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…


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