"If you don't have a plan, improvise. You'd be surprised how far this can take you." - Cassius Bright, said in a speech given to the cadets of Liberl Royal Army.
There was something to be said, Sara Valestein thought, about a woman on the verge of starting her third career path at only 25. The jury was still out whether it was a good or bad thing, though.
After fighting in a Jaeger Corps – a career she had left behind with no regrets – and her years serving as a Bracer – a life she was forced to leave behind kicking and screaming all the way, and that she still longed for to this day – she was now finding herself in the very unexpected position of an educator at the prestigious Thors Academy. Not just to any class, but the elite experimental one too. Had someone told that to her past self only one year ago, she'd have laughed out loud at the ridiculous idea. In fact, she wasn't sure she believed it even now, despite having her prospective trainees right in front of her, nervously awaiting for her... orders? Instructions? Advices? Shit, she really had no clues.
What devil could have compelled Olivert Reise Arnor, an honest-to-god imperial prince – despite all appearances – to personally scout her? She was a self-confessed procrastinator, and a solid contender for the title of heaviest drinker in Erebonia; Olivert had laughed at that last protest, claiming she had nothing on some people he met in the Liberl Kingdom (she had half a mind to go there just to prove him wrong). She also utterly lacked any kind of academic background, which was rather unusual for a position of educator here. And judging by the comments that reached her ears on what people said about her new position, she wasn't the only one baffled. Some even went for the obvious explanation: if a royal known for his lecherous ways was pushing an attractive young woman – at least her critics had taste - for a position she was obviously unqualified for, clearly it was yet another case of bedsheets politics, and a new item to add to the ever-growing list of scandals that followed the debaucherous prince.
Well, she could understand where this was coming from. Still pissed her off, though.
Yet somehow, the emperor's eldest son had heard about her, and decided she would be the right person for the job. She supposed her combat prowess partly explained it – this was a military academy, after all – but still it wasn't like the staff at Thors was lacking in skilled fighters, what with most of them being war heroes and whatnot. She suspected part of the reason might lie in her past as a Bracer; from what she knew, the prince had been a vocal supporter of the guild and the main opponent to the "reforms" put forward by chancellor Osborne, who effectively ended up gutting their Erebonian branch. While Olivert had largely lost that particular political fight, it was clear that he held the self-proclaimed "protectors of the citizens" in good esteem. Sara wondered if he might have hoped she would pass along to her students the Guild's values, making sure that while the organization seemed doomed to fade in Erebonia, a new generation would still be around to defend its principles at the very least. Well even if it wasn't his intention, that was what she would try to accomplish.
Too bad she was, by all accounts, a terrible role-model – Fie relished reminding her on a daily basis.
Nonetheless, the former bracer was willing to give this a shot. That was why she was now standing on the old schoolhouse's grounds, staring down at her nine prospective students, hopefully the future members of class VII if everything went well. Honestly that wasn't a given. In a rare case of professionalism, Sara Valestein had taken great care of reading each of their personal files – well, beside the one of her ungrateful protege, the last three months together taught her all there was to know on that front. But because she was still a procrastinator at heart, she had forgotten to ask for pictures, thus leaving her having to guess who was who. She would have been hard-pressed to find a more disparate group of individuals – and that was saying something, given the colourful acquaintances of her mercenary years. It was all according to plan of course: putting together people from all walks of life, in the hope that their various experiences and perspectives would help them to grow as a whole. A noble idea in theory, but Sara feared that in practice, it was more likely to end in bitter conflicts.
Oh well. She'd play it by ear and see how it went. How bad could it be, really?
In yet another uncharacteristic display of work ethics, she actually took the time to prepare a speech. However, as she looked at her would-be trainees, she found she basically couldn't recall a word of it. Maybe writing it over a bottle of whisky hadn't been the best idea, after all – though it really made sense at the time. Well, one more thing to improvise, she supposed. The nine young men and women in front of her seemed by now thoroughly confused, both by their current location – the old schoolhouse where she had led them had been abandoned for decades, and it showed – and by the fact they had been apparently singled out from the vast majority of students, their red uniforms being a stark contrast from the noble's white or the commoner's green. Not used to be looked at for guidance, Sara Valestein took a deep breath, trying to project her usual confidence in her voice.
"The name's Sara Valestein. I'm the instructor of class VII, which means you get the pleasure of seeing me all year. Glad to finally meet you!"
She capped the introduction with a smile she hoped was reassuring. From the dubious or outright worried looks she got, and the few confused whispers some students exchanged, it didn't seem to have worked too well. A tall girl with dark blue hair tied up in a ponytail stepped forward, asking what was probably on everyone's minds.
"I'm not sure I understand. I wasn't told anything about this at enrolment."
She was soon backed up by a bespectacled girl whose purple hair were neatly tied up into a long braid. "Excuse me, instructor Valestein? I was under the impression there were only five classes at this academy, and that students were split among them based on their social class and home region..."
Fair enough, Sara supposed. It was only natural that they'd have questions – and perhaps starting the day by gathering them all in a building that screamed 'haunted mansion' hadn't been the best way to put them at ease. Anyone would be on edge after being led in a building in the middle of the backyard campus woods, in a room with nothing but naked dark stone to contemplate. Even the windows seemed to barely let light in! Oh well. For now, she could answer... crap, which one was she? There were four girls in class VII, and she was all too familiar with one of them, which still left three possibilities. Well, time to take a shot in the dark.
"Right you are, Miss Top Scorer on the Thors entrance exam!"
The student's face showed no sign of confusion at the accolade, only mild embarrassment at the few glances from her fellow classmates the compliment earned her. Sara mentally patted herself on the back for scoring a bullseye: that studious-looking young woman had indeed been Emma Millstein, whose extraordinary academic scores earned her a spot in this select project. With a smile, the instructor continued.
"Students in each year are divided into five classes: two for the nobility and three for commoners. And it's been that way for ages, right up through last year. But this year, we decided to shake things up a little."
A gross oversimplification of the struggles that led to the creation of this special class, but they didn't need to know that yet. They had enough on their plate as things were.
"We now have a sixth class. Fittingly titled... class VII!"
To her disappointment, the joke she had spent at least fifteen minutes on while writing her speech – to the point where it became the only thing she managed to recall on the spot - earned her no laughs, not even smiles, just yet another batch of confused stares, and a pitying gaze from Fie. That brat. Urgh, moving on.
"And in class VII, we recognize no distinction between nobles and commoners."
That, more than the cutting-edge technology they would have to field-test, more than the unorthodox curriculum that was planned for them, was probably the biggest specificity of class VII. A social experiment that had the potential to turn pretty badly if-
"This must be some kind of joke!"
- if that happened.
While most of the teens still seemed unsure of what to think of the situation, one of them looked like he had a clear opinion on that: namely, that he hated it. One of the nobles? With his short, spiky grey-green hair and the furious glare he was throwing her way behind his glasses, he didn't really look like one, but-
"And why is it the first I have heard of it?!"
Then again, he was pushy enough to be one. Sara scrambled for a proper response, still thrown off-balance by the vitriol in his tone.
"Well, uh... errr... who were you again?"
At this point, trying to make another blind guess was more likely to piss him off even more if she ended up being wrong, and she didn't want to push her luck. The teen straightened his posture, pushing back his glasses on his nose before answering in an imperious voice.
"Machias Regnitz. And with all due respect, instructor, it's ludicrous to intermix nobles and commoners like this!"
Oh. Not a noble at all after all, despite the attitude. Still with a pretty impressive pedigree though, from what Sara remembered. Somehow, she hadn't expected the son of the capital's governor, who came just a little shy of the top score at the entrance exam, and whose mind and willpower had been praised by his previous tutors to be so... vehement. Damn it! She had hoped he'd be one of the calming influences inside class VII! Unfortunately, a file could only tell you so much, and the real article seemed somewhat more difficult to handle than she had anticipated. The green haired student was on a full-throated rant at this point, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
"Must I be forced to spend my next two years shoulder to shoulder with those arrogant, stuck-up hedonists?!"
"Uh... You DO know I'm not the one who made the decision, right?" Sara weakly interjected. "Besides, what's the big deal anyway, you're all kids. Can't you all just..." she scrambled for a reasonable suggestion, found none, and decided to push forward anyway "get along or something?"
It would be really convenient if they did, because honestly, the would-be teacher had no idea how to deal with this. At least the suggestion had thrown Machias off-balance, if only due to its sheer naiveté.
"J-just... get along?! Hah! And how do you suppose we do that?"
Sara was spared the need to answer by an audible scoff. Apparently, the student standing right beside Machias Regnitz had not been impressed by the protests. Scowling, the governor's son turned toward his apparent critic, a defiant look in his eyes.
"And what's your problem?"
"Oh, nothing much." His blonde challenger simply gave him a side glance from his icy blue eyes, seemingly already bored with the conversation. "I just find the irony of your behaviour rather humorous."
"Is that so?"
At this point, the other students had opted to simply watch the brewing confrontation, seemingly at a loss on whether or not they should intervene. Truthfully, Sara was pretty much in the same boat as them – and to her growing horror, she realized things were about to get much worse. There was no doubt about it, everything in the newcomer appearance, posture and tone screamed 'nobility' to an onlooker, a fact that had certainly not been lost on Machias, who dramatically opened his arms.
"It seems the scion of some noble house has left the comfort of his mansion to grace the unwashed masses with his wisdom!" The Regnitz boy's voice was now dripping with disdain. "Please, milord, do share your esteemed name with us so I can give you all the respect you deserve."
The nobleman marked a pause, as if considering his answer, before finally obliging him.
"Jusis Albarea." That drew a few gasps from the others, even taking Machias aback. "Not that I'd expect the name of an arrogant, stuck-up hedonist to lodge itself in that hard head of yours."
Thought so. It was no wonder the rest of the class seemed taken aback by the name. The Albarea family were one of the four great noble houses, and the stewards of the Kreuzen province. When it came to rank, only the imperial family stood above them. Helmut Albarea, the current Duke, was probably one of the most well-known names of the Empire. Not necessarily for good reasons, mind you. He was notably one of the staunchest opponents of the Reformist faction - which counted imperial governor Karl Regnitz among their most illustrious members. And already, their sons were at each other's throats. Great.
"Well, you don't get much more noble than that." muttered a blonde girl with striking red eyes.
An apt summary in Sara's eyes, but definitely a problem given the circumstances. She watched Machias expression, whose confusion quickly gave way to renewed disgust.
"D-do you expect me to be impressed?! Your family lineage means nothing to me!" Oh, it meant something alright, in Sara's expert opinion. Just nothing good. "I'll never bend my knee to the likes of-"
She interrupted the oncoming tongue lashing with two short claps of hands. "Okay, okay, that's enough!" At this rate, they were going to get nothing done, and she supposed it was kind of her role to break up those sorts of arguments. Probably? Urgh, she hated being a teacher already. "I'm sure a couple of you have a few grievances, but now's not the time. I'll hear your complaints later." Or find someone to hear them in her stead, preferably. "Right now we have our orienteering exercise, and far be it from me to keep you from our fun little icebreaker."
That at least put the argument on hold, making the class focus on her words once again. Maybe she should have opened up with that.
The blonde girl from earlier raised a hand. "You mentioned this 'orienteering' exercise earlier? What exactly does that involve?"
"It's a form of outdoor competition, isn't it?" Emma Millstein half-answered, half-asked. "Something like a cross between a map-reading exercise and a scavenger hunt?"
That seemed to make one of the boys come to a realization. "Is that why they asked us to hand over our weapons at the gate?"
Well, that and the fact the educators here were not about to have an opening speech in an auditorium full of seventeen years old armed to the teeth, prior training or not. Thors was a military academy with a significant focus put on developing personal combat, but still those kinds of things had to be regulated. Or so they told her, it's not like she had a lot of experience with that. Nonetheless, after the argument from earlier, those questions were a nice change of pace. "Nothing gets by you, does it?"
Sara took a moment to think of the best way to explain what she had in store for them, before realizing it would be a lot simpler to simply let them figure it all out as it went. Well, simpler for her. Meh, learning to deal with unexpected situations couldn't hurt them, right? With a self-satisfied smile, she reached toward a button carefully hidden in the nearest wall.
"Buuut I don't want to spoil the fun, so let's get started, shall we?"
During her planning sessions for her first day with her colleagues, some teachers had pointed out that dropping your whole class through a trap floor leading to a monster-infested maze was not something an educator should do. Sara called these people defeatists and whiners, which is why she pressed the button and did exactly that. The teens barely got the time to register the rumbling made by the stone mechanism before the floor under their feet began to tilt, sliding them straight toward the lower levels of the building, to their general and quite vocal dismay.
Eh, it would be fine, they all had practical combat experience. Well, most of them.
… Some of them.
Now, Sara liked to think there was a method to her madness. While the previous outburst between Regnitz and Albarea took her by surprise, she knew from the start that some tensions would be inevitable among a group as diverse as this one. Thus starting the year with a team-building exercise of some sort only made sense. Now, simply dumping them in a hole with monsters awaiting for them on the way out might not have been standard procedure, but if her life as a jaeger turned bracer taught her something, it was that imminent danger was a good way to put aside grudges. Or to get yourself killed, she supposed, but things should be fine, right? The monsters inhabiting the place were nothing that a few junior bracers couldn't handle, and she left them their weapons in the room below, alongside a little gift.
No, she reassured herself, her plan was perfect. Drop them in a hole, they become friends at the end of the day, thus less problems for her all year. And if that didn't work... Well, maybe she'd pick one of the students and dump the peacekeeping responsibilities on them. Motivate them with extra credits, or something. Anything to avoid having to deal with teenage drama herself, really.
Her musings were interrupted when she realized her flawless plan just hit its first snag. While eight of the students had been obliging enough to fall down to the lower floors with various levels of screaming, the ninth one was currently dangling from a rope above the open trapdoor. And not any student, but the one that had been the bane of her existence for the last three months.
"Come on, Fie!"
The silver-haired girl simply sent a flat look her way, apparently indifferent to the fact she was currently ruining her perfect plan. Where did she even find a grappling hook? Sara had made sure she wouldn't bring anything weird to the opening ceremony this morning!
"No cheating! You're going with them and that's that."
Her ward giving no sign of cooperating, the ex-bracer reached with a sigh for one of her combat knifes.
"What's the point of having an icebreaker if you don't make a couple of new friends?"
Fie simply rolled her eyes, as she began to resign herself to her fate. "Ugh, lame."
The thrown projectile neatly sliced up the rope, sending the teenager back to join the others in the depths of the building. All in all, a job well done, Sara couldn't help but think. Then she remembered she totally forgot to explain this whole ARCUS thing to them. Ah well, they'd probably figure it out on their own. As for her, it was time to make a quick trip to the main office in order to find some pictures and stop having to guess the identity of each of her students.
Why did she have the feeling this was going to be a long year?
Elliot Craig would have been the first to admit, he should have had no place in a military academy.
It wasn't like it had been his choice to begin with, really. But saying "no" to his father always had been an impossible task for him. The man was relentless, and never took no for an answer. So here he was. At least he got to compromise on Thors, whose music club allowed him to not entirely give up on his true passion. But he barely managed to squeak through the entrance exam, doing only so-so on the academic side, and ranking among the bottom tier when it came to physical aptitude – not a bad performance, given Thors' rather high standards of quality, Elliot tried to remind himself. All in all, the young man supposed things could have been much worse, which was why he did his best to remain positive in the face of adversity. Still, two years at a military school was a frightening prospect for someone with absolutely no inclination toward violence and entirely without martial experience – no, his father's tales didn't count – and he spent many nights unable to sleep, all sorts of mental images forming in his head about what sort of life, what sort of people he'd meet there.
Somehow, his first day managed to exceed his worst case scenario so far – no small feat given his rather vivid imagination.
Of all the ways it could have gone, falling through a trapped floor and ending in some sort of monster-infested catacombs as part of some crazy test wasn't something he felt could realistically happen. Surely this was against school rules somehow, right? It was a miracle the fall left him unscathed! Well, the fact that none of the eight other students suffered any injury either probably meant the trap had been designed with their safety in mind, but still. Not an ideal start, he couldn't help but think as he laid on the ground, trying to clear his head. Then came personal drama.
In a fit of misfortune, two of his new classmates ended falling on top of each other. The first acquaintance he managed to make during the inauguration ceremony, a young dark-haired man going by the name of Rean Schwarzer, ended up with his face stuck in the chest of a female twin-tailed blonde classmate, which immediately made for a rather awkward situation. One slap and several screams later, and it was clear that a new enmity had already been formed among their group – that would have been some sort of record if not for the instant feud that already opposed the Albarea noble and that Regnitz fellow. Rean had bashfully retreated as far away as possible from the irate girl, in hope of somehow placating her ire – to no avail so far.
As Elliot hoped that the worst was now behind them, and that they would be able to band together in order to escape the maze they were thrown into, tempers flared once again, ending up in the Albarea noble taking off alone and prompting his green-haired rival to do the same in some misguided spirit of competition. The small silver-haired girl also silently departed in another direction, leaving the bulk of them with only six members (how could someone so young dive head-first into such a dangerous area, the aspiring violinist had no idea). Quick introductions were made. Rean aside, the third male with brown hair in their team presented himself as Gaius Worzel; the purple-haired girl their instructor had singled out as the top scorer of the entrance exam was apparently named Emma Millstein, while the athletic blue-haired one introduced herself as Laura S. Arseid – the name seemed to be recognized by Rean, but the dark-haired boy didn't comment on it. As for the twin-tailed blonde one, she was apparently so furious she declined to provide a last name, simply introducing herself as Alisa, with a glare almost challenging them – or more specifically Rean - to ask for more. No-one did.
Given the problematic relationship between those two, Laura made the sensible suggestion of splitting up into two groups, the three girls going off to explore in one direction while the boys would pick another. Elliot could admit that the reasoning was sound – those underground tunnels looked like a maze, and the sooner someone found the exit, the sooner they could guide the others to it – but he was not ashamed to admit he would have felt a lot safer in a group of six rather than a part of a three men team.
Mostly, Elliot feared he wouldn't be able to pull his weight. His combat training had been minimal, to say the least, and his physical fitness was merely adequate. He thought himself decently skilled at casting artes, but he had little confidence in the power of his passed-down quartzs, which he had chosen more for their pleasing aesthetics than a concern of fighting for his life. He thought he'd have time to make a more informed choice once school would start in earnest, and had just grabbed a couple of blue gems – he liked blue - traditionally associated with healing and water properties. Hopefully they'd prove useful somehow. To make matters worse, his – and everyone else's – battle orbments had been integrated to those strange devices Instructor Sara had called "ARCUS" without explaining what they were. And finally, the only weapon he carried with him was an experimental orbal staff. Given his complete lack of combat training, he had easily agreed to test this new line of weaponry currently being developed by the Reinford group, with the expectation that he'd be given some time to familiarize with it before being thrust into a life-or-death situation. No such luck, apparently.
So now, he would have to waddle through hordes of creatures with no combat experience, a weapon he didn't know how to use, a weird battle orbment and combat artes he was barely familiar with. In his opinion, he had ample reasons to have serious misgivings about his current predicament.
Fortunately, his two companions seemed far more at ease. To his right, Rean Schwarzer was a reassuring presence, his grey eyes focusing on the dark corridors ahead of them, while holding his curved sword – he had called it a tachi earlier – with practised ease. While he wasn't that much taller than Elliot, who himself erred on the small side, it was clear from his build he was far more ready for the demands of a physical confrontation. On his left, Gaius Worzel was a picture of serenity; the boy claimed to be from the Nord Highlands, a region stuck between the northern Erebonian border and the Calvard Republic, inhabited by a few nomadic tribes. While Elliot knew very little about the people living here, he had to admit Gaius certainly had an exotic look compared to your standard Erebonian. With his darker skin and truly impressive height, close to two arges, he certainly stood out in a crowd. More importantly considering their current situation, he seemed just as battle ready as Rean, carrying a long spear with a cross-shaped head. Elliot Craig was no expert, but it certainly looked like the northerner knew how to use it.
A cry of alarm from Rean was the only warning Elliot got before coming face to face with monsters for the first time in his life.
It's not like he was completely ignorant of them, of course; he doubted anyone on the continent of Zemuria was. It was theorized they appeared in the aftermath of the Great Collapse, more than a thousand years ago, but the lack of records made it impossible to prove or disprove that theory. Nonetheless, those creatures came in very different shapes and forms, but all shared an apparent innate hostility toward mankind, often attacking on sight with the intent to kill. Throughout the Dark Ages, they proved to be a persistent threat to the fledgling human nations, who lived or died by their abilities to keep their fields safe and their roads secure. Growing numbers and better weaponry eventually allowed mankind to push back, and nowadays their threat had been considerably reduced. Nonetheless, exterminating them entirely had proven all but impossible – scholars were still debating about their uncanny ability to repopulate in areas where they were thought to be extinct – and while no longer a danger to everyday travels, they were still the cause of the occasional disappearance in remote areas. Born and raised at the imperial capital of Heimdallr, Elliot never had to worry about that. There were some stories of monsters being spotted in some portions of the sewer system, but even if that was true, why in Aidios' name would he even consider entering those? Unfortunately, it seemed his monster-free existence ended today.
As far as monsters went, those were far from the demons and dragons of legend. Instead, the four creatures rushing to meet them looked more like some sort of overgrown, yellow-ish beetles, each the size of a small dog. Nonetheless, one look at their razor-sharp pincers was enough for Elliot to realize the danger was real. With a strangled yelp, he raised his staff in order to defend himself, almost tripping backward in the process. His two companions, however, did not even flinch, each stepping forward to meet the insectoid creatures head on.
Gaius was the first to act, twirling his spear once before thrusting it, the motion creating a massive gust of wind crashing into two of the incoming monsters. The blow didn't cause serious damage, but stunned them long enough for Rean to drive his blade through a beetle's carapace, before the dark haired swordsman stepped back in order to avoid having his leg slashed up, leaving behind a not quite dead, yet severely injured creature.
Any sense of relief Elliot could have felt at this favourable first exchange disappeared when one of the monsters decided to rush past the two frontline defenders, and in an unexpected display of agility, jumped straight toward Elliot's face, its sharp mandibles all too ready to lacerate him. Caught entirely by surprise, the boy froze, his mind scrambling to formulate a response that wouldn't come in time; his salvation came from Gaius, the foreign spearman managing to turn around in time and bat the creature away with the shaft of his weapon, sending it tumbling on the stone floor. Rean managed to protect the exposed back of his companion long enough for the later to once again focus on the enemies in front of him.
A chaotic melee ensued, sword and spear keeping the monsters at bay. The enemy's size quickly proved to be the main challenge, forcing the two fighters to often strike at awkward angles against a rather slippery foe. It was even worse for Elliot, who felt more and more useless by the moment. He knew his staff could release small beams of concentrated orbal energy, but against such small targets already engaged in melee, he wasn't confident enough in his accuracy to not end up hitting one of his allies. Casting artes would likely suffer from the same problem. He supposed he could still cast a healing arte – he expected that quartz to come in handy before long – but was any of his friends even injured yet? He didn't think so, but couldn't be entirely sure due to how fast the battle was proceeding.
He almost missed the fourth beetle, the one Gaius sent flying to protect him, who had apparently shaken off the blow enough to join back the fray once again, apparently intent on taking revenge upon the spearman, who was currently focused on the last remaining opponent. This time though, Elliot managed to act. His arm only trembling slightly, he raised his staff in the direction of his foe, before beginning to focus. Casting an arte would only take a few instants, but those seemed like an eternity as he watched the insectoid monster closing the distance toward the northerner. He finally released the accumulated orbal energy, hoping to act on time.
A small mass of water materialized out of thin air, rushing toward the creature. Elliot's aim had been slightly off, his attack only managing to score a glancing hit, yet that was enough to push it off course, and for Gaius to turn around and finish it off in one swift stroke, while Rean ended the last monster's life. As soon as he realized the danger had passed, Elliot felt his legs turning into jelly, and fell down on his knees as his body started to come down from the adrenaline rush.
"Is... is everyone alright?"
He hated how breathless his voice sounded when he barely did a thing, while the two other boys seemed barely tired despite fighting way harder. Yet none of them seemed to care, Gaius even offering him an approving smile.
"I am, thanks to you. That was a well executed arte, Elliot."
That got a nervous laugh from him. "It was nothing special, really. To be honest, I barely cast that in time, and it didn't even do much. Compared to you guys..."
"Still," Rean butted in "using artes while in melee would be extremely hard for us. It'd be pretty difficult to focus on that while still fighting, so having you around to watch our backs should come in handy."
Gaius nodded his agreement. "I shall thank the winds that put us in each other's path. This goes for you too, Rean. That was some impressive swordsmanship."
The praise drew a nervous laughter from the black-haired teen. "I have a long way to go, really. Still, maybe we should save the round of compliments for after we leave that place. We're not out of the woods yet."
That made sense to Elliot. "Well, I'll be in your care, then."
"Leave it to us!"
Standing back up, Elliot felt a little better. The feelings of inadequacy were still here, and he suspected the encouraging words of his classmates were just an attempt at cheering him up, but that didn't mean he didn't appreciate the sentiment. Their presence made him more at ease, and when they resumed their progression through the maze, some of his previous nervousness had vanished. Instead, he found himself wondering about the lives of his two classmates. They all were seventeen, as far as he could tell, yet for those two to be able to handle the current situation so well... Clearly their experiences had been drastically different from his own. It probably wasn't the time to ask for their life story, though; hopefully the next two years at Thors should provide ample opportunities to ask. For now maybe he could ask about smaller things?
"Gaius, I wanted to ask..."
"You mentioned winds earlier? As in some sort of spirits? I didn't know people in the Highlands had their own religion. Do you still believe in Aidios, or..." He realized a second later that he might have stumbled upon a sensitive topic – the Septian Church had been the sole religious institution in Zemuria since the Dark Ages, and tended to show no love for heretics – but the northerner did not seem bothered by the question.
"Well, we do pray to She Who Dwells Above. But we also-"
Rean's warning snapped them back to attention. Once again, he and Gaius jumped into the fray, starting to dispatch their foes with relative ease. This time, Elliot was able to provide a modicum of support, targetting enemies that were knocked out of melee range, and managing to heal a scratch from a blow that Gaius was just a bit too slow to completely dodge. Healing through orbal energy was far from a perfect solution – it did little against the pain or blood already lost, and while surface injuries were easy to treat, internal ones were a lot harder to deal with – but when it came to such small cuts, it did the job well enough.
Elliot's sense of relief at how well this skirmish was going grew into horror when he heard the sound of chitinous legs on the stone corridor coming from behind him. Through luck or above average cunning, one of the creatures had apparently managed to sneak past the fight, and was now making a beeline toward him. His scream instantly alerted his companions of his predicament, and to their credit, they reacted instantly, turning back to dash toward him. In an instant, Gaius had closed the distance between the two of them by half, and Rean was even faster. Yet as time seemed to freeze, Elliot realized with horrifying certainty that neither would make it in time. His own staff all but forgotten, he could only watch as the beetle grew closer, and prepared himself for the pain of its pincers tearing his flesh, praying Aidios that the wound wouldn't be fatal.
His salvation came with a gunshot.
Elliot found himself spattered with yellow fluid as the creature jumping at him had its torso shredded to bits; any other time this would have make him shriek with disgust. Right now all he could feel was relief.
"Looks like I made it just in time. Thank Aidios for that."
Elliot turned toward his saviour: a slightly out of breath Machias Regnitz, holding an orbal rifle with one hand while supporting himself against the nearest wall with the other. Elliot could have hugged him – if he wasn't confident that his shaky legs wouldn't collapse on the way. Instead he settled for a more neutral and less strainful "Thank you for saving me!", which was answered by a polite nod. Gaius went by his side, making sure he wasn't injured, while Rean walked toward the newcomer.
"Ah, Machias, was it?"
"That's right." The green-haired boy hesitated before continuing. "I... came to realize I shouldn't have stormed off like I did. I let that arrogant noble goad me into losing my composure and acting on impulse." That last part was said through gritted teeth, as if the simple memory of the Albarea scion was enough to evoke anger. "After I'd cooled my head, I decided to retrace my steps, and there you were."
Something for which Elliot was definitely grateful. While his first impression on Machias Regnitz had been mixed, given the angry display upstairs, the gun-user had easily redeemed himself in his eyes. Also, Elliot had to admit he seemed pretty observant – the red-head knew he would have been incapable to remember which way he came from in this maze.
"So I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I acted foolishly, and I hope you can forgive me for it."
Rean was quick to reassure him. "No sweat. Water under the bridge."
"Yeah, we all have moments when we say or do things we regret." Elliot chimed in. "That's human nature for you." And unfortunately something he feared to be a bit too familiar with.
The group exchanged names once again, welcoming the new addition, to Machias' visible relief. It seemed to Elliot that the bespectacled teenager's shame at his previous outburst was genuine – though whether or not that would be enough to prevent an encore as soon as Jusis Albarea re-entered the picture, only time would tell. For now, he still seemed hesitant about something.
"Could... could I ask you what social class you each belong to?"
Elliot exchanged a wary glance with Gaius and Rean, prompting Machias to frantically shake his hand in denial.
"I realize how that must sound, considering my recent outburst, but please, don't take it personally. I'm simply curious to know who I'm associating with."
That didn't sound so bad, Elliot supposed. "Well, both my parents are commoners."
"Likewise", Gaius chimed in. "Though my homeland has no class system to begin with."
"Ah, so you're from abroad then?" For a moment, it seemed like Machias was about to grill the foreigner with a series of questions – not that Elliot could blame him, since it was basically what he did a bit earlier – but he instead turned toward the last member of the group that so far had remained silent. "What about you, Rean?"
"Well..." the black haired swordsman seemed to consider his words carefully. "Let's just say I haven't got a drop of noble blood in my veins. So I guess we're all on equal standing here."
Elliot blinked. That had been an oddly specific way of phrasing an answer. And he couldn't help but feel like Rean was sounding a bit more sheepish than usual, contrasting with the usual self-assurance he projected. Still, Machias seemed pleased enough with the answer.
"Well, now, that's a relief. We should probably get moving, then. I'm somewhat concerned about the girls, as you might imagine. I'd feel much better if we were around to help if they wound up in danger."
As their small group of four resumed their walk, Rean lightly shook his head. "I don't know about that."
Elliot cast his newfound friend a curious look. "What do you mean?"
"You weren't around by then, Machias, but the blue haired girl introduced herself as Laura S. Arseid."
He waited for his declaration to sink in, but was only rewarded by three blank stares. The family name was vaguely familiar to Elliot, but right now he couldn't recall in which context he heard it, to the obvious dismay of the black haired swordsman.
"Arseid? The family who created one of the two main styles of fencing in Erebonia? Whose current head is renowned as the best swordmaster in the country? You really don't know about them?"
Gaius shrugged apologetically. "I'm afraid I'm still unfamiliar with this country's martial traditions. I hope I'll catch up soon enough."
"And I don't know much about swords to begin with, I'm more focused on marksmanship." Machias added. "Though now that you mention the name... I think I read something about them in an history of the War of the Lions. They're related to Liane Sandlot somehow, if I recall correctly. Retainers who inherited her lands after her death, I believe?"
It was Rean's time to look a bit lost.
"Are they now? I didn't know that."
The embarrassed confession seemed to take Machias aback. "What? How can you recall some obscure fencing trivia, yet be ignorant of such a basic historical fact?"
Rean helplessly shrugged. "Well, you know, I'm a swordsman myself. I guess the lore sorts of come with the territory?"
Elliot wisely decided there was no need to mention he had not known either of those facts – though he wondered if that last one was that widely known, or if it just so happened that Machias was an history buff, the same way that Rean appeared to be a sword enthusiast.
"I'd say calling it 'fencing trivia' would be doing the Arseid school of swordsmanship a disservice though. It serves as a general basis for the techniques used by knights throughout the Empire, after all. And Victor S. Arseid is arguably the strongest swordsman in the country! People call him the radiant blademaster."
Rean had a gleam in his grey eyes, as he talked with a tone Elliot used exclusively when speaking about music or his sister. Noticing the slightly bemused looks his impromptu tirade was earning him, the black haired teen interrupted himself, his expression akin to a child caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
"Erm. Anyway, as long as Laura's with them, I'm sure the others should be fine."
Elliot couldn't help but mentally agree with that assessment. The girl had been taller and sturdier than he was – not that it meant much – and had carried on her back the biggest sword he had ever seen, one that he was reasonably certain he would have had trouble to even lift, let alone swing. And it was more than likely that Emma and Alisa also had some sort of training and would be able to pull their weight. At the end of the day, it was likely he was the least combat-ready member of class VII, if not of the whole Academy.
Machias still seemed doubtful, but conceded the point with a nod.
"At any rate, how about we pick up the search? I'm worried about that silver-haired girl, and we still need to track down Duke Albarea's son too."
Right, those two went in alone, Elliot reminded himself. He could only hope nothing happened to them – and shuddered at the thought of the national outcry that would occur if a member of the four great houses was found dead on his first day of school. However, not everyone seemed to share that worry.
"Hmph. I couldn't care less what happens to that pompous ass. He can rot down here."
Elliot let out a nervous laugh. "Come on now, that's no way to treat someone you just met!"
His smile faltered at the sight of Machias' scowl. He couldn't really be serious... Could he? If things were already this bad between them after a couple of conversations, how would they manage a whole year? As he watched Rean and Machias move forward once again, he could feel all of his doubts coming back. What was he even doing here?
His gloomy train of thoughts was broken by an unexpected shoulder pat. Startled, the red-head looked up, surprised to see a smiling Gaius by his side.
"Do not worry too much. Trust in the winds that gathered us all together. I'm sure the rest will fall in place soon enough."
Elliot found the absolute serenity that emanated from the northerner's tone infectious, and found himself nodding his approval on instinct. Maybe he was right, he wondered while hurrying after the other two boys. This was just the beginning of his journey, and while it had been a rocky start, he could still keep going. And if he faltered, he already made friends that could support him on the way. For the first time since he was forcefully enrolled, Elliot began to think that maybe those two years at Thors wouldn't be so bad after all.
His newfound optimism vanished when a huge statue spontaneously animated itself to kill them all, and things went very, very wrong.
Meanwhile, Sara was quite pleased with herself. It had taken a bit of begging to Neithardt and the promise - which she intended to conveniently forget as soon as possible - to pay the next time they went out drinking, but she had finally managed to put an image above each of her students files. And there should be plenty of time left before they exited the building, which meant-
"Hey. I'm done."
She turned around to meet Fie's bored gaze.
"But... You were supposed to... What are you even doing here?" she sputtered.
The younger girl only shrugged, not even bothering to come up with an answer. "Anyway, going for a nap. Wake me when it's over."
"Oh no you don't!" Sara stopped her protégé from walking past her by grabbing her by the collar neck, forcefully turning her toward the Old School's building once again. "You are going to get back in here and - and make some friends, or something!"