A tiny cloud of red mist burst at the end of the line we were standing in. Sir Gorak, a beast of a capasian seated in a raised chair overlooking the procession, had just released a student’s seal. He announced the nature of the capa to Elmada, who quickly started tapping on his Rimmpanel, recording the information.
Keos was also there, along with Principal Essitor Den-enald, who, as the mist spread throughout the room, shouted, “Do not breathe in this toxic fume, young Eytes. Hold your breath for a mere second. It will soon dissipate. Next!”
The line shifted forward, almost in perfect tandem. “A bit nerve-wracking, isn’t it?” I heard someone behind me say. I must have been shaking visibly, despite my best efforts to remain calm. I turned around slowly and noticed that it was the very capasa I had bumped into when I first arrived at the Academy. “Emhin Venn,” he announced. He didn’t seem to remember me, for which I was very glad. “A pleasure,” he continued. His mechanical eye, as protruding as when I first saw it, blinked on cue with each spoken word.
“Kral,” I croaked as I gave a curt nod before turning back. I could barely keep up the pretense of being calm and collected. Despite all of my efforts, my hands shook, and it felt like I had a lump in my throat. I shifted my weight, smearing sweat all over the screen of my Rimmpanel. I slid the panel back into the file case.
Another capa’s seal had just been removed, evoking both another cloudy strand of red mist and an announcement by Sir Gorak. Voices rang throughout the hall, giddy with excitement or heavy with anxiety. I steeled myself, trying to regain control of my uneven breathing and attempting to focus on anything other than what was about to transpire.
“That red stuff’s Liyadai,” I overheard Gadget tell Moria, who was directly ahead of me in line.
“What’s Liyadai?” she inquired quietly. I could sense she was also nervous, though for reasons different than mine. Moria was always insatiably curious, regardless of her state of mind.
“It’s… well, just like how we have blood in our bodies, our capas have Liyadai. When the seals get released, it’s like the capa breathes again. Or sneezes.” Despite Gallant’s jittery nature, he seemed relatively calm and ready for what was about to come. I envied him.
“Just happened, sir. I didn’t tamper with it, I swear. It just happened.” Would they believe me if I told them that? Perhaps they wouldn’t even care about the seal and just shrug it off – after all, wouldn’t it speed up the whole unsealing process? That reassuring thought disappeared in an instant. I resumed my pursuit for the most convincing of lies I could conjure up. “I took part in the defense of the Outer Lands. My capa was released so that I could actually be useful.” Would that do the trick?
Pop went another seal. “Another Pusher!” Wasn’t far, now. Eight capasians stood between me and Sir Gorak. In front of Luton and third in line was the emotionless capasa I had seen accompanying the pinstriped bully that had clashed with me earlier. A second glance confirmed my suspicion. The bully was the first in line. He took a deep breath and started walking towards Sir Gorak. I held mine.
Whatever comes, comes, I told myself. No need to try and fabricate lies. “I don’t know why my seal was released. I just don’t.” My father had always told me that truth is the key to forgiveness. It was time to put the theory to test.
I once again looked around the hall, trying to calm my nerves. The hall was greatly spacious, filled with desks, chairs and cabinets, and adorned with all sorts of silken banners depicting the emblems of the cohorts. Crescent shaped sconces lined every wall. At first, their hue was yellow. Then it turned orange, and then it turned red. It didn’t stop there, of course. By the time that Pinstripe’s seal had been released, I was sure I had seen all of the known colours. “This one has the Burner,” the seated giant bellowed, drowning out all other chatter.
I turned my head back to Sir Gorak and my heart skipped a beat. The air around the procession was shimmering and crackling with static, and that was a sight that I knew all too well. Only one thought came to my mind, once familiar, now belonging to what seemed like a lifetime ago:
I came to my senses when I saw that the bully’s capa was glistening. Many shades of orange and blue swirled around it, pulsating rhythmically, sending out reeling waves of volatile energy. Flames exploded out of his capa and fanned out above Sir Gorak, licking up the stone columns next to his chair.
“Fool!” Keos yelled as the very air in the room was vacuumed into his capa, seemingly dragging the whole line of students towards him by a couple of inches, or propelling himself forward towards us, I couldn’t quite work it out. Pressure bore upon my temple and I almost collapsed. Someone far behind me groaned in pain. Pinstripe’s flames twisted and turned, and in an instant, were absorbed back from where they came. The other members of the staff had barely reacted, though it was obvious that they were tense, perhaps because of the unbearable pressure of Keos’ capa release. The Principal’s brows were furrowed. Gorak’s face betrayed both disappointment and extreme irritation.
“You dare release your capa here?!” Principal Essitor’s voice thundered throughout the hall. “Your father’s rank holds no bearing here at the Academy, Kiem Yasri! We will discuss what you have done after the procession is over. Leave now, child!”
Kiem’s face curdled with rage. He stormed away from the head of the Academy and headed for the exit behind us. “Unbelievable,” said Emhin Venn as Kiem approached us. The bully must have heard, for he stealthily punched Emhin with his silver gauntlets on his way out. Lightning arced out from his knuckles and struck Emhin in the sides.
Emhin slammed against the desk to his left, falling down beside it and knocking over a couple of mugs and dossiers. His eyepiece dangled out of its socket. People gasped. The door to the exit shut loudly as Kiem left, but the sound was mostly drowned out by the din of the crowd.
I could barely believe what just happened. My dislike for Kiem Yasri had turned into a burning hatred. I moved over to help the poor capasian, who was breathing heavily. Gadget also appeared and helped me pull him to his feet.
Emhin Venn shook his head to wash away the shock. His eyepiece swung like a pendulum in a morbid fashion that made my stomach turn. “What was that? My ears are ringing. Can you hear me?”
“You’re aight, lil fella. You stumbled real bad, ya did.” Gadget grabbed his eyepiece and tried to put it back in. He was a nice guy. “Always nasty, when these fall out. Stand still, will ya? I’m tryna put it back in.” That was not a stumble. Am I the only one who saw what happened?
“I stumbled? I… I guess I did.” The confusion present in one of his eyes could’ve been read by a blind person. There was an audible click as Gadget put Emhin’s eyepiece back in place.
Principal Essitor shouted, “Keep the line moving, please!”
And so we did. Everyone moved forward. Me and Gadget pulled Emhin back to his place in the line. “Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’d have done the same.” I hope, at least. After a few seconds, the tumult died. Everyone returned to their conversations. While they focused on the joy of having their seal removed prematurely, I focused on what would happen to me. My worry started escalating at an alarming rate. “The Magnet!” I heard Sir Gorak tell Elmada.
“It’s going to happen soon!” someone said. The two capasians behind Emhin were talking about their imminent release. I could almost hear the sinister whisper from the principal: “I’m afraid we can’t overlook this travesty, Kral Fenley. We will have to expire you much earlier than expected.” I gulped. Back to inspecting the hall and forcing pleasant thoughts. And breathing.
The Affairs Hall had two stories. The lower level featured beautifully detailed frescoes that seemed to depict the history of our race. Over there I could see Kressim, the first Majestica, enveloped in a veritable rainbow of colours that seemed to originate from a mass of capasians that were kneeling in front of him. His capa was immense. I wondered if it weighed him down.
My attention was grabbed by another red sliver of mist, this one wrapping itself around one of the columns near Sir Gorak. Yet another capa freed. Yet another step closer to my impending doom.
“I’m afraid,” Moria mumbled. So am I, Moria. So am I.
Luton walked over. Another capasian I had not seen before was also present, lurking behind Sir Gorak, scanning the crowd. Our gazes met. “I’m sorry, but we have to expire you much earlier than expected.” I gulped and looked away. Kressim looked really impressive over there on that wall, he did. The colours were extraordinarily vibrant and I, strangely enough, felt drawn to this image. It felt familiar, somehow. Had I seen it before?
I heard the sound an Outer Lands mecha makes when it emits steam. “The Blaster!”
Luton’s seal had just been removed. He got up and headed towards the exit. He must have noticed my fear, as he flashed me his iconic grin. “Feels great, mate. Like laying in bed after a long day.” I wanted to strangle him right then and there.
A step forward. It was Gallant’s turn now. He bowed deeply before the Principal and Sir Gorak and laid on the stretcher that was in front of them, flat on his stomach. Sir Gorak casually ran his hand over Gallant’s capa, jerked it upwards as he pulled out the seal, held his breath as another small puff of Liyadai emanated, and turned to Elmada. “The Shielder!”
Gadget’s extraction went exactly the same, except that his bow was more of an awkward nod. Another seal removed, another capasian receiving his natural abilities. Two more steps forward. I was close. Only Moria stood between me and the end of my journey.
She turned around and gave me a worried half-smile. Her words careened through my head, weighing heavy upon my already wavering morale. “I’m afraid,” she had said. “Go on, Moria. It’ll be over before you know it,” I said now, trying to comfort my old friend. I couldn’t help but wonder if this would be the last time I saw her. I really had to stop being so over-dramatic!
“It would be fine. It would be fine.” I just had to keep telling myself that. I had to stick to my father’s advice.
Moria gingerly walked over to Gorak and laid on the stretcher before him. Keos laid a friendly hand on her shoulder when he saw that she was shaking. “Do not worry, miss. This is something we have all gone through.”
And that was my cue to shake as well. My body gave in, ripples of fear coursing through my body. My teeth chattered. I had been in worse situations than these. Me and my crew had been hounded by Hunters for such a long time that I had forgotten just how much I had been on the run. Why was I so afraid now?
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid. I’m afraid.”
Get a hold of yourself. Expire with dignity.
Moria’s seal had been released before I could even register the process. She was walking back towards me now, smiling. “What in Bloodgard was I so afraid of?” She whispered as she walked past me. That was the first time I heard her use that expression.
I had frozen. My gaze was affixed to the floor. My legs were blocks of ice. A deathly cold crept up my fingers. The lump in my throat felt like it was expanding so quick that I thought it would explode and shower the whole crowd in viscera.
“Move forward, young Eyte!”
I couldn’t. Then I heard someone talking to the assembly ahead of me and I mustered every ounce of my strength to raise my gaze. The capasian that was lurking behind Sir Gorak’s chair now leaned over in front of him, accentuating his speech with hand movements. “An issue with payment, yes. This one,” he said as he casually pointed a finger behind him, towards me, “has not yet covered the fee for attending the Academy. Please excuse us for a while, Sir Gorak.”
He turned around and faced me. His face was lean and his hair was close-cropped in the fashion of the Stallion Knights. Sir Gorak used the armrests to push himself up, but stopped halfway when the Principal held out his palm. “Let us continue with the procession, Sir Gorak. We’ll deal with this later.” Sir Gorak nodded and sat back down. My would-be saviour approached me.
“Kral Fenley, I am Ida Kerim. Come with me.” He started towards the exit without making any further eye contact. I followed all too eagerly, before the doubts had started creeping in again. Have they already found out? Is this all an elaborate trick to eliminate me discreetly? Should I make a run for it?
No. Expire with dignity.
We made our way out of the room and back into the busy hallway, which was animated by the sound of constant conversation. I could make out some of my recent acquaintances, but they hadn’t seem to have noticed me.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much time to explain the full nature of this situation, so I will keep this short and concise,” Ida said as he continued to walk slightly ahead of me. “You and I have a mutual friend, Kral. It relates to the letter you found in your room in the Medicon, the contents of which I hope are still fresh in your memory.”
While I didn’t exactly memorise the contents of the letter by heart as if my life depended on it, I could certainly recall the basics. A meeting, by some dormitory, that I had to attend alone. “The meeting,” I said.
My Rimmpanel beeped twice, but I paid it no mind because Ida had suddenly stopped walking and now stood facing me.
“Good. Don’t forget it. I will have to leave you now. Stay safe, Fenley. And if anyone asks about your capa, it’s the Exploder that you have.” And with that, he walked past me and back into the direction of the hall.
“Kral!” It was Luton, and he was beckoning me to come over. I let out a sigh of relief. I had no idea what had happened, or who this mysterious capasa was and why he was supposedly looking out for me, but I did intend to find out the first opportunity I got. I walked over to Luton, making my way through the crowds of capasians excitedly chattering about their capas.
“Given your expression, I bet you’ve got the rarest capa in all of Bloodgard!” Gallant smiled, as did Moria and Luton, supposedly to keep up the pretense, and just as well.
“I’m just glad this is over with, capa or no capa.”
“Come now, don’t keep us in suspense,” Luton butted in before fist bumping his chest. “Me, I’ve got the Blaster. Blast my way through things, all proper like. Can’t wait to try it out.”
Moria snickered. “If there’s anything that’s been blasted, it’s your brains!”
Gallant addressed me again: “How about you, Kral? What’s your capa about?”
“I think it would be better if I keep it a surprise. Lends an air of mystery around me, makes me special, you know?”
“Oh, don’t be like that”, pleaded Gallant. “You’ll have to release sooner or later, so we’ll find out anyway,” he added. “So come on, tell us. If you do, I’ll uh, tell you the capas of the cohort heads!”
The spark of curiosity glinted in Moria’s eyes. “Really? Tell us!”
“Kral?” Gallant grinned.
“Oh, alright. I think they said I have the Exploder, but don’t ask me anything else, because I don’t know what it is or what it does,” I very much spluttered the last part.
“Skar! The Exploder! Sounds so cool! You have to tell me all about it as soon as you find out. Okay? Promise?”
“I’m sure he will, Gallant. Now, about the capas of the heads?” Moria added hastily before I could reply.
“Well, there was a rumour that Golyan Dol, the Stallion, had the Pusher. But my brother told me that he actually has the Shielder, like me, because he released it one time in their drills. So I’m pretty convinced he has the Shielder.” Gallant beamed with pride.
“I thought he would have had something more exotic, you know, because he’s a head?” Moria said, before adding in quickly: “Like, there’s nothing wrong with Pusher or Shielder, but that’s for us basic folk. That’s what I meant.” I didn’t think Gallant had minded her opinion one bit, but Moria, as tactful as ever, obviously worried that she might have slighted him.
“Well, they say he’s reached the 7th degree, and reaching that level makes any capa exotic, wouldn’t you say?”
“Amazing,” gawked Moria, stretching out the word like an awestruck infant picking up something with their hands for the first time. “I’ve never heard of anyone reaching the 7th degree of their capa except the first Majestica Kressim!” She chirped.
“Precisely. It’s not always about the capa itself is it?” Gallant responded with a smile.
“You’re right, you’re right. What about the others?”
“Okay okay,” he chuckled. “Well, everyone knows Mirissa Lathe has the Paralyser. No doubt about that. It’s one of the rarest capas ever. Heard she once froze a Vix in place for a whole day.”
“A day? A supercharged, 250 year old capasian, frozen for a whole 24 hours? No way, they’re spinning tales.” I found myself agreeing with Luton’s opinion.
Gallant shrugged. “Just what I heard. Anyways, I believe Filmin the Eagle has the Mechanic. Makes him know all about machines and Rimm, I think, which is quite fitting.”
Moria nodded. “Very fitting, yeah. So interesting. Can’t wait to experiment with my capa and see all yours as well,” she said, her eyes wide, darting to each of our capas.
Gadget, whom I had not seen since I left the hall, appeared out of nowhere and cut through the conversation like a knife shearing butter. “Them lavatories have soaps that smell like fresh cut grass. Y’all know that?”
Luton and I said nothing. Moria mumbled incomprehensible gibberish. Gallant offered a polite “yes”. Then we all looked around for a couple of seconds. If we would’ve been seated at a dinner table, we probably would have each taken two consecutive sips from our cups. Way to kill a conversation, Gadget. Awkward, but mildly amusing. Gadget, clearly oblivious, seemed to radiate excitement as he raised his Rimmpanel and started dragging and tapping at the screen.
After it became clear that nobody would have anything to say, I cleared my throat and took initiative. “So where do we go next?”
That seemed to revive the conversation. “How ‘bout we check out the marketplace? Couple a things I’d like to check out. Gadgets ‘n the like.” My spiky haired friend seemed giddy.
Gallant nodded and took a couple of swipes to his Rimmpanel. “Agreed. No better way to spend time before our next lesson starts.”
My joyous mood slowly started to dissolve. “Our next lesson?”
“Yeah. Look,” he responded as shared his view of the screen. “Didn’t you get the message?”
Introduction to Traditional Arts – Principle TA1 – CALEF.
Location: The Field.
Time left: 1 hour 26 minutes.
“Huh. Yeah, I must have.” I checked my own panel. I had received the same message about 4 minutes ago, probably back when I was speaking with Ida Kerim.
“So Gadget, what exactly do you want to do at the market?”
“Glad ya asked, Gallant! Rumours there’s a real rare essence ‘round there for Wuiga. I’d love to get my hands on that, I really would.”
Luton raised an eyebrow. “Wu-what now?”
“Wuiga Ascended. It’s a game you can play on your Rimmpanel. Let me load it up for you.” Gallant once more began to swipe on his panel with a quickness that suggested a deep familiarity with the device. “Let’s start moving, guys. I can show you on the way there.”
At this point, I was beyond surprise. It was one thing after another, all overwhelming in their own aspect. The only thing I felt now was disappointment and sadness for these over-privileged folk, and for our race. We were mighty no more. We had become a species addicted to tech to such a point where we used a glass panel to not only communicate, but even play games? I was numb.
God help us all.