Chapter V

Blast Back

[Writ of Vitality]

~ One Year Later ~

A great congregation gathered on the hillside outside of the Luna Caeruleum’s grounds, a small platform constructed at the foot of the hill, with a collection of students lined up over the face of the incline. Rows upon rows of young men and women stood at attention in ceremonial dress befitting their status as graduated students, and newly vested. Dark blue robes cinched at the hip with a golden rope draped over each student, and a large hood hemmed with a stunning light blue obscured their faces. Squires held a ceremonial sword up from a hand resting at their stomach, the flat of the blade only inches from the tips of their noses, while a shield bearing an ornate coat of the academy’s insignia, a blue moon, hung from their other arm. Acolytes held their staves up straight ahead of them, the crook curling from left to right to cover their faces. They had taken up the position at the start of the ceremony roughly an hour ago, listening to speeches from faculty and honored guests, extolling the virtues of education and bettering the world. Each student remained motionless as the headmaster strode up to a podium placed at the front of the phalanx of students on the platform. He passed the other department heads who sat near the back of the platform, and even the queen’s advisor, who was in attendance, for what it was worth.

The headmaster brushed his whitening goatee with his knuckles. He held a thumb under his chin and his index finger to his lips, whispering an incantation. A glowing line of text appeared, wrapped around his neck, and then faded out. When he cleared his throat, the cough carried over the hillside.

“Today, in this year 6734, the men and women before us officially complete their education at the Luna Caeruleum Academy of Martial Arts and Magicks.” He allowed for a quick wave of applause. “This institution has stood for centuries. A beacon of the new world, to discover the truths of the old. The face of the land is ever changing, and history only grows longer, more distant. Some of you will exchange these classrooms for ancient labyrinths; our library for massive record halls; our training grounds for battlefields. You learned as squires and acolytes, and now you stand before us all as knights and scholars. Use the knowledge you have acquired within this academy to make the world outside a better place. Now, raise your weapons high…”

The graduates did as they were told, and each lifted their sword or staff over their head, pointed straight to the clouds. The headmaster swept his hand over the podium, and a glittering sheen fell like a blanket over the gathering of students. The weapons in their hands glowed for a brief moment, and then suddenly they felt lighter, shining with a slight glint when they met the sun.

“Chor…what did he do?” Dylock, standing next to his friend, whispered.

Chorem recognized what was at work; a meager, but incredibly lengthy enchantment. He explained that the weapons had been blessed to both feel lighter and last for a fairly long time, over a student’s lifetime. He stole a glance at Dylock past the hem of his hood, and began to wonder just how long of a lifetime they would have with the Lionhead Corps in their shared future.

“And now, you hear this for the last time – Academy Class of 6734, dismissed!” the headmaster called, clapping his hands to incite the crowds.

Cheers and clapping sprang up as families and friends in the stands rose to their feet. A few students drummed their shields with the hilts of their swords. Dylock let his sword and shield drop, hanging lazily from his hands.

“Nearly a bell of standing still and holding these things.” Dylock threw his head back to drop the hood from his crown. “My aaaarms, they buuuurrn.”

“I wonder if that’s part of the reason why the enchantment is given, because now I can’t even feel my staff’s heft,” Chorem replied as he balanced the staff in his hands to test the weight. “Almost as if that disciplined position is our schooling, and the enchantment is our graduation from it – relief, of sorts.”

“How symbolic, but what of the bullying experienced?”

“Bird droppings, right on your nice blue hood.” Chorem grinned.

“CHOREM!” A deep voice rumbled through the crowd of students.

“Oh no…” Chorem’s shoulders sank. “He promised he wouldn’t do this.”

Noja pushed his way through the blue-garbed graduates with his bronzed, tree trunk-like arms.

“Father please no not he-” Chorem’s pleas were cut short by a massive hug.

The young mage dropped the staff in his hand, and it disappeared within an envelope of light.

“My boy you’ve done it!” Noja cried. “The first of the Folemthatches to graduate from not only higher learning, but from such a prestigious academy. You make every one of the Folemthatch clan proud, and know there are certainly many of us you have made proud today.”

Short-lived laughter moved through the graduates around the father and son.

“Yes father, as happy as I am to please the hoard we call an extended family, I would be much happier if you let me down.”

“Oh…how embarrassing for you,” Dylock said lowly as he chuckled.

Noja’s left arm stretched out and curled around Dylock’s shoulders, pulling the young man beside his friend within the farmer’s embrace.

“And you, Dy, I know your father would be proud of you, just as we are.”

“Ah, thank you sir, this is really unnecessary.”

“I know that he is smiling down on you this day from beyond the clouds of paradise,” Noja whispered to the young man with his gravelly voice.

“How poetic of you. Now please, let us go before we die of embarrassment,” Chorem said through gritted teeth.

Noja released the boys as the rest of the Folemthatches appeared, along with Mrs. Dunrowdy who came as Dylock’s only guest. The hillside became populated by segmented groups of students and their families spreading out and leaving for whatever personal celebrations were planned.

~

Dylock rested his hands on the cold stone window sill carved into the middle of the hallway wall. Birds chirped just outside in the courtyard, and Dylock breathed in the spring air. Chorem leaned against the wall next to the window.

“It was right here that you and I met,” Chorem said, thinking back on his childishly sour mood that day.

“Practically ready to pummel each other.”

“Such nostalgia,” Chorem said. “Were you really going to hit me?”

“Oh, definitely. You threw my book into the yard. Were you?”

“I…no…probably not,” Chorem replied, surprised by his own response.

“Truly? Why?”

“Not sure. I’m glad I didn’t, though. We may not have ever been friends if we had actually traded blows.”

“Well, then I’m glad we were parted before I had the opportunity to beat you senseless.” Dylock brushed his left knuckle on Chorem’s arm.

“What is it like having such a vivid imagination?” Chorem grinned.

A man garbed in a beige surcoat and dark green cowl turned the corner of the hallway with a martinet, who pointed directly at the young men. The man nodded and broke away from the martinet, and approached.

“Sirs Luftmac and Folemthatch?”

Both of the young men straightened, noticing the emblem on the man’s surcoat: a gold-tinted lion head surrounded by a magnificent flaring mane. The man was extremely stern in his demeanor, with brow wrinkles that seemed etched into his flesh, with a sharp, pointing goatee that slid smoothly off his chin.

“I am Lieutenant Garmine of the Lionhead Corps, head of the seventh detachment. I was made aware of the interest both of you have shown for enlisting with our company.”

“Uh…yessir. Dylock Luftmac, at your service,” Dylock said, reaching out with an eager hand.

“Luftmac; scouts had a lot to say about your victories in the Caelum Gladius tournament earlier in the year. Admirable exploits, even without securing first,” Garmine said. “And that would make you Folemthatch.”

The soldier turned to Chorem, who nodded and slowly offered his own hand.

“Chorem, sir. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Your application was quite attractive, I must say; your knowledge of the First Tongue, your aptitude for utilitarian magicks…all boons we could make use of”

“T-thank you, sir.”

“The question remains that the Lionhead Corps puts itself at the forefront of many dangerous situations, so why the interest in stepping up to that front? Especially directly from the academy?”

“Well…” Chorem scoffed, crossing his arms.

“We want to make a difference, sir,” Dylock interrupted.

“Why not any of the other more glamorous companies out there? The differences they make in the ruins of the old world are just as important.”

“We aren’t exactly seeking posterity, sir,” Chorem replied.

“Correct, it’s the difference that matters,” Dylock said. “And what good would knowledge gained from crawling in ruins do if there was no one to protect the new world?”

Garmine glanced between the two men before he reached to the back of his belt, emerging with two identical folded forms.

“So be it, then,” he said, thrusting the forms towards the men. “Complete these forms, then present them to the corpsman posted at the forward branch in Laffloia. They will ensure you receive travel to the headquarters in Morgriff.”

“Laffloia. We can head there from Burgstowe, after riding home with my family,” Chorem said, mostly to Dylock, as they took the papers.

“Good, you have a plan. Bring with you only what you can carry; personal trinkets are fine, some street clothing, but weapons and armor will be provided. You have until the end of Nox Secundus to reach our headquarters and complete your registration. Any time beyond and those applications will expire, and arrival past that appointed time will see you both turned away. If you do not complete the registration, you may not reapply, but we will not hold it against you either – not all men are fit for the line we toe.”

Dylock responded with “Thank you, sir,” while Chorem remained silent.

“Well then, I shall hopefully be seeing you both by next month. Safe travels, boys.” Garmine set a hand to his stomach and bowed slightly. As he bent, a chain dangled from his neck, weighted by two thin, metal tags.

“You as well, sir,” Chorem replied.

As Garmine absconded, trotting through the halls, Chorem watched the man, studying his manner of dress: the olive cloak, the light surcoat hiding harder armor beneath it. A uniform he and Dylock would both be wearing if they chose to follow in that man’s footsteps, stepping to a death march.

~

Dylock and Chorem sat on opposite ends at the rickety table in Din’s kitchen. Light from the modest chandelier draped all beneath it in a warm, dancing glow. The young men were quiet while they pored over the forms Garmine had given them, unfolded now where the heavy scent of ink floated upward. Dylock lightly tapped his heel on the floor, brushing the palms of his hands on the chipped and softened corners of the table. Chorem curled over his own form, his hands together in his lap, with interlocked fingers. Ledda and the Folemthatch children were outside the house with Mrs. Dunrowdy, enjoying the spring evening. Noja, in the den, cleared his throat, continuing to read a book he had found on the shelf, while Yoja sat on the couch reading her own book that she had brought from home: the newest of the Romancing Company serials, regarding the exploits of Cardigast of the Valia Hoods. Yoja’s position on the couch’s left end also gave her a clear view of the kitchen past the spine and spread of her book. She stole glances at Dylock between pages, admiring his stern countenance as he studied the form. She envisioned the hero of her book to be similar to Dylock, taking in the lines of his face.

“This is…fairly intensive,” Chorem muttered.

Dylock grumbled some semblance of an agreement.

“Are you truly ready for this?” the mage asked.

Dylock lifted his head.

“Once we hand over these forms, we are also handing over our lives.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Chor.” Dylock lowered his head back to the form.

“But that’s exactly what is happening. You and me, we will be soldiers. So I ask again: are you truly ready for this?”

Dylock raised his head again, locking eyes with Chorem for a moment.

“I’m ready to sign this if you are. I’m following your lead.” Chorem held out his hand, and a pen appeared from a small flash of light between his fingers.

“Do not place this on me, Chor.”

“I’m not – you are. If you join the Corps, so do I. If you back out, so do I.”

Dylock’s eyes dropped to the center of the table, a point away from his friend’s gaze.

“I made a promise, and you…you made a decision. Will you follow through?”

Dylock pushed himself up from the table.

“I need to get some fresh air.” Dylock left the kitchen as Chorem, Noja, and Yoja watched. As the door clacked shut, Yoja shot up from the couch, holding the blade of her index finger between the pages of her closed book. She stood in the threshold between the den and kitchen and seared her gaze into the side of her brother’s head. A full minute had passed before Chorem spoke up, keeping his eyes on the form, the pen tip resting gingerly on the surface of the paper.

“Whaaaat?”

“Are you not going to go after him?” Yoja asked.

“‘After him’? He went just outside.”

Noja, in the den, peeked over his book and out the bay window across from Din’s old chair.

“No he’s not, son.”

“Dammiiiiiit…” Chorem stood up, the pen in his hand disappearing in a glimmer of light.

“Where could he have gone?” Yoja asked as Chorem pushed past her.

Chorem took Dylock’s sword from its resting place at the door. “I’ve a feeling, but I’ll find out easily enough.”

Out on the front step, Chorem held the sheathed sword with its tip to the concrete. He closed his eyes for a moment as the tip began to glow faintly. Chorem traced a circle into the air with the tip of the sheath, and then thrust down at the circle’s center, tapping the sword on the ground. A ripple of blue, energized aether rapidly spread out from the point of impact and disappeared as it left the vicinity.

“What is that supposed to accomplish?” Yoja crossed her arms.

“Sh-sh-shoosh,” Chorem said, resting the sheathed weapon over his shoulder.

A few moments passed before a similar pulse returned to the mage, emanating from his right. The northwestern blocks, less industrialized, homes more spread out, giving way to a road out of Altroim, which lined the cemetery.

“Of course.”

“You’ve found him? Then let’s go.”

“Eh? You…” Chorem glanced back at his sister. She held her breath, and hoped he wouldn’t continue any sort of line of questioning. “Alright. Let’s go.”

Yoja slowly released her breath through her nose while Chorem walked down the steps and into the street. She leaned back into the house and tossed her book onto the couch, and then took long strides to catch up to her brother.

~

Wind flew through the canopies of the trees that covered a majority of the cemetery grounds. Leaves rustling like waves crashing on a shore, they muted Dylock’s uneasy breathing. He stood at the foot of his mother’s grave, his eyes scanning the engraving of her name.

“So…uh…here I am. Graduation was nice, I guess you all saw it. Maybe.” Dylock tapped the top of his fist on his thigh. “I’m a knight now, got this ceremonial sword and everything that I get to place up on the mantle.”

Dylock imagined his parent’s smiles, his uncle’s proud laughter, and Din’s solemn smirk surrounded by that gray beard of his.

“But I’ll not be staying in the house, I suppose. The plan is to join the Lionhead Corps, but…” Dylock hesitated, the words caught in his throat. He turned to his father’s headstone. “…is this the right thing to do? Am I…father, you were willing to sacrifice yourself so that mother and I could live, and mother…you and Din fought to protect me. You showed me the value I had. That I was important. Din helped me grow up, study in the academy, and now I wanted to show others the value their lives had…but…am I devaluing myself, and what you all saw in me, if I am so willing to risk my own life? Am I putting…Chorem at risk?”

Dylock stood in silence, half-expecting an answer from one of the four graves.

“So when you said you needed some fresh air, what you really meant was stale air leaking from the corpse-ridden ground.”

Chorem and Yoja descended the small set of steps at the gate of the cemetery.

“How did you find me?” Dylock asked.

“Scrying – just a little cantrip they taught us. Nothing special, but I’ll always be able to find you,” Chorem replied, handing Dylock his sword. “So this is what has you so worried? That you’re dishonoring what your parents and Din did to raise you?”

“And not how Chorem constantly says how you’re both going to die?” Yoja asked, leaning out from behind her brother.

Dylock chuckled. “Only a little bit.”

Yoja elbowed Chorem in the back, and he stepped forward to keep his balance.

“Dy, I thought you’d had this all figured out? You were so determined to show people and the world their value – why the cold feet?”

“Reading those forms, you ready for us to sign our names…it made everything so very real. Talking about fighting for the world is a rather different thing than actually getting ready to do so.”

“Of course Dy, that’s why people hate liars. That’s why they respect those who are willing to sacrifice their own comfort and safety for others. That’s what nobility is supposed be.”

“Respect? You spent a better part of Dylock’s plan going on about how he was throwing his life away,” Yoja interjected.

“I never said it wasn’t respectful, I was only concerned that he hadn’t thought it through entirely, throwing himself headlong into unnecessary danger.”

“Well, I have now, and…is it right? Am I just a fool dragging you down with me?”

“You’re not dragging me anywhere, Dy. I’m right where I want to be, it’s my choice to stand by you in this, or whatever decision you make. Don’t worry on my account.”

Dylock nodded, turning his gaze to Din’s headstone.

“Din told us that people have to stand by their decisions, never regretting something our old selves did. I guess it’s all a part of growing up. We’re nobility now, after all, I should act like it.”

“Technically we’re nobility. On a technicality. Strut into the Upton Blocks and see how many bows you get, m’lord,” Chorem said, pressing his hand to his stomach and bowing.

“I’ll pass,” Dylock said, looking at the sword he held in both hands. “I suppose I won’t be needing this.”

“How come? Didn’t Din give that you?” Yoja asked.

“He did, but…the Corps will be providing us equipment. This sword helped me get through my time at the academy, but I guess now…” Dylock knelt at Din’s grave, brushing a clump of brittle leaves from its base, where he gently rested the sword, still in its sheath, against Din’s headstone. “…now I should pass it back to Din.”

Dylock unwound his red scarf from his neck, and tightly wrapped it about the sheath of the sword, just like the first day he had received it. Chorem crouched next to Dylock, and swept a hand over the sword and scarf. It glowed dimly for a brief moment, enchanted by a simple spell.

“Might as well help it weather a few storms while it rests here,” he said.

Dylock nodded, and nudged his elbow into Chorem’s arm.

“Oh, and prevent any ne’er-do-wells from taking off with it.” Chorem held his hand over the weapon again, the flash in his hand creating light blue chains that wrapped about the sheath and stretched into the soil underneath. Dylock thanked the mage as the chains slowly disappeared from view, invisible but still wound fast.

“I won’t lie to you, though, Chor – I think a part of me will be scared for…quite some time.”

The two stood straight, and turned to each other.

“Dy, you are one of the strongest people in the world that I know, next to my mother.” Chorem pushed Dylock’s shoulder with his fist. “At times, if I’m at a loss of what to do, I look to you. When I said that I would join the Corps with you, it was because I believed in your convictions – I knew that I could follow you. Now, you only have to point us in the right direction.”

“Right…” Dylock nodded.

“May I first suggest pointing us out of the cemetery, please?”

Dylock chuckled. “I’ll catch up with you in a moment.”

Chorem and Yoja made their way up the winding path, and Dylock turned back to his family’s headstones.

“I’ll come back some day, I promise. When I do, I’ll have great stories to tell.”

~

The morning sun crept over the low hills of Burgstowe’s expansive farmland. Sunlight speared through the spaces in the canopies of the trees that lined the eastern border of the hamlet. The shadows of the Folemthatch family and Dylock began to appear on the yard just in front of the house. The sunlight cast a dim gleam on the blue thread of the graduation robes the young men had donned in the shiver of the early morning.

“The carriage should be arriving soon,” Chorem announced, yawning.

“This will be it then?” Noja tried to hide the quiver in his voice, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. “You be sure to write now…the both of you.”

“Of course.” Dylock nodded.

Noja nodded and continued his attempt to keep his composure. Leda rushed forward and wrapped her arms around Chorem.

“Oh my Chorem,” she said, beginning to sob.

“Mother, we will be okay,” Chorem tried comforting her, rapping his palm on her back.

Leda glanced past Chorem’s shoulder, and opened her right arm to snatch Dylock by the neck, bringing him into the embrace.

“You too, Dylock. Both of you be safe.”

The little Yora joined in, reaching her arms around Chorem and Leda’s waists. Chorem lowered one of his hands onto Yora’s head. Chedda and Cherra followed suit, opening their tiny arms meekly around everyone’s knees.

“We will take care of each other, ma’am, I promise,” Dylock said.

Leda whispered a tear-laden “thank you” under her breath as she reluctantly pushed the group hug to arm’s length. Chorem cleared his throat and squeezed his eyes shut for a brief moment to stop a buildup of his own tears.

“Oh, bugger it!” Noja took a large step forward, his bronze arms encircling everyone. “You boys watch out for each other, and come home to visit when you can.”

“Oooohfatherwewillpleasestop,” Chorem muttered as breath shot from his lungs by Noja’s throttling hug.

The family hug finally separated when the sound of wagon wheels and hoof beats grew louder at the homestead’s entrance.

“Alright, this will be it. We will be sure write as soon as we are able. Goodbye all, for now,” Chorem said. “I love you.”

Chorem and Dylock lifted their rucksacks and began down the long dirt walkway between the Folemthatch farm and the road. Roughly halfway down the walkway, Yoja called out to Dylock. Both young men stopped and turned while Yoja approached.

“I suppose I’ll catch up in a moment,” Dylock said to Chorem, dropping his bag at his feet.

“Don’t be long,” Chorem said, continuing to the carriage that parked at the edge of the road.

“Yoja, hello,” Dylock said as the young woman approached.

“Hello…Dylock. I…uhm…I hate to see you go for so long,” Yoja stammered out.

“We will be sure to visit.”

“I know, but…it’s just that uh…” Yoja wringed the edge of her blouse. “I don’t know when I will see you again and…well…I wanted you to know something.”

“Oh?” Dylock cocked his head.

Yoja darted forward headfirst, taking Dylock’s jaw in both her soft palms, and pressing her lips onto his. Dylock was startled, but fell into the kiss himself, sharing the longest moment of their lives before Yoja retreated.

“Oh…” Dylock glanced back to see Chorem hopping into the back of the carriage. “Uh…I…that’s…”

“It’s okay Dy, I just wanted you to know that…if you want, I’ll be here…when you come home…to visit I mean.”

“Of course. I…uh…must get going; can’t keep the carriage waiting,” Dylock draped his rucksack over his shoulder.

“Okay, be safe,” Yoja lilted, her hands wistfully reaching for the knight.

“I will…definitely write you.” Dylock hesitated to turn.

“Dy! We must be going!” Chorem called from the carriage.

“Goodbye Yoja.” The knight spun on his heel and traveled the rest of the walkway with a hurried pace.

Dylock tossed his rucksack into the back of the carriage and climbed onto the edge, next to Chorem. The carriage began to move when both Dylock and Chorem waved back at the family at the front porch, and Yoja still standing in the walkway. As the homestead shrank from sight, Dylock’s gaze met Chorem’s, and the two shared a sheepish smile.

~

A flash of lightning lit up the evening sky as rain battered down on Dylock and Chorem’s blue-hooded heads, their faces weary and their bodies burdened with the arduous, three day ride to Laffloia, and then another two days to Morgriff. The carriage lulled past the gray walls of the Lionhead Corps headquarters and into the courtyard. Here and there, soldiers rushed from one doorway to the other to avoid a soaking in the rain. Chorem happened to lock eyes with a group of men lazing near the door of what looked to be the mess hall, holding dented metal mugs in their hands, and meager, handcrafted pipes in their pursed lips. When the carriage came to a halt Dylock and Chorem hopped from its back with their rucksacks clutched in tired hands. Dylock wearily took in their surroundings, a mixture of dreary gray stone that bled together with the overcast sky, and dirt pocked with numerous footprints and wheel tracks filling with rain, reflecting the bleary gray above.

“Well, this place looks great,” Dylock said.

“Yeah…I’m really liking all the mud,” Chorem replied, lifting up his right foot to glance at the sole of his boot. “At least…I hope that’s mud.”

“I’m sure the sunlight beholds it better,” Dylock said, moving forward across the courtyard.

“That would be the dream.” Chorem followed. “Let’s get to the registrar with these applications so they can tell me which cot is mine.”

The two shuffled into an office marked for registration, and brushed their cloaks free of raindrops at the step. A dismal-looking, curly-haired clerk sat behind a high counter set into a wall opposite of the entrance, only his round head and stocky shoulders visible above the countertop. Chorem pulled back his hood.

“Hello,” the scholar said.

The clerk’s head tilted to an angle, and with half-closed eyes he stared ahead at, if not through the two men at the door.

“Uhm…we’re new recruits. We were sent here after Lieutenant Garmine…”

The clerk’s left hand slid over the top of the counter, his fingers bending to beckon. “Registration forms?”

The young men shuffled up to the counter, producing the forms from beneath their dark blue cloaks. The clerk took the folded forms with a lazy swipe of his hand, and then curled his head down over his desk to read them. He mumbled to himself as he read, only slightly louder than the shower of rain pelting the roof of the building. Soon, he cleared his throat and took a small rubber stamp between his thin fingers.

“You two’ll be in the seventh detachment, overseen by Lieutenant Garmine, in the 8th squad.” He stamped the forms with a heavy, forceful thud.

“8th squad, seventh detachment?” Dylock repeated.

“Yes, the 8th, led by Sergeant Donylof; he will get you set up.”

The clerk returned the newly-stamped forms to the men with a lazy plop on the counter.

“Of course,” Chorem interjected. “Sergeant Donylof, you say?”

“Aye, wherever the hell he may be…” The clerk reached for an egg-sized stone and brought it to his ear. “Nyl. Where are you?”

A pause. The stone glowed with a faint, blue pulse.

“I didn’t ask what you were doing, I ask where you were.”

The clerk’s shoulders dropped.

“You can eat soup anywhere.”

Dylock and Chorem shared a minute, quizzical glance with each other.

“I’m not going to discuss the semantics of whether one eats or drinks soup with you over whisperstone Nyl, you have recruits. I’m sending them to you.”

The clerk tossed the stone onto a pile of papers with an exasperated sigh.

“Donylof is in the mess hall. He’s a large man, bald, dark skin…eating soup…can’t miss him.”

The young men picked up their rucksacks again, making for the exit. Chorem thanked the clerk, who only responded with a half-hearted, acknowledging grunt.

~

The mess hall was amidst the uproarious cacophony of a rousing game of cards and soldiers spearing food in thin metal trays with utensils.

“I do hope we can find this Sergeant, what if he has finished his soup? We would have nothing to go on,” Chorem said, trying to scan the hall without making eye contact with the strange soldiers taking note of their presence.

“I do not believe that’ll be a problem.” Dylock pointed to a hulking man, sitting alone at the corner of a long table near the kitchen. “I would wager that to be our Sergeant.”

The dark brown skin on the man’s bald head reflected the dotted light of the sconces on the walls. His muscular form was barely contained by the shirt on his back, the soft curves of his shoulders and biceps pressing against the taut cloth. He curled his angular arms in front of him, one hand gingerly holding a bowl with powerful fingers, the other pinching a spoon like a shining splinter in his loose fist. Dylock and Chorem hesitantly strode up to the man, grabbing his attention from across the table.

“Pardon sir, are you Sergeant Donylof?” Dylock asked.

A deep “mhmm” erupted from the man’s thick neck, and he quickly turned back to his meal.

“We were directed here by the registrar. We’re recruits of yours.”

Donylof glanced up at the men, then back down at his soup, scooping up more with his spoon. His free hand uncurled from around the bowl and opened expectantly.

“Forms,” he growled between spoonfuls.

Dylock and Chorem produced their now-stamped forms, setting them in the Sergeant’s hand. He leafed through the forms as he continued to shovel soup into his mouth. Chorem’s eyes wandered, and they met with the group of soldiers playing cards. They exchanged hushed words among the table as they stared back at the young men in their blue cloaks. Chorem’s gaze shot back to the table ahead of him, and he continued to wait patiently.

“Sit,” Donylof said.

The young men immediately dropped their packs and sat on the bench without a word. Donylof set the forms down, and then let his spoon clang into the bowl. He looked straight ahead at the men, mouth tumbling with soup still being masticated. He leaned forward, pushing the soup bowl aside and to the edge of the table, where it was immediately snatched up by someone walking by the table and into the kitchen. Chorem and Dylock locked eyes with the sergeant, their breath bated, trapped half in their lungs.

“Welcome to 8th squad,” Donylof said with a smile, opening his arms wide.

Dylock and Chorem muttered out a hesitant “thank you.”

“Apologies I couldn’t say more, I was raised never to speak with your mouth full.”

“Oh…uh…that’s fine, no need apologize, sir,” Dylock said.

“I’m Sergeant Donylof, most people call me ‘Nyl’ or ‘Sarge’ and you can, as well. So you boys come from Troima, the academy I gather?”

“Yessir, graduated just a few weeks ago or so,” Chorem responded.

“Good work, glad to have you with us.” Nyl smirked, bright teeth showing amidst the thin black goatee that squared his chiseled jaw.

“It’s nice to see someone is happy with our arrival. Many here seem…a mite suspicious,” Chorem said.

“Oh, pay that no mind. Everyone has become somewhat weary of new recruits to the corps. They’re unsure if you have what it takes.”

“Doesn’t our having been recruited imply we have what it takes?” Dylock asked.

“Of course, but that’s for command. You have the skill and talent, but you’ve seen how things are with the companies. Many recruits think they can make a name for themselves by joining one.”

“But the corps is very explicit in telling recruits that it’s not like other companies, are they not?”

“Yeah, but some would think that because the corps stands in battles instead of scouring ruins, they are apt to get their name out sooner.”

“Well, you can be assured we’re not in it for any kind of posterity,” Chorem said.

“Look boys, not I nor the corps care what you want out of it, we only care that you pull your weight and you don’t put your fellow corpsmen in jeopardy; especially by going off alone and needing a savior in your fellows. If you want your name in the gazettes and your exploits chronicled in the pulps, then don’t be a hero. The only way we succeed is by trusting each other, and when we succeed together, that’s when we become heroes.”

Both men replied with “Yessir,”

“Now, I think I saw my corporal around here somewhere, come with me.” Nyl rose from his seat and the two young men followed. “She’s the squad’s second-in-command, Rosauri Holidea, but never, ever call her Holly.”

Nyl, Dylock, and Chorem moved between the tables, and Nyl gave quick greetings to other corpsmen as they passed. Far in the corner, lit by a lone flame dancing in a sconce on the wall behind her, sat a woman amidst a small array of books scattered on the table. Brown, curly hair draped over the sides of her porcelain face as she read a book in one hand, the other rested on the table.

“Hey Corp,” Nyl said, his arms opening.

“What?” Her head tilted up slightly, the light of the sconce catching her curved cheeks, which disappeared in the soft angle of her chin.

“We have two new members I wanted to introduce; this is Dylock Luftmac and Chorem Folemthatch.”

Corp’s eyes shot up from her book, darted between the two young men, and then back down to her book while murmuring a greeting.

Chorem leaned in to Dylock. “Do you believe perhaps she was raised not to speak with her book open?”

Nyl cleared his throat. Corp lowered her book to her lap and scanned Dylock and Chorem.

“What are you wearing?” she asked.

“Our cloaks of nobility? From Luna Caeruleum,” Dylock answered.

“We recently graduated,” Chorem added.

“I suppose we are a bit messy from the rain,” Dylock mumbled.

“It’s fine, you only just arrived,” Nyl assured.

“No, it is not fine.” Corp interjected. “Why are you not wearing the proper Lionhead Corps garb?”

“Apologies, we were directed here to meet the sergeant by the registrar,” Chorem said.

“I’ll take them to requisitions now, worry not your curly head, Corp,” Nyl said. “Follow me.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Corporal.” Chorem bowed slightly, as did Dylock.

Corp’s gaze dropped to her lap, where she opened her book. Dylock and Chorem followed the sergeant out of the mess hall and into the courtyard. It had finally stopped raining, but the ground had yet to dry, and the cool smell of the rain was strong.

“She seemed a fine sort,” Dylock said.

“You would do well not to take it personally.” Nyl responded. “She is like that to…well, everyone.”

“Should she be speaking to you in that manner?” Chorem asked, trying his best to avoid puddles welled into the mud. “Are you not her commanding officer?”

“I am, but she’s usually right, so why fight it?”

The trio walked past the registration office, down a small alley that led into a backlot where a modestly-sized structure stood, built into the headquarters’ western boundary wall. Smoke belched out of two large smokestacks that reached out of its roof. Nyl pushed the door open with one massive hand, ushering the recruits inside. A counter stood at the opposite end of the door, metal bars spearing the space between the countertop and high ceiling. Past the counter lie a multi-leveled storage facility, shelves packed with racks of weapons of all kinds, spare armor pieces, and extra raw materials for use in smithing by the farrier, whose hammer could be faintly heard clanging away from the back end of the building.

“So much running around, I would not have thought we would move about so much at our journey’s end,” Dylock said, taking any moment he could to drop his rucksack at his feet.

Chorem, on the other hand, was alert, taking in as much of the new environment as possible, his knuckles white as he clutched his rucksack.

“I’ll take you to the squad’s bunkhouse after this,” Nyl said. “Until then, simply rally, Luftmac.”

“Is that ol’ Sergeant Nyl I hear?” a gruff, labored voice called from within the bowels of the storage aisles.

A portly old man hobbled up to the counter with a chuckle, his eyes bright to see the dark-skinned man towering behind Dylock and Chorem.

“Garvy,” Nyl stepped up to the other side of the counter. “You’re still working this late. I would have figured you taken by sleep by this bell.”

Garvy dismissively waved his hands. “Naw, burning that midnight oil with Farrier Cortz to fill that order of new helms. Say! How is that button of yours?”

“She’s well, strong like her mother,” Nyl said, smiling.

“You be sure to bring her around soon.” Garvy chuckled, apparently even at the thought of a visit from anyone.

“Of course, although I may wait until she’s a bit older. Still nursing and all, you know?”

“Aye, can’t stray too far from the teet!”

“Sure! Say, Garvy…” Nyl changed the subject. “We’ve two new recruits here that need to be outfitted, I’ve their forms here.”

“Ooooh two more cubs eh?! Been more than a few moons since we had some arrive.” Garvy leafed through the forms. “Ah! Sure, suuuuure, their packages were finished this past Secdiel. I’ll fetch ‘em for you.”

Garvy turned and hobbled down the main aisle of the storage area. Dylock stood with his eyes nearly closed, swaying ever-so-slightly on his feet. As Garvy limped away, Chorem noticed the cause of his unusual gait: a wooden hunk crudely carved into the shape of a lower leg, with a simple pivot joint in the ankle connected to an artificial foot stuffed into an unlaced boot. Chorem’s gaze locked on the false leg, his mind a whorl of possibilities of how he, too could be maimed in battle. It was his life now, after all. Chorem’s faced subconsciously molded into revulsion and unease until Nyl whispered to him, “Don’t stare.”

“I’m sorry, I…” Chorem was lost with the images still in his mind, even as he looked away.

“It’s alright. Garvy is a veteran, he served his time well in the corps, lost a leg in battle. Now he’s the requisitions clerk and smithy’s assistant,” Nyl explained. “No better man in the corps when it comes to weapons and equipment.”

“I see,” Chorem blurted out in a single, hushed breath, all his limbs numb, unable to steer his mind from the morbid possibilities.

“Here we are…” Garvy came back with two large packs balanced in each hand, bobbing in his palms from his limp. “One Officer of Steel uniform, and one Officer of Spells uniform.”

Garvy set the packages on the countertop, and took a step away, as if to give them room to be admired. A helmet sat beside one pack, and a wide-brimmed hat lay off the edge of the other. Dylock and Chorem walked up to the counter, both staring at the golden lion head stitched into the chest of the folded surcoat that topped the ensemble.

“Aaaand your tags, courtesy of them Guild sods.” Garvy held up two small, thin, cloth bags. “Which one of you cubs is…Folemthatch?”

“Here, sir,” Chorem said, setting a hand on the brim of the hat.

Garvy grunted and tossed a small bag on top of his folded uniform, and then tossed the other bag to Dylock.

“Those are your company tags. They mark you as one of us, so keep them with you,” Nyl said.

“Should you lose them, a replacement will be given, but the cost deducted from your salary. Keep ‘em tight, lads,” Garvy lazily recited the sentence, out of routine. “Now get yourselves away from the farrier’s infernal clanging. Be gone with yeh!”

Dylock and Chorem thanked the clerk and gathered up their new effects. Nyl guided them out of the open door and into the courtyard lit by only the moon overhead and a few lampposts.

“Sorry sir…sergeant?” Dylock fumbled with carrying his rucksack and folded garb. “When are we to receive our weapons?”

“Out of respect for Altroim’s parliament, the Lionhead Corps are not to carry any weapons larger than their dagger and our flintlock when not deployed. As such, weapons are given before deployment. Otherwise, only guards are permitted weapons on the grounds.”

“We get them on deployment, you say?” Dylock asked.

“You were given two company tags, one that stays on your person at all times, and one traded for your loadout and kept with headquarters, which you get back if you return from the field,” Nyl explained.

If you return,” Chorem muttered.

“But for now, it’s naught worry about it. If you’re in need of anything, you’ve been to the mess hall, and to research and development. We also have a general store here where you can pick up a few things, but there’s also plenty of businesses, taverns, and…whatever else you may need just down the road in Morgriff,” Nyl explained as they walked near the back of the compound, behind several buildings. “And here, here is 8th squad’s bunkhouse.”

Nyl stood beside the closed door of a stout building that stretched back to the northern wall like the others on either side of the bunkhouse.

“By all means, let’s enter and get our effects laid to rest, lest I, myself, be,” Dylock insisted, still juggling his gear.

Nyl pushed open the door, and directed Chorem and Dylock to a stack of bunk beds right near the door. Laughter became hushed as people’s attention was drawn to the sergeant. Dylock pushed ahead and dropped his rucksack on the floor, and set his folded uniform on the bed.

“Sweet relief…” Dylock nursed his aching right shoulder.

“Boys, here are some of the other members of 8th squad,” Nyl said, waving his hand towards the group collected at the back of the bunkhouse, in what looked to be a small recreation area with a table, several chairs, and a small fireplace. A man with long blond hair stoking the meager fire turned, replacing the poker on the mantle and moving down the rows of beds.

“Hello there,” the man said.

“This here is Maximilian – one of our best fighters. See him if you ever want to spar,” Nyl explained. “Max, these are our newest members.”

The long-haired man reached out with a hand for Dylock and then Chorem. “Welcome to the corps.”

“Over at the table are Avidan and Rin. They joined the corps together, and are rather inseparable.”

The two men sitting at the table turned, waving excitedly.

“Hey there, welcome,” said the curly-haired mage Avidan.

“Welcome!” shouted his companion, Rin, across the table.

“They’re a good duo to unwind with, if you can keep the pace with their humor. Lots of jokes about…well…wedding tackle.”

“Oh…” Dylock lilted, confused.

“Over in the corner there is Arcus, our resident historian.” Nyl pointed to a bespectacled man sitting in one of the chairs by the fireplace. “If you see his nose buried in a book, best to leave him be, he’ll not even know you’re alive. Arcus, greet our new members!”

Arcus closed his book. “Hello brothers, welcome to the corps.”

“Where’s Talie?” Nyl asked.

“Haven’t seen her lately, Sarge. You know her,” Avidan replied.

“Right…” Nyl turned to Dylock and Chorem. “Talie is…well, she’ll show up eventually. Some of the others are still around the grounds, they should be back to the bunkhouse soon. You two will take this bunk bed here, so make yourselves comfortable. Oh, and if you have any questions, just ask Corp.”

“Won’t she be upset with us?” Dylock asked, sitting down on the bed next to his uniform.

“Oh most definitely, but Corp knows just about everything you could want to know about the corps, and while she’ll be annoyed, she’d rather you also be informed.”

“Of course, sir. Thank you.”

“I’ll be off for the night, so you boys settle in,” Nyl said, heading for the door.

“You’re not…staying here, sir?” Chorem asked, sitting down next to Dylock.

“Oh, no,” Nyl chuckled and turned. “I live off the grounds with my family, in Morgriff. Get some rest you two, you’ll have an early day tomorrow.”

“Yessir. Have a good night then,” Chorem said.

Sergeant Nyl said his goodbyes to all in the bunkhouse, and then opened the door, turning back to Dylock and Chorem one last time to “Welcome to the corps, boys,” before the door closed with a light thud, accompanied by the clack of the metal tumblers.

Chorem took a deep breath. “Well…we made it.”

“Right you are.” Dylock pulled his uniform onto his lap, staring into the eyeholes of the helmet rested on top. He ran his fingers over the small grooves in the crown, shaped into a mane that slid down the back of the helmet. “Truth be told, I was expecting a bit more ceremony to the whole thing.”

“The rain and mud wasn’t fanfare enough? Oh, and the smithy’s clanging, like trumpeters on parade.”

“I suppose we had our ceremony back in Altroim, huh?”

Chorem mumbled in agreement and picked up his own uniform, running his hands over the brim of the hat. Underneath the headwear, he found the thin cloth bag that held his company tags.

“Oh, yeah. I suppose we should put on our tags,” Dylock suggested, opening the bag under his helmet.

Both pulled the tags out by the simple chain they were connected to. Dylock ran his fingers along the smooth surface of the reflective metal, feeling the grooves etched into it to form his name. Chorem held his tags out at arm’s length, dangling from the chain, looking at his distorted reflection in the metal. The uneasy tempo of the chain’s sway reminded him of Garvy’s gait, which drew his mind back to dismemberment. Dylock looked at Chorem, pulling the chain of his tags down around his head, the tags dangling from his neck, lightly bumping into his chest like a subtle, metal pulse. Chorem gave his friend an uneasy smile, and draped the necklace over his head. When Dylock turned away to unfold his uniform, Chorem stuffed his tags beneath his shirt, and let out a deep sigh.

Last Chapter ~ Next Chapter

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