Rum and Pan round the corner together, weapons in plain sight. Instantly, a number of citizens. Rum and his new companion simply ignore the stares and press forward, winding through the concourse of the train station. They’re halted by a pair of guards before they can turn in the direction of the baggage claim.
“Hold on, there,” the guard on the right says. “Case those weapons immediately.”
“You cannot progress any further until you’ve done so,” adds the one on the left. She looks particularly aggravated by their audacity.
“We don’t think so,” Pan says. Her bold retort gives Rum pause as he grabs at his leather band.
“It was fun on the train, but we don’t have to keep it up,” Rum tells her.
“Then you can do it. I’m keeping mine out.” Pan lifts her bow onto her shoulder and takes a step forward.
The pair of guards instantly change postures, from idle to assault. They both lunge for Pan with the intent of tackling her to the ground. She raises her bow and draws the string with the intent to shoot, despite the fact she has no solid arrow to fire. However, Rum meets the conflict with swift intervention.
Rum slides around Pan, his buster sword already drawn. He uses the flat side of it as a shield against the security guards. The woman wings her shoulder against the dense object, though her partner manages to stop short just in time. Rum turns with the partner as they try to maneuver around his weapon. He moves one of his hands from the hilt and to his side, aiming it square at the security guard.
With Rum distracted by her partner, the woman rises from the floor and twirls on her hands. She trips up Rum, then climbs on top of him. She applies a submission hold to his free wrist.
“That’s it you, Bi–”
The woman is silenced when Pan kicks her off of Rum. In the same manner that Pan helps Rum to his feet the woman’s partner does the very same. The woman shakes loose of her partner’s grasp and rushes them. Just as the scrap gears up for round two, a pair of liquefied limbs force apart Rum and Pan from the female security guard.
The three of them and the male guard turn to see the crowd that was gathered around moments ago has all but dispersed, the last few fleeing the area in a haste. They track the stretched liquefied arms to another officer, her uniform a shade of silver instead of the black the concourse security guards possess, and a badge on her belt that reads “FHA”. She calmly guides her blue eyes to the stationary adolescents and guards.
The woman in silver retracts her liquid arms and reconstitutes them as flesh and blood. She lifts a clipboard from the floor and scans the list briefly. She finds the ID photos of Rum and Pan, then she sighs.
“Who in the hell are you?” demands the female guard.
“I’m the one who’ll be taking responsibility for these two delinquents,” replies the woman in silver as she advances. She flashes her FHA badge, revealing her name to be Stark. “I’m the head of security for Four Hearts Academy, and I’ll be taking these two under my custody as of this moment. If you have any complaints, take them up with Warden Crata. He’ll inform you that all students, upon their arrival at Waterfall Central Station, are allowed to follow the laws as set forth by Four Hearts Academy.”
“Who says these miscreants are students?” the female guard argues.
Stark turns from the woman to the duo. “Aurum. Pan. Let’s move. The other students are waiting.”
Rum lifts his leather band from the ground, then reattaches the magnets to secure its hold. He and Pan then cross to stand behind Stark.
“That’s not an answer,” the woman presses.
“I’ve told you what you need to know,” Stark says sternly, as a benediction to their conversation. She corrals Rum and Pan, then they find their way into the hallway.
“Thanks for the save,” Rum tells Stark.
“Ditto. I didn’t think the guards here would be as rowdy as they are in Sanlow,” Pan explains.
“Since the two of you probably have never been anywhere outside your hometown, let me tell you something,” Stark says, keeping her back to them as she leads them further down the hall. “What just happened can never happen again. Especially considering that you’re both Ibri.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
Stark looks over her shoulder at Rum, gleaming the innocence in his eyes as he awaits a response. “Forget it. Just try not to cause so much ruckus. I don’t want to start the year off slapping students with probation.”
Stark’s warning makes the youths hesitate briefly, lengthening the distance between them. Pan scoots closer to Rum and jabs his elbow.
“I suppose I should thank you, too,” she whispers.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice how fast you moved to get in front of me.”
Rum smirks proudly. “It was nothing. Besides, you saved me too. When she had me in that hold. So, thanks right back at you, Pan. By the way, is that short for anything?”
“Pan? No. Is Aurum short for anything?”
“No, but it’s the long version of Rum.”
“What? My family calls me that all the time.”
“People are gonna think you’re an alcoholic,” Pan teases.
“I don’t drink,” Rum says.
Pan giggles and shrugs. “Probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down, anyway.”
“I’m sorry, just what kind of crimes did you commit again?” Rum asks with a bite to his tone.
“What was that?” Stark says, again peeking over her shoulder.
“Nothing,” Pan says. She flicks Rum’s nose when Stark turns around. “Stop bringing that up,” she hisses through clenched teeth.
“Then stop teasing me.”
“Such a tempting offer,” Pan says with a touch of sarcasm and roll of her eyes.
Rum turns away from her and toward the baggage claim. He stops at one end of the carousel when he spies a pair of azure suitcases. As he lifts them from the carousel Pan simultaneously hoists a beige duffel bag at the opposite end. She hangs the duffel bag on one shoulder, resting her bow on the other. Together, she and Rum converge and meet Stark at another hallway, this one perpendicular to the one they entered from. As they continue their march, Pan notices the names scribbled on the suitcases in black paint.
“Will she be meeting us at the front?” Stark interjects. “Based off her application, she was supposed to be in the Sulublei car, but none of the others recall seeing her.”
“Yeah, umm, about that…”
“If she’s going to miss the orientation, just let me know now. I’ll alert the headmaster and he can make sure to hold her spot for a few days.”
“Let’s go with that.”
Stark narrows her eyes at Rum before pulling out a cellphone. After one ring, “Hello, sir. We have a few issues.”
Rum and a slew of other young people file out of a silver bus, then pour into the main courtyard. At the front gate is a banner that says “WELCOME FOUR HEARTS FRESHMAN.” Stark leads the procession, stopping right beneath the banner. Behind her, the rest of the courtyard is in brimming with activity.
Like Rum and Pan, there are great numbers of individuals strolling around with their weapons in plain sight, not a care in the world. One wields an axe with an amber colored shaft, another twirls a haladie with an emerald handle, and a yet another carries a bo staff with smooth bumps on the ends for bludgeoning.
There are students that don’t appear quite as normal as the others, but they don’t get any judgmental sideways looks. They use their wings to fly, gills to stay submerged in the numerous fountains throughout the courtyard, and others with scaly arms and furry cheeks.
The students with wings aren’t the only ones airborne. There are some that appear to achieve flight with no discernible cause- levitating. A pair of young ladies walking side by side generate three-dimensional shapes from pools of pure energy. One makes a pyramid, the other one a sphere.
Within the new students arriving alongside Stark, several look amazed right away, Rum himself included. The freedom, the atmosphere, and the community at large offer them all the chance to start a new lease on life, as if the lives they previously lived had ceased, giving way to wondrous adventure. Rum steps forward, and his courageous first steps inspire the others to step forward, as well.
“Welcome to Four Hearts Academy,” Stark warmly addresses the freshmen as they all stroll past her. She smiles fondly when she watches them. However, her warmth fades when a young woman dressed in exquisite red and white silk clothing passes by her last.
“Freshmen, front and center!” Stark orders.
Rum and his peers gather in a semicircle, facing the direction Stark designates with a pointed finger. A circular current of air disturbing the dust on the ground. Like gas being sucked inside a container, the gusts gathering amidst the freshmen seem to mold to a specific shape. After the outline of a person becomes visible, the dark colors of his suit fill in. Headmaster Neth clasps his hands together in front of his waist as he approaches the gathering.
“Welcome to Four Hearts Academy, everyone,” he states. “I am truly-”
The young lady in the silk outfit shuffles forward in haste and gestures for Neth to lean in close. He obliges and she whispers into his ears. Whatever the request, it seems to please the headmaster, and he bows his head with a slight nod. The young lady bows respectfully right back then rejoins the other students.
Rum looks at her curiously, inspecting her outfit. Check out the princess.
Neth clears his throat before resuming his speech. “I am truly glad that the lot of you have graced this academy with your presence. This is a place where we value the institution second to those that attend it. Our prime objective, while teaching you all how to understand and utilize your abilities, is to instill in you values and principles to live by. To deliver to you all the things you did not or could not achieve elsewhere.
“I want each of you to think of the reason you applied to study here. If any of you would like to share, you may do so.”
Rum thumbs his chin. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why Mom made Nuria and I apply. She’d always been able to teach me and Nuria with ease, but perhaps there’s something about this place she understands that we don’t. Guess I won’t know till I see it for myself.
“No need to come to any conclusions at this moment. You’ll have four years here to discover them. In the meantime, I would like to start the tour. So, if you’d please follow me.”
The headmaster turns and leads the group through the courtyard, heading directly toward the heart of campus. Rum stares in awe at the building before him with a domed roof. The main building is connected to several others via outdoor walkways. Several towers in the distance vanish beneath the horizon of the center building’s roof as Rum and his peers follow the headmaster inside.
The group fan out inside the antechamber just inside the main annex. Headmaster Neth stands before the students, his back facing the entrance to a vast library. The halls stretching away from the antechamber have tall archways connecting them. A few students enter and exit the library, and they give the freshmen nods and subtle waves.
“This is the center of the school. Our extensive library contains volumes on all kinds of subjects, from biology to medicine to geography.” Neth turns and faces the library entrance. “Inside the adjoining buildings, you will find study rooms and labs. You will learn the procedures for how to utilize those spaces properly from your professors and housemasters.”
When the headmaster returns his attention to the tour group, he pauses, finding several of them distracted by the surroundings. One of the young men has his sights on the light fixtures above. He doesn’t appear to be blindly staring at the light, his gaze more penetrating, as if dissecting its specific properties.
Two of the other students are busy drawing in their journals. The boy of the duo applies a mathematical approach to his art as he studies the architecture of the hall before sketching it to scale. The girl puts the finishing touches to her rendition of Stark. After connecting the last few outlines, she winks at the separate sections of the sketch, filling them in with the appropriate colors. Red for Stark’s hair and cream for her skin. She rapidly winks many times in succession to place tiny freckles over the bridge of Stark’s nose.
Headmaster Neth claps his hands together, and a moderate gust blows past the students, redirecting their attention to him.
“The dormitories that you will be staying in, two paths to my right and left, go to the four respective houses of Four Hearts Academy: O House for Ohaida, B House for Sulublei, V House for Vanusi, and N house for S’nue.
“We are required by law to separate those of individual races. However, I am sure that a good number of you are Ibri. A couple of the professors employed here are, as well. If that’s the case for you, it will be your choice where you would like to learn.”
Rum raises his hand. “Would we decide now?”
Headmaster Neth massages his throat with quiet laughter. “Not yet. You’ve all been travelling for most of the morning, and I’ve given you all a fair bit to think about. After you’ve eaten and taken time to think, we will resume the tour. Stark, would you be so kind as to escort them to the cafeteria?”
“Yes, sir.” Stark takes his place at the lead of the pack. “Follow me.”
Headmaster Neth turns and checks his watch. The tour is going as planned and on schedule. He smiles before taking a deep breath. He lets the captured air fill his muscles from head to toe. He prepares to bond to the sky around him when “Sir?” He releases the captured air with a slow exhalation and turns around.
“Yes, how may I help you…”
“Stark already told you, but my sister will be running late. Is it possible to select her house for her? Don’t want to run the risk she doesn’t make it before any kind of grace period ends.”
The headmaster takes a moment, gazing at Rum with soft eyes. “I understand the impression I gave is that this is an elite institution, but the fact is that we do not turn away students. Your sister is welcome whenever she decides to attend. That being said, at a certain point, she will end up behind her peers a great deal. If that is to happen, I’d recommend her to try again next year.”
“How long do you foresee that she’ll have before that happens?”
“That depends on the professor.”
Rum enters into the cafeteria, an older student pointing him in the direction of the line. He thanks the lady, then joins the line. He can see some of the other students already finding tables, talking and laughing together. The young lady in the princess get up finds a seat with another girl. The second girl’s plate is as full as three would be. Broccoli, grilled shrimp, cheesecake, and scallops all mixed into one misshapen mound. She digs into the plate with very little concern for her clothing, nor the table. Her dapper companion finds the show quite amusing, but Rum turns away in disgust.
It doesn’t take him long to spot Pan sitting in one of the exterior window sills, picking at a small vine of grapes. She places one of the grapes on the sight of her recurve bow. The sunlight pouring through the window makes the red grape shine like a dot of pink light. The grape tumbles off and onto the floor when Rum takes a seat across from Pan.
“That all you gonna eat?” he asks.
“More than what you have,” she replies, then swallows another grape.
“What house are you gonna choose?”
Pan juggles the grapes inside her hands as she takes a closer look at Rum’s buster sword. “Probably the same one that you will.”
“I have a bow. Is it that hard to believe?”
“What about S’nue?”
“I have a singular talent there. No need to learn how to master that.” She chomps down on another grape. “What about Sulublei?” she asks with a full mouth.
“It could be fun, but probably not as fun as this,” Rum says, grabbing the hilt peaking over his shoulder. Besides, Nuria will give me-
Rum is interrupted when an empty plate is thrust into his hands. He turns to see Stark staring at him dauntingly.
“You should eat. You’ll need your strength later on.”
“For what?” Rum and Pan ask in unison. The only response they get is a cheeky wink from the officer.
The students follow Stark through a pair of double doors, dark cushions lining their interiors. They enter into a large auditorium, two levels of seating surrounding a stage in a semicircle. The stage is comprised of a metal base with “FHA” plaques hammered into it. Each plaque has a bronze frame.
The midnight curtain hanging at the rear of the stage is cut to fit around a large screen suspended in the air. The acronym for the school rotates in 3D on the screen. As the students take their seats on the ground level, the logo ceases spinning, facing them all head on.
“If you’ll wait one more moment, I will introduce to you our esteemed professors,” Stark says.
Stark moves from the floor to the stage with a leap. She grabs a remote from the lectern at center stage, then enters a three-button command. A section of the metal stage opens up, and a platform carrying four individuals rises. The persons along for the ride, which includes Tameri, are seated in a row of chairs, though three of them appear empty, two on one end, as well as the one closest to the lectern. Stark is momentarily concerned with the empty seats but corrects her focus promptly.
“I hereby announce to you our teaching faculty. They shall rise as I call their names and titles. We have -”
“One moment, please!” calls out a woman from the rear of the auditorium. She enters in haste, bringing with her a younger woman in dirty clothing. Rum turns, then becomes excited when he sees the disheveled outfit thinking it to be his sister. When the two women come closer to the stage, he frowns, seeing the young lady clutching a broadsword to her chest. The broadsword is dressed inside of a plain looking scabbard.
“My apologies, Stark,” the older woman says, wiping beads of sweat away before they reach her glasses. “I had to go and fetch this young lady. I had hoped to meet you and Headmaster Neth during the tour, but I couldn’t direct Marsh quick enough with my nerves running amuck.”
“And who is she?”
“She will be a charge under my care during her time here. I’ll explain the rest to you later. I’m sure I’ve delayed the presentation enough.” She whispers for the young woman to join the other students. However, her charge sticks to the outside of the group, sitting a couple of rows behind them. Not wanting to press further, the latecomer does as promised and joins her colleagues up on stage. She takes one of the two empty seats on the end, leaving the men between her and Tameri.
“No better time to start the introductions than with our newest guest. Meet the professor and housemaster of S’nue House, Professor Cwen.”
Cwen rises from her seat and bows her head to the students. “I am so very excited that you all have chosen to grace FHA with your presence. I look forward to getting to know each and every one of you.”
“Next in line is the master and housemaster of Sulublei house, Professor Lynald.”
The man takes Cwen’s standing position as she seats herself. He’s a good foot taller than she, which gives him the ability the get a clear look at the students in the crowd. He smiles a somber smile as he counts their faces, coming to a total of sixteen. “Welcome to Four Hearts, children. I hope to make your stay here as entertaining as it will be educational,” Lynald addresses with a smile.
“I will present the next two as a pair. Professors Zathony and Marmagar, please stand,” Stark says.
The two of them rise in tandem. Zathony has darker hair than his partner. He has three earrings in each ear, two hanging near the lobe, and a third at the top. Marmagar slams his hammer onto the stage, the clang resonating throughout the auditorium. He clasps his hands on top of the pommel, staring out at the students silently. His massive size and deep throat scar unnerve a few of the students in the crowd.
“It’s a pleasure,” Zathony curtly says before sitting back down.
Marmagar gives him a look of disapproval, gesturing for him to rise once more.
Zathony scoffs. “If you wish to speak to them, be my guest.”
Marmagar huffs, a bit of amusement mixed into the sound, then he sits down beside Zathony.
Stark rolls her eyes at them. “Professor Zathony is the primary teacher of the Vanusi class, while Professor Marmagar serves as the housemaster of the same. Those of you that elect Vanusi House will be under their tutelage.”
“Now, now,” Tameri says, joining Stark at the lectern, “being talkative is not one of their strengths.” Tameri faces the crowd. “But they’re both excellent instructors, and those of you who find yourselves studying under them will not be displeased with the results. Now, if you’ve been paying attention, the process of elimination leaves me as the professor and housemaster of Ohaida House.”
Rum locks his eyes on Tameri, then gazes down to her spadroon.
“I am the senior professor here. Most of you have met Headmaster Neth already. I was already employed here when he was named such. I have seen over a hundred classes come and go since then. However, this time around, we’ve received applications from the most Ohaida families we ever have. The chance for us to learn together is something that makes my heart soar. On behalf of myself, the other professors, and Stark, I welcome you to Four Hearts Academy.”
The students deliver to them a modicum of applause, pausing when, for the second time, they witness a circular whirlwind sprout right before the lectern. Stark and the other faculty take notice, as well.
“And now, without further ado, I turn the program over to our headmaster,” Stark addresses.
Tameri and Stark step away from the lectern as the wily breeze rushes through the space between them. Neth appears between the two women, hovering on a condensed whirlwind. The running current swipes at the ladies’ hair, forcing them to retreat to keep their hairdos in order.
Stark smirks crossly as she sits. He just doesn’t want us towering over him in front of the students.
Neth lowers to the ground, walks around the front of the lectern, then hops down from the stage. “I do apologize for my tardiness, but I have a treat for you all. Right behind us are our sparring fields. Most physical assignments from your professors will be carried out there. In order to accommodate you to that style of learning, we’d like to show you all there now. With this, you all will officially become the class of ‘92.”