A War Fought In The Past, Yet Waged Now And Tomorrow
"Students! Today marks a new day! And with a new day begins new opportunities!" A portly yet oddly stout man roared from atop the stairs, his voice neither shrill nor harsh yet carrying an air of authority that reached down onto the group of students below. Some listened with mild interest while others simply waited for it to be over, though most if not all were rather inattentive.
Lan was of the former group, standing in the middle of a line and feeling utterly stiffened by the man's words. He was wearing his uniform for the first time, which felt both too tight and not tight enough, and the urge was there to adjust it until he had reached a suitable equilibrium. The boy did not follow through on that desire, as with the rest of the students being as still as statues, he would certainly stand out if he dare try.
A faint grogginess still held over his head, one that had lasted since he had been so rudely awakened by the sound of a bell ringing. He jolted up from his bed to find that the sun was barely visible, and that Orson was already gone. Unsure of where to go and what to do, he simply dressed in the uniform given to him before he arrived and went to find Aira, who was at the exact same place she was yesterday. Lan had felt as if she had never left from that spot, and upon inquiring her about the situation she simply said that an assembly will happen in an hour near the main Academy building, and that he had best prepare himself.
Lan's preparations simply consisted of breakfast in the dining hall and a trip to the latrines, and soon he made his way to the large stairs that he had yet to climb, and saw that the students were already beginning to form. They were arrayed in identical square formations of twenty students each, with no discernable categorizations.
He tried to fit into one, only to find that the other students were less than welcoming to his presence and eyed him viciously. It was intimidating enough that he immediately found another square to reside in, where they merely reacted with indifference rather than near violent hostility. Only later did he learn how he had erred, when two students carrying the flags of Roduchy and Piranthy began to walk through the squares, stopping near the center of it. He had unwittingly moved to a square containing Roduchian students, who clearly knew that the boy was not one of them, through both appearance and demeanor.
Attempting to ignore his mistake, Lan simply waited until another few rings of the bell was heard, each louder than the previous one. A third flagbearer now walked down the center, waving the white flag of Miserati and trailed by a line of proctors, teachers and other men and woman several years his senior. They walked up the steps of the Academy building, spreading out onto a long row with the portly man in the center, who quickly began to talk after the ringing of the bell had quieted.
"You all walk different roads, but here these roads are one!" The man continued, his crimson cape lined with golden threads. "Piranthians! Roduchians! You are not merely these things, but are now Miserati! The heirs of a new Osvir, who will continue its glorious legacy!"
"Cheap words coming from a fat noble..." Lan heard someone within his square mutter those words, though he couldn't tell who it was. The words were full of contempt, and regardless of where it originated from, the students surrounding him gave subtle agreements to that accusation.
He tried to block out those words while looking at the elders standing above him, spotting Cipre among them, looking as carefree as he usually did beside his more dour peers. They all wore maroon capes, which he thought was likely a way to identify a proctor by color. The other capes he saw were groups of black, blue, green and crimson, whose function he did not yet know, though a woman wearing a singular white cape stood out to him.
"I will now defer the rest to the headmistress." The portly man concluded before drawing back, with Lan only now realizing that he had completely ignored the rest of his speech. The woman in the white cape stood forward, and now drew murmurs from both noble and common students, barely attempting to keep what they were saying hushed. Several reverent sobriquets were used, and the ones that Lan recognized made him realize just who she was.
The Bridger of New Osvir. The Blade of Alient's Fields. Those were some of her many titles, though her name was just as commonly known. Meryndi Einhertt, the woman who brought the devastating war to a halt through her own actions against both squabbling factions, and subsequently forged the terms of the peace that followed. A person that both sides treated with a mix of gratitude, fear, weariness, and especially respect.
She wore a fairly simple garb despite her high station, a robe that was as white as her cape, nearly reaching her feet and held by a chain like sash. Her face was completely unreadable as she gazed upon the crowd, and her icy blue eyes were cold and calculating, and Lan thought that she was staring right at him even when she was looking in another direction. Even as she moved her Meryndi herself gave an aura of being immovable. She bore no obvious weapon, yet he somehow felt that among students and mentors, the woman who had so decisively forced the end of a years long conflict was the most powerful of them all.
"Children of Osvir!" She said in a booming voice, raising her hand up high in a fist, as if in salutation. "I come before you now to speak of the truth of this Academy! I would like to say that this was a place where we could destroy the barriers that have been erected in the wake of errors past, that the line between a noble and a common man, Roduchian and Piranthian, is null and void here. But that would be a lie!"
"Even now the strife and dissent that once caused countrymen kill each other without mercy or remorse remains a plague that has infected this nation! You spent only a small fraction of your lives under a united banner, and now you're expected to spend the rest of it in opposition with each other! The mere existence of one side is an affront to the other, that is what you have been taught under the guidance of men and women standing beside me right now!"
At that final remark, several of the proctors and teachers looked either away from Meryndi or directly at her, the former in embarrassment and mildly held contempt in the latter's case. Among them was the portly man, who was currently taking a step back as if he did not want to be noticed.
"I have tried to heal the wounds riven with the salve of kindness, to try to make things as they once were. But I soon realized how foolish that was..." The headmistress grew silent, and it almost seemed as if the entire academy had quieted along with her. "So now I hope to try something new, not to try and stem the bleeding but to cauterize it, to forge something new with steel and flame!"
"Though I may be the ultimate arbiter of this Academy, it is up to you to decide the course these next few years will run. From singular students to whole classes, your fate will be in your hands, and reflect the future that awaits Osvir! That awaits everyone beyond these walls! From Gulvr Coast to Aiernguard!"
Lan listened to every word intently, as if not doing so would be like missing an opportunity of a lifetime, and it was an opinion shared by most of his fellow students. Meryndi seemed to grow more and more impassioned with every passing second, her hands raising ever upwards as if it were defying the sky itself. In the end as she took a step back, he could hear the faintest sound of a clap, followed by several more until it became deafening.
The headmistress simply bowed her head before turning back and entering the Academy building, trailed along by the other adults. Once the last of them took a step inside, the students began making their way up the steps, in a regimented and orderly fashion that Lan tried his best to follow. His mind still tried to go back to the speech he had just heard, wanting to play it back over and over again, each time leaving him more awed yet also more perplexed.
That the hero who brought an end to the war wanted peace and reconciliation between the two sides was no surprise, though it was a point that the rest of Osvir vehemently disagreed with. It was something that she had acknowledged in her speech, even going so far as to accuse those directly under her of encouraging that disagreement. Yet even so she seemed determined to in her ideals but her methods remained a puzzle he didn't think he had the vision to solve.
The tight formation that entered the Academy building soon dispersed as students separated in every direction, with Lan looking at the large hall before him, a colossal circular room with a large white board that had many papers pinned to it. Beside it were two circular staircases that curled like snakes upwards, extending towards the very top of the building Lan realized as he walked further in, the center of the building being completely hollow save for a glass roof that allowed sunlight to radiate down and provide light.
Quickly walking to the large board, Lan's eyes moved erratically as he tried to find his name amongst all the various requests, schedules, warnings and correspondence that dotted it. After a while he managed to notice that they were categorized by colors, and soon found his name in a pink piece of paper that had a detailed list of names, locations and times. It was his schedule for the day, which as far as he was told changed on a daily basis, to whatever the faculty thought was best.
His first class would be on the third floor, and with excitement and anticipation in his heart he quickly ascended the steps to officially mark his first day as a student.
The third floor consisted of a circular wall with several wooden doors embedded into them like small gemstones around a ring, each having a bronze plaque on them, a different symbol etched one each one. Some obvious and easy to interpret, others completely alien to Lan.
Thankfully, the one he was headed to was easy enough to spot, walking briskly towards the door with an hourglass marked upon it. Opening it he was met with something nearly hitting his head as it crashed onto the wall beside him, a thud that was only quiet compared to the chatter the prevailed throughout the sloped room inside, which consisted of several long wooden tables spread evenly. Six chairs were behind them, facing the wall which had a large piece of glass strapped to it, looking both translucent yet reflective at the same time.
What truly captured his attention though were the people inside, who all looked at him as he entered, though some immediately went back to what they were doing after a quick glance. The rest simply stared as he made his way into the room proper, the door closing shut behind him without anyone pushing it. All of them wore the same uniforms as he did, though in various different styles. Some had their sleeves rolled up, others having certain rips and tears on the hem of their shirts, while others still had what seemed like a dozen little idiosyncrasies that made them subtly unique. Suddenly Lan felt out of place because his uniform was completely orthodox.
"Hey, you're the kid that walked around with Cipre yesterday, right?" One of them asked, a male who looked far younger than Lan, yet whose voice carried an air of casual seniority. "Rumor has it you're his bastard or something, but rumors are often misleading, so I figured I should ask from the source itself."
Lan couldn't help but feel both intimidated yet annoyed at the insinuation that he was Cipre's bastard, and quickly responded with the truth. "He and I are not related by blood, though I was under his care for a time."
"I figured as much. You two seemed familiar with each other," The young looking student responded, seeming satisfied with the answer. "I'm Karst, unofficial head of this little class of ours."
At that, the entire class either booed in objection or hooted in support, though Karst seemed to treat both as if it were adulation, raising his hands in mocking gratitude. Lan simply looked in utter befuddlement before making his descent to an empty seat, hoping to find one before the class proper began.
Finding a place on the right end of a table in the middle, Lan looked to his left to see who was sitting beside him, which turned out to be a woman with short golden curls. Her eyes were a curious green as she looked at him with a slight smile on his face, and her uniform was a noticeably blue tint rather than the usual grey. Most curious was a chain necklace with a metal boat that dangled onto her neck.
"Hello," She said with a soft voice, though she didn't seem shy as she offered her hand. "Arline. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Lan," He responded in kind, taking her hand and shaking it, noticing how callous her skin was as he did. "Is this your first day as well?"
"No," She answered plainly, letting go and straightening her posture. There was something about the way she acted that seemed rather intriguing to Lan, though he couldn't exactly pinpoint the cause of it. "I've been here for longer, though not by much. So, how does Miserati feel so far?"
"It's..." Lan tried to think about all that had happened since yesterday, so much happening in such a short amount of time. "Overwhelming, I suppose."
"I had that same exact feeling," Arline said in sympathy. "It'll only be exacerbated in the coming days, though you'll have to get used to it after a point."
"I hope so," Lan responded, knowing that acclimation to his new life was a necessity. Taking a deep breath, he gave Arline a smile. "Hopefully I'll have some friends that'll make the task a much easier one."
"You can count me among them," Arline's smile widened, gesturing to the class. "Try not to cast any early judgements about anyone here. We might have out differences, but Piranthians look after our own. No matter how wildly the winds may blow..."
"...A strong home will never be uprooted." Lan finished the saying for her, having heard it used in Mri fairly often, as a way to show solidarity through hardship. A saying that was certainly prevalent among people as war raged around them. "Thank you, Arline."
Their conversation was immediately ended as the door behind them opened with a loud bang, the room immediately silencing as students hurried to their chairs, sitting down immediately while looking forward. Lan instinctively snapped his head forward, hearing the footsteps that were at first faint but grew until he knew someone was right behind him.
Soon he saw the back of that man, towering over all even should they stand up, reaching the end of the room where the glass panel was. As the tall man turned around, Lan could see he was bald save for a beard that covered his mouth and part of his nose, his expression unreadable as he looked around the classroom. On his shoulder stood a singular pauldron just like Cipre, though his was adorned with golden studs, and his cape was a leafy green rather than maroon. The color of growth, and the mark of a teacher.
"It's good that this class knows when to calm yourselves," He said, his voice a very soft monotone. "For those who are not familiar with me, my name is Istar Roderian. I shall be your educator on Osvir's long past, so that its stories and lessons may be passed down to you, and eventually those that will outlive you."
"I will not demand much from you, for as students it is your right and privilege to accept or ignore whatever knowledge that can be gained from what I will attempt to offer you over the course of our time here. Question only if it is relevant to the subject, and should you lack the ambition to learn, then by all means starve yourself of any insight and wisdom that may be formed within these walls. You clearly have no desire for them, and I've no wish to change that."
The silence continued throughout the students, with Lan in particular being rather surprised about the blunt nature of his introduction, clearly stating that he had no intent on instilling any interest about the subject to those who had none. For his part, the boy had a rather basic understanding of the nation's history gleaned from Masch, Cipre and Old Kalan, the ancient self proclaimed mystic and general drunkard scholar from Mri.
Most of it only went as far back as the past five decades and was mostly centered around the various events that led towards the war, and so the desire to learn more details about ages past was certainly there. He hoped to be shown a less war-torn and fractious time in Osvir's long existence, if for nothing than to break the monotony of being told about the war and anything related to it.
"Now that we've established the terms, let's begin..." Istar's stepped aside to allow the student's the see the glass panel, touching the edge of it with his fingers. A blue light began to form on the tip of his digits, forming a line that spread out from the glass panel, branching again and again into multiple different directions. Lan couldn't help but be amazed, the lines soon forming shapes as it made its way towards the other end of the panel, as if an invisible artist was sketching a picture at breakneck speed.
"We will start at neither beginning nor end, but rather at the middle," The teacher announced as the lines finally reached the end of what was essentially a canvas, showing a picture of a large city with giant towers like the Academy building itself. What was most curious though were several floating objects around the city, squares that were far too perfectly geometrical to be considered clouds. "Two hundred years into Osvir's existence, when the entirety of its domains could still yet be seen from the large towers of its capital Aiernguard."
"Why are we starting there?" Lan heard a student asked from behind, a question that was on the tip of his tongue, though he had no intentions of uttering out.
Istar turned to look at the student, staring so intently for a few seconds that Lan lowered his head slightly even if he wasn't the target, before nodding as in approval.
"The first two centuries of Osvir's...history..." He explained, showing emotion for what seemed like the first time at that last word, clearly frowning beneath his beard. "Has been heavily shrouded in myth and legends, with written records or artifacts dating back to that period being extremely rare. Most works covering that era are allegorical religious texts, or the many 'historical sources' or 'first-hand accounts' which are simply fictitious stories written centuries down the line, by authors who either sought to push their favored political agenda or to simply earn recognition by falsifying facts about an appropriately vague time period."
Lan could feel the teacher's anger rising as he continued to elaborate, a subtle seething fury that was certainly not directed to the class, but was still formidable nonetheless.
"The former will be covered in another class, the contents of which are irrelevant for the purposes of this one. The latter you should be able to find copies of in our library, but suffice it to say that I intend to cover historical events as accurately as I am able, and in that respect those books serve as much value as parables told to children."
"...But we are straying off topic," Istar grumbled as if realization, looking back at the glass panel as the lines slowly faded, a new one emerging from his hand to form a completely different shape. This time it was a face of a regal looking man, a crown adorned with wings on his head. Lan once against marveled at the sight of magic being applied so carefully and usefully, and wondered if he were capable of achieving the same. "During that time, the reigning king of Osvir was Alusir, who is reportedly the fifteenth monarch of Osvir. Some scholars debate this fact, but for the purposes of documentation he's simply designated as such. Can anyone name the moniker history would know him as?"
"The Seatouched." Arline declared, with Lan having some faint realization at the title.
"Yes, very good," Istar said in recognition, nodding his head as the image of the king turned to one of a map of a sizeable portion of Osvir, borders being drawn in between east and west. While the west was one singular whole, the east had many borders dividing it further. "The title is a rather self-explanatory. Osvir in those days had no ports or ships, with the coasts of its modern domain first belonging to an informal pact of fishing and trading settlements, which was soon followed by the formation of the so-called Alliance of Water Lords. The entity's true name was the Auqur States, and the relationship between both parties were...mixed, minor skirmishes and disputes often preceding and even during times of cooperation."
Lan couldn't help but note the parallels between the two historical sides and the modern ones fighting over Osvir, and wondered if that was the Istar's intent. His face didn't give any indications that it was so, though he allowed silence to reign for longer than usual, as if to let every student come to that conclusion. Turning to look at Arline, he saw an expression of agreement on her face, especially as the lecture continued.
"Alusir wanted Auqur's foothold on the coasts, and the trade it could provide to both Osvir and those that exchanged resources with it. His advisors had suggested on an invasion, which he rebuffed as too costly for both sides. Other plans to install puppet rulers or spies in one of the States to encourage infighting were also brought up, but in the end the monarch simply used his gifts of diplomacy. A tale of debatable reliability stated that at ten years of age, he managed to settle a dispute with a noble by travelling to his home and listening to his misgivings, eventually turning him into one of his most loyal supporters."
The students that had been listening without causing much of a fuss now did so, all at the mention of nobles. It was mere mutterings, but the disdain and resentment in them was evident. Lan looked at Istar, who eyed the class with a dispassionate stare, his beard moving subtly as if he were saying something under his breath. Looking around briefly, he could see that most of the noise originated near where Karst was seated, and the look in the so-called head of the class seemed to indicate that he was proud of that fact. Meanwhile, Arline continued to look forward towards the panel, though she was clearly annoyed by the lesson's halt.
"Regardless, his reign and policies are noted to be one of peace, including forging stronger ties with Auqur. The plan he set in motion was a long one, by aiding in the further unification of the States into one complete whole," Lan saw the borders of the east slowly fade, one by one. "It took decades for the seeds he sew to come into fruition, but he was more than patient enough to wait, and in the interim began to garner the support of the people of the coasts through his charity and aid."
The map soon faded and gave way to an image of a majestic looking woman, her hair flowing like waves of water down her neck. She wore a circlet around her head, its center a gemstone that looked like a teardrop. "And so it was that when Auqur was united under the Queen of Water, who had been allied with Alusir and shared many of his outlooks, they married and finally tied east and west together with their union. The integration would be a process that would outlive both of them, and Auqur continued to exist under its original name through the next few generations. Nevertheless, the foundation of unity was laid by two rulers who saw beyond the borders of their rule, but always sought to do so through the least bloodshed possible."
The final imaged that appeared on the glass panel was of king and queen, holding hands while carrying the flag of their spouse's nation. Soon the lines began to fade for a final time, and Istar lets go in order to step forward. "Now then, are there any questions?
Some of the students did ask questions regarding specific events and details, which the teacher answered quickly, though it was often long winded. Lan wasn't sure what exactly to ask, though in the end it was something that the lesson couldn't help but cause him to think about.
"Do you think what Alusir did could be repeated?"
The entire class stopped to stare at him, the implications of the question more than clear. Some looked in either support or ridicule, but most were simply astonished. The only exception was Arline, who showed a slight smile from beyond his vision. For once Istar actually showed a hint of surprise, his eyes widening ever so slightly as he regarded Lan, even going so far as to stroke his beard.
"It's not within the realm of impossibility, I suppose," The teacher said with serious consideration. "But the time we are in now is certainly different than those days, not least because Osvir had not a monarch since the death of King Wynlar so long ago. The result might be replicable, but the methods would certainly need to be changed to suit the circumstances. Nevertheless, good question."
It was the most concise answer that he had given, which only meant the class had more of an opportunity to look at him, which made Lan uncomfortable though he ultimately tried to put on a brave face. The lecture continued with more questions and Istar informing them of several tomes that could shed more light on the time period in the library, with an added warning that they may be relevant to tests up ahead. Lan memorized the titles in his head and hoped to be able to procure a copy at the earliest opportunity, though as the bell rang again Istar didn't even bother with any dismissal and simply left the room.
His classmates no longer paid attention to him at this point, and he managed to get up and follow them to the next lesson, though a slight nudge to his shoulder caused him to turn towards Arline.
"That was a rather bold question you asked there," She said in a conversational tone as they made their way out of the room, heading upstairs to the fifth floor where the sparring grounds were. "I honestly didn't expect to hear it, especially on the first day of all days."
"Was it a wrong question to ask?" Lan inquired, not because he thought it was wrong, but rather to see what she thought of it. And by extension the tension between Piranthy and Roduchy.
Despite having the impression that she had a more moderate view of the current state of affairs, her answer surprised even him without how blunt it was. "The opposite, actually. I think it's the best question to ask, though not many have the heart or mind to ask it. It's rather refreshing to know at least one person does."
There was an element of mystery regarding why she had the stance that she did, when the people back in Mri thought of reconciliation as both impossible and unwanted. Cipre especially made his thoughts clear on the matter during his visits, and while Masch was far less outspoken there was a quiet sense of agreement with Cipre whenever he brought it up. Still, he wasn't willing to pry any further, not feeling as if he had earned the right to.
In the end, the discussion turned to less serious matters as they readied for their next class, though Lan couldn't help but hope that they could have a proper talk about it in the near future. Not just as fellow students, but as friends.
The sparring grounds turned out to be a large room that was mostly devoid of people. Its floor was wooden and polished so thoroughly that he could see his own reflection, and what few decorations there were present came in the form of tapestries hung onto the walls, each depicting two warriors in black armor fighting with very graceful stances and flourishes.
As the class walked into the center, he saw many circles marked onto the floor, which he knew were the bounds of sparring. Feeling his arm chafe slightly he adjusted his vambrace, which he had done a few times after he had donned it. To the surprise of him but not of other students, before reaching the sparring grounds they first entered the armory adjacent to it. There under the quartermaster they each wore a plain set of leather armor and carried blunted swords, equipment for a relatively safe clash of steel.
Lan felt slightly disappointed that he wouldn't be able to use the sword Masch gave him, though he supposed it only made sense as it was a weapon made to severely harm an opponent.
Still he took issue with the fact that the sword in his hand felt sluggish compared to the fine blade he wielded yesterday, completely unembellished and even rusted in a few places. The few practice swings made felt as if he was cutting through water instead of air.
Reaching the center, Lan waited for something to happen as his classmates simply talked to one another, though it didn't take long for everyone to notice a new group of people entering the grounds. It was a staff-wielding hooded woman leading another group of students towards the circle they were on, their armor leather yet of different colors and adorned with symbols, their blades blunt but looked much more pristine. Already he could hear the sneers and complaints of his class, and knew that the class was a Roduchian one.
The pressure of the room rose dramatically as the woman, who wore a green cape of the proctors, stopped and allowed the class behind them to form up into an orderly line opposite the rather haphazard formation of Lan's. Most of them bore looks of mild contempt beneath their helms, though a few simply looked impartial.
Not wanting to meet any of their gazes, he instead turned to look at the proctor, who made her way in between the two groups to draw their attention. Her eyes were hidden under her hood, yet she looked extremely sharp and alert, a scar running down the corner of her lip. Though it was not apparent at first glance, the many golden rings around her fingers made her look like a Roduchian, also evidenced by the fact that his classmates did not give her a bow of respect while the other class did.
"Students, form up!" The proctor declared, slamming the butt of her staff onto the ground, the sound echoing throughout the room. Slowly, Lan's class began to form a similar line to that of the other class, with him near the center. "My name is Esmurial, and I shall be your instructor in the art of combat. The world is a place with potential for great danger and cruelty, and as such you must learn to respond to such situations accordingly. Swords to center!"
Immediately the Roduchians behind her lined their swords up to their chests, in a completely synchronized manner, while Lan's class did so without synergy or thought of timing. Esmerial showed no signs of scorn, quickly leaving the circle to stand some distance apart from it, still in between the two lines.
"In the coming weeks, you shall practice with all manner of weapons, both alone and as a group," She informed, her voice a fiery blaze of passion. "Alone you shall be familiarized with the Ten Forms of Bladeworking, while as a class you shall be tested in mock battles, to fight as a unit to defend, engage, capture and rout. But for now..."
The proctor showed a smile, and Lan saw that her teeth were crooked with several metal ones. "For now you shall show me how you fight, so that I might know how to refine you. Or in some of your cases...how to break you. Now, the first one to my right, step towards the circle. We don't have the luxury of being slow."
A male student from the Roduchian side emerged from the line, his armor a faded blue as he headed towards the circle, waving his sword at the class with a taunting smile beneath his helm. Soon a person from his class walked forth as well, sword drawn and pointed at his foe as the two circle each other, waiting in anticipation. The students around them looked on, silent cheers and hopes for their classmate to win, regardless of any lack of personal relationship. All that mattered is to prove themselves superior, to break the pride of the other.
"Begin!" Esmurial shouted out, and the two began to exchange blows. The clangs of metal on metal were heard as the two slashed and parried, seemingly on even footing. Though it soon turned out to be a ruse as the Roduchian student quickly swatted and disarmed his opponent, followed by a kick to the stomach that brought his foe crashing down, his weapon too out of his reach as the blade was brought close to his neck.
"Good form, a very quick and restrained disarm. Well done," The proctor complimented, which the victor replied with a bow before stepping back into line, to the adulation of his peers. As the Piranthian student got up however, Esmurial added. "You were confident, I'll give you that much. Unfortunately I've met enough confident corpses to know that it wasn't enough to save them. Hand me your blade and helm before you get back into line."
The defeated student simply walked up to her and tossed down his blade and helm at her feet, which she simply swept aside. As he went back to his place within the line, Lan wondered why he was ordered to do that, as it wasn't even his property. The look of utter shame and anger on his classmate's face managed to make him realize that it was to serve as a mild form of humiliation, not to mention the need for retribution that subtly rose up among those beside him.
"Next!" Esmurial declared, and the following students came forward and sparred. It was a decidedly longer bout, though it ended with the Piranthian student getting close to punch his taller adversary into submission and eventually conceding, which the proctor commented dryly. "...Not the cleanest victory I've seen, but a victory nonetheless. This should teach your opposite that a sword isn't the only thing to keep an eye on. I hope I've no need to repeat what each of you should do now."
This time it was the Roduchian student who looked frustrated as his blade and helm were tossed onto the floor, and Lan felt the expectations weighed on him grow higher with each subsequent duel. Size, gender or proficiency mattered little, only that they were of opposing classes, representing the two sides of Osvir.
The length, quality and even the reactions of victor and failure varied. Some were a contest of true equal whose result is decided at the very end, others were a forgone conclusion the moment it started. Some took their win humbly while others went out of their way to taunt the other side, while others took their loses with either grace or disbelief. Some bouts even ended with a respectful salute or other gesture of comradery for a good fight, which seemed to always surprise everyone but Esmurial, who ended each engagement with a comment that was as witty as it was observant.
When it was Lan's turn, he stiffly walked forward with his sword in hand, stepping onto the circle as he felt the sweat drop down from his forehead. His opponent was a Roduchian man who wore red leather armor, his expression completely neutral as she readied a stance by having the sword horizontally held in front of his chest. Lan simply held his own blade vertically in front of him, the only one that he was trained with.
"Begin!" That one word was all that was needed for both of them to charge at each other, though it was Lan who made the first move by swiping downwards towards his opponent's helm, who blocked and countered with a stab forward. Lan simply stepped to his right and avoided it, but he did not have an opening to exploit as his foe followed his thrust with a spinning slash aiming for the Piranthian boy's shoulder, which was blocked as well.
Lan's thought flashed back to his days training with Masch, who was stern in all things, though Cipre and some others in Mri occasionally joined. He had many a bruise to show for his senseless swinging in those early days, but through pain and instruction managed to handle the basics of strike zones, economy of movement, and forms of offense and defense. He was surprised to find those lessons coming so easily, with such a different environment and an audience watching, and against a foe who was clearly as green as him committing to victory rather than the restrained experience and superiority of his mentors.
For most of the duel he was simply defending against the Roduchian boy's dogged offense, his movements extremely fluid as one slash transitioned into another one from a different angle, again and again without exposing himself to a reprisal. It forced Lan to take one step back, then another, until he neared the edge of the circle and was forced to dodge to the side and be pushed towards the borders again. Every attack met with a dodge, a block, a parry that gave way but never truly faltered.
"You can swing as many times as you want, but the one who attacks last is always the victor, because he swung the blow that ended the battle."
Those words from Masch rang in his head as he waited so patiently for his chance, one that he began to doubt would never come as his scarlet adversary continued to press the offence, his face one of pure determination. He could feel the sword in his hand getting heavier, the clash of their steel causing him to stagger for just an instant, which the Roduchian tried to use to secure his victory. A horizontal slash came, aiming for his shoulder once more. And in that moment, Lan saw his opportunity.
Taking some daring steps forward, Lan surprised his foe by getting closer instead of gaining any distance, one that clearly gave the Roduchian the slightest pause as his slash was blocked. It was then that Lan finally saw the signs he was looking for. The heavy-lidded stare, the rapid panting, and most importantly of all the feeling of the sword he was blocking against slowly losing its force. Lan pushed his blade outwards, putting the last of his own diminished reserves into repelling the strike, and his free hand reached for the hand holding the opposing weapon. Striking it with his palm, the blade flew out of his opponent's hand and slid across the floor, leaving him defenseless as Lan simply aimed the blunt tip of his blade at his opponent's chest.
"Yield!" Lan shouted with more intensity than he thought, saying the same word that Masch would often utter when the boy was defeated during their spars. It felt strange for him to be the one saying it this time, though it also filled him with a sense of pride. If nothing else, he would perform adequately in this class.
"I...yield..." The Roduchian said in surprise, which caused Lan to cautiously lower his blade. The red armored man extended a hand towards him, which he grabbed a hold of and shook it, much to the quiet surprise of the entire room. "You fought well. I can tell your defense was measured and practiced."
"Thank you" Lan said as they continued to shake hands, finding his grip to be firm. "Your assault was not easy to withstand. I fear my form collapsing many times."
"Perhaps I'll get you to collapse when next we fight." Letting go, Lan's opponent went to collect his blade and presented it and his helm in front of their proctor and judge, revealing a long mane that's a more vibrant red than his armor.
"Well, that's certainly an interesting one," Esmurial said, sounding more amused than anything. "You two showed rather polished fighting, though not without some flaws. Nothing that future classes won't be able to correct, but right now we're currently still in the present."
Lan walked back to where he stood in the line, seeing the looks on his classmate as they looked proud, though some few looked slightly disapproving. He knew it was most likely how respectfully he treated the combatant he triumphed over, but the boy was never one to truly relish in victory, and knew enough of loss to know how much it stung.
The rest of the class proceeded with more duels, which Lan observed with some interest. Arline managed to win against her opponent quite handily, with a fluid grace that suggested she had handled a blade more than him. Karst's match was far closer and ended in a narrow defeat, the headstrong student attempting to tackle his foe while her back was turned, leading to a rather shouting amongst the classes before Esmurial managed to silence them. Karst didn't face any punishment aside from a quick word of reprimand, but the opinions everyone had of him were clearly cemented in that very moment, if they weren't already.
In the end, more Roduchians won than Piranthians, though the difference was of a small margin, but enough to stir yet more friction between the classes. "Most of you have some passable skill, and some even have something close to some mild proficiency," The proctor admitted while not sounding the least bit impressed. "Nevertheless, I have a good assessment of where all of you stand, which I will take full advantage of when next we meet. Now, you may all leave and take off those ridiculous excuses for armor."
And so both classes exited the sparring grounds separately, the sun now directly above the Academy building as the bells for noon rang, signaling a reprieve from classes. Lan found his classmates dispersing, some heading to the mess hall to eat, others heading to the library and elsewhere. For him, Lan had a location in mind to visit, and so quickly exited the main building to grab some bread from the bakery before heading for his true destination.
The temple of Aiergard was a surprisingly modest building within the grounds, less than half the size of the River Lodgings and only a single story to mark its height. The walls were a polished cyan, its entrance a wooden door only allowing two people to pass through at once, and no windows that could be seen from the front. It was very similar to the temple back in Mri, though Lan was still taken aback given the sheer scale of the Academy, as well as Aiergard being the few things that still bound all men of Osvir together.
Entering it, he saw row after row of wooden pews, the ends of each all lit with candles. They were not the vibrant white of magical fire, but a genuine flame that danced and flickered as the wax slowly melted. His ears picked up a soft hymn in a tongue he recognized but could not properly translate, though he knew what the song was called. It was the Saga of Sea and Sky, the song of Aiergard's descent from the heavens and his bargain with the sea.
Walking forward past the rows of pews, he saw the back of the temple held a large stone statue of Aiergard, sitting down against the wall with a kindly smile on his face. His head neared the ceiling, and his diamond studded eyes looked down upon the temple floor much as the god himself would in the stories, always from above. His hands were stretched downwards and his open palms held yet more candles, incense containers and other offerings for him, requests and entreaties for the deity's blessing.
Finally reached the front most row, Lan took a seat onto the bench and simply marveled at the statue, masterfully carved even if the paint on it had begun to flake. It was the only major different to the temple in Mri, who simply had a basic shrine in lieu of something so extravagant. Still, he could almost imagine that he was back in his old village, where the kindly priest Barton would often give advice and comfort to the may woes people suffered.
The sound of the door opening behind him immediately got his head to turn, where a student emerged from it, who stopped slightly in mild surprise at his presence before walking forward. She wore the uniform much as Lan did, though whereas he felt it didn't suit him, she gave the impression that she was born with it on. Her movements were effortlessly elegant, her long lilac hair flowing as if a slight breeze were constantly trying to keep it in motion, reaching down to her shoulder. Despite her emotionless expression, the eyes that were of a similar color and shade to her hair made it clear that she was reserved rather than truly stoic.
She took a seat on the pew opposite Lan, neither gazing at him nor giving any indication that she wanted to converse, merely looking at the statue as her hands were clasped tightly. Her lips moved subtly even as if she were silent, uttering a prayer that she wanted no one but Aiergard to hear.
Lan didn't feel as if he should start speaking to her, and so simply turned back to gaze upon the statue, though he didn't feel the need to pray. While he did keep faith with Aiergard, he rarely ever showed it openly or even in private, preferring to let his own spiritual beliefs and doubts to himself and the all-knowing god that wouldn't require any open worship to receive said things. The one prayer he remembered giving felt like a lifetime ago, and a scant few days afterwards the fires were all around him...
"What do you wish for Aiergard to grant?" The student asked, her voice smooth yet carrying an oddly low tone for a person that looked as she did. When Lan turned to see her, he saw that her hands were still clasped, and she still did not deign to look at him.
"...Many things, I suppose," Lan answered, the hymn seeming to grow louder, though in all likelihood it was simply that he wished to focus on it. "But most of all, I suppose I'd wish to know what I want for myself. I had hoped that coming here would grant that, in time."
It was an oddly intimate confession, and a hint of a flush touched Lan's cheeks, though the student did not comment on it. "What about you?" He asked in return.
"Absolution," She said simply, sounding as if she were barely containing herself. "For a man whose acts I cannot forgive, yet I love all the same."
It was a vague but purposeful response, and Lan knew that asking for more details was a risky path, one he did not wish to take. So instead, he veered towards a safer line of questioning. "How long have you been at the Academy?"
"A year now," She said with a wistful sigh, her hands unclasping as she looked at Lan for what seemed like the first time, though her expression held little interest. "You're a new student, I presume?"
"Yes, my name's La-"
"Please, refrain from introducing yourself," She insisted in a voice that immediately forced him into silence, though it wasn't malicious so much as desperate. "It's unlikely that we'll need to know one another...and it's for the best that we don't."
"Why?" Lan asked, this time his curiosity getting the better of him.
"...You truly don't know me, do you?" She said, sounding genuinely surprised before rising from her pew, just as the faint sound of the bells began to rang. "Classes are close to resuming, so it'd best that I...wait...did you hear that?"
"What?" Lan wondered, the hymn of the temple making it hard to concentrate on the bells as they continued to ring, but eventually he managed to notice something different about them. "They're...playing a different pitch, a different pattern...higher and more frequent."
"It's the bells telling the Academy to be on alert..." She said simply, and he could see the briefest hint of worry on her face.
"What does that mean?" He asked, getting up from his pew as well. "Being on alert? Are we under attack?"
"No, that's a different bell..." The student murmured, once again sounding as if she were talking to herself before walking off. "For now, we should return to our respective classes. Separately."
Lan simply nodded as she quickly headed for the door, and soon she disappeared from view, with the young boy wondering just who she was. He felt naturally drawn to her despite her secretive nature, though he wasn't sure why that was so. Still, as the bells continued to ring and he saw students and faculty alike moving frantically, an ominous atmosphere began to surface. One that he couldn't help but slowly dread as he neared the main Academy building, wondering just what he should be alert of. He was unfortunately reminded of the days prior to the one where his nightmares took place, the silent despair growing like a plague as Mri was under siege.
Swallowing the imaginary bile that he thought was building up in his mouth, his slow walk quickly turning into a run as he simply tried to go to his next scheduled class, wondering whether if he'll ever know the reason for such a shift in the air.
Or whether he even wanted to.