, unforgiving, and unyielding. Her blade bounces back—her body follows it, and she stumbles back. Bookmark here

She looks up. Floating around Auren is a sphere of pure, faintly shimmering, raw ether. Before she can even marvel at the beauty of a Gallian shield, Auren’s voice booms through the field. Bookmark here

“We will not be ending this session until you manage to fracture my shield, or until you understand how I have manifested it.” A light smile graces his features—it’s hard not to imagine him as a beatific god, with those literal strands of solar energy radiating from his head like he’s a small star. “Now—are you willing to hit me?”Bookmark here

Training with Auren lasts for both an eternity and an instant. Each time her blade collides with his barrier, she feels a little bit of her ether leave her body, as little sense as that makes. An hour later, and she’s on the floor, her vision blurry, and Auren’s shield as sturdy as ever. Bookmark here

“BluEther,” he says simply. A packet of the stuff lands next to her head. “Take it. Then we start again.”Bookmark here

With a rough exhale, she slams her hand over the packet and nearly makes its contents squirt out onto the grass. Upon closer inspection, she finds that BluEther’s design looks very similar to a Capri Sun, plastic-wrapped straw and all. The only difference is the texture of the drink, if she can even call it that. It has the consistency of watery instant mashed potatoes. Bookmark here

“Still don’t know how this is meant to help me,” she mumbles between mouthfuls. “If I’m channelling ether from the environment, then why is it that I still hemorrhage personal ether?”Bookmark here

Auren doesn’t move from his position. “You are simply not an Eldrak Gallian. Hence why you must use wings to manipulate ether.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, and?” Bookmark here

“As such, your body cannot handle foreign ether. It must be filtered through your wings beforehand. But in order for you to use that ether, it must be introduced into your body.” His hair radiates outwards again, and Lili is reminded of her lowly human status. “Your wings can do more than siphon ether from the environment. They take a sample of your personal ether, combine it with the ether you’ve gathered, and only then can you use foreign ether safely.”Bookmark here

Lili keeps sipping. “And because you’re Gallian, you don’t have to do all that.”Bookmark here

“An Eldrak Gallian, I am more commonly referred to.” He folds his arms. “New Order Gallians… they are not so ethereally nimble as I. A shame that they choose to betray their heritage, though I harbour no ill will towards their decision.”Bookmark here

Lili looks back at the sky. Even though it’s early August, the heat still rolls off her forearms like waves of hot water. That’s not to mention what it’s doing to her legs, which are trapped underneath her jeans and feeling like a miniature sauna. She clenches her jaw against the urge to rip off her hoodie.Bookmark here

“Alright.” She rises back to her feet. “I’m, uh, ready.”Bookmark here

He chuckles. “I do admire your resolve. Allow me to give you a much-needed hint.” Lili flinches at that. ’Much needed’ indeed. “Try focusing on my shield.”Bookmark here

She stares it down. The barrier is still swirling around Auren, a suspension of wispy blue inks against the dull landscape. It’s guarding him at all angles. Bookmark here

“I did not mean for you to start a staring contest with it.” Auren folds his arms. “Focus on its ethereal makeup. How did I create it? Discerning its properties, understanding that the barrier in front of you is not a static obstacle, but a living, breathing construct, is the first step to destroying it.”Bookmark here

She freezes. This is cool and all, but it’s just an elaborate way for Auren to tell her that her shielding needs some work. “And how do I do that?” she asks.Bookmark here

“Your mind is a weapon. Direct your ether towards mine. You must think of it as your third arm. You are already able to manifest your ether, so this should be relatively simple.”Bookmark here

Lili shuts her eyes. Relatively simple for a Gallian, or anyone for that matter—but not for her. It took her a good five months to understand ether manifestation in the first place, whereas Ava had only taken one. She thinks about the way she’d formed her blade earlier, the sheer pin-prick concentration she needed to spread her power from hilt to tip. How her hands had pulsed with raw power.Bookmark here

Then she thinks about the barrier in front of her. Surprisingly, her method works. She sees something hard, solid—a creation of adamant diamond. The surface is smooth. But that’s all she can see. It’s an impenetrable sea of pure crystal if she tries to look any further. Bookmark here

She reels her power back in. “The barrier works both ways. I can’t see anything after the surface.”Bookmark here

“But what is on the surface?” Auren presses.Bookmark here

Shutting her eyes again, she places her ethereal hands onto the barrier. What is she meant to be looking for? It’s all solid—isn’t that the same as her own shields? What should she be learning?Bookmark here

Taking a step back, she leaps and strikes out her blade into Auren again. Her attack connects, and her mind flies right back into the wall of glass. Bookmark here

There—right where the tip of her blade’s touching the surface of that once impenetrable shield is a facet, so fine and delicately formed that she’d have missed it had she not slammed her sword into the surface out of desperation. His barrier isn’t entirely smooth after all. Bookmark here

She draws back, tries to imagine her own shields as not a smooth pane of crystal but as a multifaceted, crafted gem. It takes more than one try, but as soon as she’s got it, she rams herself into his barrier.Bookmark here

It shatters. Like a crystal cut at the wrong angle. So does her own. Bookmark here

Auren trips backward. His body is not used to the intense momentum that she’s forced onto him all of a sudden, but that doesn’t mean he’s not ready for her. He sidesteps her easily. She faceplants into the grass.Bookmark here

“I did it.” Her voice is muffled.Bookmark here

“I noticed your shielding needed a bit of work on the technical side.” Auren offers her a hand; she accepts it. “You should not be recoiling so much now.”Bookmark here

“Is that all? If I just want to bring down someone’s shields, I just ram them with my own?” It seems far too simple. There must be a catch behind it. She flexes her fingers for any signs of injuries.Bookmark here

“Not everyone will have a basic shield.” The air in front of Auren wavers again, and another shield appears. “Experienced casters might imbue their shields with a counterspell. Or their shields may simply be stronger. My affinity is warding, so I am the latter.”Bookmark here

So Auren had shown her a flimsy shield. Lili’s heart sinks. Her hour-long training session feels like she’s just wasted her time on fundamentals. Bookmark here

“What’s this affinity thing?” Lili asks instead. Bookmark here

“Every soul has an inclination towards one aspect of casting. Your body will see it as natural—akin to moving a limb or having a thought. Acting in accordance with your affinity expends little to no ether at all.” He raises his chin at her. “Yours appears to be body enhancement.”Bookmark here

“Natural.” Lili observes her hands. “But if I try to send ether to more than two parts of my body, I get this massive headache and I feel like I’m getting overwhelmed.”Bookmark here

“Have you ever tried to lift more than you physically could? Without using your ether, of course. Your control over your affinity is a muscle. It may come naturally to you at first, though utilising it to its full potential will not.” Auren flicks his wrist, and the miniature barrier in his hand is gone. “Now recreate your shield and destroy it immediately after. You will do this two hundred times over the next hour.”Bookmark here

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Lili had ended up collapsing after the first fifty, only forty-five minutes in. At first she tried conserving her ether, but that plan went straight out the window when Auren began to fire non-lethal projectiles at her between shields. He had rained down multiple apologies onto her, and even though she humbly accepted and deflected most of them, he still chose to end training prematurely, his rationale being that she would sprain her ethereal muscle or something. Lili was too tired to understand.Bookmark here

The next two days passed like this. They would fly out to the same field, run through some ethereal theory, and then she would be drilled into the ground by Auren’s hellish exercises until sunset. Then they would fly back to the Afflatus and dine on Gallian meals, shower, then prepare for bed. Bookmark here

The third day passed similarly. Unsurprisingly, Auren had caught onto her weakness on the second day. Lili could not aim for shit. “You have to see the target in your mind before anything else, Lili,” he had said. She’d been staring down a faraway tree trunk amidst the grass. At least when the mercy of the sunset finally arrived, she could confidently say that she almost hit it.Bookmark here

When she leaves the bathroom, her body feeling well-cleaned and deliciously limber from the previous hour’s activities, Avett is leaning against the wall directly in front of her.Bookmark here

She hasn’t exactly been in contact with this guy for a while, despite them living on the same ship. “What is it?” she asks.Bookmark here

“I’m sick of Gallian food.”Bookmark here

Lili thinks back to last night’s dinner. Auren had sautéed a seasonal blend of root vegetables and stuffed potatoes full of lentils and spices. “What’s wrong? It was good.”Bookmark here

He glares at her like she’s stupid. “Don’t tell me you’re one of them too.”Bookmark here

“Them?”Bookmark here

His hand makes a beckoning motion. “Vegetarians.”Bookmark here

She shrugs. “I don’t get it. What’s your point?”Bookmark here

“The point is,” he says as he walks down the corridor, “is that I’m heading off ship to get my own food. I’m sick of vegetables and no substance. Auren refuses to stock meat on board and Ysh’vanna doesn’t care as long as it’s him putting food on the plate.” Bookmark here

Lili does feel curious about Therius’ foreign cuisines. Some of the stalls she passed earlier that week had looked interesting, and some dishes had even looked vaguely similar to human cuisine. There’s one problem though. Bookmark here

“I don’t have any money,” she says.Bookmark here

“You think I’m evil enough to invite you out and expect you to not eat?” He waves his card in the air. Bookmark here

Feeling a bit brave, she looks Avett right in the eyes. “Yeah, I do.”Bookmark here

He turns right away and laughs as he steps off the ship. Lili follows him.Bookmark here

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Lili is going to die.Bookmark here

Her throat feels like it’s flaring up. There’s a furnace in her stomach, and someone’s fanning the flames like they’re about to mold glass. “Water,” she manages to choke out. The Kattish store owner smirks before walking over the sink with a glass and turning the tap on. She gulps down her drink immediately. It does little to soothe her mouth.Bookmark here

“You can hold your liquor, avoid getting hungover after seven shots.” Avett taps his chopsticks against his bowl of noodles. The red oil wobbles around the surface when he does. “But stars forbid you have the mildest option on the Casa-Ilgash menu.”Bookmark here

Lili can’t answer. She calls for another glass of water, gulps that one down too. “Don’t worry,” she says. She tries to sound cool, but it’s hard being tough when your voice is the vocal equivalent of sandpaper right now. “I’m used to pain.”Bookmark here

Avett snorts. “Need another napkin? You’re crying.”Bookmark here

Her bowl is a blurry mess. She blinks, and her tears fall into the soup. “I’m not crying,” she says as evenly as possible. Bookmark here

The store owner just keeps grinning. “Humans. Seem to be hit or miss when it comes to ‘gashian spices.” She looks at Avett. “Looks like you missed.”Bookmark here

Lili digs her chopsticks back into the soup with gusto. “I have spices for breakfast.” Oh god, she’s getting delirious from the heat, isn’t she? “Mum used to make me have spicy noodles all the time. I’m used to it.”Bookmark here

She takes another bite—and instantly regrets it.Bookmark here

“Something tells me she didn’t have the best childhood,” the store owner whispers into Avett’s ear. Bookmark here

Eventually, she gives in. Her soup is barely half-drained, and there are still so many flat noodles that she just knows are floating around the bottom like white eels in murky pond water—but she’d rather strip down in public than take another sip. She places her chopsticks on top of her bowl and rests her forehead against the counter.Bookmark here

“Why’s it the same kind of spice here too…?” she whimpers. She’d expected a totally foreign taste unlike anything she’s had on Earth, but this just tastes like Sichuan-style noodles with a sugary aftertaste. The spices burn the same too. Like she’s eating a mouthful of TV static.Bookmark here

The store owner shrugs. “If you threw two groups of people into roughly the same environment, they’d probably end up developing roughly the same technology and culture. That’s what they teach us in school, anyway.” She turns her attention back to Lili. “Can I get you anything else?”Bookmark here

Lili slides her bowl over to Avett. “I’m sorry for wasting your money.”Bookmark here

“No big deal. I expected more from you, but I guess it’s on me for choosing this place.” He shrugs. “We’ll clean up and get you something else.”Bookmark here

Panic spikes through her. “No—I mean, thanks, but don’t. It’s fine.” She doesn’t want to spend more of his money, but the empty sensation in her stomach’s gnawing at her like a puppy that hasn’t been properly broken in yet. Bookmark here

And, also like a puppy that hasn’t been properly broken in yet, her stomach growls its disapproval. Loudly.Bookmark here

“You have your test tomorrow, Lilith.” He starts shovelling the rest of her noodles into his mouth. It’s only when he’s finished with his bowl that he starts talking again. “You’re not sleeping on an empty stomach. I’m not letting you.”Bookmark here

Avett’s sudden use of her actual name leaves her reeling. It’s a good enough distraction for him to start walking off to some other, less spicy food stall before Lili can make any further objections.Bookmark here

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Day of the test. She’s been drunk, thoroughly drilled through the basics of ethereal theory, then beaten into the ground over and over by Auren spanning a period of five days. When she arrives at the Afflatus’ local Inter-Realm Concern station, she finds that it’s one of the only buildings in this sanctuary that’s been well kept. It’s not a part of the walls; it’s been built from the ground up because natural sanctuary formations are just too vulgar for Inter-Realm Concern employees, it seems. Only Auren is here with her—Avett and Ysh’vanna had preparations to make before taking the trip back to the Hive. Bookmark here

Lili tries her hardest not to be daunted by the sheer opulence of the floor-to-ceiling windows that greet her like the queen’s soldiers as she walks through the entrance. That’s the last thing she needs. She finds it ironic that even years after the fall of civilisation, she’s still stressing out over graded tests. Bookmark here

“Good luck.” Auren rubs her shoulder. “You should not require my blessings if our training served its purpose.”Bookmark here

Blunt. Lili just smiles at the Draconian man that’s currently working through her documents. After a good five minutes of rifling through papers and nodding to himself, he says, “Alright, Lilith Wang-Rosales. You may enter the testing room.”Bookmark here

She gives Auren one last glance before following the man into the room.Bookmark here

The room is completely dark. The Draconian man has to turn on the lights, and when he does, it’s like she’s been thrust directly into the sun. That’s because everything in this room is white. The walls, the floors, even the dust bunnies in the corner probably—all white. There’s a mirror in front of her, and in front of that is a single desk and chair. On top of the table are several sheets of paper. One dastardly pen rests next to it.Bookmark here

Lili can feel her soul melting into her body. Bookmark here

“You have an hour,” the man says. “The timer will start once you write down your name, and it will end once you leave the examination room. Good luck.”Bookmark here

She takes her seat at the table. Good luck this, good luck that. Good luck does nothing if she’s taking a dumb, written exam due to the arbitary decisions of some intergalactic Ministry of Education that she could not give less shits about. She scribbles down her name, and a timer in red LED projects itself above the mirror in front of her.Bookmark here

There’s no way that’s an actual mirror. Bookmark here

Fine. This is savable. She looks at the first question.Bookmark here

An S rank dragon approaches your crew and appears to only show interest in your ship. You are fifty metres away from the entrance. Do you: Bookmark here

A: order your backline crew to take off without you, B: ask your ship to wait for you before leaving, C: sprint after your ship as it leaves in hopes of intercepting it mid-air, or D: stand you—

This question just goes on and on. Lili can’t see an objectively correct answer. She quickly scans down the paper. They’re all the damn same—they lack just enough context for her to make any educated assumptions, but not enough for her to feel good about leaving a random answer. Bookmark here

She grits her teeth and does the latter anyway. A bad rank can’t be so bad if both Auren and Ysh’vanna are just going to lift her and Avett by the scruff of their necks into a more acceptable rank, right?Bookmark here

Lili thinks about the lowest possible score as she marks her way down the paper. That’s an E. If she gets an E1, theoretically the lowest she can get that isn’t a complete fail mark, she’ll be dragging her team down into… a D? She gulps. Nausea rolls through her like a vicious heatwave. That’s terrible. Bookmark here

By the time she’s neared the second to last page, the clock’s only at twenty-five minutes and thirty seconds. No good. She wonders how she’s going to break the news to her crew members. That they won’t be getting a new member. That they’ll be heading off to the Hive without her. Bookmark here

As she pens in the last answer, she’s already got a pretty good idea of what she has to say to Auren. A wave of calm washes over her. It’s over. It was dumb of her to think that she’d even remotely have a chance of getting anywhere without Ava’s guidance. Without her, she’s just a nuisance.Bookmark here

She’s so busy wallowing in her own self-depreciative filth that she almost misses the projectile that’s aimed straight for her head. Her arm raises instinctively to her ear, and her shield forms in the air, not a millisecond later. The projectile explodes against her shield, but its faceted, reinforced surface keeps her body from toppling over the chair and falling to the ground. Bookmark here

She holds her shield there for a few seconds, thankful for Auren’s gruelling training sessions. Then it occurs to her that these guys shot her. That’s their idea of a fair test. Bookmark here

Lili just picks herself up from the seat and walks out of the exam room. She hands over her papers to the Draconian man, who responds with a droll, “We will have your results shortly, ma’am,” before shuffling her papers into what appears to be a glorified scanner. Automatic marking. Shit. Nausea boils through her veins again. She’s not ready to accept her fate so damn soon.Bookmark here

“How was the test, princess?”Bookmark here

She wheels on her heel and finds that Avett has replaced Auren. They must’ve swapped while she was in the exam room. He’s sitting slouched and cross-legged on a black, leather sofa that looks way too expensive for someone who looks like Avett. She takes her seat next to him. “They made me do a written exam and then shot me in the head,” she whispers.Bookmark here

He mouths a curse. Bookmark here

She fidgets with her fingers. “I, um, didn’t do that well on the written.”Bookmark here

Avett doesn’t say anything to that. Maybe because he’s actually keen on leaving her on the Afflatus. She doesn’t know for sure.Bookmark here

After what seems like an eternity, the man calls her full name. He hands her papers back face down. She almost doesn’t want to turn it over.Bookmark here

Like ripping off a bandaid, she does it anyway.Bookmark here

It takes a trip back to the couch for her to totally register her grade. Avett leans over to look at her exam.Bookmark here

“C5?” He raises an eyebrow. “I thought you said you flunked the exam.”Bookmark here

She hands the exam over to him. She’s shell shocked enough as it is. Just looking at the thing makes her want to tear out her stomach and other butterfly-riddled organs.Bookmark here

“Huh, look at this.” He flips the page over. “Practical response: A2. Responded to the threat calmly and with pin-prick precision. Written response… D1. Judgement leaves much to be desired.” Bookmark here

She clutches her head. It’s like she’s just narrowly avoided a bullet. Which wouldn’t be too far off from the truth.Bookmark here

Avett plucks the attached card from the back of the exam and drops it into Lili’s hands. He’s saying something to her, but Lili can’t figure out for the life of her what it is. She’s too dazed, far too deep inside her own mind. She got a C5. That means she’s following the Winnow back to the Hive, and she’ll be working with their crew for the foreseeable future. Bookmark here

All this without Ava.Bookmark here

With the weight of her written exam’s grade still resting on her shoulders, Lili can’t even find it in herself to properly celebrate. She probably needs some rest.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.