All posts by Emanuel D

“Kral! Are you alright?

Moria’s subdued voice wasn’t enough to bring me out of my trance. I was staring at one of the many portraits dotting the hallway leading to the exhibition hall, the sound of heeled shoes stepping on marble a sharp cacophony, dulling my senses. “Everything fine, mate?” Luton’s husky voice, though, was distinct enough to grab my attention.

“Yes, Luton,” I said as I turned around, rubbing my eyes. It was comforting to see him again.

He snickered. “You sure? You’ve been zoning out real often as of late, you know that?” His hair didn’t look like it had been combed ever since we left the Medicon, and his wide, squarish jaw was starting to grow some stubble.

“Just looking at these weird paintings,” I said as I waved my hand around. The object of my attention, now directly behind me, was the portrait of an unkempt middle-aged man dressed in a lavish and free-flowing creamy thobe which seemed to change hues the more I tilted my head to the sides. I turned around and paid some more attention to the framed capasian before me. His white top-hat with thin golden rings was equally pleasing to look at. The copper plaque read “Sival Tharm, 22nd Head of the Owl’s Gems.” That would explain the extravagance.

“Yes, they are very strange, aren’t they?” Moria added, looking around the hallway. To Luton’s amusement, she was tilting her head again.

I looked at the paintings once more. Artists were rare in Rumess, or at least in our western province of Fallor, so they were greatly valued for their sometimes uncanny ability to immortalise people and events. The most skilled amongst them could create portraits that seemed almost lifelike, so there was no shortage of talent, but we had never seen paintings like these before.

Then again, our province was pretty bland in comparison to the great duchy of Saydyn, or, as we used to refer to them, the lands of the nobles. They may have had paintings like these, though there wasn’t much left of those lands anymore. No. The hunters didn’t spare the nobles either when they ripped through Rumess. Yet here stood Nehibia in all its glory and might with its folk none-the-wiser about the chaos outside their own fortified lands. I found myself wishing this place and its people the very same blight that had painted our lands red.

I turned my attention back to the paintings. For all of their intrigue, however, the strange portraits I was now inspecting were lacking an intricacy that was greatly valued in paintings – they were lifeless. Sival Tharm’s beady eyes were staring directly in front of him, and, no matter from where I looked, would always keep his gaze still. I noticed Luton chuckling as he looked at Sival from the side. “Dreadful profile, he has. Looks like a mole-rat.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say.”

“Well, not like he’d care. He’s dead, ain’t he? Besides, you should’ve seen the Knights I shared the bunk with. Lots of ugly mugs, let me tell you that.” He pretended to gag.

“You don’t have your own room?” Moria inquired instantly. “Kral and I have our own rooms! Mine is really nice, actually, and in the lobby there were all sorts of exotic plants from a place called Senn-Ha.” It was hard to stop Moria once she gained momentum. “The fellow capasi there were really nice as well. We must have spent an hour discussing all sorts of rumours,” she continued. I was glad to see her fit in so quickly, given her usual shyness.

“Rumours? Like what?” Luton seemed curious.

“They were claiming that Majestica Eudora is a Vix. I told them it’s nonsense. Everyone would have noticed if he had started to expire. It’s not easy to miss a deformed capa, is it?”

“Or the uncontrolled rage and frenzy. Yes, really does sound like nonsense to me,” I said.

Moria agreed with a nod. “Very unlikely, yes. Although… no one has seen Majestica Eudora for a long time, and he wasn’t at the opening ceremony either, was he?”

Luton was looking at a richly dressed capasi. The hems of her turquoise thobe faded into yellow and embroidered with silver.  He must’ve seen me with the corner of his eyes or something, because he snapped out of it as soon as I laid my eyes on him. “My bunk bed was nice, too. Beats sleeping in the woods, let me tell you that.”

Moria snickered. “Bit of a slow response there, Luton!”

He chuckled.

“Yeah, Luton,” I said. “You’re right though. Had a really good night’s sleep myself. The bedsheets smelled like flowers.”

Moria’s eyebrows furrowed. “Your bed smelt of flowers? How come mine didn’t?”

Luton lightly punched my arm before I could answer. “Bugger that. How about we go eat? My stomach’s grumbling real bad.”

I looked ahead at the exhibition hall. That’s where we would be having our breakfast, according to Gallant, whom I hadn’t seen since yesterday. The doorway was getting crowded, and standing smack dab in front of one of the entrances wasn’t helping either.

We followed the swarm of capasians making their way inside, paying attention to the many directional signs no doubt designed to make our journey through the labyrinthian Academy a bit easier. The hallway was noisy with the sounds of chatter and the shuffling of feet, adorned with all sorts of weird and wonderful apparel. The absence of any mechas therefore was all the more puzzling.

“Her, the one with the blue thobe!” A capasi to my side said as she glanced at Moria, her rather loud outburst clearly audible despite the commotion surrounding us. “Look at her sandals! Must be the daughter of a peer.”

Luton, having a particular craft for eavesdropping, amongst other things, obviously heard the remark as well. “Oh, Your Majesty! I believe I overheard two capasi having the gall,” he gasped exaggeratedly, “to call you the daughter of a peer! The insolence!”

Moria chuckled, playing along. “What? Me, the daughter of a peer? Why would they say that?”

“Our clothes do look a bit more upclass compared to others, don’t they?” I said, remembering our mystery sponsor. “Though I wouldn’t really liken them to the wares of nobility.”

“She’s just being nice,” Moria replied, her cheeks gaining a rosy tint. “This thobe is really nice, I agree, but it’s not what a peer would wear.” Sometimes I wondered if Moria’s humility was, in fact, insecurity.

“They’re just clothes, mate.” Luton was rubbing his thumb on the thobe. “Feels silky, though, don’t it?”

“That’s my point. Look around us. How many capasians do you see?”

“Loads.”

“And how many of them are wearing clothes as… as nice as ours?”

Luton scratched his stubble. “Not many, yeah. So what? Just clothes, Kral.”

Despite Luton’s apathy, I could see that Moria was lost deep in thought. I decided to reveal what had been bothering me since our arrival. “Not just clothes, Luton. I haven’t told you two this, but—”

“Hey!” Gallant’s voice cut me off before I could finish my sentence. He was approaching us rather quickly from behind, and even though I was slightly annoyed at being interrupted, the hilarious sight of his top-hat bouncing and swaying wildly cheered me up in an instant. “Wait up,” he shouted as he filtered through the traffic towards us, arriving slightly out of breath. “What’re you doing?”

“We were just admiring the portraits,” Moria said, emulating Gallant’s friendly smile.

“I would rather be admiring all those pretty capasi, not that there’s much of ‘em in this little maze,” Luton added, scanning the crowd. His witticisms were much more appreciated when we used to be on the run.

Gallant’s smile widened. “Shall we get something to eat?” He started to walk towards the exhibition hall and we followed, making small talk along the way. Feeling my legs ache slightly from climbing the stairs was quite welcome. I had barely exercised any muscles since arriving at the Medicon.

When we eventually made our way to the exhibition hall, I couldn’t believe my eyes!

“Oh, wow!” Moria gasped. “This doesn’t even look like the hall we were in yesterday!”

She was right. The hall looked like it had been renovated overnight, the myriad of multicoloured banners now gone, the skylights no longer showering the room in diverse hues. The coloured glass that used to filter the sunlight was now completely translucent, casting nothing but simple, yellow light. A veritable mass of capasians were seated at tables in the centre of the hall, talking to each other and creating a cacophony of noise. The formerly metallic walls of the exhibition hall now appeared to be made of wood, giving the whole room a warm, cosy feeling. Lit candles were scattered across the tables and an immense chandelier now hung above the centre of the hall.

Gallant was the second one to comment. “Skar! What a transformation. Unbelieveable.”

“Yes, yes. Anyone wanna actually concentrate on the task at hand? I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” Luton muttered, rubbing his stomach.

Gallant stifled a giggle. Luton really needed to refine his horse references. I wondered how Galant would have reacted if I told him that Luton had actually eaten a whole horse before. You didn’t get to be picky when on the run.

“Where are we supposed to be seated?” Moria asked, looking around the room. We weren’t alone in our confusion. Many capasians ahead of us were also looking around aimlessly, trying to figure things out.

“Good question. I can’t see any banners around. I guess we can just pick any seat?” I said.

Before anyone could pitch in, a short and stocky capasian standing beside us spoke. “ ‘Scuse me,” he said meekly with a familiar accent, almost reminiscent of the way some spoke back home. “You’s lots can sit anywhere you pick your fancy – there ain’t no fixed seating here.” His auburn hair was spiky, and, from the look of it, drenched in Uulin fat.

“Oh, I see…” I said, unsure of how to converse with the stranger.

The spiky-haired capasian wiped non-existent sweat off his brow. “Nice t’ meet you by the way. They call me Gadget,” he announced, nodding his head as was customary. I did the same.

Moria bowed more formally. “I’m Moria. Always nice to meet helpful people!”

Luton perked his head up. “Luton, mate. Pleasure,” he said, rather nonchalantly.

Gallant tipped his top-hat. “Nice to meet you. I’m Gallant, Knight Stallion. You?”

Gadget’s left eye twitched. “Eagle’s Reach. I like tech, traditional tech. Is why they call me Gadget.”

Judging from his accent and his way of speaking, Gadget was even more of a country bumpkin than we were. There was, however, something I just couldn’t quite place about him.

“Traditional as in steamtech? That’s really interesting,” Moria remarked. “We ar—”

“Are very, very hungry.” I interjected, recalling the warning that my mystery sponsor had issued. It would be best not to attract too much attention.

The audible growl from Gadget’s stomach helped.

Moria’s face had curdled when I interrupted her, but she regained her composure and cleared her throat. ”Are you having breakfast with anyone, Gadget?” My sponsor’s warning kept echoing through my mind, bouncing off the walls of my cranium.

You and your friends are an unlikely bunch, and I fear you will attract too much attention, too much of the bad and unwanted kind.

“No, ain’t having breakfast with nu’un,” Gadget replied, taking a look around as if to emphasise his lack of company. His right eye twitched.

Moria smiled. “Why not join us, then?” She looked at me and Luton. I shrugged, trying to keep myself from tensing up. Paranoia was a trait I had gained on the run from the hunters. Still, even though I had to be cautious at all times, there was no reason for me to be suspicious of everything.

Gadget’s face lit up. “That’d be nice! I’d quite like that, thanks.” He didn’t seem to be shy or anxious in the least.

“Which province do you hail from, Gadget?” Gallant asked nonchalantly, but his pinpointed Strassty betrayed his intent to display a lack of interest.

“From Deilia,” Gadget answered, taking a small pause before continuing. “A Nehibian, like ya’ self. But youse noticed my accent, didn’t ya? Go on and call me an outlander if you’d like. I know how you folk talk about us,” he continued calmly without a trace of hostility. “My pa and I did a runner from Yasria ‘bout 5 years back, when the rebels first hit. Pa’s a transporter. Came in real handy.” He grinned.

“Skar! I knew it!” Gallant exclaimed, before adding quickly: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”

Yasria was a duchy in Ipsis, the region neighbouring Rumess. I used to hang out with a bunch of Yasrian boys when I was younger. No wonder Gadget’s accent seemed so familiar. The impulse to tell Gadget about our origin almost took over, though my dear old companion, caution, kicked in before I would have done something stupid.

Luton had had enough of our ramblings and started to move forward, complaining about our dawdling. We made our way through the crowd of fellow students, all unique in their own, peculiar way. The general tone and dialect of speech here was quite different from where I grew up. Capasians here spoke more softly and slowly, accentuating their words rather frequently. It felt antagonising, really. I found it difficult to picture these folk ever doing a hard day’s work in their lives. Back home, life was tough and the folk were hardy and pragmatic, but it wasn’t something we detested. There was a purpose to everything. After all, my father’s pragmatic frontiersman adages had probably been the very reason we were still alive.

“There’s some seats there.” Gallant pointed to a set of empty seats at the edge of one of the tables near the lower end of the hall. We hurried to occupy them before someone else could lay their eyes on the prize.

“So, how are we going to get our food?” Luton asked, sitting down. The look on his face implied hunger. I caught sight of a group of senior students from the table across ours, making loud, bawdy jokes and laughing hysterically.

Moria was quietly tapping the table with her nail. “We’ll probably have to wait, just like everyone else.”

As soon as Moria finished her sentence, the room dimmed. The skylights dotting the ceiling turned pitch black, not allowing any sunlight to filter through them. The candles spread throughout the exhibition hall, however, gave off a beautiful ambiance, draping dancing shadows across oaken walls. The noise died down.

A voice echoed throughout the hall. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.

“Good morning, young Eytes.” It was Principal Essitor. ”Some of you will be having your first breakfast here at the Academy. To celebrate this felicitous event and to congratulate your enrolment, the Academy kitchen staff has prepared a variety of delicacies for you to savour. Seniors, you might want to toast the new arrivals.”

Just like that, the voice cut off. The hall erupted in applause and cheering, especially from the older members of the Academy. A large group of uniformed Stallion Knights were shouting their cohort motto.

“Who was that?!” Luton yelled over the crowd.

Gallant was the first to respond. “Principal Essitor Den-enald. I wonder what those delicacies are.”

A line of plainly dressed capasas appeared in the hall, putting many different types of foods on the tables. They avoided the large amounts of still standing capasians with practiced grace and an almost supernatural efficiency.

In front of me was placed a decently-sized bowl of fried Jasomyne rice with spinach, topped off with two soft boiled eggs oozing creamy egg yolk. A small bun had also been provided and it looked quite familiar to something we used to have back home. Another waiter simultaneously placed a glass of peach-coloured juice right next to my left hand. “Thanks,” I said, smiling. My stomach started growling as well now. Everything looked so tasty.

“That’s all we get? Some rice?” Luton didn’t seem too happy with our breakfast.

“An’ eggs,” added Gadget.

Moria readjusted her position on the chair. “Looks good to me,” she said, picking up a metal fork and gently sticking it in the eggs. They bled yolk liberally.

I would have agreed with Moria, but I was too busy eating. The eggs were so soft they positively melted in my mouth, eliciting a grunt of satisfaction from yours truly. Luton took a large mouthful of seasoned rice. “Not bad, actually,” he slurred, bits of rice cascading from between his lips.

“This is a nectar bun, isn’t it? One of Ommolon’s?” Moria said, picking up the small, steaming bun we had been given. She gingerly took a bite. Nectar bulged out of the bun and coated her platter in orange dots.

Gallant raised his eyebrows. “You’ve had these before? In the Outer Lands? Huh.”

“Of course we have!” I might have spoken a bit harshly. “What makes you think we wouldn’t have?”

“I meant no offence, Ommolon’s treats are quite expensive, and you know…” Gallant replied hastily. “Yours might have been a bit different than these ones,” he added softly, turning a bright shade of red. I clenched my jaw.

Moria, however, didn’t seem to mind Gallant’s implication that we had been enjoying cheap imitations. “It does taste different.” She just swallowed her first bite and seemed pleasantly surprised. Luton and Gadget were devouring their rice with unbridled ferocity. “It’s… well, not sweeter. I can’t really place it, but it’s different. Definitely some other type of nectar.”

Luton took a bite on his bun. “Tastes like a bun,” he said, while staring down Gallant.

I forced myself to relax and let it go. Nothing good would come out of joining in this conversation. I resumed tending to my food, knowing I’d have a taste of the nectar bun myself in a couple of moments. Mine was violet, unlike Moria’s, which was coloured orange.

Gallant cleared his throat. “Kral.” He had barely touched his breakfast. “There’s two capasians over there who’ve been staring at you for a while,” he said, pointing behind me with his eyebrows. “One of them keeps on whispering to his friend while pointing at you.”

Luton stopped eating. I turned around and recognised the bold duo instantly. It was the pinstripe suit capasa who mocked me at the ceremonial hall entrance yesterday and his cream blazer-clad expressionless friend. Both were wearing similar type of silver gauntlets. What had he said? “He forgot to kiss his mummy goodbye?” His friend Osrak, if I recalled his name correctly, seemed to be just as emotionless as when I first saw him.

The capasian in the pinstripe suit winked at me and started imitating the way I had supposedly reacted to the presence of the Mecha yesterday. I’m sure I didn’t look that horrified. Luton noticed this and hurled a nasty curse towards them. Luckily, his message was lost on the sea of noise in which we were swimming.

“What’s they want with you Kral?” Luton looked irritated.

“Ignore them. Just bullies.”

“Yeah? We’ll see about that.” He started to get up and I panicked. Letting Luton take control of things was not a very wise decision.

“By the way,” I said hastily, putting down my fork. “The lady at the registration desk told me that my time at the Academy has been paid for, but she wouldn’t tell me by who. What about you two?”

Gadget laughed. He was missing quite a lot of teeth. “Ain’t nu’un paid for my studies, that’s for damn sure.” Nobody found that to be as funny as he did, though Gallant smiled politely.

Moria quickly added: “Same here. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that as well. Maybe we should ask at the reception desk again?”

“Definitely. Let’s do that straight after this. I want to know what’s going on here. I don’t feel very comfortable about…” I paused and waved at everything around us, “all of this. Just too convenient, isn’t it?” I still wasn’t sure how much of our past I could bring up with Gadget here. Gallant didn’t need to know for that matter either.

My Rimmpannel beeped and vibrated. Moria picked up her own panel and swiped at the screen. I did the same. Luton didn’t seem interested, focusing only on his food.

 

Eyte Kral Fenley,

Please report to the exhibition service desk. You are to receive three hundred Vee, courtesy of recent events. This currency is usable only within Academy grounds.

 

I looked up. I wasn’t the only one to receive the message. The efficiency of these Rimmpanels impressed me so much I began to contemplate my choice of cohort once again. The Eagle’s Reach was allegedly waist-deep in all this Rimm stuff.

“Yuh, how ‘bout this!” Gadget exclaimed. “I ain’ thought they’d just give us money like that.” He started picking his teeth with his nails and casually flicked a half-eaten speck of spinach behind him, before grinning at me. “Seems like y’all folk ain’t the only ones being paid for anymore.”

Gallant put his Rimmpanel down and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Must be because of the Majestica’s recent decree.”

“You mean regarding our capas?”

Gallant nodded.

“I sure don’ see how givin’ us money’s linked to that,” Gadget added, rubbing his hands on his clothes. He then excused himself and left for the bathroom, with Gallant following soon after. I couldn’t think of a better opportunity to bring up our sponsor, so I told my companions about the letter I had woken up to in the Medicon, leaving a couple of details out. Moria didn’t need to know I was keeping a very careful eye out for her.

For the first time in a long while, I saw Luton’s face adopt an expression of utmost gravity. “They know about us already? Bugger. So much for being the master of disguise.”

Moria didn’t seem too worried. “Well, we’re not in danger right? We just need to keep our guard up. We’ve kept ourselves out of trouble so far.” She paused and then shrugged. “I don’t see why anyone would sponsor us, though.”

I spoke a bit too loudly. “Exactly!” A small capasa sitting right next to Gadget’s empty seat flinched. I gave him a smile to express my apologies. “We need to get to the bottom of this. I don’t want to dance around these arrows falling from the sky.” Luton glanced up. “Ehm, metaphorically.” It was uncanny how he could switch so fast from having a few brain cells to none at all.

Both Gallant and Gadget made their way back to the table before we could discuss further. I could sense though that the three of us were in agreement about discussing this further. A steaming buttermilk strudel with apples followed our short discussion. “Compliments to the chef!” Luton said to no one in particular.

A voice boomed throughout the hall from out of nowhere. “All Eyte students of the Academy must report to Sir Gorak at the Capasian Affairs Hall. The matter pertaining to your capas must be addressed.”

I swallowed. I had been dreading this very moment. My seal had already broken. Keep your capa concealed at all times, the letter had said. By the time the announcement faded, I was already fabricating lies and half-truths.

Gallant grinned. “Told you this was about our capas.”

I realised the choice was mine.

“Shall we check out the different cohorts?” asked Gallant, pulling me out of a deep pool of thoughts. “So you can decide which one to pick?” he continued, looking first at Moria, then at me.

“Right, where do we go?” A throng of young capasi were now lining up ahead of us to talk to the chestnut-haired capasa whom Gallant had informed us was the Eagle’s Reach head. The bold figure’s presence was inducing excited murmuring and inviting sheepish looks. A part of me was also excited to meet the cohort heads, and yet I couldn’t forego the lingering sense of betrayal. But this was not the time for such thoughts. We needed to settle in first.

“Like I said, there’s the Eagle.” Gallant pointed at the towering figure. I noticed his hat-eyes were staring at the line of eager capasi splayed in front of us. “Well, he’s not the Eagle, the founding noble died a long time ago obviously, but it’s common to refer to the heads by the title of the founders.”

“What’s his actual name?” chimed in Moria.

Gallant’s Strassty accessory was going cross-eyed again. “I’m… I’m not really sure. I know the head of the Stallion Knights is called Golyan. I don’t remember the names of the other two though,” he said, pausing. “No, no, I definitely don’t. I think I have their names around here somewhere though,” he said, swiping at his Rimmpanel. “Pretty sure I downloaded a pamphlet detailing the cohorts and the Academy a few days ago.”

“Are the other heads also known by a nickname?” inquired Moria.

Luton butted in instantly: “Aww… should we give the little jagi some water?” I just barely suppressed a chuckle. I had to admit that from the way she angled her head and squinted, she did resemble the four-legged jagurga.

Moria continued to focus on Gallant, who cleared his throat before resuming. “Yes, at least amidst the students. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my brother refer to them as anything other than the Eagle, Owl or Knight. They do sound pretty good though, right?” he smiled, nodding to himself.

Clearing his throat again, he continued: “There we are. The Eagle’s name is Filmin Thram. The Owl’s Gems is led by a woman called Mirissa Lathe. She’s easy on the eyes, too,” he said, staring at the screen of his panel, and blushing profusely not a moment later. “I mean, you know, like not—”

“Really, mate? I didn’t think a lad like you would be interested in… mature women,” quipped Luton while peering over Gallant’s panel, shouldering him in the process and making him flinch. Gallant cleared his throat more aggressively this time.

“The Knight is called Golyan. Old name. Archaic, really. Golyan the—”

“How about we save the history lessons for later and get going, yeah?” Luton butted in, “Or do you want to petrify us in this very spot?” he directed the last bit at Moria.

“Okay…” Gallant was staring at the line of capasi leading to the Eagle with discomfort. “Eagles first?”

“You lot go do that then,” interjected Luton, fiddling with his newly acquired Rimmpanel. “I’m going to, uh, go see a friend about a horse. Chap’s been buggering me for an hour now,” he continued, that iconic grin of his ever-present.

“A… horse? You’re buying a horse, here at the Academy? I don’t think horses are allowed here… I don’t mind personally, but—”

“That’s not what he meant, Gallant. He has to go to the restroom. That’s just something we used to say in the Outer Lands,” Moria explained, trying not to giggle.

“Go on then. We’ll be around here somewhere. I’m sure a tracker like you can find us real quick,” I said. That’s one thing he was good at. Getting lost while on the run was an all too normal occurrence, but Luton always put us right back on track, with surprising ease at times.

“You have no idea,” he snickered before he left. He was gripping his Rimmpanel unusually tightly.

I walked over to the line leading to the head of the Eagle’s Reach. Even though the line was moving painfully slowly, I was thankful for Gallant and Moria’s company. Luton was a long time friend, but a moment away from his inappropriate antics was welcome and refreshing.

“There’s Golyan Dol,” said Gallant, pointing at a tall, raven-haired capasian. He was wearing ceremonial armour that was quite popular among the old families of the Outer Lands, though his armour was obviously much more extravagant than what I was used to. It also appeared to be actually functional. His breastplate, filigreed with silver and engraved with the image of a rampant horse, was attracting a lot of attention. “He leads the Stallion Knights.”

“Obviously,” Moria replied, smiling, as she continued to stare at the cohort head.

“Their line isn’t as long as ours,” I said, shifting my weight to my other leg and pointing towards the line to our left. A capasian behind me complained about the waiting.

“That’s because it’s not a single line – see how they’re all spread out around the Knight? Anyway if you think the Knights line is short, you should see the one belonging to the Owls,” added Gallant, the eyes on his Strassty no doubt looking far and beyond. “There’s hardly anyone there.”

Moria looked surprised. “Why is that?” she asked, “I really like the sound of them. I can’t wait to meet the head, actually. The Owl, was it?” There was no denying I was also becoming more curious and eager to explore further.

“Yes. Yes, the Owl,” Gallant responded quickly. “Actually, it’s not that they’re disliked or anything, it’s just that most of us would rather be scientists, technicians, medics, you know?” he justified. “Not that there is anything wrong with books and the like, of course. ‘Knowledge is key’, isn’t that what our elders used to say?”

Hearing that old adage sent a wave of nostalgia rippling through my whole body. It had been a long time since I last heard those words from my own father. I recalled the sweet-smelling Ophel plant that used to grow rampantly behind my house, but the smell disappeared as soon as I acknowledged it.

“Kral,” whined Moria. “Why aren’t you moving?”

I snapped out of my homebound reverie, taking a step forward. “I was just thinking about old times. Don’t mind me.”

“If you want to share anything…” Gallant offered softly, yet his eyes seemed to pierce into my soul, forcing me to look away. “I’m also here, Kral,” chimed in Moria, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t you forget.”

How could I? I had met her in the eyte educational camp back in Rumess and was instantly drawn to her, and it wasn’t because she was an orphan and I pitied her, but because she was such a welcoming capasi that even a shy and reclusive Kral would find it easy to befriend her. We had spent the better part of 15 years together, Luton being a very recent addition to our family in comparison, and I always found comfort in her company. I wondered if I would get to know Gallant like that.

“I’m fine. Really. You both might want to turn around now. We’re next.”

Only a pair of eager capasians were ahead of us now, talking to the cohort head atop the dais. He was loud and brimmed with confidence, and, like almost everyone in line, had that very peculiar, if slightly childish, hint of excitement in his eyes.

The pair ahead of us left soon after, one of them awkwardly stumbling as he walked away. A few capasians behind us giggled hushedly, though the head acted as if nothing had happened. The three of us stepped forward and I offered the head a courteous smile.

“Hello!” he greeted, showing his impeccably white teeth. “Another group of prospective students I see,” he continued, gauging each of us in turn. Compared to Gallant’s earlier gazes, his was almost comforting. “Certainly promising too, I’d say. Which one of you is interested in the Eagle’s Reach?”

Gallant didn’t say anything. I looked at Moria and she stared right back. “I am,” I answered. “The Eagle’s Reach sounds quite interesting,” added Moria, presumably out of politeness than actual interest.

“And I’d wager it’s the most interesting of the cohorts,” the head responded. “My name is Filmin Thram, and it is my pleasure to personally invite you to join the Eagle’s Reach. If you have an interest in modern tech, or you want to pursue the sciences and consider yourselves innovative, creative, or independent individuals, then we’d be honoured to swell our ranks with capasians such as yourselves,” he finished with a flair, flashing us a wide grin.

He was piquing my interest. “Why is it called the Eagle’s Reach?”

Filmin spread his arms, showcasing his sculpted biceps. “Picture this: you… are an eagle. You soar through the sky, your wings flapping proudly, keeping you aloft, away from the mundane, from the… boring, from the monotonous. Your vision extends endlessly. You are limitless, boundless! You can see in every direction. Then, we can ask: where will you go?” he declared, putting emphasis on each word. “Wherever you choose to, wherever your path takes you, know that you have the possibility of…” he said, staring at the line behind us. “Of… of reaching out, and grabbing your dreams with your claws. The Eagle’s Reach is for those who have their head in the clouds: thinkers, innovators!  And, most importantly… dreamers!”

“That sounds… really interesting.” Hearing Filmin’s words dealt a temporary yet severe blow to my own vocabulary, but I wasn’t the only one impressed by his speech. The capasians behind us were also muttering praise and both Moria and Gallant seemed to be enraptured.

“Thank you. I hope I’ve made a lasting impression. I’m sure you’ll also appreciate this,” he reached behind and pulled out a small booklet. “This will tell you more about our cohort and history,” he said, tapping the booklet. “There’s even a nice little introductory speech from our founding Eagle. And, if you’re not one for reading,” he added, shrugging his shoulders, “one of the biggest privileges we offer to other Eagles is exclusive 24 hour access to our very own laboratory, where you will be able to experiment to your heart’s desire. In fact, that’s what we’ll be expecting of you, and we’ll even tutor you to supplement your learning. But that’s not all! We’ll even provide you your very own stash of Rimm! How about that? Is that legendary or what?”

My own stash of Rimm? The technology in this land was difficult to comprehend yet intriguing all the same. After all, we had spent our whole lives around the sounds of rusty gears grinding and steam cylinders hissing. To then be exposed to this magical substance that could achieve feats never heard of before was fascinating to say the least, and definitely worth exploring. “Thank you,” I replied, eagerly accepting the booklet.

“My pleasure. I’ll be keeping an eye out for you. The Eagle sees far,” he winked. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the three of us or just me, though I didn’t think much of it. He probably said the same thing to every prospective candidate.

We offered courteous smiles and then walked away, gently squeezing through the sea of capasians around us. The exhibition hall was getting more crowded. “What next?” asked Moria rather loudly, trying to make herself heard over the din of the crowd. I thought about going to the Stallion Knights next, but I had already heard a lot about them, courtesy of Gallant. I decided to save them for last.

“How about the Owl’s Gems?” I yelled back, looking around the exhibition hall. The cavernous room was draped in all manners of multicoloured banners and flags. The coloured glass windows above us cast playful lights on everyone in the hall, reminding me of the balls we used to have back home. I scanned the hall until I found what I was looking for: a large vertical banner depicting an owl clutching a key. “That way!” I said, nodding in the direction of the banner.

“Sounds good.” Gallant answered instead of Moria and took the lead. I suspected he wanted to make up for downplaying the cohort’s importance earlier.

Their line was indeed the smallest. I initially thought we’d get to meet the head quite soon, though I later realised the line was moving excruciatingly slowly. Most capasians ahead of us were engaging in lengthy conversation with the head, a middle-aged woman with sharp facial features and very high cheekbones. The head was more than happy to indulge, much to the dismay of everyone else in queue and not least because she spoke in such hushed tones that it was impossible to overhear.

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” said Moria, standing on her toes to peer over the shoulder of a tall capasi in front of us.”We’ll find out soon enough,” I replied. The capasian talking to the head offered her a bow and left, prompting the one in front of us to step up to her dais. Moria was chewing on her nails.

“You’re quite keen on this one, aren’t you?” I asked, to which she just politely smiled before returning her attention to the capasi in front of us, who left quicker than either of us had expected.

The head glanced at Gallant for a brief moment, then rested her gaze on Moria. She blinked very slowly, took a deep breath, and offered us a curt smile. “Greetings. I am Mirissa Lathe, the matriarch of the Owl’s Gems. You… are youth, interested in expanding your knowledge of what it means to be capasian, and how to understand the world we live in and the many creatures we share it with. I am here to help you realise and reach your full potential,” she said, her arched eyebrows expressing more than the tone of her voice did. She ran a finger along her upper lip, not seductively, but to remove a light film of saliva. I heard Gallant audibly gulp.

“Nice to meet you,” said Moria, her voice edged with anxiety. “I want that. Learning, I mean. I’d really like that.”

“As you should. For it is only through a dedicated and serious pursuit of knowledge that we can ever aim to satiate our quest for perfection. It may be arduous, and it requires persistence, but a student of knowledge is put off by neither. Instead, ones such as ourselves are driven, not only by the need for discovery, but more so by the unmatched satisfaction it brings.” Mirissa recited almost dreamily to Moria but we were also entranced. “There’s power in knowledge, my dears,” this time she addressed all three of us, her eyes narrowing upon inspecting me and Gallant, before turning her attention back to Moria. “The Eagles will tell you they are the most innovative and advanced, while the Knights will boast about their supernatural powers and capabilities. But know that none of that would be possible without the study, research and labour of the Owls. We, dear, control the destiny of others. So you can either take control, or…” she paused as she glanced at Gallant and myself again, before concluding: “be controlled.”

I heard Gallant gasp and did my best to suppress a chuckle. Mirissa’s smile suggested she was also enjoying Gallant’s discomfort. Moria blinked innocently.

“Please excuse us,” I said, grabbing Gallant’s arm and leading him away from the matriarch. Saving Gallant from embarrassment was only one of my intentions – I also wanted to give Moria some time alone with Mirissa. She didn’t operate very well under pressure, or an audience. I heard Moria resuming her conversation as soon as we left.

They talked for a long time, and I could tell Gallant was getting impatient. “Won’t be much longer, I think,” I said, hoping to offer him some comfort. “Luton’s been missing for some time now.” I looked around the hall. The crowd was starting to thin out.

“Does he usually take this long?”

“Luton? Yeah, sometimes. Guess the horse must’ve ran away or something,” I said, attempting to adopt Luton’s grin. Inwardly, I began to wonder what was taking him so long. I glanced Moria bowing to Mirissa with the corner of my eyes, and, soon enough, she came over.

“She’s a really interesting capasi,” Moria said gleefully as soon as she got within speaking distance. “Very intelligent. Wise, too. And they have a library, Kral! The Owl’s Gems is the cohort for me, I’m sure of that!” I was glad to see her so happy and excited, but I was also bothered by her choice because I was leaning towards the Eagles myself. Maybe we should take Luton’s advice and branch out and explore? Besides, did Moria really even need protecting now that we were here?

Perhaps I was paying too much attention to an anonymous letter.

“Is Luton still missing?”

“Yeah,” I snorted. “Let’s keep on moving though. He’s already made up his mind anyway.”

I tracked down the Stallion Knights by looking for the raven-haired capasian. He was standing on his dais, his booming voice echoing throughout the hall. A large crowd of capasians were listening to his words in awe.

“The Knight is giving a speech!” squeaked Gallant, speeding up his pace. “Let’s go let’s go! I don’t want to miss it!”

Moria smiled widely, following Gallant. Even though the crowd was thinning, Gallant was moving a bit too quickly for our convenience. I lost track of him for a split second, though all I had to do to find him was to look for his peculiar top-hat which was easily distinguishable from the rest. I took Moria’s hand and we pushed our way into the crowd of future Knights, which appeared to have grown considerably since last we saw it.

“Valour! Honour! Chivalry! These are the qualities of a knight! You, capasians, will not be militia. You will not be mere soldiers. You…” he boomed, pausing for effect, “will be a shield, standing between us, and those who wish nothing but to destroy our legacy! We have endured for thousands of years thanks to those who wish to become the defenders of what it means to be capasian!”

Gallant could barely contain his excitement, clapping madly. “Valour! Honour! Chivalry!” The crowd took up the cry in mass fervour.

The Knight’s voice thundered over the clamour. “The Stallion Knights are not only stalwart fighters, but tacticians, logisticians, and leaders! You will not be assigned to menial labour, no –  you will take your spot amongst legends!” he declared, rousing the crowd even further. I could barely hear myself thinking from all the noise.

“Our cohort dormitory can boast of the most advanced gym in Bloodgard, and that’s not where it ends! Those of you who wish to explore further can take advantage of our gravity rooms, designed to push you to your very limits! And when you reach your limits? What then?” He yelled, challenging the crowd. “Then, knights, you will augment your body and break past those limits. Nothing will ever stop you from defending your lands and heritage!”

The crowd exploded. A capasian accidentally stumbled over Moria in his frenzy. If he had not apologised so profusely at that very moment, I might have done something very unwise.

The Knight waited for the din of the crowd to die down. It took a while. “I hope my speech has helped all of you understand what a Stallion Knight is. Dwell on that until our next meeting. That will be much more personal,” he ended, offering the crowd a half-bow. More clapping followed.

“That was extraordinary!” exclaimed Gallant after all of it was done. I noticed a bead of sweat drip down his forehead, only partially hidden by the shadow cast by his top hat.

I felt a hand grab my shoulder and pull me back. I turned around quickly.

“For Bloodgard’s sake, will you calm down, master Kral?” Luton rebuked me cross-eyed before flashing his smirk again. “You lot finished your little tour yet?”

“Yeah, Luton. Yeah, we’re done,” I said, trying my best not to be irritated by his nonchalance.

“Right-on. So, who are you going with?”

I opened my mouth to speak…

 

There were no more Entim left!

“Your name, please,” the spectacled lady in front of the desk said rather loudly as she stared at me disapprovingly, bringing me out of my trance. Gallant was to my left, being quizzed similarly by a younger-looking capasa.

“Kral Fenley, ma’am,” I replied. Best to be polite when far, far away from home.

“Kral Fenley,” she said, staring at me from the top of her silver framed glasses. I wasn’t sure on whether it was a question or a statement. She stood perhaps an inch or so shorter than me, and her wrinkled face seemed to be twisted in a permanent scowl. Soon after, she brought her panel up to my face and aligned it in front of me. “Look at the camera, please,” she said flatly. I could tell she had done this many, many times over.

She removed the panel as swiftly as she had brought it up, and I wondered if any sort of picture had been taken at all. I had encountered such devices before in Rumess as well but they were not half as subtle as these. The ones back home emitted an excruciatingly sharp and loud sound when the picture was being taken, and, worst of all, a flash that would blind a person for half a minute afterwards. While the lingering shadow of homesickness accompanied me everywhere, I was quite relieved that my senses weren’t assaulted in such a crude manner.

“Your enrolment is now complete, Kral Fenley,” she said, before pointing at my file case that I had received from the mecha when entering. “If you already haven’t done so, please take out the cohort selection form from your welcome package and mark your preferred cohorts. You may only select one, and we will strive to place you in the most suitable faction,” she continued as I prowled through the contents of my file case. There were only two things inside: A panel similar to the one I’d seen inside the hall and a form, which I presumed to be the one she was referring to.

“After making your selection, please pass your form to one of the cohort heads in the exhibition behind me. A decision will be made by 11 o’clock and then you will be escorted to your dormitories,” she said in a matter of fact tone. I was surprised that there had been no mention of the one thing I’d been dreading so far.

“Ma’am, I was wondering about the finances,” I asked reluctantly. On the one hand, I cursed myself for asking. If it had been overlooked, then all the better. But equally I didn’t want any setbacks later on down the line.

“All in order,” she replied abruptly as she held my gaze, forcing me to be the one to look away and down.

“Who paid for me?” I asked again incredulously. Once again, she answered flatly without so much as blinking: “We don’t keep that sort of information. Suffice to say that your finances have been handled. Please proceed ahead,” she said a little more forcefully this time, her gaze turning to the line behind me. She addressed the following capasa before I had even started walking.

I nodded to no one in particular and proceeded, eager to meet up with Luton and Moria. I had lost them in the tide that had flowed out of the assembly hall and into this equally huge exhibition room. I made another entry in my imaginary list of to-investigate things: get to the bottom of the mystery sponsor. My mind raced to the letter I had woken up to in the Medicon. Why would anyone sponsor me? And would they have sponsored Luton and Moria as well?

“Kral. Kral,” a voice said behind me before I could dwell on the matter further. I turned around to see Gallant striding towards me, his top-hat wavering slightly as he forced his way past a duo engaged in conversation. For a moment, I could swear that his eyes honed in on the cross-eyed duo, almost as if staring them down. By the time he was beside me, the eyes became eerily still again.

“Kral!” It was a capasi’s voice this time, and one I recognised all too easily. My heart jumped in anticipation as I looked in the direction of the voice, seeing Luton trailing behind Moria as she closed the distance between us with haste. God, was I glad to see her again. Luton, I noticed, appeared as smug as ever. I wondered for a second if anything ever dampened his spirits, as, for as long as I had known him, he had always been unnervingly optimistic.

Moria was still drawing a handful of eyes as she approached me, but strangely it was Luton who was really chirping, as if the red carpets were being rolled out for him. Did he really believe they were all queuing up to witness his grace?

“Where did you run off to, mate?” Luton’s usual mischievous manner was announced by the unruly smirk on his face. “You could’ve gotten lost, Master Kral. Good thing I have sharp eyes, eh?” he said, his smirk expanding even further.

“Oh, give it a rest, Luton. I’m really tired,” Moria rebuked him, exasperated. “Just stop, please,” she pleaded with him, while glaring at him with an intensely annoyed look on her face at the same time.

“But it’s true, my Queen,” Luton whispered to Moria, even though I could clearly hear every word. “Just look at the way they’re staring at you. They could probably deflower you with their eyes! In fact, I’m sure they’re doing so right now… at least in their minds.” he said, his roguish grin still as strong as ever. Moria flinched, blushing furiously.

“Luton! Stop it!” She half-shrieked while trying to keep her voice down. I had never seen Moria as more than just a friend but there was no denying the way her rosy cheeks accentuated her features.

“What? It’s true! Just look at those love-stricken birds. Maybe I should uncover your little secret…” But before he could finish, Moria punched him in the side rather abruptly, winding Luton in the process. Gallant shifted his weight uncomfortably besides me.

“That’s enough Luton. Behave please, and stop making a scene for God’s sake!” I said through clenched teeth, all the more aware of the group of capasas eying Moria wolfishly. One of them whistled and made a remark when Moria struck Luton. Another was pointing his panel at us. Was he taking pictures?

“Alright, alright,” Luton said as he rubbed his stomach, slowly drawing up to his full form again. I doubt he’d been hit that hard.

“Looks like you’ve got a few pairs pinned on yourself, Master Kral,” Luton said while glancing at Gallant, and I started burning up in embarrassment. This was definitely not the type of first impression I wanted to give off to Gallant. I thought it best not to encourage our clown any further.

“Uh… Gallant, meet my friends: Luton the imbecile, and Moria,” I said quickly, hoping that Gallant had not caught Luton’s earlier remark.

“I prefer impaler, actually,” Luton butted in again, and I gave him my sternest look. That only served to make his wide smirk even wider.

“He… Hello, guys. Nice… to meet you both,” Gallant said rather awkwardly as he glanced from Luton to Moria, and then to his sides and back to me again. I noticed his other pair of eyes were still.

“Guys, this is Gallant,” I said in return. “He’s an Eyte like us and it’s his first year as well.” Luton nodded and Moria smiled kindly, causing Gallant to blink quite rapidly.

“Nice to meet you too, Gallant,” Moria smiled again, and it made me slightly uneasy. Was I being too overprotective? I had to. Despite being battle hardened from all of our adventures, she was still tender and fragile. Beautiful even, I had to admit. Her loose, draping robes covered her entirety, hiding her curves and concealing her features, yet it made her all the more exotic. That’s probably what made me feel uneasy, that she may be taken advantage of. This was Moria, and she was family. A family I would protect at any cost.

“If you don’t mind me asking, Gallant,” Luton said, placing special emphasis on the name. Suddenly he seemed serious, his gaze flickering to Gallant’s top-hat.

“Actually, Gallant, I was hoping you could teach us how to use these devices,” I interrupted quickly before Luton could create another scene, all the while pulling out the panel from my file case.

“Oh yes, that would be nice, please,” added in Moria, as she proceeded to pull her own device out. Luton, I noticed from the corner of my eye, was following suite.

“Oh, of course. I mean, the Strast family is known for its tech, after all,” Gallant said enthusiastically as he brandished his own panel. Then he paused, a look of uncertainty etched on his now perspiring face.

“Kral, where exactly are you guys from again?” he asked quietly. I looked between Luton and Moria, unsure of whether to reveal our identities or not. Would he think differently of us?

“Outer Lands,” said Luton matter-of-factly. “That’s why we hardly know anything about your technology,” he added calmly. Moria fidgeted with her fingers and I shifted my balance between my feet. I guess it was bound to come out sooner or later and I just hoped this revelation wouldn’t cause us any grief later on. I had to admit that it felt pretty good to get it out in the open, as if an invisible weight had been lifted.

“Skar! I knew there was something different about you Kral, but that was because of your clothes, they are not ordinary. Not many Nehibians would be able to afford something like this. But, you’re outlanders? Skar! Who would have guessed?” Gallant responded, amazed, but without going hysterical, which was a relief. We had always been taught that the people of the Outer Lands were subservient to those in Nehibia, and so naturally we grew up believing that the Nehibians were somehow superior to the rest of the capasians.

“Simply amazing! I’ve never met an outlander before,” Gallant continued enthusiastically. “Is it true that…” but Luton cut him off before Gallant could finish his question. ”Ah ah… questions later, answers first, eye man,” he butted in hastily as I flinched. Seriously, he could at least try to be civilised.

“You were going to tell us how to operate these panels,” Moria said. I was glad of her skilful avoidance of a possible feud.

“Of course,” Gallant responded, a look of regret on his face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to intrude, you know. It’s just that.. it’s quite exciting, meeting someone from outside,” he added in and I gave him an empathetic half smile, hoping that he would just leave the subject be.

“So, yes… the panels. The basics first, I suppose?” he asked inquisitively, glancing from Moria to me. I noticed he was avoiding Luton’s gaze.

“Yes please, if you don’t mind,” Moria replied.

“Yes, of course. First things first: tap twice anywhere on the panel to power it on, like this,” he said as he tapped his panel, the screen lighting up. We followed suite. Three images appeared on the panel.

“I will tell you how to set a lock later on. See the first image that looks like a speech bubble? You can talk to other students using that. So if you touch that image now, you will see a list of everyone you can communicate with,” he finished.

I pressed the speech icon and saw an almost blank screen. “It says: ‘Friend list empty, shake to link up!’ ” muttered Moria, clearly confused.

“Ah yes, sorry. You need to link up first. So if everyone shakes their panels together from side to side at the same time, we should be able to see each other. Ready?” Gallant said. “Now.”

We shook our panels and a stream of pictures appeared on the panel. Luton, Moria, and Gallant.

“Kral, mate… you look possessed!” Luton said. I ignored him as usual. Moria seemed surprised. “That’s not how I really look like, is it?” she said, much to my amusement. Nobody said anything, though I saw Gallant glance at her.

“Now, just tap on the person you want to link with, and after you both accept, we can talk and message,” Gallant said.

“My panel showed a blue box with Gallant’s picture and the words: ‘Gallant wants to link with you. Accept or Reject?’ ” I tapped the green ‘Accept’ button. Then I did the same for Moria. I sent a request to Luton.

“To accept, or not to accept?” asked Luton, feeling quite witty judging from the look on his face. I met his expression with a blank one. Best not to encourage further stupidity. “Oh, alright then. If you insist,” he said, sniggering to himself.

“Great, now we’re all linked. We can call, message, and share notes and other material. Just tap on someone’s picture, and then you’ll see all the options,” said Gallant before my panel suddenly bleeped and a red light flickered in the top-right corner. Gallant’s portrait was flashing, so I tapped on it. “Hello,” it said. Then there was another bleep. This time, the message was from Moria.

“This is pretty awesome. How does it all work without steam? I can’t see any gears either,” Moria asked. It was a good question. There was too much strange technology here and I felt overwhelmed. None of us were strangers to tech, but this was so much more than what we had grown up with.

“Gears? Not since Rimmtech. We don’t really use steam either, and probably haven’t been doing so for the last 20 years or so,” said Gallant.

“What is Rimmtech?” I asked. Gallant looked at me incredulously.

“Don’t tell me there’s no Rimmtech in the Outer Lands?” Gallant looked between the three of us like we were playing a joke on him.

“Perhaps if his majesty would care to enlighten us remnants of an era long past?” chimed in Luton sarcastically, gesturing at Gallant.

“Wow… wow. I would never have thought,” Gallant said. “Okay, okay. Well, Rimmtech is Rimm-imbued tech, which is pretty much everything nowadays. But you probably don’t know what Rimm is in the first place, right?” he paused very briefly before answering himself. “Of course you don’t. No offense intended, I wasn’t making fun of you,” Gallant added quickly.

“It’s okay. Can you please us a little about this Rimm? Is it some variation of steam?” Moria asked.

“No, no, not at all. Rimm is.. well it’s magic, but not really magic, you know?”

No, not really, I thought to myself. If anything, his explanation opened up even more questions.

“Alright, though I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s… what’s the word, intelligent? Yes, something like that. It has a mind. No, that’s slightly wrong. Rimm can give life, sort of. Not life life, that’s ridiculous of course, but it can make something that has no life seem like it does. Not making much sense I guess?” he asked.

“Not really,” Moria chimed slowly, giving Gallant a half stare before looking confusedly at me. I was glad she was just as confused as me.

“I’m sorry, it’s quite hard to explain. Rimm just makes things ‘work’. It’s very hard to find, and a little drop is enough to power a mecha for weeks. It is pretty much in everything, or rather, in everything around here, including these panels.”

I recalled the pristine mechas at the registration desk. They were so life-like, unnaturally so. And then there was that fleeting feeling that bordered on hope, or despair, or something in between. Maybe that was my own sense of dread I’d been feeling then.

“So, let me get this straight, Gallant. These floating buildings…”

“Rimmtures,” Gallant added.

“Yes, these Rimm-tures. They’re powered by Rimm, right?”

“Yes.”

“And so are the airporters outside?”

“Of course.”

“And the mechas, the panels, the vanishing doors in Medicon, all of it is Rimm?”

“Rimmtech. Yes, all of it. Medicon is that Rimmture to the east, right?” Gallant asked. “I saw it on my way to here, I think.”

“I guess that would be it,” I said.

“This place just gets better and better, eh? Disappearing doors, steam-less craft, floating buildings, talking mechas… hey, your eyes are going crazy eye man,” Luton added, staring at Gallant in mild shock. He was right. Gallant’s extra pair of eyes were blinking furiously once again, and he was blushing.

“Sorry, I think we should go and choose our cohort before the time’s up,” he said nervously, and I couldn’t help but wonder again what exactly those eyes of his did.

“I’m guessing that’s Rimm as well?” Luton asked out of the blue, his gaze fixed on Gallant’s top-hat. Skar!

“Yes, yes indeed. The Strassty is a family heirloom. Quite unique, I dare say so,” Gallant chirped proudly, beaming a full set of white teeth.

“And what exactly do they do, these strass-eyes of yours?” Luton continued.

“Strassty. It allows me to see, of course,” Gallant replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Luton gave me a quizzical look and I shrugged.

“Can you elaborate a little please, Gallant?” I took the opportunity to spear-drive the conversation. It was dangerous to leave Luton at the helm for too long.

“Elaborate? Oh, I see. My apologies, my apologies. Basically, I can see pretty much all around me, all the time. You could say that I have an almost 360 degrees vision, no blind spots. See the old lady at the registration desk?” he asked while we looked at him dumbfoundedly.

“Yes..” said Moria, her voice edged with a touch of anxiety.

“She’s tending to a Capasa with a white dress and red criss-cross hatches. Behind him, there’s another spectacled capasa…”

“You can stop now, Gallant,” I interrupted him. This was freaky. Gallant was freaky.

“That is.. Very strange, Gallant. How does your brain process all of that?” Moria said.

“Oh, I have a Rimm chip implant embedded into my brain,” Gallant said and I glared at him numbly. What was it that Kelia had said back at Medicon? That everyone has bits of machines in them here? Good God. She wasn’t kidding!

“You have… a machine… in your head?” asked Moria, clearly at a loss for words. This was probably the first time she heard of it.

“Yes, what’s wrong with that?” asked Gallant.

“Nothing, nothing at all,” I quickly said. “We’re just not used to this. Any of it. It’s all new to us, you see. Please don’t be offended.” I explained.

“Of course, I don’t mind at all. Maybe we can resume after we’ve made our cohort selection?” It was more of a statement than a question, but I was glad for the change of subject.

“How exactly do we do that?” I asked again.

“Just tick your preference on the form and pass it to one of the heads, I think. That’s what the capasa told me, at least,” answered Gallant. I noticed his Strassty was going cross-eyed.

“I suppose the capasa dressed like a warrior is one of the heads?” I asked Gallant, pointing towards the chestnut haired capasa. He was muscular and tall, with a sword in his right hand and a bird perched on his left. It was an eagle.

“Yes, that’s the Eagle’s Reach’s head. The other two must be somewhere close as well,”

“So I guess you’re sticking with the Knights, then?” I asked him.

“Yes, my brother is there. And you?”

“Excuse me, but I’m not completely understanding this whole cohort thing. Kral?” said Moria, interrupting me.

Gallant cleared his throat before I could answer. “They’re factions that we have to join. Think of them as… dormitories? Yes. Each has a different focus, like science or technology or military, and so they have access to facilities and resources that align with their own focus. I heard there used to be five, though that changed a couple of years ago.”

Moria blinked, obviously trying to process all of that information. “I… see.” she said in a manner that made me think that she really didn’t. “Don’t worry, Moria. It’ll be OK, we’ll stick together,” I said, doing my best to disperse her confusion. Of course, I had an ulterior motive. I recalled the letter which suggested I should keep my friends close. They were, after all, my family.

“Not so sure about that, mate,” said Luton, his face being devoid of emotion for the first time all day. “If I know you well enough, and I think I do, you’ll be signing up with them eagles. On the other hand, yours truly doesn’t really see himself as an innovator,” he continued, punching his chest with his fist as he referred to himself.

“Let’s think about it calmly Luton. We still have some time to think about it, don’t we?” added Moria, clearly under pressure. I nodded meekly, though I was feeling quite annoyed by Luton’s iconic stubbornness. I looked again at the cohort recruitment paper, trying to gauge which cohort would fit me, or rather, us, best.

Before I could think on it any further, Gallant sneezed. “Apologies,” he added, clearly ashamed at interrupting the silence, before adding further to cover up the outburst: “I’m with the Knights, my brother is there.” he repeated, checking one of the boxes on his paper and then looking expectantly at me. To my horror, Luton did the same.

“Luton..” I started, eager to ensure we all chose the same cohort and stuck together. His chiseled face confronted me head-on with a smirk that was all too familiar, yet there was something else there this time and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

“Don’t try, oh great visionary!” he declared in his usual sarcastic tone. “I’ve made up my mind, and I’m not going to change it. What are you so afraid of, anyways? We’re safe here, and it is a good opportunity to explore, and branch out,” he finished, smiling mischievously once again. His eyes were glinting, and I knew this to be a sign of sheer determination… or rather, stubbornness.

“He might be right, Kral,” said Moria. “We’ve been watching our every step for as long as I can remember. Maybe this is our chance to finally let our guard down?”

“Exactly.” added in Luton, his iconic half-smirk now gone. “I’ll be going with the Knights, if you must know. If you want to stalk our every step, dad, feel free to join me. Both of you.”

Moria’s gaze met mine, full of uncertainty. “Fine, have it your way Luton,” I said, resigned. I forced a smile to help lighten the mood, and then looked at Moria.

I had a choice to make.