3562 words (14 minute read)

Initiate- Chapter One

The day of admission into Evalon, the kingdom’s most elite academy, was an exciting day- at least, that’s what they told us. I’d been to watch it enough times to know that was a lie. It was a tense affair, the air vibrating with fear as much as with anticipation. We all knew this day was one of three which would decide the fate of every student who dared to take the entrance test. If they failed on any of those days, they would lose everything they had spent their whole life working towards.

How could that not be tense?

Looking down at those who were gathered to take the test made it easier to understand. Most of them looked like they’d snap in half if a Paladin so much as looked at them. Out of the five hundred allowed to take the text, I wouldn’t bet on more than a hundred passing. Evalon had pulled a pathetic bunch that year; I would have been shocked if more than a dozen students made it to the higher class.

And I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I could feel the disappointment in the air, highly concentrated where I was sitting with Astalon’s elite. Though they all despised each other, sitting together kept them from brushing elbows with the Nameless. The hero families wouldn’t risk sullying their precious children by letting them near the abandoned children which made up the majority of our country’s population. No matter that their abandonment was required by law- but I knew trying to put that idea into the thick heads of our senseless ’elite’ would amount to slamming my head against a wall with a running start.

All I could do was be grateful that I wouldn’t be one of them for very much longer.

"Ah, it looks like he has finally arrived." The first voice to break the silence was my grandfather’s. I glanced sideways at him, which was always a little disconcerting; we looked so alike that watching him was akin to looking in a mirror. I would be his reflection in a few centuries, the same delicate features and lithe frame, silken black hair cut to waist length and braided back to showcase the slender, softly pointed ears which marked our race. The only differences were my fondness for fine jewelry, and the cold silver of his eyes which were a far cry from my warm gold.

"Damned eccentric bastard. Is it too much effort to simply arrive on time?" That rough, snarling voice was impossible to mistake, as there were very few demon hybrids which survived their teens. The flamelets were too volatile, prone to self-destruction. Rumeru was the only one left who had survived past the age of twenty, the current head of the Zadeir family, and a righteous prick- but what else was new?

I did my best to ignore the continued muttering, focusing instead on the man they were so upset over. Though ’man’ was a weak word to describe him; I had yet to come up with an apt description of the beautiful dragonborn who ruled our kingdom. Prince Enae Codes ne Arayelri- it was a name which always spilled from my lips like honey, as smooth and graceful as the man himself.

I had to admit, he did fall far from the elven standards of beauty. Though his features were noble, they held a rougher cast, and his hair was as pale and delicate as spun silver. Though I couldn’t see from where I sat, I knew his eyes were a crystalline blue. And the best by far, the first thing I had fallen in love with, was his voice. The deep, smoky richness of his rumbling tones had me leaning forward in my seat with an eager smile.

"Good morning, citizens of Astalon!" Enae’s welcoming words had the tension in the air ratcheting up a notch, though you never would have known it if you judged by his calm smile and easy posture. "Thank you all for coming. We are gathered here to mark the beginning of a new generation’s journey down their lives’ paths. I am glad to see so many of our children gathered in the hopes of joining the kingdom’s elite."

Gazes immediately turned to the section of the arena where I sat. Jealousy, hope, and anger- I’d seen them all directed toward me before, so it didn’t surprise me. At least it was mostly hope, thanks to Enae’s words. He had reminded them why they trained so hard; passing Evalon’s three tests would grant them the title of a hero and the surname that went with it. It would give them a rich, if dangerous, life, and it would grant them the right to a family.

Enae held his hands up, and the soft murmur which had followed his introduction quickly stilled. "As is tradition, we will begin the trials with those born of the seven great families, so that their skill and success may bless the new school year and inspire those applicants who are less fortunate than them."

There were the glares, and I understood them better. Our law required children be abandoned at birth, given over to the Shamans to be raised and given the test to determine their best fit in our society. The only exception to that rule was given to the seven ’great’ families. Members of those families were required to find suitable partners so that they could pass their talents to their children. And while the parents themselves were not allowed to raise their children, the head of the family could keep the child and raise them. It was an exception meant to produce only the finest heroes for Astalon; generally, it produced nothing but foolish pride and a sharp divide between the ’great’ families and the rest of Astalon.

All that, and with no guarantee that their children would be any better than those the Shamans raised. I’d seen more of the Nameless becomes heroes than children of the ’great’ families. Those that sat with me that day were a prime example. Being able to hold a sword didn’t mean they could become a hero, and I doubted any of them would graduate. They didn’t stand even half a chance if my plans for the year succeeded.

That errant thought had a smile blooming on my face, earning a sharp look from my grandfather despite my attempts to hide it from him. I couldn’t help it. His disapproving frown only widened my excited smile. Oh, he was about to hate me, and I was going to love every second of it.

Enae waited for the murmurs to die that time. Turning slightly to the man who stood beside him, he lowered his head enough for the young feather to speak in his ear. I hated to see the half-angel bastard so close to Enae- not that it changed much, as I hated Velixus Raetre on principle. Gritting my teeth, I reminded myself that he was only assigned to protect Enae and had no interest in him. Not only was it illegal, but I’d heard Velixus with my mother often enough to know exactly what his tastes were.

Enae stood straight and the tight feeling in my chest eased. His calm smile was back in place when he raised his hands to silence the audience once more. "Thank you for your patience. We will now begin with our first trial. The first to be tested this day had been decided, chosen from the most illustrious hero family."

"What?" My grandfather’s voice was thick with anger, and it nearly made me laugh. "But I-"

"It’s okay," I murmured to him. Better than okay; though I knew my grandfather had worked the last month to be sure I would be called last, I had done exactly the opposite. I wanted to be first. And I wanted to see their faces when I royally screwed up. So I was grinning again by the time Enae called my name.

"Jyss Cesso, please come forth to test your skills."

It made my heart twist to hear Enae speak my name, and I was breathless for a moment. Every pair of eyes in the audience was on my as I got out of my seat. Testing my sword to see if it drew cleanly from the scabbard, and smiling again when it hitched against the leather. Calm and reassured, I made my way down the steps. All fifty-three of them, though I had no idea why I counted them as I walked down to the wide sparring ground which was the center of the arena.

Enae waited for me to take my place in the center of the sanded area before he spoke again. "As this is the first match of the day, please allow me to remind our applicants of the rules of their trail." He leaned forward, his hands on the railings that separated him from his people. "Each applicant is given sixty seconds with one of our instructors. Surviving thirty seconds gives them the right to enter Evalon’s lower class. Surviving the full length of time, or managing to disarm the instructor, will grant them the privilege of joining Evalon’s esteemed higher class. Putting the firmly on the way to becoming a hero, earning the appropriate surname and not only the obligation to bear children, but the right to raise them."

I was sliced dirty looks at that, which was even less of a surprise than it had been the first two times. I held those rights even If I was to fail every test, simply because I was born a Cesso. The only pure line left. The kingdom would have collapsed many a time without my family, and nobody wanted to piss off the elves. Of course, being a Cesso also meant there was no possible way to fail the tests. At least, that was what they believed.

I knew better.

"Now that the rules have been explained, allow me to introduce your opponent." Enae swept a hand to his right, and a cheer went up as the Paladin entered the arena. Unlike me, he wore heavy padding to prevent any possible injury. Blonde hair feathered around a stern face which was entirely expressionless as he took his place next to me. He wasn’t important enough to have his name announced; having passed the first two tests but not chosen for the third, he had proven himself skilled enough to be one of Evalon’s instructors, but lacking the talent to be a true hero.

"Jyss Cesso," Enae rumbled my name again, and I did my best to hide the delighted shiver, "Are you ready to be tested?"

Oh god, yes. I couldn’t sound that eager, so I pulled in a slow breath before speaking the require words. "I am." Despite my best effort, my excitement shook in my voice.

Enae must have noticed; his stormy eyes narrowed into a thoughtful look before he brushed it away. "Then let us begin. Take your places!"

My heart was thrumming in my chest as the Paladin and I turned to face each other, exchanging deep bows before pacing away to opposite sides of the sparring arena. We turned as if on strings; we’d both been trained for every step of that ritual, so it must have looked impressive. And I could hardly breathe as we both looked to our prince.

Enae gripped the railing tightly, a fierce light in his eyes which made my heart skip a beat. "Jyss, your sixty seconds begins... now!"

The Paladin moved the moment Enae spoke the word, drawing his sword. I stayed exactly where I was; it was stupid to make the first move. So I waited for the Paladin, watching his eyes so that I knew when and where he was swinging that sword. And narrowly avoiding being skewered by it when my sword stuck in the scabbard for a crucial half second. I sprang to my feet on the other side of the Paladin, sword in hand, but my swing was so wild he easily avoided it with a neat step to the side.

The surprise on the Paladin’s face was priceless. Almost as satisfying as the appalled anger which had turned my grandfather deathly pale. My eager gaze skipped up to the prince, finding soft confusion which he was obviously trying to hide. That more than anything told me the match was going exactly as planned. Everybody knew a Cesso elf got only the best training while they matured; of course it shocked them when the first thing they saw from me was a stupid, rookie mistake.

A part of me wanted to prove them wrong for the thought that I could carelessly make a mistake like that- but that wasn’t part of the plan. So I drew my attention back to the match at hand. I made sure that each careless swing of my sword grew wilder and easier to avoid so that I seemed desperate. When the silent count in my head reached thirty, I gave up on the charade and let the Paladin hit me.

Horrified gasps went up when the Paldain’s blunt sword connected with my left arm with enough force that it would have deadened the limb if I weren’t so thoroughly trained. I pretended it did, flicking my sword to my other hand. The Paladin’s gaze sharpened, assuming I would be weaker without the use of my dominant hand; he would have been wrong any other day, as I’d been trained to use both hands seamlessly, but I was going to let him have this one. I held my sword loosely, awkwardly, and my grandfather must have been furious.

Pretending to be distracted by my ’injured’ arm gave the Paladin the perfect opening. It would have been a feint in any other match, but we both knew better. So the Paladin took his chance when I offered it. Though I had expected the hit, it still hurt like hell when his sword connected with my left side and broke several ribs. My pained cry wasn’t entirely false, but dropping to my knees and releasing my sword in surrender was.

The murmur of the crowd became a roar. I knew a Cesso had never surrendered in the entire history of the trial. I was the first, the anomaly- and had just made myself a target rather than a threat. Perfect. I lowered my head to hide my grin, pressing a hand to my side and wincing at the ache. It only took a few seconds for a soft, slender hand to be pushing mine to the side.

"Thanks," I breathed the word as warmth filled my chest, magic winding around my broken ribs to guide them back to their proper places and heal the fractures.

"My pleasure." The smooth richness of the voice surprised me into looking up, and I was captivated for a moment by amber eyes. I wasn’t used to Shamans being attractive; in our country, careful breeding in the generations before us meant good looks came with talent to back it up. But those pretty auburn curls, and that body... my thoughts went to entirely the wrong place, and he must have known, because he pulled away with a soft laugh. "All better. You should be more careful, Jyss."

"Sure," I murmured, a small smile directed at him. It fell away when I noticed how pale he was, a slight sheen of sweat on his face from healing me so quickly. When he started to shift, the think black wire glasses which framed those pretty eyes slipped. I moved without thinking and caught them so they wouldn’t break- only to regret is when the Shaman stared at me with his eyes wide and his mouth open in a soft expression of surprise.

"So you’re not a complete failure... but then, what was that?" The Shaman’s voice was a whisper, though there was no way anybody could hear him. My gaze flicked to Enae before I could stop it; there was a smile on the Shaman’s face when I looked back. "One of us, huh? Better watch yourself, little Cesso. You of all people know what they’d do if they found out."

"One of us?" I repeated, an eyebrow raised.

He placed a finger against my lips, a light in his eyes which made him even more attractive. "You keep my secret, and I promise I’ll keep yours." His hand slid to cup my cheek, moving so that the crowd watching would think he was simply making sure I had no other wounds.

"Sounds fair," I answered, a bright smile on my lips as I gently brushed his hand aside. There was a stir in the crowd in response to the motion; it was disrespectful to push a Shaman away if they offered their aid.

The Shaman just smiled, the light never leaving his eyes, and I knew I had given him a gift without meaning to. It was always a treasure to hear that you are not alone. "Good luck, Jyss. I’m rooting for you. And if he won’t have you, well... I’m sure you can figure out how to find me."

His flirtatious wink had me laughing, though we both knew we’d never see each other again. When he stood and walked back to his seat, it might have been a little slow, the sway of his hips a little exaggerated. I might have taken the bait and enjoyed watching him walk away. But neither of us would ever admit to it. Not a Shaman, and certainly not an aspiring hero. For us, everything was about carrying on the line of our families, and nothing unnecessary like love.

"Jyss Cesso, you have been ranked."

The rumbling voice interrupted my thought and sent a pleasant shiver through my body. I got to my feet easily, only a slight ache remaining thanks to the attractive Shaman’s help, and sheathed my sword before turning to face Enae. My expression, bright and eager, deepened his puzzled frown as he looked down at me. Velixus looked just as confused at the prince’s side and I knew my mother would hear of it- though I was doubtful she would care.

"I would like to hear my ranking, if you please." The polite request was paired with a respectful bow, and it nearly sent the audience into a frenzy.

They all knew what my ranking would be; Enae had only just explained the rules, after all. I had the option to wait to hear it, to save some of my family’s now tarnished reputation, and I had waved it away. God, but my grandfather was going to kill me. The thought had a smirk pulling at my lips despite my effort to keep a straight face.

"As you wish." Anybody paying attention would have heard the confusion and growing interest in Enae’s voice. I was an anomaly, a mystery he was at least a little intrigued with. Good. "You have survived the first thirty seconds of your trial, but you have shown no special talent, nor even the strength to stand for the full sixty seconds. As such, in accordance with the rules, I must place you in fairness to these results."

Enae turned to the audience then, raising his hands to silence them. "This year, Jyss Cesso has taken his test, and only partially succeeded. In hopes of cultivating new talents, we place him in the lower class, and allow him into the halls of Evalon."

The gathered crowd all but exploded. It took great effort to keep from doing the same, my shout of joy barely contained. My grin, however, couldn’t be hidden. One of Enae’s pale eyebrows raised as I bowed again, trying to swallow down my triumphant excitement. "Thank you, your highness."

I turned quickly on one heel, the eyes of my frantic audience burning into my back as I jogged up another set of stairs, this one ending in front of ornate double doors. They swung open slowly, revealing a dimly lit passageway that led to Evalon. It wasn’t the only entrance- that would be impractical. But it was the most important.

It marked the beginning of a student’s journey.

Anybody else would have had the excitement tempered by their admittance into the lower class; a student of such standing had not graduated a Hero since Enae had attended Evalon nearly a century ago. But I was ecstatic. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I was a lower class student, and one day I would stand in front of Prince Enae Codes as he congratulated me on completing my quest and becoming a full-fledged hero so that he would finally look at me properly.

It was the only thing I wanted.

So I took a deep breath and pressed forward. As I took the first steps into the passageway, the doors shut behind my with a finality that would terrify most students.

But me? I couldn’t have been any more excited.