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.
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.”
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.
The sound of the grand marcble clock down the hall echoed through the halls and chambers of the academy.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“Lygeri said my aether is pretty.”
“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.