Volume 1 – Rasiria

They weren’t the hunters

… but we still became the prey! We didn’t belong here, not in this place, and certainly not in this time. The whole experience was surreal, and not least because we were outsiders. It wasn’t like we didn’t resist, we did. But we were fools to think we stood a chance against this class of capasians. Even today, that face haunts me. Those piercing hazel eyes, that uncanny and hypnotic glare, but above all, his unworldly ability to reduce me to a weeping, cowering and pathetic infant!

~Kral Fenley
5th March, 1174

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Everything was hazy and distorted

It took me awhile to open my heavy eyelids but more time still to focus through the fog clouding my senses. The sky was still overcast with thick dark clouds which threatened to extinguish all light from around me, but I could vaguely make out the maple leaves scattered on the floor next to my immobile body. Maple leaves… maple leaves? Wait… Where was I?

Was I dead?

As if on cue and to my absolute horror, the hunter descended directly above my powerless figure while I pointlessly willed my paralysed body to move, to run, to hide!  The stifling pressure was enough to suppress any further movements from my body, and the next moment I was screaming in pain and anguish as my captor raised his right foot and slammed it down on my chest like a piston, crushing my ribs and forcing my ruptured vessels to spew blood out of my mouth.

Coughing and wheezing, I could do little more than to concentrate on my breathing. If I wasn’t already dead I was surely dying this time but something was amiss, something wasn’t right in this whole scene. As my body continued to cough out blood and what little life force it was left with, my mind had decided that the anomalies I had discovered were more worthy of my attention than my broken and soon to be lifeless body: Luton and Moria’s corpses were no longer present; the maple archway which I had blown up had miraculously reappeared; and my captor did not have a face!

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“Stop it Luton!”

“Do you want to get us in trouble again?”

“Alright, just a little bit then. Just enough to bring him around… half a glass will do just fine I think.” Luton’s faint sniggering was really starting to irritate me now. Let him do it this time, he will regret every drop of spilt water!

It was my fourth day since waking up at the Academy, and I had experienced a rude awakening twice since then, of course, courtesy of Luton. So as I lay on my left side pretending to be asleep and peering towards the door from underneath my folded arms which covered my face, I waited as Luton persuaded Moria to let him bathe me with a splash of water for the third time. Poor capasa, let’s see how he enjoys an exploding glass of water! I didn’t want to injure him of course, but he’d been taking a lot of concessions lately and it was time to put him in his place.

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I was floating in the air!

Actually, it was the whole building that was afloat, and I struggled to make sense of it as I stood stupefied on the marble platform. A vast expanse lay before me as far as the eye could see, only interrupted intermittently by the sight of another floating cone-shaped structure. Some had spherical outlines, others more dome-shaped, yet others with no clear recognisable structure or form. Some were above and some below, and they seemed to cover the entirety like little ants crawling on a tree trunk.

Yet there was no smoke, so how were these powered if not by steam? How could anything provide anywhere near enough power to keep these gigantic monolithic structures afloat? But before delving on that matter, I still had to get around the idea of an entire building floating on thin air in the first place!

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But it was too late…

I had already made a fool out of myself!

The next few moments were awkward to say the least. There were focused stares and hushed murmurs all around, but a few were even audacious enough to openly point and snigger. A pinstripe-suited capasa with a black and white tie and short-trimmed hair was the most brazen. His hands were covered in silver gauntlets that shone in the daylight. It didn’t help that he was in the queue to my left, almost beside me.

“You think he forgot to kiss his mummy goodbye Osrak?” He addressed a sturdy capasa to his right before resuming to leer at me. His comrade, outfitted in a creamy dress and wearing similar gauntlets, meanwhile, gave me a blank stare. If there were any emotions behind that plain look, they failed to register.

A hand on my shoulder diverted my attention from the duo, and I noticed Elmada’s towering presence converging towards my left and gently pushing me forward.

“Whatever’s got you in a bother, shake it off young Eyte. There’s no danger here.”

At that moment, my respect for the friendly giant grew tremendously. Overlooking my momentary lapse to save me embarrassment, he also positioned himself to conceal me from the pinstripe-suited capasa. Probably for the the first time in many, many years, I could truly say that I felt safe.

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Anomaly 1

It watched the procession patiently.

The details were blurred and the focus wavered from time to time but that was OK. It was a price it was willing to pay to stay in this form. It needed to observe.

The scent of fear and nervousness was palpable and oh so, so, exciting! Seeking out the fresh ones hardly required any effort any more. It had almost become second nature, as easy as breathing, even. It could feel the nervousness which they disguised underneath hushed conversations and the fear which escaped through their ragged breaths. It could probably draw it out if it wanted to, paint in thin air with a million different strokes, each as vivid and clear as the realities unfolding before them. But it should probably check on the existing cogs first before it got overexcited. It wouldn’t do to lose progress.

It shifted, now overlooking the bulk of the rows stretching to the entrance of the hall and housing the majority of the larger, bulkier and more animated occupants. The nervousness was less here. Not quite absent, but noticeably less than the fresh ones. The vacuum was filled, instead, with hopes and aspirations, envy and hatred, pride and fear! Yes, the inescapable fear. No matter how brave, a trace of it lingered in all entities, waiting to be cultivated. But it didn’t need to sense the raw streams of emotions for this task, it wasn’t necessary.  Even with the blanket of suppression, it could identify the Chosen.

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I was momentarily blinded…

The sudden transition from semi-darkness to the blinding daylight had caught me off-guard, and my hand moved to shield my eyes from the intruding sunlight. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the new brightness, and everything seemed to come to life all of a sudden.

The opaque wooden walls around me had miraculously transformed into glass panels, permitting bright sunlight to wash its way into the hall. My eyes darted to the roof, noticing that it had also followed the example set by its two neighbouring walls. Moving my hand away from my face, I straightened my slumped form and peered ahead at the dazzling subject of everyone’s interest.

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The wave of nausea was overwhelming…

And I nearly buckled.

How many were dead now because this capasa, our ruler and King, had abandoned us? How many had given their lives for him, in his name? Their mutilated bodies flashed across my eyes as I glared at the Majestica, wavering between awe and anger. A decade of relentless persecution, nearly half of that period without any help or support from the Entim, from the Majestica! Were we any lesser than capasas who stood in this hall with me now, idolising their leader? Why had we, then, been abandoned? I gathered my courage. My people had given their lives to protect me, Dravon had died for the very same thing, surely I could muster a little bit of courage to say what needed to be said.

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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.

 

“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.”