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Jasper’s apartment complex was a four-story affair on the eastern edge of the city. Not too long ago, it would have worn a coat of purple paint. But that paint was peeling now, hanging off in long strips like some half-skinned animal. The buildings on either side had been torn down the year before, leaving the one standing between two piles of rubble. A light was on in the third floor window, flickering as if just about to go out, but never quite.

Jasper lived on the first floor—something he had specifically requested. Finding little refuge under the tattered awning, he braced his back against the biting wind as he fumbled for his key with numb fingers. A few seconds and curses later, he found it, unlocked his door and hurried inside before locking the deadbolt behind him.

The inside of the complex looked no better than the outside, and a case could be made that it looked a bit worse.  The scuffed tile floors throughout every room were a repulsive shade of green and orange. The walls were painted brown that was fading to yellow. Or maybe yellow that was turning brown. It was difficult to tell. Though one might think that being on the bottom floor would prevent such things, water often dripped from the ceiling, and Jasper had placed several buckets strategically throughout to collect it.

“Welcome home,” he said to no one.

He unbelted his robe and tossed it haphazardly onto the rack. He then kicked off his unlaced boots, peeled off his socks, and walked half-bent into the living room. His hand grazed the light switch as he passed by it, and half of the lamps in the room came on. With clouds of steam coming off his breath, he turned the knob on the space heater and hit the pilot. Nothing. He checked the fuel tank to make sure it was full, and then tried again, letting out a visible sigh of relief when the light took.

With everything in order, he fell back onto his tattered couch and breathed a sigh of relief for a hard day’s work done. It wasn’t long before his eyelids felt heavy as he fell asleep under the heater’s glow.

A knock on the door caused him to bolt upright. He sank back down and pretended not to hear it. When a second series of knocks threatened to tear the door from its hinges, Jasper cursed under his breath and dragged himself to his feet.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” he snapped as he shuffled to the door, yawning and scratching himself on the way.

He opened the door to the sight of Alka, shivering under a light layer of snow. Her red eyes looked as if she had been crying, and she was a holding an envelope tightly with both hands. Jasper didn’t need to guess as to what it was.

“Come on in,” he said, and stepped aside to give her enough room.

Alka lowered her head to avoid bumping it on the doorframe and stepped inside. Carefully, she walked past him and into the living room, the sound of her hooves dampened by her rubber boots. When she was sure she wouldn’t crush anything, she fell forward onto the rug, the impact shaking some loose plaster from the ceiling. She grabbed a pillow from the couch and buried her face in it.

Jasper had to shuffle around her bulk to return to his seat on the couch. He waited for a moment before he spoke.

“I wasn’t expecting you back here so soon. So how did it g-“

Alka screamed into the pillow.

Jasper waited for her to finish before he tried to speak again.

“So it was ba-“

Alka screamed again, longer and louder.

Jasper sighed and sat back in his seat. He sat as quietly as he could, and after several minutes could see Alka’s ear swivel to check if he was still in the room. He tapped his foot to tell her he was.

“I’m dying,” she said, rolling over onto her back.

“What?”

She passed the envelope to him.

The envelope was heavy, made of thick paper that more resembled cloth. And when he tried to open it, he found the wax seal bearing the Templar crest still in place. “Wait a second—you mean you haven’t opened it yourself yet?”

“I can’t read it,” she mumbled. “I’m too nervous.”

“Do you even know if you passed or not?”

“No,” she said, in a voice a bit less than a whisper. “Can you read it for me?”

Jasper rubbed his hand across his face in exasperation. “Are you serious?”

“Yes! Come on, the suspense is killing me.”

“All right, then. Though I still think you should be the one to read it first.” He reached under the couch and retrieved a broken doorknob, and rapped it against the wax seal to break it. Inside the envelope was a letter, made of the same expensive material. And on it, written in freehand:

“Candidate Alka Gerardi,” he began. “It is the finding of this admission board that your capacity as a candidate has…” Jasper paused. “…sharply deteriorated with each attempt. To witness such a subpar performance from the sister of Captain Cecil Gerardi is a surprise, and not a pleasant one. And so it is the judgment of this panel to revoke your application for the position of Imperial Cataphract, now and in perpetuity.”

Jasper’s voice grew quieter and quieter as he read each word. Alka’s ears hung low.

The second half of the letter was in a completely different handwriting—scratchier, and without regard for proper indentation or alignment:

“However, it is also the finding of this panel that you, as a candidate, have demonstrated persistence and dedication, even in the face of overwhelming ineptitude, and when given a second challenge, rose to meet it without hesitation, with exemplary results. And so, by the authority granted us by the rank of Judicator, this panel grants your request to become Templar, and requests your presence at the Academy of Warmagic on the first of the new season.”

“That’s the end,” said Jasper as he handed the letter back to her.

Alka took several moments to catch her bearings, having just gone through every emotion she knew in the span of less than a minute. Suddenly, her eyes grew wide. “I passed?! I passed!” She fell back cackling, kicking her hooves in the air. “I passed! I passed! Take that, Esther!”

Jasper laughed with her. “But wait, what was that about Warmagic? I didn’t know you applied for that.”

Alka put her reveling on hold to answer. “I didn’t. Judicator Lygeri offered to alter my exam on her own. And I passed!”  She then commenced cackling once more.

“Do you even know what the Warmagic Academy is?” Jasper asked. “I’ve heard the washout rate is really high, like over half. And the injury rate is high, too.”

Alka’s laughter suddenly stopped. “You don’t think I can hack it?”

“No, I didn’t say that…”

“Then what’s the problem?”

Jasper scratched his head. “I don’t know. I guess I’m just…”

“Are you saying you’re worried about me?”

“Well, yeah. Maybe. A little.”

Alka grinned. “Aw, that’s adorable.”

Jasper snorted and crossed his arms as Alka barely contained her laughter.

“Anyway,” she said, rolling onto her stomach and propping her chin on her hands. “I think this calls for a celebratory drink.”

“You think everything calls for a drink.”

“Yeah? And?”

Jasper sighed and went into the kitchen, bringing back a half-empty case of beer. He tossed it next to Alka roughly, and then plopped himself back onto the couch.

“Yes!” Alka fished out one of the bottles and popped off the cap on the corner of the heater. “Now you get one!” she said to Jasper.

“I’m not feeling it tonight,” he said.

“Come on,” Alka pleaded. “We can make it a toast.”

“Oh, all right,” he conceded, getting his own bottle and holding it up in the air as Alka did the same with hers. “What are we toasting to?”

“To Esther!” Alka declared, and turned the bottle up.

***

Esther and Gryn walked side by side through the wide halls of the Templar Academy, deep within the city’s heart. Gryn moved slower to match Esther’s pace.

Though she visited these halls most days, it had been years since Esther had actually seen them. Back then, she remembered, the tiled floors were white as her fur, blue curtains were hung across the archways, and aether lamps lined the walls high and low.

Now, she had been told, all of that was gone. The old tile had been ripped apart, and salvaged to build the emperor’s new Northern Palace, replaced by lacquered red oak. The drapes were red now, her least favorite color (even blind, she still felt she had a right to an opinion on the matter). And the aether lamps were gone as well, and in their place were new lamps fueled with some vile chemical that burned her nostrils.

But in Esther’s imagination, it was just as it had always been, and she wasn’t willing to hear any different.

“I can’t believe her. The nerve!” Esther growled, two fingers pressed tightly against her temple. “That insubordinate, disrespectful, arrogant sloth! Second-guessing my decisions. Ugh!” She lost her balance and would have fallen if Gryn hadn’t moved to catch her. “Dizzy…”

Esther’s headaches always grew worse this time of year. Gryn stayed extra close to her until they reached her office door. He opened it and Esther staggered inside.

She didn’t bother to turn on the lights; the glow of the moon through the thick window curtains was already bright enough for her damaged eyes—too bright, in fact. She shuffled across the carpeted floor to her desk chair as Gryn shut the door. She planted her face on the desk and buried her face in her arms.

Gryn didn’t say anything to her. They had gone through this ritual, time and again—it had become routine. So instead he simply stood next to the door, alone in the dark, with Esther’s pained, arrhythmic breathing and the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside.

Esther moaned and shifted. “Ugh… that light. Gryn, make it go away.” She gestured to the window, her face still buried.

Gryn crept by her as quietly as falling snow, drew the outer curtains, and buttoned them closed.

Esther’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Thank you, Gryn. You may go.”

Gryn moved back to the door, slowly turned the handle and stepped out of the room. He didn’t leave, though. Instead he waited in the hallway, just in front of the door. Esther didn’t need any visitors now, and Gryn stood guard to ensure she wouldn’t get any, listening in case she had need to call for him again.

Tick-tock

The sound of the grand marcble clock down the hall echoed through the halls and chambers of the academy.

Ba-dong

It rang out, signaling the end of official lessons for the day. Classroom doors all burst at once, slammed open as dozens of fresh Templar recruits rushed out into the halls. Gryn stood firm against the deluge, not budging at all as several ran right into him on their way out, more concerned with discussing their plans for the evening amongst themselves than looking where they were going. He heard Esther inside her office, groaning at the sudden onslaught of racket. There was nothing Gryn could do for her—she would simply have to wait it out.

The crowd dispersed in only a few minutes, leaving Gryn mostly alone.

Tick-tock

A pair of humans passed by. Gryn looked down to void eye contact, but not quickly enough. Their shadows covered him, and he looked up to see Nigel and Iris.

Nigel was young, as humans counted years, though Gryn often had trouble telling the difference—humans all looked similar to him, regardless of age. He wore his dark hair long in the front, slicked back against his scalp with some awful oil that smelled to Gryn like old fish and engine grease. His nose was sharply pointed, and always turned up so that Gryn—two heads shorter—could have counted the hairs in his nostrils if the urge had struck him. Like Gryn, he wore a red robe with black shirt and pants. But it was all far too small, hugging every contour and crevice of his body awkwardly.

Standing beside him was Iris. Her blue robes and yellow undershirt were worn loose. There was a scar on her neck, gotten when she had been struck by a stray bullet while on campaign and had taken too long to dig it out. The injury had left her mostly mute, and so she had gotten into the habit of letting others do the talking for her.

Tick-tock

“How’s it goin’, Gryn? The old lady have you on guard dog duty again?”

If Gryn was offended by the “dog” remark, his expression did not show it. “Judicator Esther is not feeling well,” he said in a half-whisper. “Please keep your voice down.”

Nigel snorted. “Oh yeah, those headaches again, huh?” he asked, no quieter than before.

Tick-tock

“Yes,” Gryn answered, doing his best to hide his irritation. But an unconscious flick of the ear gave him away, and Nigel picked up on it.

“Hey, why so grumpy?” said Nigel, stepping closer to loom over the little gnoll. “We just wanted to say hello; we’re all on the same side, right?” He looked back to Iris, who gave an animated nod of agreement.

“This isn’t the time,” said Gryn.

Tick-tock

What was it about humans that had always left him feeling so uncomfortable? Not just humans, but any species larger than himself which, given his small size even by the standards of his own kind, was almost any sentient being he was likely to meet. In the ring, Gryn had bested Nigel time and again. But outside of that, the human had the advantage, and both of them knew it.

“When is the time, Gryn?” Nigel asked, leaning in even closer, enough that Gryn’s nose could tell what he’d had sausage and oatmeal for breakfast. Two days ago. “You always say that. You’re practically a hermit now, ever since…” He gestured to the door.

Gryn opened his mouth to defend himself, but no sound came out. He pretended to cough.

Tick-tock

“Anyway…” said Nigel, changing the subject, “I came to tell you that Captain Gerardi has posted for volunteers. Iris and I would have taken him up on it, but we’ll be tied up teaching all winter.”

As soon as he heard the name “Gerardi”, Gryn’s ears perked straight up. “Really? he asked, forgetting to keep his voice low. “Where? When?”

“Oh, now you’re excited?” said Nigel.

Iris laughed, which sounded more like a hiss, coming from her.

Nigel pulled out a note from his tightly pressed pocket and handed it to Gryn’s eager paws. “Details are on there. Let’s hope Esther lets you go, eh?”

Gryn’s ears dropped lower than before. “Y—yeah, I’m sure it will be fine.”

“Sure,” said Nigel, at last backing away to give Gryn some breathing room. “Well, I’ll see you around. Maybe.” At that he and Iris turned and left, leaving Gryn holding the note.

All he needed was Esther’s permission. A very small part of him thought to just leave now and find Captain Gerardi, but he squelched it before he was even conscious he had thought such a thing. Could she spare having him around? She was always so overworked this time of year.

Gryn took hold of the door handle, and stuck his head through.

“Yes, you may,” Esther said before Gryn had the chance to ask. Her face was still buried, and she had pulled her robe up over her shoulders to better muffle unwanted light and sound.

“Are you sure?” asked Gryn. “I know how you feel about the Captain.”

“He is a fool,” said Esther. “And his sister is a fool. But I’m a fool, too, and you’ve stayed by me, so I can’t tell you not to go to him now.”

Gryn nodded, though Esther couldn’t see it. “I will return as soon as possible—before the month’s end. I promise.”

“Stop talking and get out,” she said. “You’re letting in too much light.”

Gryn obliged and left. Outside, he unfurled the note at last.

Volunteers requested for security expedition to investigate sightings of strange lights within and nearby the East Marsh, under order of Judicator Parvani. Combat pay offered, if applicable. All inquiring volunteers must possess at minimum class two efficiency evaluation, class four and above preferred (Gryn, this means you). Direct inquiries to the office of Templar Captain Cecil Gerardi, ground floor of Fafenheir Templar Academy, room 27. Deadline near.

Gryn folded it neatly and placed it in his right breast pocket. Room 27 was one floor below where he was now, almost exactly below Esther’s office. He made a point to pass by it whenever he could, though he hadn’t found Cecil present in almost half a year. Cecil had always favored field work.

Probably won’t even be in his office, Gryn thought. He considered whether to take Cecil up on the offer at all. Though Esther had allowed it, one couldn’t be too sure as to her state of mind: her judgment often worsened with pain. Perhaps she would wake up tomorrow to find him gone, and not remember.

He weighed it in his mind, and decided to go downstairs. Esther would be fine without him, at least for a little while. And he would only be gone a little while. He hoped.

He rushed down the stairwell, bounding down the center, and landed hard on all fours on the ground floor. There was no one around to judge, and it was faster that way.

He paused when he reached the Captain’s office. One breath, Two. Then he knocked with the back of his hand.

“Come in, Gryn.”

The room on the other side wasn’t any larger than Esther’s, though it felt as if it were. The middle of the room was left open, covered by a thick mat made from woven fabrics, strips of bamboo, and thin wire threads. There were no chairs, but there was a desk, pushed against the wall, facing the city street outside. And directly across from the door was a very large couch, on which Cecil Gerardi lay.

The massive centaur—easily over a ton of muscle and bone—relaxed with all four legs off the floor and his upper body resting against one of the couch’s arms. He was dressed in layers of red fabric and blue trimming. His blond hair was pulled back tight, into a tail that was at the moment in the process of being braided by a plain-looking human girl in blue.

“I’m glad you’re here, Gryn,” said Cecil without looking. His eyes were closed, letting the girls’ fingers play through his hair. “I knew if I spread enough flyers around that you’d find yourself here eventually. It was easier than tracking you down myself. How’ve you been?”

“As well as always.”

“So busy and busier?”

“Of course.”

Cecil gestured to a drink on the small table nearby, and the girl put her braiding on hold to pass it to him. He took a slow, indulgent sip. “Working too hard, Gryn. Always have.”

“I suppose you could see it that way. Doesn’t feel like work to me.”

“Doesn’t it? Maybe. I’ve heard through the vine that they’re looking to promote a new instructor or three. You should look into it. Can’t be more of a workload than… whatever it is you and Esther are doing.”

“I can’t consider that now. Maybe later, after this winter—“

“—You said that last winter.”

“…”

“Whatever,” said Cecil, downing the rest of his drink in one gulp and setting it aside. “Down to business, then?”

Gryn’s countenance seemed to improve at the suggestion. “Yes. Your post was a bit, um, vague. I assume you wanted to keep the details secret?”

“Right.” Cecil nodded to the girl, who returned to her braiding as he continued to speak. “We’ve received a number of complaints in the last few months from citizens near the Marsh—always involving lights and whatnot. Mostly hunters, and mostly at night.”

“Could be auroras,” said Gryn. “They can reflect off the surface of the ice, color the fog.”
“That’s what we thought, too. Judicator Parvani tossed the complaints out. Until a few weeks ago; one of the cargo trains was attacked just outside Osvelt. No casualties, but no one involved could tell us what happened. The only consistent thing from any of them—“

“—They saw lights.”

“Right.”

Gryn’s eyes narrowed in thought. “What was stolen?”

“There was money on board, and of course that was taken. They ignored the furs, and the fuel, but they did take two small aether harvesters, expensive models, too.”

“Anything else?”

“Not that was reported. The train was mostly undamaged. Even the locks on the doors were intact.”

“Maybe an inside job,” mumbled Gryn. “Sell the cargo, claim an attack.”

“Parvani looked into it, and she’s convinced the employees are telling the truth.”

Gryn waited a moment before he asked: “The transporters, how many of them were human?” His gaze moved to the girl, who averted her eyes and redoubled her efforts on Cecil’s hair.

“All human,” answered Cecil.

“Hmmm…” Gryn half hummed, half growled.

“I know you and Parvani have had your differences,” said Cecil. “And off the record, I think you’re in the right. But I trust her on this one. She doesn’t let her personal feelings get in the way of her decision-making.”

“Does she not?” Gryn wanted to say, but he didn’t.

“So what is it, Gryn? Still up for it?”

“I need to know we’ll be back before the Emperor arrives. Esther and I still have a bit left to do to prepare.”

Cecil waved away his concerns. “A week at most. If we don’t find anything in that time, we’ll come back.”

“And if we do find something?”

“Since when did it take the two of us more than three days to finish anything? So can I count on you again?”

Gryn did something he didn’t do often: he smiled. The girl flinched when she saw the unusually long fangs. It was a wonder the gnoll managed to fit them inside his mouth. Gryn noticed her concern, but it didn’t bother him.

“Of course,” said Gryn. “This should be fun.”

“Awesome!” Cecil’s professional demeanor evaporated as he rolled off the couch and onto his hooves, leaving the girl behind to fall into the crater he had left in the cushions. He stretched his legs, bending forward and back at the waist, and approached Gryn. Each of his hoofsteps slammed heavy and hard, despite the centaur’s obvious efforts to step softly. He leaned forward and bent his front legs to lower himself, bringing his face closer to the little gnoll’s.

“Be ready with your gear by tomorrow morning,” he said. “But for now, you gotta tell me how she did, bro.”

“She?” Gryn asked, genuinely confused.

Cecil wrapped Gryn in one arm and pulled him close. “Alka. She told me she was testing today, and I haven’t spoken to her. You and Esther were there, right? How did she do?”

Gryn’s stomach tightened as he thought of how best to answer. “Her performance in close quarters was deemed unsatisfactory by the Judicators,” he said, conveniently leaving out how he had nearly strangled her at Esther’s command. Not that he would have seriously hurt her on purpose, nor would Esther. Maybe. Probably.

Cecil loosed his hug and seemed to shrink, as if all the air were let out of him at once. “Oh, I…” He closed his mouth. “Hmmm…”

“But Lygeri was impressed with her Warmagic exam.”

“Warmagic?” Cecil asked. “Alka never mentioned applying for that.”

“Lygeri, ah, entered the application herself. So to speak.”

Cecil’s hold tightened once more. “Well, I’ll have to ask her about it soon. I’m sure she’s eager to tell everyone about it.”

***

“Arun is going to be so disappointed,” Alka slurred. She was lying on the rug, all limbs splayed out, twirling an empty bottle between her fingers.

“Why would he care?” Jasper asked. “You got in, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but…” she thought for a moment about what to say. “…I don’t know.”

Jasper leaned forward, doing his best to hold steady and appear more sober than he was. “What’s the problem? Really?”

Alka sighed and held her bottle upside down to make sure it was really empty. To her dismay, it was. She rolled it across the floor in disgust, adding it to the pile of bottles that she had made in the corner over the last hour. “That’s it,” she said sadly. “Do we have any more?”

“I  have more,” Jasper clarified. “And it’s in my closet, where you can’t get to it.”
Alka grumbled. There was no way she could fit through the narrow hallway that separated the living room from the rest of the apartment.

“And besides, don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

“No!” she countered eloquently. She tried to stand, rolling to one side to get all of her legs under her. She was having some trouble, by the looks of it.

“Whoa! Easy! Don’t get up or you might fall.”

“No I won’t! I’ll stand and show you I haven’t had too much!” Even with the extra traction from her rubber boots, she found it difficult to get a solid purchase on the part of the floor not covered by the rug. But she was trying, putting far more focus into it than the task should have required.

Jasper didn’t want to see her fall, and he certainly didn’t want to see her fall on his couch, or him. “Okay, alright, I believe you. Just stop trying to prove it.”

Alka let herself splay out across the floor again, the glint of victory in her eyes. “So you’ll bring me my beer?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever. But first you have to tell me why you’re so upset.”

“That’s not fair! You can’t make up new rules! You’re a falsifier, that’s what you are.”

Jasper crossed his arms, undeterred by Alka’s clever rebuttal.

“Fine,” she said. “If it will get me my beer. Which I earned,” she added. She huffed for a few seconds more. “I don’t feel like I deserve the position.”

“What are you talking about? Of course you deserve it. Lygeri said so, right?”

“It’s not what I was practicing for. This whole time I’ve been drilling with Arun—what was I doing it for? To get by on a fluke? Was it all just a waste of time?”

Jasper stared into his drink for a time, as if it expecting for it to give him the answer. “I guess you could see it that way or… you could say that you’ve finally found the right path for you, ya know?”

“I’m a sham.”

“What?”

“I’m not what Lygeri thinks I am. When she put me on the spot, I just reacted. I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing. The next thing I knew, it was all over, and she was standing there telling me how great I was. I don’t even remember what I did. What if I can’t do it again when I get to the academy? I—Lygeri too—we’ll look like fools.”

“Alka… do you respect Lygeri?”

“Of course.”

“Then respect her decision as a Judicator, and when the time comes, give everything you’ve got, for both of you.”

Alka mumbled something Jasper couldn’t make out, but he gave her the benefit of the doubt and interpreted it as “Okay”. She gave him a grumpy look. “So where is that beer, anyway?”

“Right.” Jasper stood up from the couch and headed down the hallway. He hated having to do it: hiding the alcohol where he was sure Alka couldn’t get to it. Maybe now, he hoped, in light of her first good news in three years of effort, she’ll have something worth sobering up for.

Barely halfway down the hall, he heard a loud thump from the living room. He rushed back to find Alka collapsed on the floor, dead to the world.

She’d done it again.

Alka rolled onto her side, arms forward as if reaching for something. Jasper sighed and took a pillow from the couch, holding it within arm’s reach until she took hold and pulled it close. He then took a blanket, and with one wide and sweeping motion draped it across her sleeping form. Her hooves were left uncovered, sticking out from the side. Oh well, it would have to do.

He stood in the doorway on his way out, before he dimmed the lights, watching the slow rise and fall of her barrel with each breath.

She stirred suddenly, and one eye opened halfway to look in his direction, though whether she truly saw him or not, he couldn’t know.

“It’s all right,” she said. “It’s pretty.”

“Hmmm?”

“Lygeri said my aether is pretty.”

“She did?”

“Uh huh,” she yawned. “But I think yours is prettier.”

“…”

“I’mma sleep now.”

“Yeah, you do that.”

She closed her eye and hugged her pillow tighter. Jasper dimmed the lights and left the room.

The beer and the late hour catching up to him, Jasper headed to bed himself, stripping and dropping articles of clothing on either side of the short hallway as he did so. Without an ounce of grace, he hopped onto the bed, its old springs threatening to give under his weight. He buried himself under a mountain of pillows and blankets, and laid his spinning head down to sleep.
The regional Templar testing facility rested in a widely spaced alley in the busiest part of the west side of town. It was a deceptively small building given its importance—not much larger than many of the neighboring cafes. Its brick facing wore a fresh coat of red paint, and from the flagpole mounted on the roof, the purple and gold coat of arms of the Imperial Templars flapped in the breeze. But to passing observation, the most striking thing about the structure was its complete lack of windows, giving it a demeanor more befitting a mausoleum than a governmental office. But if it was a tomb, then it was certainly a popular one: a long line of citizens stretched along outside the front door, down the street and around the corner.

Most in line were of the local human stock, tall and fair-haired. The men wore their beards long, tucking them inside their fur coats to keep them from freezing solid. There was also a good number of minotaurs as well, standing on average a head or two above the humans. They dressed more lightly, relying on their natural-growing fur coats for warmth. The bangles tied to their horns chimed in the frigid wind as the minotaurs stuck close by each other, nodding and whispering amongst themselves about who-knew-what. Heads even above them were centaurs, fewer in number but much greater in presence. They were given wide berth by anyone who feared being stepped on. Smallest among those in line were the gnolls, their furry tufted ears twitching against the cold, canine noses taking in the smells wafting from the restaurants across the street. A smattering of other creatures was also represented: griffons, chimera, and even a frost drake or three. But there was one thing they all had in common: Whether held in hand, paw, claw or talon, each held a strip of paper with their name and an assigned number in stylized print.

At the front of the line, a young centaur stood, nervously shifting her weight from hoof to hoof. For the twenty-third time that afternoon, she unfolded the paper in her hand and read it breathlessly to herself to make sure that the name and number were both correct. And for the twenty-third time that afternoon, she saw that they were.

She was smaller than most of her kind, hardly a bit above seven feet in height, and judging by her frame, she couldn't have weighed a full ton. She wore her black hair tied into a braid that fell to her waist. On her upper body she wore only a grey sweater, little use against the cold, while her equine lower body was covered by a dark blue caparison that nearly brushed the ground.

She jolted back as the steel door burst open, and a young human man strode out, his chest puffed out and nose held high. On his left breast was a red pin with a silver border. He had passed. The newly accepted Templar walked by without as much as a sidelong glance to the others still on line, toward an empty space on the sidewalk. Suddenly he sprang up and let out a whoop into the night sky so loud it must have been as far away as the Southern Capital. Everyone in line cheered and clapped, some wishing him well through gritted teeth. But it was the centaur in front who cheered loudest of all.

When he finished his celebrations, the new Templar took off down the street and out of sight, no doubt to give his friends and family the good news.

From behind the darkness of the open door, a voice called out. "Next."

"Me," she cried, rearing up and waving wildly.

"Enter."

With numb legs, the centaur stepped forward and through the door. Inside, her rubber-shod hooves clopped loudly against the hardwood. A few unremarkable lanterns hung from the ceiling, covering the room in warm aether's glow.

Before her stood a young woman, wearing a sky-blue robe tied tightly at the waist with a yellow sash. In her arms she held a clipboard. "May I see your card please?" she asked in an unquestioning tone.

The centaur shut the door behind her with a light kick. "My card? Oh, right." She produced it at once, almost dropped it twice, and handed it over.

The woman compared it to her list. "Your name sounds familiar. Have we met before?"

The centaur rubbed her shoulders nervously. "Maybe? Probably? This is… uh… my fifth attempt."

The woman's eyes grew wide with the sudden realization. "You!?"

"Uh, yeah," the centaur answered, unconsciously pawing the ground.

"I suppose you know the way to the testing area, then," the woman said with a sigh. "But follow me." She led the way down a wide hallway to a thick double door. "Through here. The Judicators are expecting you. Be sure to announce your name as you enter. Esther dislikes surprises."

"Yes ma'am."

The centaur stepped inside the assessment room: a large chamber of granite walls and hand-woven carpet. Weapon racks lined the wall to her right, bearing wooden and blunted versions of swords, axes, glaives, and whatever else. Moonlight beamed down through the skylight above, giving the room an almost ethereal air.

And at the marble table directly across from the door, dressed in violet robes, sat three Judicators: the highest rank of Templar, beyond question in both skill and loyalty to the Emperor. They alone had the authority to approve new Templars into the order, and there was not one aspiring candidate that did not know all of them by name.

The first on the left was a human, Judicator Hopkins. He sat slouching in his chair, hair mussed and robes wrinkled. He seemed more interested in his pocketwatch, flipping it open and closed in a steady rhythm. He gave the overall impression of having just been dragged out of bed.

On the right sat Judicator Lygeri, a Cytherean native who had only recently been transferred to Fafenheir from the Western branch. Even by the standards of cytherean females, she was enormous. She sat with four arms crossed and one eye open.

And in the middle sat someone the centaur had come to know very well: Judicator Esther. The old gnoll, fur as white as freshly fallen snow, sat completely upright, her legs off the floor and crossed on her seat. Her blind eyes stared stonily in the direction of the entranceway.

By Esther's side stood another gnoll, Gryn, if the centaur remembered correctly, wearing the dark red robes of a mid-ranking Templar. His black fur contrasted harshly against red eyes and crooked white fangs too large for his slender muzzle.

The centaur walked slowly to the center of the room and folded her legs under her to sit. She bowed, placing her hands on the floor. "Alka Gerardi present," she said.

"Yes," said Esther, ears twitching. "We know."

Esther had presided over each and every one of Alka's previous exams. And each and every time, it had been she who had vetoed against Alka's application to become a Templar. No matter how much she prepared, or how much she impressed the other Judicators, that would mean nothing without Esther's approval.

Lygeri coughed, and Hopkins took notice as if just then aware of Alka's presence. Esther sighed a long sigh and scratched her chin, saying nothing until Alka began to shiver in the cold silence.

Finally Esther spoke. “Candidate Gerardi, you are here today to audition for the position of Imperial Templar, having previously passed the health, knowledge and physical screenings. Is that correct?”

“It is.”

“And which specification are you auditioning for?”

Alka gripped the rug tight to prevent them from seeing her shivering shoulders. “Cataphract. Like my brother,” she added at the end.

Esther grinned. “Again? Well…” she let her words trail off, her meaning obvious. She lifted a few papers and mimed reading them. “I spoke to Arun recently. He said you have improved quite a bit, since the last time.”

"Arun flatters me."

Esther cocked her head. "Does he now?"

Alka stayed silent.

“Do you have a preference in weapon?” asked Judicator Hopkins.

“Glaives,” said Alka. “Arun and I have been practicing since, uh, the last time.”

“We can only hope,” Esther whispered, just loud enough for Judicator Lygeri’s ears to catch. She gestured to the rack. “Then find one that suits you, and take your position. I am responsible for combat arms trials—with Gryn acting as my stand-in.”

Alka lifted her head and stood, then searched for the appropriate weapon. It was a long staff around nine feet in length, with a curved wooden "blade" of around three. She twirled it around several times, both to loosen her wrists and to get a feel for the balance. When she felt satisfied, she stood at attention on one side of the large center mat. "I am ready."

Esther nodded, and Alka thought she saw something resembling a smile in the corner of her eye. "Gryn now examine your proficiency with the standard guards and techniques. I will stop the exam if necessary."

At that Gryn stepped forward, rolling his shoulder to free his right arm from the sleeve. With a silent, confident stride and a face absent any emotion, he drew his wooden sword from his sash and stood across from Alka. The blade was over four feet long—almost as long as Gryn was tall, and grew wider toward the tip. He lifted the thing as if it were a twig, bringing it softly to rest on his shoulder.

Judicator Hopkins leaned forward. "Now, candidate Alka, demonstrate your skill to the best of your ability. We Judicators will assess. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

"Then begin!"

Before the echo of the shout had left the room, Gryn transformed into an attack stance, bringing his sword pointing forward and parallel to the floor. His digitigrade legs were bent slightly at the knees and ankles, ready to spring.

Alka responded by bringing the end of her weapon around to the floor in a left-handed stance, the curve of the blade facing forward. The fingers of her right hand rested lightly near the back, ready to snap and bring the blade upward. She closed her mouth tight to hide her trembling lip.

Gryn shifted his weight to his left foot. Alka stepped back until her rear hooves reached the edge of the mat.

Seconds dragged out like hours, both of them completely still. Lygeri coughed, and Alka flinched. Taking advantage of that opening, Gryn lunged forward, swiping his blade parallel to the ground with terrifying speed. He aimed for Alka's front legs, with enough force to knock her off her feet. Reflexively, Alka kicked up onto her rear legs, bringing her hooves off the mat and above Gryn's attack. As she did this, she brought her blade up as she had planned, intending to catch Gryn in mid-air.

But the gnoll was faster than that, and rolled under and through to land on his feet again, just off to the side, back into a guard stance, his weapon now held in both hands. Alka's front hooves returned to the mat with a loud slam, and she brought the end of her own weapon level with Gryn's face to ward him off.

Both combatants became still once more, Alka trying to find a hole in Gryn's defenses, and Gryn, as always, standing in perfect, expressionless silence. Although he had just failed in his attack, he showed no sign of chagrin or worry, only a detached stare.

Lygeri coughed again, and Alka did not flinch.

A second later, Alka stabbed forward despite being well out of range. But at the crucial moment, Alka let go of the shaft with her left hand and pushed forward with the right, adding extra length to the strike.

With the same unnatural speed as before, Gryn waved his sword to the left, knocking the shaft aside, and sprang forward, riding his blade up the length and directly in front of Alka. He leaped faster than she could respond, grabbing hold of her sleeve and swinging onto her back. He locked his sword across Alka's neck and pulled it tight, causing Alka to drop her own weapon and try to push his away.

Hopkins rose in his seat and looked to Esther for some sign, but the gnoll just sat, gaze transfixed, ears taking in the sound of Alka's choking. Hopkins sat back down, hand trembling.

Realizing that Esther was not going to call the fight, Alka panicked, buying Gryn the chance to tighten his grip, his wooden blade biting into her windpipe. Alka reared, trying to buck him off, but Gryn held on tighter than a cragnat, and would not budge for all her effort.

In the dim of the room, a pale light began to flicker across Alka’s body, and the more she struggled, the brighter and more distinct it became, forming tendrils of white light a few inches in length that whipped about like grass on a windy day. It was aether, raw and unfocused, spilling out unconsciously from her effort.

Judicator Lygeri, who seconds ago had looked somewhat tired after her coughing, was now watching intently and somewhat confusedly as Alka fell to the floor with a heavy thud. "I am understanding… this is failure, yes?" she asked Esther. "Match calling now, or…?"

"I haven't seen her fail yet," Esther replied, lip curled into a scowl.

"Bah! Silly!" said the Cytherean, her accent thick. She rose unbidden and walked confidently to the mat. With no apparent effort, she peeled Gryn off from Alka's back and tossed him aside by the scruff of the neck. He landed near Esther, and rose to his feet, brushing off his ruffled robes as if nothing had happened.

"Judicator Lygeri!" Esther shouted, her hackles raised. "I did not give the command to stop!"

Lygeri held out her thick arm for Alka to take hold and pull herself to stand. "But I did. I have purple clothes too, no?"

Esther settled. Her growl could be heard from across the room, but Lygeri paid no mind.
“Are you all right, little one?” Lygeri asked Alka.

Her head still spinning in a sea of black sparks, Alka cleared her throat to speak. "Just… a moment," she said as the blue drained from her face.

“Tell me when you are ready, then. I want you very well, uh, awake for second test.”

"There is no second test," said Esther. "She has failed. Again. You can send her away."
“Perhaps if your eyes were better, you would have seen.”

Esther growled. “Seen what?”

Lygeri made a strange clicking sound. “Alka, I saw aether when you were, ah, fighting. Do you practice much?”

Alka cleared her throat once, twice. “Aether? I guess I practice a bit. Arun showed me the basic draw.”

“A bit?” asked Lygeri.

“Just an hour or so a day.”

“Truly?” Lygeri seemed surprised. “Alka, you are… how do I put it? You are bad fighter. Not good. Get eaten, most likely.”

Alka looked as if she had just been backhanded across the face.

“But,” Lygeri continued. “That may not be bad thing, you know? Not everyone is meant for hitting other people with sticks—that would be so boring. But I think that we might still have purpose for you. Have you considered trying for Warmage?”

“N—no,” Alka stammered.

“I am director of Warmage academy, and I think you would make good warmage. If you pass my test, of course.”

“Judicator Lygeri,” said Esther. “I hate to interrupt, but Gerardi has only registered for the combat academy. She has not filled out the required paperwork. To give her the warmagic exam now would violate procedure.”

Lygeri’s teeth chattered in annoyance. “Pishing-posh on violating your “sutures”! We are Judicator. We do what we want, papers or no! And now I want to test this one.”

Alka chimed in. "Excuse me? I don't want to cause any trouble."

"This doesn't concern you candidate," Esther said sharply.

"Does it not?" Lygeri asked. "I say we let her decide."

"Bah!" Esther spat. "Fine then, do whatever you want. You're clearly set on this nonsense."
Lygeri harrumphed and turned to Alka with a smile. "Well, candidate, what do you say?"

Alka didn't know what to say at first. She looked questioningly at Lygeri, then Esther, then Hopkins (who had wisely chosen to stay neutral on the matter).

"Don't look at us," said Lygeri. "Decide for yourself" She leaned in close to whisper, "that is most important test I give you."

"Well I…" Alka held her breath for a second. Could this be her last chance? It wasn’t what she intended, but… “I’ll do it.”

"Haha! Nice!" Lygeri clapped her claws together. "Then I will administer test myself; you could ask for no one better, no?" She stepped back several paces, to the same spot Gryn had been standing a moment ago. "You said you know basic draw? Show it to me.”

Alka nodded and closed her eyes to concentrate, searching the space behind her mind. Immediately, the aether gathered around her as it did before, forming a halo of silvery white light that flowed across her skin and clothes like a river of smoke and stars. She pulled harder, and the halo grew thicker, forming long streams that traveled around the room.

“Beautiful!” said Lygeri, and looked in Esther’s direction, who was listening intently as Gryn whispered in her ear. Even Hopkins seemed impressed.

Lygeri paced around Alka in circles as she observed the growing aura. “So beautiful!” she said again. “You are astral aligned, I see.”

Alka’s eyes opened a bit, and she couldn’t help but smile. “That’s a good thing?”

“Of course. We carry our aether alignment with us from the day we are born: astral, green, purple, red, blue, and yellow. But astral is best of all, I think. It is pure as new falling snow.”

Alka smiled, almost causing her to lose focus. “…I always found umbral the most beautiful. You forgot that one.”

“Umbral?!” Lygeri almost spat the word. “No accounting for tastes.” She ran one of her claws through an aether stream as she spoke. “You are very good, you know? You must practice more than you say.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Now,” said Lygeri as she moved directly in front of Alka. “We begin second half of test. Try and block. Do not worry, I will not hurt you.”

With that Lygeri raised her four clawed arms above her head and almost instantly surrounded herself in a halo of raw astral aether. Best type, indeed, Alka mused. It thrummed and pulsed in time with her heartbeat. Showing only the barest hint of effort, the Judicator forged some of her aether into a shard of light and sent it flying in Alka's direction.

Alka had already begun constructing her defense, drawing and shaping her own aether into a thin screen in front of her. The shard shattered against it on impact, taking the shield with it. Before the resulting shower of sparks had cleared, Lygeri was already casting again.

The techniques they were using were not dangerous, rather were safe variations on the forms most commonly used by Templars in the field. Robbed of their lethality, they posed no real physical threat. But Alka parried one spell after another as if her life depended on it as Lygeri continued the assault.

"Good. Good," Lygeri said after several more volleys had failed to land. "You have good reflexes. Good eyes—unlike some here." She cut a disapproving glance toward Esther, who snorted at the quip so obviously aimed at her. "Now," Lygeri continued, "Let us, how is it called, burn it up a notch?"

With all four arms, Lygeri began slashing more lances into existence; her aura writhed about like tendrils, hissing and spitting sparks in every direction. Alka's jaw went slack and her mind raced to think of the counter as Lygeri added one lance after another. She couldn't make enough screens for all of them.

There has to be something.

Suddenly an idea came to her. Alka began working feverishly, drawing out enough aether to completely obscure herself within her own clouded aura.

Lygeri finished, launching all of her conjured lances at once, combining into what looked like one solid spiked mass of ice. At the same time, Alka loosed her reply as her excess aether was shed to reveal the web of screens she had surrounded herself with, linked together as one. Just before impact, Lygeri's missile split into countless sharp pieces as Alka's shields fused into a solid sphere. The shards hammered against it, creating small cracks that grew wider and wider under the relentless assault. It appeared that Alka's shield would not hold.

Lygeri watched on as, as expected, Alka's shield gave way and broke apart, but had to stifle a gasp when she saw the shards run into yet another shield. Squinting, that was when the cytherean realized that in the few seconds given to her, Alka had somehow stacked sphere upon sphere on top of one another like the layers of an onion, and each one just as strong. When the second sphere caved in, taking with it more of the missiles, there was a third one waiting to take its place. Before even half of the layers had given way, the missiles lost their energy and crumbled. And soon after that, so did the shields.

Alka stood in the middle, her arms held over her head as if in fear, apparently oblivious to her own success.

"Candidate Alka," Lygeri said with a deep, broad smile.

Alka lowered her arms and peeked up to see Lygeri standing in front of her before being wrapped in a great, most unprofessional hug, lifting the centaur's front half clear off the floor.

"You did it! Very good! No candidate ever so well. Beyond and above! Credits will be extra given!" She offered more praise, but the more excited she became, the more her accent degraded, until eventually she was reduced to guttural chirps that Alka assumed were compliments in her native language.

If Alka's lungs had been contained in her upper body, Lygeri's embrace would have squeezed them empty. "Um… thank you?"

"Judicator Lygeri," said Hopkins, who was now giving a slow standing ovation. "Let's not crush our candidate, shall we?"

Lygeri blushed, her luminescent blood visible under her coarse fur, and she set Alka down gently, giving her an awkward pat on the head as she did so. She then lumbered back to her seat and fell into it.

Alka now turned eyes toward Esther. The gnoll's face was as barren as ever, but Alka still saw it: Esther's claws clenched tightly, digging into the wooden arm of her chair. "Candidate Alka, from the sound of my colleague's reaction, you have apparently not failed your second test. Is this true?"

Alka sat and bowed toward her. It was a question she could not answer—if she said yes, it would no doubt be seen as arrogance. If she said no…

"She performed most excellently by my account as well, Judicator Esther," said Hopkins. "Now candidate, step outside and wait while we deliberate."

Alka said nothing, rose up, and left the room. When the door closed, she tried to listen in on the conversation, though she could make out no individual words.

"Stupid soundproofing," she muttered, pressing her ear up against the door.

"Excuse me, miss."

"Not now," Alka said with a wave. "I'm trying to lis—oh."

It was the woman in blue from before. "Miss, it won't do for you to stand out here. Now follow me to the waiting room."

"Right.” Alka followed down the hallway just as she heard the room explode into argument behind her.
On the northernmost edge of the Imperial border, in a valley of frozen forests and month-long nights, the city of Fafenheir rested under the auroras. It was a city of cold iron and black stone, home to over two hundred thousand of the empires hardiest citizens. And on the eastern edge of the city lay the Fafenheir public library.

As far as anyone who lived there was concerned, the library was as old as the dirt it rested on: a monolith of black brick taller than any of the surrounding buildings, it had stood the test of time unchanged from one century to the next. It was adorned top to bottom with rows of stained glass windows in every color, and on those nights when the moon shone brightest, those windows reflected their light down to the streets below. Tonight was one of those nights.

Through the library's iron front doors, behind those dark stones and those marvelous windows, a young man sat at the checkout desk, his impatient knuckles rap-rap-rapping a groove into the wooden surface. His eyes were fixed on the grand clock above, counting down the seconds, each taking longer than the last. He was stout of build—some might even say a bit fat, with dark curls he never bothered to comb, wearing the same fur-lined green robe as the rest of the library staff, which he rarely bothered to wash. His shift's end was nearly an hour away, but Jasper Almassy's patience had run out two hours ago.

An explosion on the desk brought him bolting upright to the sight of Mrs. Gerheiser, the head librarian, tossing a stack of books down in front of him.

"Wake up," she said as she added a few more to the pile. "No sleeping on the clock. Not if I have any say about it."

"I wasn't sleeping," he said with a yawn. "It's just so boring, ugh. Hardly anyone's been through here all day."

"Well I suppose now you have something to do," she said, punctuating the "now" by slamming the last book as hard as her aging muscles allowed. "I need these taken upstairs to the Mystery section."

"Isn't that Lucille's job? Why not have her do it?"

"Because someone is refusing to answer my pages. So if you find her up there, do be a dear and tell her that I know what she's up to, and if she doesn't want to find herself unemployed during what is looking to be a very long winter, she'll do her job from now on."

There was a brief moment of eye contact between the two: a staredown that Jasper quickly lost.

"Right," he said, his knees creaking as he rose from the chair. "I'll get right on it."

"See that you do," she said, and disappeared to hunt for more lively prey.

Jasper looked at the books, stacked taller than his head. Then he looked at the cart beside the desk. Then at the books again. And then at the clock—he could have sworn the hands had started running backward lately.

"Damn books." He lazily pushed them off the counter and into the cart's bed, and started toward the central station.

Built to absorb even the slightest of echoes, the library rotunda was lined by pillars of white marble, each wrapped with brass ramps that spiraled off toward the library's many different sections. The building designers had chosen to forego the aether lamps used in most public constructions, instead importing wisps from the southern territories to use as lighting. The small, ethereal creatures flitted all about like shooting stars, casting their pale blue light everywhere they went.

Even Jasper had to admit it had been quite the sight to see—the first ten times he had seen it. But now it was all just work to him: miserable, mind-numbing work that tired him more and more each day in body and mind. He couldn't quite place the moment when it had become so, but it was long ago, to be sure.

He huffed and puffed as he pushed the cart around the ramp, up to the Mystery section on the fifth floor. He stopped, pulling the cart aside to catch his breath with two levels still to go, lungs burning and thighs aching. Alka would laugh if she saw him now, he thought, smiling despite himself.

After a minute or two, he braced himself and started again. It wasn't much farther to the Mystery section entrance, where he was met by rows of dark, polished bookshelves stretched out before him. He didn't see anyone there, the only sound that of the shelves sagging and groaning under their own overburdening weight. He changed his position to pull the cart along through the thick green carpet.

Near the back wall, above an enormous desk cluttered with piles of unsorted paperwork, Lucille hung from the ceiling by her tail, wrapped in her leathery wings. Jasper could hear her snoring. He called her name, and the frost drake's wings spread wide to expose her twenty feet of sinewy length. Compact, corded muscles stretched under azure scales. Eight black horns sprouted wild about her head, giving the impression of a mane of tousled hair. She wore a loose sash of dark green across her body, with matching fingerless gloves and boots.

"Yes, yes, what is it?" she said, sounding none too pleased to have her bi-hourly nap interrupted.

Jasper shoved the cart hard against the edge of the desk. "Gerheiser wants these sorted and shelved. Also, she knows you've been asleep."

"I wasn't sleeping," she said with a yawn. Letting her tail go slack on the arch above, she settled softly into the plush chair behind the desk, wrapping herself in her wings again. "I was just bored—there's hardly been anyone here all day.”

"Yeah, I tried that one on her too, and it didn't work. She's been on my ass all day."

"She's on everyone's ass. Woman is a slavedriver, I'm telling you. Besides, hasn't she ever heard that drakes are nocturnal?"

"But it's dark outside," said Jasper. "It's been dark for three weeks."

"Diurnal, whatever." She loosed an angry puff of superchilled air, and Jasper dodged out of the way. He wasn't quite fast enough, and a few inches of fabric on his right sleeve were frozen solid.

He grabbed his stiff sleeve and squeezed it, making loud crunches each time as the ice shattered. "Hey now, watch where you aim that stuff! If Gerheiser catches you doing that, she'll have you muzzled before you can blink."

"Oh, she wouldn't dare," Lucille snorted.

"You just tell yourself that. She already thinks of you as a charity case."

"Whatever. She can think what she wants." She reached across the desk and rifled through the contents of the cart with a talon. "Now, let's see what we have here… junk… terrible plot… well somebody likes her literature risqué… ooh, now this one—". She lifted one book and glanced over it. "—I've never seen before."

The book she held looked fairly new; in fact there wasn't a single dent or blemish on its black velvet cover. Nor was there any identification number on the spine. But on the front was one word in embossed silver: Oberon.

"Oberon," Lucille said under her breath. "This doesn't look like one of mine." She opened it to search for an author's name, publisher, anything to give a clue as to where it belonged. The first page was blank, as was the second and the third as well. She turned it sideways and let the pages fall.

"All blank," said Jasper.

Lucille hummed in thought, her blue eyes narrowing. "Aha!" she said suddenly. "It's a journal, most likely; turned in by mistake. They hide the words, you see. You need to say the password to make them appear. Some new programming thing, or the like…"

"I wouldn't suppose you know what that password might be?"

Lucille leapt up to stand on her seat, perching on the armrest. "Dear sir," she said proudly, placing a paw over her heart, "I happen to be an expert password cracker."
"Then get to cracking already."

"Hasty and nosey, are we?" she said with a sideways smile full of teeth. She held the book open before her. "Password," she intoned slowly but forcefully.

Nothing happened.

"Well?" Jasper asked.

"Hold on, hold on." She cleared her throat, coughing up a few shards of ice. "One, two, three four," she said to the book.

Still, nothing happened.

"Huh? Those usually work." She tossed it disdainfully onto the desk. "Bah! Probably just some teenager's ramblings anyway."

"What should I do with it?"

Lucille crawled up the wall like a gecko and resumed hanging.

"Why don't you ask Gerheiser what to do?" she said, adjusting her wings just so to make herself comfortable.

"I'd really rather not."

"Then do with it what you want. Just don't let her catch you if you decide to throw it out—not unless you want to end up like Gary."

Both held a brief moment of silence in Gary's honor.

Jasper thought as he put the book under his arm. "Maybe I should run it down to Nikos. He owes me a favor or two."

Lucille spat another jet of cold. "Whatever. Now if you don't mind, I have a job to do. Watch out for the Gerheiser."

"And you too," said Jasper as he walked away. Barely out of sight, he could hear Lucille's snoring again."

At the top of the rotunda, Jasper checked over his shoulder to make sure Gerheiser wasn't around, and then hopped on the railing and rode it down. Picking up speed, he flew past the fourth floor, then the third and second. When he reached the ground floor, he kept going still, down an underground ramp ending at an old and half-rotten door with a brass handle.
He had to put a little muscle into pushing the door open. The bottom scraped across the floor, breaking off a few pieces. He took a deep breath to ward against the dank air.

According to the brochures at the entrance, the library's basement predated the structure above ground by at least three hundred years, having been carved by early human settlers as a bunker against frost giant attack. After the Great War's end, it had seen use as everything from wizard's college, to whorehouse, to government office, and all three at once on more than one occasion. At least, that was what the brochure had said—one could never believe those things completely.

But regardless of what it once had been, currently the basement was a repository for books deemed either too old, fragile, or unseemly for public access. Shelves more ancient than those above were laid out like a maze that went on for what looked like forever. Walls and floors of thick, soft stone absorbed all light and sound. But if one listened carefully, one could almost hear a whisper of a conversation drifting down from the street above. A scant few wisps patrolled like little night watchmen, casting shadow puppets against the walls.

Jasper heard his quarry from far in the distance. He set off quickly, weaving through the maze, his steps sure. He remembered his first night on the job, when Lucille had sent him down there for a prank and it had taken him almost till morning to find his way out. That was four years ago, and now Jasper knew the labyrinth by heart. It didn't take long to find who he was looking for.

Near the eastern wall, several bookcases were pushed aside to form a small open space. Old tomes floated purposefully on their own accord, moving from storage boxes to their new homes on the old shelves. And in the middle of it all was Nikos, surrounded by his signature emerald aether aura, inspecting each book as it drifted past his muzzle.

"Yo, Nikos."

The books all hung in the air. Nikos turned and stooped to regard Jasper, green eyes glowing in the dim.

Nikos was a cytherean. Native to the toxic isles off the western coast, he stood over eight feet tall, with six limbs, each ending in a pair of hooked claws. His dark fur rustled like steel wool underneath his oversized robe, and his long ears were tied back with a piece of blue ribbon.

"Why, hello," he said, grinning with a mouth full of curved teeth. His voice was soft, almost effeminate. "Didn't think I'd see you down here today."

"Yeah, well, I've got a problem I need your help with."

"A problem?" said Nikos. "I love problems! Eh, solving them, I mean."

"Right... Anyway, I found this in a return stack, and I don't know what to do with it."
He passed the book to Nikos, who took it delicately into his claws.

"Mmmhmm," hummed Nikos as he flipped through. "This is your problem right here: the pages are all blank."

Jasper held back the urge to slap his own face. "I know that! Why do you think I brought it to you? Lucille thought it was a journal or something, but couldn't get anything to appear."

"Or maybe," Nikos mused, "there isn't anything to appear. Did you consider that?"

"You mean, you think it's really just blank?"

"There are stranger things in this world of ours than a blank book," said the sloth, licking an unruly tuft of fur with his glowing green tongue. "I'm sure I can find it a nice home on a shelf somewhere."

"So, it's out of my hands now?" asked Jasper.

"Yes," said Nikos. "Everything's out of your hands now."

"Good. Thanks, man."

"Think nothing of it. This makes only one more I owe you."

"Two more," said Jasper. "But who's counting, right?"

"Right."

Jasper turned to leave, and then spun on his heel as he remembered. "Oh, yeah, I've been meaning to ask you something. Alka and I are going to Daubenmire's tomorrow night. You can come with if you want."

"No, thanks," said Nikos, his attention returned to the line of books that now moving again. "My mom would kill me if she knew I'd gone out drinking again."

Jasper had never been told the story of how exactly Mrs. Gerheiser had come into custody of an infant cytherean. But she and her husband had raised him alongside their biological daughters, showing them no difference in affection—or lack thereof.

"Aw, come on, Neek. You gotta cut the cord sometime. You're an adult," Jasper paused a second to consider. "You are an adult, right?"

"First," said Nikos, "never call me that again. Secondly, there is no cord to cut, as I and my mother have never been anatomically connected. And lastly, yes, I am biologically an adult by my species' standard."

"Then do whatever you want. Forget what your mother says."

Nikos glanced over his shoulder nervously, as if afraid that Gerheiser was listening in with that sixth sense all mothers claimed to have. "Maybe just this time…" he thought aloud. "…no, I'm not risking it."

Jasper sighed. It was time to bring out his wild card.

"Festus beat your high score at the tavern," he blurted.

"He what!?" Nikos screamed as every book still in the air clattered to the floor. His aether stormed around him like heatless flame. "When did this happen?"

"Just a few days ago," said Jasper, hoping desperately that he was telling the truth.
"And you didn't tell me?"

Jasper stepped up and placed his hand on Nikos' back. "I'm sorry. It hurt me too. I just couldn't find the right time, and—"

"No, no, no, no! This will not stand!" Nikos pulled away. "Pick me up tomorrow at six. I'm bringing that bastard down."

"It's a date then?"

But Nikos wasn't listening, lost in his own world of indignation, pacing angrily and muttering under his breath. Without another word, Jasper left him to fume.

When he emerged from the basement, he checked the grand clock, hoping against hope that his shift was finally over. But to his dismay, he saw that he still had—

"Fifteen minutes left," said a crackling voice from the side.

Gerheiser.

"Any reason in particular you were downstairs?" she asked. "Hiding out the rest of your shift?"

"No, I…" he started. "Uh, there was an out of place book in that stack you gave me. I ran it down to Nikos, and he said he'd take care of it for me."

At her son's name, Gerheiser's expression softened, but only very, very little, and only for a few seconds. "Well, it has been slow, and the night shift is almost here… I suppose I can send you home early. But don't go expecting it from now on!"

"Of course not."

Gerheiser's eyes flashed a hateful red. But she said nothing, instead staring in terrifying silence for far too long before she walked loudly away, her tight leather shoes clicking on polished tile.

The last rays of moonlight disappeared behind a wall of clouds just as Jasper made it outside. Wisps condensed around the iron spires that lined the streets and sidewalks before setting out on their nightly patrols, replacing the moon's silver shine with a soft blue glow. Shops were closing doors just as taverns began opening theirs, and Jasper could smell the pine smoke that billowed from their chimneys. Fafenheir was coming to life, and Jasper answered by pulling his collar high to ward off the chill.

He had barely taken two steps before he heard a voice from above call his name. He turned around and looked down the street, but saw only a young gnoll couple curled together on a bench. A click and whistle brought Jasper's gaze upward, above the library entrance and to the familiar shape perched beside a gargoyle. It hid behind its wings, the grey feathers blending into the stone. A casual passerby might have mistaken it for a piece of the architecture.

"What do you want, Iolus?"

The grey shape shifted, and a hawkish head emerged. The griffon's lean body was now visible, covered in a coat of black fur. On his chest he wore a black and red tabard bearing the Almassy family crest, with dark leather bracers on his front legs. His yellow eyes focused, slit pupils wide.

"Just doing my job and keeping an eye on you," Iolus purred.

"I'm in no mood for games today. What are you here for?"

Iolus growled, and his beak somehow seemed to curl into a snarl. He jammed a forepaw into the stone wall, and swung down and onto the sidewalk, using his wings like a parachute to assist. He stood face-to-face with Jasper, his shoulders as high as the young man's chest. "Nothing but questions, that's all you're about. City life has made you paranoid."

Jasper planted his feet. "You call me paranoid, and yet I'm the one being spied on?"

"Still as mouthy as ever," Iolus hissed. "Your father sent me here to find you and let you know that he has contacted his lawyers."

"Is that all he said?"

"It was. The Count is not a man of many words, as you know."

"Then tell him to go ahead with whatever he is planning. Dad's business is none of mine."
Iolus looked about to rear up and tear Jasper apart, but quickly gathered himself and regained composure, as Jasper knew he would. "Is that all you have to say?" the griffon said through a snarl.

Jasper just nodded.

"Very well, viscount Almassy," Iolus said simply.

As a gust of bitter cold wind whipped down the street, Iolus extended his dappled wings and caught it, riding it upward. He was gone in an instant, leaving behind only a few unpreened feathers that were quickly blown away.

Jasper stood alone on that sidewalk for the longest time, until the slam of a tavern door brought him back to reality. Letting himself breathe, he set out on his way again as a few flakes of snow fell onto his shoulder. His pace quickened to a jog, and he pulled his collar higher.

"Damn cold."
Oberon: Chapter 1: An Ominous Little Thing
Well, well, who saw this coming? After much retooling, redrafting, and restructuring, I am finally back to upload my little pet project. I'll be keeping a strict update schedule of one chapter per week, uploading every Sunday, and keeping a buffer in case of sudden calamity, to ensure the updates stay on time.

And for those wondering, Nikos' name is pronounced "neek-ohs". Iolus is pronounced "eye-oh-luss" And Gerheiser is "gear-high-zurr".
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Thanks for the +fav on "Fractal Phoenix arising"! Dance! Sun
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No prob. The story I am posting on this account will have a phoenix among the main cast. I'm "gathering artistic resources", you could say. ;)
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