Story:At the Militia Academy

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At the Militia Academy is the second story of the Curse of the Grand Idol story arc.

Chapter 1

Standing at the position of attention in the hot, muggy plains in the burning hot summer sun soon grew exhausting, especially from wearing a blue coat with metal buttons. Soaked in sweat, Alder fidgeted slightly in place trying not to lock his knees as the sergeant rapidly paced in between two long, horizontal lines of newly arrived recruits. He was tempted to look left and right to get a good look at their faces to know who he would be spending the rest of his career with, but no way. Not while the sergeant was looking. But from his peripheral vision, he could definitely tell. He was certainly the tallest of the group like a giant standing among dwarves; probably not the oldest though since there were a few other privates that were his age, but much shorter. The Empire of Arguros begun enlistment as early as age sixteen, and he was twenty-three, so visually, he was the odd man out.

Alder could not help his curiosity. Just as the sergeant turned around the other way, Alder tilted his head so that he could see the ranks and badges on the other privates’ uniforms. Most of them had nothing assigned from the ranking patch, and he had a badge earned from his time training as a squire at the castle town of Carnelian. Yet another thing that singled him out.

Just as Alder turned the other way, he met eye contact with his sergeant. Not good. Not good. Alder could not see the sergeant’s eyes as they were obscured by a pair dark, black sunglasses with a brimmed hat tilted forward.

“You’re weird looking,” the sergeant stated casually. Alder immediately snapped to become perfectly still. “What’s your name, private?!”

“Carnelian, sir! Alder Carnelian!” he replied standing as stone frozen as he could.

“Not what I expected. A nobleman among the rank and file. What did you do to stoop down to this level?” The sergeant got closer and closer to Alder until he was breathing right down his neck. “Just so we're clear, you get no preferential treatment. You're the same as the rest of these barrel scraps.” Alder did not reply. As the sergeant ranted, Alder couldn’t help but study the sergeant’s facial features. No significant wrinkles, but a bit of a stubble. He was probably in his late twenties, so still pretty young. He spotted his nameplate: Hezurda. Or rather Sergeant Hezurda.

Alder had zoned out for about half of what the sergeant was ranting about. Already, he had earned himself a first impression. A private far down the line giggled - the way the sergeant phrased his words was strangely humorous.

“Who did that?!” the sergeant shouted. “Who thought what I just did was funny? Huh?!” He paced around faster and faster occasionally stopping to stare someone down. Out from the corner of his eye, Alder spotted the private who giggled who was standing on the second single-file line across from him - a boy about fourteen years old with a red bandanna across his forehead, very raggedly looking and poorly dressed with the standard issue green collar the only decent piece of clothing he was wearing. That private said nothing when the sergeant stood up to him. Mahogany. That’s what Alder read from the nameplate on that private’s chest.

“Well, no one wants to come forward and admit it?” The sergeant power walked back to the center of the formation clenching his fists and wrinkling his face, or at least he was simply acting furiously. Who knew? Then, he barked, “Everyone! Fifty jumping jacks!” Everyone immediately obeyed, jumping up and down flailing their arms, some more coordinated than others. In fairness, the sergeant was doing them too. “Do you think this is funny?!”

The jumping jacks didn't take all that long, but it still felt like an eternity. Alder waited and waited. Any moment now. Either the sergeant would give the command to do more exercises or the one who laughed would come forward. The pain in his arms tensed more and more as he begun struggling to keep himself from dropping. Already, he begun to dislike that Mahogany kid. Understandably, he didn’t want to get singled out like Alder did, but now everyone was getting punished because of him.

Alder turned his head and spotted the sergeant pulling out his pocket watch. He flipped it open and stared, then put it back in his pocket. “Everyone on your feet! We’re moving out to the schoolhouse. So quit clowning around.” Alder turned his head to see the destination: a block-shaped stone castle-like structure further down a gravel road. The sergeant barked a command to spin everyone towards the building, and everyone went off.

Alder kept his eyes straight forward, but used his peripherals to look around finally getting a good look at the other privates. All of them were dressed differently hailing from different provinces and regions. But the green collar and cape like the one he wore was the only thing uniform amongst them all. Yet, despite this, there was zero cohesion; the other recruits were misaligned and not in sync as the sergeant hopelessly called out “Left, Right, Left”. Like ice melting into water, the formation slowly fell apart while the few recruits that knew what they were doing tried to stay in step. But at least Alder was doing it right.

Chapter 2

Finally, they arrived at the castle-like building. Two intricately carved statues of soldiers holding rapiers stood at the sides of great wooden double doors, one of which was propped open by a brick. Above the doorway was the Empire’s crest of twin, intertwined dragons superimposed in front of a shield with a cross. But the privates did not have long to marvel at the architecture. Almost as soon as they halted, the sergeant gave the command for Alder’s line to file in with the other line coming afterwards.

Alder followed the privates in front of him as they stepped out onto the metallic floor. It was definitely a lot chillier indoors which was a welcome change from outside. The hallway branched into three directions. On one side of the wall were mounted swords and shields while pipes and gauges ran through the ceiling. A bit similar to home. Only a short distance later was a spacious, auditorium dimly lit by a few wall light bulbs. Everyone filed in, taking seats on the cold, metal chairs.

“Hey,” a whisper said. The wall lights were not bright so Alder was in the dark. He turned his head and saw the boy who was marching directly behind him. About average height, scruffy brown hair and goofy looking glasses. “I’m Neil,” the boy said reaching out his hand for a handshake. Alder did not immediately reply, but he shook his hand back not knowing what to say which left them in an awkward pause. “So...yeah. You’re a Carnelian knight?"

"Was," Alder bluntly interjected.

"Sorry..." Neil paused for moment. "What’re you doing here in the militia instead? I mean with you being a noble and all?”

Alder quickly darted his eyes about. There were still people filing in, so there was some time to talk. “Well, the short version is I didn't make it as a knight. So I ended up here instead.”

Neil sensed that Alder didn't really want to talk about it. He figured the former knight might open up if he told him about himself. “I see. I joined to become a combat medic. I don’t know what it is, but that’s something that’s always interested me. My parents pushed me to become a regular, civilian doctor, but I wanted to be on the battlefield.”

“You went against your parents wishes?”

“Yeah...heh heh. I guess I’m a bit of a rebel.”

The chit chat was cut short as waves of “shh” overtook all conversations in the room followed by a white-haired man in a badge-filled uniform walking onto the stage. A long black coat and a tall hat made him tower over, but he was give or take near Alder’s height. Undoubtedly, the tall man on the stage was a high ranking officer. He reached his metallic hand to adjust his monocle. A veteran who lost part of a limb in combat? Everyone in the audience would get answers soon.

“Young soldiers, welcome to the Imperial Legion. I am Captain Gardisto, commander of Dragon Company of the 4th Militia Battalion.” His voice was far more cordial than Sergeant Hezurda, so Alder was a little less afraid. “As the next generation of warriors, your career is a long one. Look to your sides - you’ll be working with those sitting next to you to defend the empire from foreign and domestic threats.” Alder zoned out for a bit as the captain continued on with all the compliments and why they were all so important. He heard the whole thing already at knight school. This was just the nice guy to make everyone feel important, contrasting the sergeants who made everyone feel useless. But the truth was, the militia was simply cannon fodder, comprised of low ranking members of society, not like the esteemed knights Alder was once part of. This particular battalion was made of runaway teenagers and orphans hence all the children.

The captain pulled up his sleeve to reveal that his entire arm was made of metal, not just his hand. A small, glowing purple crystal sat engraved in the joint. “Prosthetics. This technology you see here is the reason why I’m still serving the Legion proud as ever. It’s as if I never lost my arm in the first place. Can anyone tell me what is powering this arm?” At first, there were no hands raised in the audience. Everyone was either just sitting staring into nothingness or their heads drooped down asleep. Then, the captain took eye at Neil. The whole time, he had been sitting attentively contrasting everyone else who was leaning in their chairs casually. “You look like a smart soldier,” the captain said. “What’s your name?”

When the captain pointed at him, he immediately stood up. “Sir, I am Neil Illuvin.”

“Alright Private Illuvin. What is the power source of my arm?”

“Your prosthetic arm is powered by miraculum,” Neil said. Alder knew that, too, but he would rather not have drawn attention to himself. The gem on the captain’s arm was an obvious giveaway.

“And can you tell me what miraculum is?” The captain leaned a bit closer and adjusted his monocle.

“Miraculum is a crystallized divine substance found in the earth's crust, sir. It channels raw energy from the ether into our world. And the earliest civilizations used miraculum to perform miracles on one another.” Neil sat back down.

“That is correct!” the captain replied. Despite the friendly conversation from earlier, Alder didn’t like him. Even so, Neil probably did know a lot to his credit. “Miraculum ore is the reason why the Empire has entered an industrial revolution, and why we’re one of the most powerful nations in the world. It is the source of power of all of the weapons you will be issued; guns, swords, shields and more.” For a moment, Alder was confused. Why was the captain explaining something that should be common knowledge to the populace? Maybe since the vast majority of everyone in the audience had no formal education which wasn't exactly too widespread in Arguros. But Alder was well informed on miraculum technology when he was far younger.

The captain went on and on for at least another ten minutes about why miraculum was so important. Alder found himself tempted to doze off, but he didn't want to get any worse impressions after the sergeant pointed him out.

“Now, I'm sure we have a few mages here. I would like one of you to come up to the stage.” Once again, no one raised their hands. “Don’t be shy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Mages were considered slaves in not just the empire but in most of the civilized world. Even so, they were allowed to join the Legion if they had capable combat skills. After a few moments, a soldier stood up - a female this time. Very youthful looking with a tiny frame like a toothpick. What was someone like her doing in the Legion, Alder thought. Then again, most everyone he saw outside in the lines had similar body types. A bunch of babies compared to his tall self.

“Ummm...uhhh...hi!” she said. “Yeah, I’m a mage.” The girl paused realizing that she was not addressing him properly. “Sir! Yes, sir!” Frantically, she stiffened her arms to the side and she hurriedly walked up, tripping once over someone else’s feet on the way there.

“Ma’am, what is your name?” The captain asked.

“Uhhh...Lynette. Darcy Lynette, sir!” She was slightly bouncing up and down wanting to get out of there as soon as possible. Why did she have to be put in the spotlight like that?

“With your permission, could you demonstrate your ability to channel divine power without the use of miraculum?” The captain reached into his pocket and pulled out a watch. “Could you try to levitate this? Preferably, don't drop it.”

“Sure. Sure. Sure.” She paused realizing she forgot to say ‘sir’. Again. “Sir!” She held out her palms out and moments later, the captain let go of his pocketwatch and it was floating in mid-air. No strings or anything. It was telekinesis. It was floating, and everyone in the audience immediately begun whispering to one another, commenting on the mini-performance. Alder wanted to say it was sorcery or witchcraft, but any mage would take offense to either term. But even so, it wasn’t technically magic if it could be easily explained by science.

Lynette continued to toss the pocketwatch about within the mini-telekinetic field, but she accidently lost control. Before the pocketwatch hit the ground, the captain snatched it up with quick reflexes. Her face reddened with slight embarrassment, and she got a stern look from the captain himself before he continued.

“Mages like this young lady here are also capable of creating miraculum. We have them to thank as an alternative source of energy as miraculum ore is rarely found naturally,” the captain explained. After a brief moment, the captain told her to return to her seat.

The introduction or lecture, Alder couldn’t really tell what this whole speech was supposed to be, went on for at least another thirty minutes. Neil had nudged him at least five more times as Alder kept dozing off from boredom. But finally, the captain walked off stage only for Sergeant Hezurda to bark, “On your feet!” It was time to go. Finally. At last. “Next, you’ll be led to the armory. Everyone, form up in the halls. Time now!”

What could be next? Alder was not too eager. He just wanted the day to be over with. The same could probably be said for everyone except that Neil guy.

Chapter 3

The armory was a completely different environment than the auditorium. Rather than the neatly decorated, lavish backdrop Alder was just in, the walls of the armory were covered in pipes and rotating cogs with stacks of wooden crates locked in cages. The stuffy, dust filled air felt like the burning whiff rushing from an oven door just being opened. Being used to a cold environment, Alder couldn’t stand the heat, but at the latitude he was, heat was unavoidable. And being in a room with at least seventy people all bunched up close together didn’t help at all as the pungent stench of sweat started to fill the air.

Sergeant Hezurda led the large group of soldiers to a cage filled with large containers. Gear issuing. Alder’s least favorite part back at knight school. It always took so long, and they would never do it efficiently. And the ones smart enough to fix the problems couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. But even so, Alder couldn’t take his eyes off of the intricate mechanisms. So well-designed and finely crafted. Even for someone well-educated like him, he wasn’t entirely sure how some of these mechanisms worked which made them seem more fantastical.

The sergeant inserted a key into the padlocked gate and slid it open. He begun to remove the containers carrying each with two hands and taking them down one by one and handing them to the soldiers who passed them on to the next. Eventually, Alder got his hands on one and took a closer look. Everyone begun to open the containers, discovering that each had a pistol and a smaller container labelled “Practice Rounds”. Also in there was a wrist worn device and the hilt of a sword.

“What I just handed out is your training gear. You won’t be getting real weapons yet since I would not trust any of you with my life.” In reality, that wasn’t the sergeant’s call. It was an order that he had to follow directly from the company commander, but Alder knew that Hezurda just said it that way to make himself sound scarier. “You’ll be assigned into squads which we picked out based on your background info. Your personalities and abilities will complement each other to make ideal teams. Now, once I call out your names, you’ll go through the training room door over there. Get a look at your gear, play with it, but try not to kill each other. That’ll be a lot of paperwork on my part. And squad leaders, get your team into assigned roles after you get your own evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses. Then, we’ll have you fight some automatons just to see what you’re made of. Got it?” The sergeant pointed out a metal door with a sign printed just above. Seemed simple for Alder, but most of the other soldiers obviously didn’t understand as to them it was just a very long list of instructions.

Personality-based assignment? Alder thought. The Legion had far different method than the Carnilean knights. He waited as the sergeant begun calling names. He could be called at any time since it was not in alphabetical order. Out of all the soldiers, who would he be with? Which ones, which ones? This time, he could see everyone more easily.

“Squad Four: Alder Carnilean as squad leader.” They called his name, and already he was in a leadership position. Time slowed down as he anticipated the rest of the names to be called. “Neil Illuvin.” That was the kid sitting next to him in the auditorium. He seemed okay, but came across as a teacher’s pet for some reason. “Darcy Lynette.” That socially awkward mage girl who was called up on stage by the captain. He didn’t know what to think of her. “And Crow Mahogany.” Him? The kid who giggled? He didn’t have a good first impression. But it was quite a funny coincidence that all four of them got singled out in one way or another just today, so everyone knew who they were. After squeezing past the crowd, the four of them made their way through the door.

The training room was large and spacious. A gymnasium essentially. The three squads that were called before him had already gathered and begun practicing. Alder and his team took a corner. The other three just stared at him for a bit.

“You’re really tall, you know that?” Lynette said, smiling and almost swooning. “I like tall guys.”

“Thank you,” Alder replied politely. “It’s a family trait.” Though he maintained his formality, Alder was unnerved by the way she talked. Surely, it was an innocent compliment, but he couldn’t tell if she was hitting on him or not. But then again, he hadn’t talked to let alone seen that many females aside from his own mother back in Carnelian. There were no female Carnelian Knights, and in a time of racism, slavery and sexism, it surprised Alder that someone like Lynette was even allowed to join the Legion in the first place.

“Do you play sports, bro?” Crow said adding into the conversation. “You’d make a good airball player.” Another comment that he would constantly get. People immediately assumed he played airball, a tall people sport. And he would get asked that question at least several times per day. Alder was so wrong to assume that he could just blend in.

“No, I don’t play sports. Can we just get to the training?” Alder desperately was trying to change the subject. He took out the gear from the container, and the rest of the squad did the same. “Has anyone else used these weapons before?”

Nope. None of his other teammates did. No combat experience or any experience for that matter. Granted, Neil was a tad more educated given his medical background, but aside from that, none of them had ever held a weapon.

“What the heck is this thing?” Crow said pulling out the wrist device. Alder sighed realizing that he was going to have to explain everything to them.

“You don’t know? Didn’t you learn about it in school?”

“Never went to school,” Crow said.

“Me neither,” Lynette added. “It’s a Wrist-Worn Projectile Shield Bracelet, isn’t it?” Neil examined the bracelet more closely. It had a pink encrusted miraculum crystal, and a runic language was carved along it. “And these weird symbols here must be...What was it called? Enochian?”

“Yes,” Alder said still disappointed by their lack of common knowledge. Yet, he still remained polite, enunciating every word clearly. “Enochian is the language used to program miraculum devices into doing what they do. The symbols on the bracelet are like instructions, and it probably means something similar to ‘make a shield out of air’. It’ll generate a forcefield that will absorb bullet projectiles, but it won’t stop anything close range like a sword swing or just some overpowering raw blunt force. Simple enough, right?” With a puzzled look on her face, Lynette was completely dazzled and dumbfounded by Alder’s use of big vocabulary. Crow was equally confused, but Neil followed it very well.

“Sorry, all I heard was tech babble,” Crow said.

“So amazing!” Lynette complimenting added. “But I have no idea what you just said.”

Alder sighed. Were they really that ignorant? Or maybe he was just taking his education for granted. “It doesn’t matter how it works anyway. Why don’t we just shoot off a few rounds so that you can get a feel for it?” Crow grasped the pistol and took aim at Alder who slid on his bracelet and activated the shield. He hesitated, paused not sure what would happen. “What are you waiting for? They’re not real rounds. These shields will take it.” Crow pulled it and a glowing yellow ball of light whizzed out from the barrel of the gun, striking the forcefield around Alder. The forcefield flashed red for a brief moment; Crow and Lynette stood there in total astonishment having never seen that kind of technology up close. Crow fired a few more rounds, very quickly getting the hang of it. A natural perhaps, Alder thought.

“Ooh! That’s so cool! Let me try!” Lynette excitedly said. She reached out her hand and levitated her own pistol towards it, using her own telekinesis. Taking aim at Alder who had his shield up, she pulled the trigger but stumbled backwards nearly falling over from the recoil soon realizing that she had an improper stance. Even though the bullets were made of miraculum energy, the guns had a spring loading mechanism to launch the round forward that startled her, making her jump. Alder told her to shoot again, but to grasp it more firmly this time. She pulled the trigger. Yet again, the recoil pushed her back, making her stumble backwards and falling over. Then, Crow stared at the girl’s arms. They were tiny. Quite obviously, she had been relying far too much on telekinesis than actual physical lifting.

“You’ve hardly got any arms, Lynette,” Crow said. “Well, then again, you’re a mage. Didn’t think you could even hold that thing.” That instant, she clutched her arms together as her facial expression loosened up to uneasy insecurity. Cowering back unable to say anything back in response because what he said was not an out-of-line insult, but something that was true. A physical weakness.

“You take that back, Mahogany!” Neil said suddenly snapping, taking Alder by surprise. He didn’t expect someone like him to get angry so quickly. Someone was touchy. Was he the type to be easily offended?

“Relax! Chill, man!” he said. “Why are you so jumpy?”

“That’s not something you say to a lady!”

“Yeah, so what? We’re all barrel scraps anyway,” Crow retorted. “What makes her so special or any different than us?” The argument between Crow and Neil continued while Alder just watched, waiting for it to brew up. He’d thought Sergeant Hezurda would have been in the room by now, and he waited for him to show up. Perhaps he was still reading off names or maybe he was talking to the commander. Whatever the case, he wasn’t here yet.

“We’re not barrel scraps, we’re soldiers!” Neil said, this time clenching his fist and staring Crow down. “It’s because of people like you that make things go wrong.”

“Oh really, now?”

“I knew it was you that started laughing back in formation. You should have come out and admitted it.”

“C’mon, don’t whine about that. It was just forty jumping jacks, geez,” Crow said, rolling his eyes. “Are you guys really that weak?”

Alder stopped wholly paying attention to what exactly they were saying as he was getting some amusement from the shrill voices of their arguing. These two kids, just duking it out verbally. To him, it was funny and immature. But when the two started throwing more vicious insults at one another, things were starting to get out of hand. And without Sergeant Hezurda to intervene, Alder had no choice but to step in.

“That’s enough!” A little later than he should have. “There’s no time for childish babbling, so cut it out, both of you!” Alder barked. And the arguing stopped that instant. Crow rolled his eyes, not quite acknowledging Alder as a superior. The squad leader could easily read in Crow’s eyes. His body language was more than enough to get his message across without saying anything aloud. You’re not the drill sergeant around here, so what right do you have to tell me what to do? And even Neil gave him a slight gleam for not taking his side. You’re going to let this guy pick on a girl? Where’s your knightliness? Not the best way to handle the situation, but both calmed down for now, albeit with some uneasy hostility in the air.

But for now, Alder needed to find an alternative solution. If Lynette couldn’t use guns properly, then what might she do? “Forget the gun, Lynette. Just use your hands. You can do that, right?”

“Huh?” Lynette said coming to her senses. Being the quiet type, she had zoned out during the argument. “Umm...er...what we doing again?”.

“You know. Instead of using a gun, just use your telekinesis to just throw objects. It’s all mental if I understand correctly. There’s all sorts of stuff you could potentially do. Changing the environment around you, or even disarming opponents.”

The girl swooned again marvelling at his speech. But even so, though she pretended she did, Lynette clearly had no idea what Alder was even talking about. “You’re so smart! Why didn’t I think of that?”

“You’ll need to be clever yourself if you want to use your powers correctly,” Alder replied rather coldly still somewhat irritated by the recent argument between Neil and Crow.

“Oh, yeah. Heh heh.” Alder sighed. He had someone on his team who was quite clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed. To some degree, this frustrated Alder as the creative solutions were obvious to him, but not to her. Oh well. Guess that was the reason why he was chosen as the squad leader. The higher ups had definitely taken into account his past experience as a squire.

Seeing Neil and Crow argue earlier made him doubt the cohesion of his squad. And Lynette. He didn’t trust her either. Even Alder had some prejudice against mages, and that was difficult to put aside. Mages were doomed to transform into mindless fiends after extended miraculum production, and the Empire put them down like animals before they could escape confinement and terrorize civilians. And the sad truth was that almost nobody cared, not even the mages themselves as most had accepted their fates. But it was still an elephant in the room. Alder didn’t know if Lynette knew of her ultimate fate, and if she didn’t, he would rather keep quiet.

Chapter 4

After a few minutes of setting up some foamy barriers, each of the squad members took opposite sides of the gym, readying combat stances while into the room walked a quartet of humanoid automatons composed of intricately connected, spinning gears that clicked as they moved. And deep within their chests were glowing, pink crystals - likely miniature miraculum generators. Adorned with differently colored fabrics, each were of different shape while specializing in differing forms of combat and denoting different classes. The largest one was a Brute, the slender one with blades for arms was an Assassin, the one with golden shoulder rings was a Magus, and the white one was a Medic.

“Alright, good,” the sergeant’s voice startled everyone in the room. He had just walked in. All the other soldiers were off against the walls, watching as spectators. “It’s about time we get a match going on,” the sergeant said. “Rules are simple. Defeat all the automatons, but if three of your teammates go down, you lose. Then, you each have to do forty push-ups. Begin when ready!”

"Gah!" Darcy screamed. "I've never done this before! What do I do?" And that was true. Alder was the only one of the squad who had ever wielded a weapon.

“Just follow my lead, Lynette,” Alder reassured her although the girl remained unsettled.

Immediately after the automatons started moving, Crow jumped out from cover and charged straight forward grasping his pistol with two hands. Surprisingly, he was holding the gun correctly, but he was just pointing and shooting without making an effort to aim. Only seconds later, an invisible force grabbed his right ankle and yanked him upwards. He was dangling upside, levitating in mid air. It turned out that one of the automatons emulated telekinetic powers like a mage, and he had caught Crow in his telekinetic grasp. Following this, another automaton landed a clean shot on Crow who had forgotten to put his shield up. Crow was out of the match. After the automaton set him down, he was told to go to the side.

“Stinkin’ telekinesis!” Crow grudgingly stomped away, frustrated that he had been taken out so easily. What an idiot, Alder thought. But with one man down less than a minute after the match begun, Alder had to improvise as his original plan was ruined. Mages needed to be able to see their target to be able to manipulate them, so if his team remained out of sight before the automaton could get them, he could get closer and maybe perhaps get Lynette to do the same to them.

“Lynette, push the barrier forward to give us cover from fire. Can you do that?” Alder commanded.

“Huh?” Lynette asked failing to immediately understand. “What’s ‘cover from fire’?”

Alder sighed. The ignorance of his teammates. So frustrating, and the middle of a match was not the time to explain. “Just push the barrier towards the enemy.”

Lynette did a hand wave motion, but messed up her stance as she was trying to keep her head low and not get shot at. She pushed the barrier over instead of sliding it across the floor, revealing the three of them behind. Another idiot, Alder thought. The Brute fired a much larger, heavier projectile which ripped right through Lynette’s shields. Too panicked to do anything, she crouched in place and got shot again. Out of the match, and she was told to go to the side with Crow. Alder and Neil managed to take cover behind another barrier which was much shorter than the one they were before. Both of their shields were down after being showered with bullets.

Not even three minutes. Two of his down. All four of the enemy up. No way. He can’t lose to a bunch of mindless robotic constructs. Think. Think. What to do? What to do? Neil fearlessly peeked in and out of cover firing back. But he couldn’t keep it up for long.

Neil paused to catch his breathe, but his head was too high above cover. A shot from the Brute’s pistol. Oops. That must have been embarrassing. What a dumb mistake, but it cost him. Despite the fact that Alder was still standing, with all his teammates down, he automatically lost.

“That’s forty push-ups to each of you!” Sergeant Hezurda proclaimed. “Game, set and match! Alder got into the front leaning rest and knocked out his push ups easily. And what was frustrating was that it was all technically his fault. But in his head Alder wanted to blame squadmates, not himself. Wasn’t it their fault for their ignorance and lack of tactics? No. By default, since he was the squad leader, every mistake his squadmates made was his fault. And he knew that well from his time as a squire.

Alder, Neil and Crow got up very quickly after each doing forty push-ups, but Lynette was still on the ground, struggling to do just one.

“C’mon! Use your arms!” Alder shouted out hoping to encourage her. Lynette’s face burned a vibrant red. She was forgetting to breathe. And then, she dropped to the ground arms aching with pain. Then, she rolled over on her back panting clutching her side. Alder reached his hand out and helped her get on her feet. “You need to work on that.”

“But how?” Lynette replied. “I’m a girl. And I’m a mage that’s supposed to be using telekinesis for everything.”

Alder stood there for a moment. Those were clearly excuses. And true, the standards for males and females when it came to strength were different when joining the Legion, but Alder didn’t care about that. He didn’t agree with that aspect of the system. “That doesn’t matter. You’re a soldier, and you have to get better.” Stone cold. Not furious or anything. Just cold. Alder’s stoicness frightened Lynette enough for her to cower.

“Geez, Alder,” Neil said butting in. “Go on easy on her. It’s our first time.”

Alder paused, realizing that his cold, aloof methods weren’t working. Alder turned around abruptly, making it clear that he did not want to hear anything more. His squadmates silently watched as he went off stone cold by himself towards a corner. “Squad Four, go do your own things. I need a moment to think.”

Soon Alder snapped to his senses, calming down. Sure, he was quick to get irritated, but he had to remain logical. He shouldn’t go storming off angry. But his face was still reddenned with disappointment. And while his teammates weren’t saying anything aloud, he got the impression that they did not see him as a particularly nice person.

“Alright,” Sergeant Hezurda said. “Training’s over. Take your stuff with you. We’re going to the mess hall.” While everyone lined up and begun marching out of the door eagerly awaiting to satiate themselves, Alder stayed behind for a few moments. Approaching the sergeant, he put his hands behind his back, assuming the position of parade rest.

“Sir, I wanted to know what I did wrong, today.”

“Did wrong?” Sergeant Hezurda said. “Well...I was hoping you would have figured it out by now. I watched you, your own techniques are perfect. You joined the Legion as a well-trained warrior.”

“I don’t follow, sir.”

“Look here, weirdo. Yes, that’s your nickname from now on. Come to me tomorrow once you’ve figured it out. No one else came close to your entrance test scores. You’re clearly the smartest one here. With those kinds of brains, I don’t even understand what made you join the Militia.”

“Well, the thing is, when I was a knight-”

“You can tell me your life’s story another time. Go eat. You need your strength.”

What was it that he was missing? It must have been something obvious. Maybe the hunger was getting to him as it was near dinner time. Or perhaps he was just getting mentally tired from all that annoying high-pitched teen arguing. Whatever the case, these recent events were overwhelming his head enshrouding him like a misty fog. He needed to clear his mind.

Chapter 5

The dining hall was at a surprising quality level according to Alder’s standards. Quite spacious, clean for the most part with scattered round tables each with four chairs. And a great variety of food to choose from. And the option to get seconds or even thirds making it almost like an all-you-can-eat buffet. For a lot of these poverty-stricken kids, it was an opportunity to indulge in the free meals after a life of scrounging for scraps.

Alder was pretty far towards the back of the line, but he didn’t mind since they were given at least thirty minutes to eat which was way more time than he needed. Once he managed to get to the food selection, he chose a piece of steak, some noodles and vegetables on the side, a small pastry for dessert and a glass of water. Only as much as he needed to moderately sustain himself. He quickly looked about the room looking for an empty, isolated spot to be alone, but could find none, so he would be forced to sit down with other people. He spotted his three squadmates all sitting together leaving a seat just for him.

When he finally arrived at the table where his squadmates sat, he took the opportunity to subtly analyze their preferences based on their table manners and what they had eaten. A strange habit of his, but he definitely preferred observation over direct conversation. It was way easier for him to gather information.

Neil’s food was eaten rather evenly. Well-mannered and his napkin on his lap and utensils organized accordingly. He wasn’t a noble, but at least he had some form of civility. Neil probably gave his pastry away based on the amount of crumbs left on his own plate. Crow on the other hand made almost a complete mess, his face smeared with steak sauce while savagely hungry for more. Actually, he seemed as if he was about to leave to get back in line to get fourths. A voracious eater, but probably took the time to savor everything. Lastly, he noticed that Lynette did not seem to get any other food except for two pastries, both of which licked clean. A sweet tooth no doubt, but probably the reason why she lacked meat on her bones.

“Alder, are you okay?” Neil asked. He had caught him in the midst of his profile scanning and wanted to break the awkwardness.

“I’m fine,” he said. And then, he hastily began eating his own food, starting with the steak, then the sides. He ate hastily wasting no time in order to avoid conversation and get on with it. Not exactly very polite. But Crow picked up on his avoidant behaviors and figured it was time to call him out.

“No offense, man,” Crow said, “But you’re kind of a jerk.”

“Excuse me?” Alder paused, putting down his fork and gleamed towards Crow. But he was careful not to initiate an argument. He had heard enough of bickering already.

“I mean, you’re so aloof all the time. Like you think you’re better than us.”

“Crow! Don’t start it!” Neil butted in, cutting him off before he could potentially say something more insulting. “Look, Alder, I think what he meant is that you need to loosen up a little. The Militia is different than the Carnelian knights.”

“The Militia is still a military force. If anything, we should be taking this more seriously.”

“But we’re still learning,” Crow added. “I’ve never held a gun before today.”

“None of you know anything about combat? Or military history?” Alder bluntly asked. “So what can the rest of you do, then?”

“Can we just forget about that for a second?” Neil said, definitely tired of his arrogance. “How about let’s get to know each other a little more? Can we at least become friends?”

Alder was tempted to outright tell him that none of them were his friends. To him, they weren't even in the slightest acquaintances. Just other tools to get the mission done. But even he knew better than to say something like that aloud and that Neil made a point. Perhaps if they were on friendlier terms, they could become more competent. “I...guess it couldn’t hurt. You first, Illuvin,” he said. Undoubtedly, he didn’t want to talk about himself so he shoved someone else into the spotlight.

“Okay, then,” Neil said. “Well, my name is Neil Illuvin. My dad is a doctor, and he researches the effects of adamantide. You know. That anti-miraculum substance. Anyway, my mother is also a nurse, so I’m surrounded by medical stuff all the time. I really got into it, but I thought school was kind of boring to be honest. I didn’t really get the best grades, but I did what I could.”

“Why’d you join the Militia, then?” Crow asked.

“Because I wanted to be out in the field, saving lives and helping people. I wasn’t smart enough to do all that PhD stuff anyway, so my parents were a bit disappointed.”

“You said you were a rebel?” Alder said recalling the conversation from earlier.

“Ha! Yeah, that’s right,” Neil said. Neil seemed more alright as a person. Very idealistic, but seemed average in intelligence. Definitely the compassionate, hero type. But he seemed naive and could definitely make a wrong move during tough dilemmas.

“Me?” Crow began as the other squadmates looked to him. “I’m Crow Mahogany. My parents didn’t get along that well, so when I was ten, I ran away, living near an alleyway dumpster scrounging up for scraps. And then a few months ago, a recruiter found and invited me to join like a lot of the other homeless kids here.”

“Did you ever go to school?” Alder asked.

“Nope,” Crow said. “My parents couldn’t afford it. So I had to just use my wits to get by. If there’s one thing I trust, it’s instinct.” Alright, so Crow was fairly smart to have survived on the streets for so long, but he was way too impulsive. It would take more than instinct to get by the Militia. He seemed very blunt, but Alder couldn’t complain since he was just like that as well.

“And you Lynette?” Alder said. She was not paying full attention, and was still looking at that pastry which Alder had not yet touched.

“Huh? Sorry. I’m just not used to being called by my last name.”

“Here take this,” Alder said passing her his pastry. Only doing it just to get her to stop staring. “I know you’ve been wanting it since I sat down.” Eagerly, Lynette snatched it up with both hands like some sort of scavenging mouse that had just discovered a plump block of cheese then wasted no time scarfing it down.

“Thanks!” she said still chewing on the food. “You guys are the best!”

“Getting that sugar rush, Darcy?” Neil chuckled. “That’s the fourth one you’ve had! You sure you’re not going to get sick?”

Darcy paused for a moment to swallow. “Ha ha! I just like sweets a lot,” she said smiling. “They remind me of all the good food Mrs. Lynette used to make!”

Alder had to resist the urge to scorn and lecture her for such an unhealthy diet. She had been through more than enough harsh criticism today, and saying anything more could push her past her breaking point.

“Tell me, Lynette. Or Darcy,” Neil began. “What was it like growing up as a mage?”

Darcy paused to think. “Well, I don’t know what else to compare it to. I’ve been in a reactor the whole time until they decided to send me off to the Militia for some reason. I was never told why.”

“Who’s they? Your parents?”

Darcy seemed confused. “You mean my overseer?”

“No, I mean, did you ever know your mother and father?”

“Oh, I didn’t really have a family. All of us young mages just lived together sharing everything, while the overseers would keep us fed and make sure we produce enough miraculum. It’s all I ever knew. Mrs. Lynette was the nicest of all the overseers, so I inherited her last name when I was recruited. I miss her already, but that’s okay. One day, maybe I’ll see her again.” Alder recalled from his studies just as Lynette finished explaining. That’s how all the mage slaves were raised. Communally. So the concept of nuclear families had little meaning to her. But the fact that she was open to talk about it meant that she was probably treated well, or at least better than the mage slaves from the more totalitarian countries. Whatever the case, she was fairly easy going, but seemed distracted all the time.

“And you, Alder?” Neil asked. He didn’t answer right away. “C’mon, we all told you about ourselves. It’s your turn now.”

Alder paused recollecting his past, but was picking and choosing what seemed okay to talk about. “My first name is Alder as you know. I grew up living in Carnelian Castle, training as a knight since I was old enough to hold a weapon. You know how the emperor is barely kept alive these days and that the nobles are competing for the throne?” Alder asked. Only Neil nodded his head since he was probably the only one that knew anything about current politics. “Well, my family was caught up with all the infighting firsthand, and it wasn’t long before my mother ended up in the crossfire. I was only a kid when it happened, but my father was absolutely devastated. He did everything he could to push me to become the best knight there ever was. And he’s not the kindest man in the world, but I have a lot of respect for him.”

“So how’d you end up here instead?” Neil asked. “Honestly, you’re way too smart for this place.”

Alder was very careful about what he wanted to say next. He was not very proud of what happened that day, so he choose to keep things vague. “Because I didn’t make the cut.”

“What do you mean?” Crow asked. “Did you break the rules or something?”

“I…” Alder paused. “Yes, I did break the rules, and I got kicked out. After what I did, my father could never look me in the eye again. But that’s enough about me.”

“So what did you do exactly?”

“I said that’s enough!” Alder said getting much edgier. “Do not ask me about that ever again.”

“Okay then…” Neil said rather disappointed. But Alder knew they were going to ask him again at some point. He was going to have to tell them eventually. About that day when it happened. How would they react to it? Would they seem him differently? And more concerning, what if Sergeant Hezurda or the commander found out?

Chapter 6

Before everyone could head off to bed for the night, Sergeant Hezurda gave the order for everyone to clean the barracks. He made his way to a small storeroom only to find a gaggle of other soldiers all clustered around, some coming out with cleaning equipment: brooms, mops, rags, sponges and all that sort. By the time Alder reached the room, all of the supplies were gone. None left for him. Sure, he got out of having to clean anything, but now he just had to wait. And wait. Until they were done. And they seemed to take forever with something that would take him only a few minutes.

He stood against the wall of the barracks, watching everyone else clean and mop. Staring and watching noting how sloppily the other soldiers were doing their jobs. Sloppily swinging the brooms all around and overall moving at a snail’s pace. He was tempted to step in, but he didn’t. He wanted no involvement.

As he observed, he spotted Lynette struggling to lift a heavy pail of water. Come on, just use your telekinetic powers. It’s more practical that way. He waited. And waited. Yet, that didn’t occur to her. Eventually, Neil beat Alder to bringing that same thought up.

“Why not use your mind if you’re having trouble with your arms?”

Lynette still continued to lift the pail with her hands. She was using her lower back to lift, not her knees. Probably why she was having so much trouble. “My brain starts to hurt after using so much telekinesis. I have to think really hard for it to happen.”

Neil picked the bucket up for her. “C’mon. I’ll help you out.” Awfully kind of Neil. Or maybe he was doing it to subtly show off to him that he could be a better squad leader? No, he shouldn’t think like that. He had to get those twisted thoughts out of his head. Neil was just an ordinary, naive do-gooder. He was far too nice to be capable of anything sinister. Just helping a fellow squadmate out. But now, the self-consciousness was distracting him from his behavioral observations.

He clearly knew that the Militia’s methods did not involve total perfection and attention to detail, explaining the lack of uniforms and the casual dinner time. To better train Lynette, he had to figure out how her powers worked as there seemed to be more than just what he read in the books. Her comment about the pail seemed to indicate that she was thinking and focusing on something, but what was it? Was she thinking of something more intellectual? Unlikely given her lack of formal education. So instead, it was just pure focus and concentration - something that even he had trouble with. Something less tangible and more mystical? But did the mystical truly exist when almost all “magic” has been explained scientifically? Whatever the case, Alder’s mind rambling made him not inclined to jump in to help as his own flawed personality took over. He just watched them clean continuing to observe everyone's behavior. He then shifted his gaze to Crow who was hardly trying, not putting in any muscle into scrubbing the walls by more or else lightly waving a rag around. Did he know better?

After a long hour of half-effort by the other soldiers, Alder looked around at their work. Terrible. Like it was never cleaned at all. But most everyone was tired and a few had already already begun dozing off. But no one could rest yet. Upon the hour, Sergeant Hezurda walked into the room, everyone snapping to the position of parade rest. Nobody moved a muscle. Not even Alder. The sergeant put a palm to his face as he spotted all the missed splotches of dirt. He was not nitpicking. It was genuine lack of skill.

“Did anyone actually clean this place?” To everyone’s surprise, he didn’t even sound the slightest bit angry. But more bluntly disappointed. “It looks awful.” Then, he turned to Crow. “Was this all your work? Were you even trying?” The kid was too scared out of wits to say anything back. But Crow was being picked on again. His own squadmate this time.

“It was my fault!” Neil interjected. “I should have done a better job, sir.” That, Alder did not expect. Jumping in to cover for him this time? Perhaps that seemingly insignificant jumping jacks incident got to him way harder. Or maybe he was just trying too hard.

“Illuvin!” Alder intervened. He waited for a reply, but Hezurda didn’t say anything right away. “I’m the squad leader. I’ll take responsibility for this mess.” And with that, nearly every other soldier breathed a sigh of relief.

“Very well,” Hezurda finally replied. “Carnelian, I expect this whole place to be cleaned by tomorrow morning. Everyone else, go to bed.” And the other soldiers wasted no time burying themselves in their blankets, but Neil stayed up for a little bit.

“Alder, let me help,”

“It’s alright, I’ll take care of this,” he replied. “Get your rest.” Reluctantly, Neil went to bed leaving Alder to clean the place up. The real reason why Alder wanted to do it alone was for selfish reasons. He didn’t believe anyone else could help, but at least to Neil, he started to look a bit more caring.

Honestly though, Alder could definitely use the time to himself away from the child’s play. All the high-pitched squabbling of these kids was beginning to drive him nuts. And with that, he vented out his stress in the form of vigorous cleaning which was somehow calming to him. And it wasn’t long before the whole barracks room became sparkling clean. What took the entire company about an hour, Alder did in several minutes. He peered around. Each and everyone of the other soldiers was knocked out cold, sleeping like logs. Undoubtedly, none of them had Alder’s stamina. He switched off the lights, and tried to fall asleep, but couldn’t. He just lay there, eyes closed but not sleeping.

Hours passed and midnight hit according to his pocketwatch. With his eyes bloodshot, Alder got out from bed to the bathroom, rinsing his face with water from the sink. And then, just stared into the mirror. As he stared deeper and deeper, a smoke-like, shadowy figure manifested itself from behind. It was only in the reflection and not in the real world, but the back of Alder’s left hand stung with pain as if someone were slowly carving into his flesh with a red hot sharp metal stick. In the mirror, a brand consisting of a demonic series of circles on his hand from which the smoky figure emerged.

“What do you want?” Alder bluntly stated. He had seen this creature before, but it was something he would rather not talk about. “I’m not in the best of moods.”

“I’ve been famished lately. Why haven’t you fed me?” the figure spoke in what sounded like numerous whispering voices speaking all at once.

“Wasn’t that day enough? I could never do it again.”

“Must I remind you that you’re bound by a contract?”

“I remember it alright!” Alder interrupted. “I never wanted it in the first place. But I had no choice.”

“Then you should know that I need to be fed soon. If not, then-”

“I know, dammit!” Alder barked, raising his voice a bit. Hopefully, not enough for anyone else to hear. “I can’t sleep because of it!”

“You made a poor choice that day if you thought you could get by without embracing me. Gullible fools like you make easy targets.”

Alder did not respond to that question, because the shadow was right. How could he have dabbled into that dark magic? But no, he didn’t feel like reminiscing. “Just leave me alone for now…”

“Don’t think you can ignore me.”

“I said get out!” Alder shouted.

“Very well, then. If you don’t feed me soon…” the shadow said slowly dissipating. “I will show you a new definition of pain..”

Alder held in a scream of mental torment and agony. What he just experienced, it was not quite the workings of ordinary miraculum. Something else though, and his mind dwelled on it so much that he still could not fall asleep.

Chapter 7

Alder did not wake up the next morning, moreover, he stayed awake waiting until dawn for the moment Sergeant Hezurda walked in and started shouting “Rise and shine, soldiers! It’s gonna be a long day today!” The other soldiers groggily got up, while Alder sprung up, suddenly feeling a sharp, throbbing headache as if a train slammed against his skull at full speed. Then, for a few brief moments, he felt weightless. Floating, unfeeling of his stiff mattress and woolly blankets.

“Hey, Carnelian, I said get up!” Sergeant Hezurda barked. That snapped Alder to his senses and back into reality, and all the regular sensory feelings returned to him.

“Moving, sir!” At near blinding speed, he slipped into his blue longcoat and buttoned the green collar around his neck, much faster than the other soldiers put on their regular clothes. Then, he gathered his pistol and sword, sheathed it, ready for battle.

“Calm down, weirdo,” the sergeant said noting his edginess. “You’re making the others look bad.”

Alder stopped to take a few deep breathes. He wanted to believe what happened last night was a dream. It could have been. But it was way too vivid. He recalled every word that shadowy figure said verbatim. Being bugged about feeding it and threatened with vague consequences, but no. There was no way he could ever do it again. Right? Right? Chills ran up and down his spine, but Alder did the best he could to not show his dread.

After a short while, all the other soldiers filed out of the room, scrambling towards the door for breakfast. Already? No morning exercises like they knights did? He bet the Militia was just treating everyone nicely. This just didn’t feel right. More like a basic education school than a military academy.

Much to Alder’s comfort, breakfast was much shorter than dinner last night so he didn’t have to spend a lot of time expositing his life’s story to his squadmates. The more he talked, the more likely they were going to ask about his secret. And all the other soldiers were groggy anyway - too sleepy to bother themselves into holding extended conversations. Quite obviously, they were not yet accustomed to waking up at five thirty in the morning.

The routine would have been the same as yesterday, but today saw a special presentation. It was the company commander again. Back in that same auditorium from the day before. But this time, all the squads were sitting together, so Alder was with his friends. Or acquaintances. Or compatriots. Or just squadmates. He didn’t really know for sure.

“Welcome again, militiamen. Today’s class is different as we have a special guest. In fact, it’s a specifically requested requirement passed down all the way up from the Commander-in-Chief of the Amethyst Royal Guard.” That line alone prompted much muttering and side conversations among the soldiers. That high up the chain of command? After a few short moments, the projector in the back of the room flickered on, preparing for some sort of presentation.

“The Amethyst Royal Guard?” Neil whispered to Alder. “No way.”

“Wait, who’s that up here?” Crow asked. On the stage walked a rather slender man in a brimmed hat and hair that reached down to the upper parts of high collar. He had a constant stern look, and quite obviously did not look the type to engage in small talk.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the man began. “My name is Mattias Hopkins, and I represent the Amethyst Royal Guard. I’m here to talk about the enemy of our dear empire: black magic occultists,” he paused giving time for an audience reaction. “I’m sure you all heard the ghost stories as kids coddled in your beds. These occultists I speak of. Wielders of witchcraft. Conjurers of demons. They are not mere campfire tales told to spook you in the night. They are a real threat to the state, responsible for tearing our empire apart. The splitting of the Carnelian and Sardius houses. The fall of the thousand year dynasty of Whitestone. The division of our country into these smaller, less powerful city-states. A vexing group of people persisting throughout our history despite our efforts have continued to elude us. We all know that by law, the punishment for anyone regardless of age or intent for the use of such black magic.” He paused, preparing to finish his sentence with punctuated emphasis. “Execution.”

The whole room went silent. This Mr. Hopkins clearly wasn’t joking around. But Alder immediately knew he was just trying to scare everyone.

“Did you know the Sardius family?” Neil whispered to Alder.

“Now is not the time!” Not good. Though the presentation was just more spouting of more common knowledge at least for the educated ones, the secondary purpose was also for brainwashing. Putting the subject on everyone’s minds. Hammering it into everyone’s heads until they accepted it as absolute truth. But Alder didn’t care about that right now. He grew worried that his squadmates would keep pestering him about that thing. That secret.

“Of course,” the man continued. “As opposed to these wretched sorcerers I speak of, miraculum mages are able to coexist with us peacefully. Without them, we would never have experienced our industrial revolution. But you must be wary of the darker side of magic and the shady rituals involves. Profane rites that defy reality itself. Damning souls to eternal torment. Both animal and human sacrifices to marginally increase the powers of their devilry.”

Accompanying Mr. Hopkins’ explanations, the projector showed grayscale images taken from crime scenes. Dug up graves. Vandalized tombs with smashed urns with the ashy remains poured all over the ground coupled with charred bone fragments. Acts of pure evil in defiance to the creator god Asmos. Then the worst part came. The dead bodies themselves. Gouged out eyes. Severed toes and fingers. Jugulars sliced clean open. Demonic symbols carved around their chests with their hearts ripped out. Sliced up in places that made the mangled corpses look nothing more than turgid, twisted balloons filled with leaking crimson paint.

Mr. Hopkins paused to give time for the soldiers to digest the information, but hardly anyone in the entire auditorium could stomach it. Most of these kids had never seen a dead body, let alone one that was utterly desecrated. They whispered among themselves in horror and disgust. Crow was strangely intrigued though, curiously shocked that there existed murderous scum that would do anything like that. He pondered if some of the images were fake, created using minced chicken and ground beef smothered in marinara sauce for the blood. But thinking of that only made him lose his appetite.

Lynette on the other hand grew nauseous, being overwhelmed with palm-sweating, hyperventilating anxiety. Not just from the gory, obscene images, but just for the thought that somebody might mistake her for one of those evil warlocks that would do anything like in those pictures. Lynette knew that there was a clear difference between telekinetic mages like herself and these supposed black magic occultist, but even that made her dread. Asmos forbid someone could confuse her for a witch. No, she was far too young to be put to death. She turned to Alder and Neil clearly looking for some sort of comfort.

“I think I’m gonna be sick…” she muttered.

“I’m sickened by it, too, but we have to stay strong, Lynette,” Neil reassured. The mage girl had also expected a response from Alder, but he said nothing returning only aloofness.

Hmph, gutless wimps, Alder thought. That was just his cynical side talking to himself though. Unlike virtually everyone else in the room, he’d already seen plenty of dead bodies as a kid. All those piles of corpses of both Sardius and Carnelian knights laying at the doorstep of his castle. Lifeless husks that made many widows. No, he’s getting reminded of it again. Sooner or later, he would blurt that secret out by accident and then everybody would know. Keep that stoic face so that nobody would suspect.

The rest of the presentation simply got gorier and gorier as they detailed more and more of their taboo rituals. Most everyone in the room had started looking away, trying to ignore it, but Mr. Hopkins continued anyway. Alder knew the whole point of it was to shock everyone, to get them to take their jobs as soldiers seriously. But if everyone here lacked the guts, then what was the point? It would just scare them away, and the Militia would lose soldiers. For now, no one was quite that frightened. They were just images after all. It could have been far worse if the presentation were in a morgue.

Notably though, one thing Mr. Hopkins did not show them any pictures of individuals overexposed to miraculum. Ghouls, they called them. Alder suspected it was just the bias of the empire. Build up the hatred towards the warlocks, but keep quiet about the reactors producing those monsters. Despite this, Alder couldn’t speak his direct opinion. He had never seen a ghoul up close, only read about them in his books.

Either way though, everyone was collectively relieved the moment the presentation ended and Mr. Hopkins walked off stage. Back to the regular routine, but nobody wanted their lunch.

Chapter 8

The next two weeks had been slow and tedious. Each day had been the same. Follow the company around through classrooms - at least no more of those gory pictures. Train at the gymnasium. But sadly, it seemed to repeat itself over and over again. Fighting those automatons. Crow’s and Lynette’s techniques weren’t improving. They made the same exact mistakes. Slow learners. Neil, however, did show noticeable refinement in methods. Granted, he was smarter than the other two and he showed promise. Of course, watching the other soldiers fight and train, he didn’t feel so bad now. What kind of methods were the Militia supposed to be teaching? No technical discipline at all. Just struggling on their own with no real guidance or direction. Even Sergeant Hezurda was coming across as just a bystander, not making much of an effort to directly work with the soldiers. Highly impersonal. But Alder thought. To get better, what would his squad have to do? Immediately, the idea came to him, but he didn’t like it. Sooner or later, he would have to take things into his own hands.

For some reason, the food seemed to be getting worse and worse, and Alder lost his appetite entirely. The marinara sauce, the sweet desserts. All of it tasting like ash, but for some reason, the other soldiers didn’t say anything about it. Maybe they were being polite and they had gotten used to the flavorless food. But for Alder, the hunger pangs never came to him anymore. Was it the stress? Alder wasn’t feeling marginally weaker by it strangely enough.

The shadowy figure had not appeared to him since that first night. But altogether, he stopped sleeping. Just waiting in bed, pretending to sleep. Pretending to dream.

But even if he could dream, Alder would rather not. Each night from before he stopped, he saw those corpses sprawled on the floor crying out in eternal agony and screaming for vengeance. And yet, even though the dreams left, the thoughts had not. And every passing day, they grew more real. He could see the puddles of blood leaking and expanding, coating the floor with a new grim color. He could see the maggots chewing away at the empty husks. He could see the flesh rotting away, exposing the brittle bones underneath.

"Alder..." The corpses called out.

"Alder!" The voice of Neil which brought him to his senses. Before him lay an uneaten plate of food. Some chilli and mixed beef and chicken. "Are you okay?"

Lynette giggled. "You were making some funny faces! Thinking about something?"

"Not feeling too well," Alder said. "Something in this meal tasted weird." That wasn't wholly a lie. After all, it just tasted like ash. He just bent the truth a little in hopes of throwing them off.

"You’re getting sick? Was that presentation a few weeks ago?" Crow asked. "C'mon it wasn't all that bad."

"No, I said it was the food," Alder insisted.

"Geez, calm down. Just asking."

"You can have all this if you want actually," Alder said. And Crow did not hesitate to grab his plate from him and begin eating. Crow's appetite never changed. Maybe the ash taste was just Alder.

"Is something on your mind?" Neil said looking squarely at Alder in the eye, not breaking contact for a few seconds. That boy knew he was hiding something.

"It's nothing," Alder plainly stated. "Forgive me, I'm just a bit stressed out." And that was an understatement.

"Tell us anything you want to get off your chest," Neil reassuringly stated. "We're a team."

Alder remained silent while Crow gave him a puzzled look. “Well, what is it?”

Alder sighed and took a breath. They're going to ask him again and again, weren't they? He could try to keep hiding it, but sooner or later he would have to tell someone. Who could he trust? Hard to say right now. Whatever he said next, he had to be careful with his words. “Do you know of the Carnelian family curse?”

Each of them gave them puzzled looks. Really? They didn’t know? He figured it would have been common knowledge. But it was a little relief. Actually, had they known the whole truth about what happened that night, they probably wouldn’t be looking at him in the eye right now.

“Oh, that?” Neil said. “Heh, I just heard that’s just a funny rumor going on. I always thought it was some kind of propaganda to scare-”

“It’s real,” Alder interrupted sternly. “I-” Then he paused. Would it really be a good idea to reveal himself as a user of black magic? Or that he was turning into some kind of wraith? But these were his teammates. He needed to gain their trust. So, how about a half-truth, then? “Well, actually, it’s a hereditary disease that runs in the family. Some kind of sleep disorder that makes us get nightmares more often than usual. Not some boogey monster sneaking up on you type nightmare. Think sadistic slaughterhouse gorefest type. Ten times worse than that presentation.”

“Every night, it happens? Does it ever go away?” Crow asked.

Alder remained silent for a bit. True, he could kill people, but the last person he killed? It’d been way too long. And he wouldn’t be killing anytime soon, not at least until training was over in a few months. But if he were to tell them that taking others lives would make them go away...no, too much to reveal. Just give a very technical answer. After all, he tried to cure it once, but failed. “No.”

“Yikes, that sucks,” Crow said slightly disgusted. “They allowed you to join the Militia even though you have that...um...condition?”

“Well, I mean, the Militia takes everyone,” Neil said. “Former mage slaves, street rats, rebel teenagers, and insomniacs like me. To them, does it really matter who we are if we can do the job?”

“Huh…” Crow replied solemnly. “I guess we’re all weirdos in this insane world. There’s no such thing as normal if everyone is crazy.”

Lynette’s reaction wasn’t quite what Alder expected. Not one of recoiling fright or timid shyness. “Alder, that’s...that’s so sad..” She reached to his shoulder and slightly squeezed it. Were it any other person, he would have swatted them away, but the sudden sensation he felt made him pause. Whatever she was doing, it gave off a pleasant warmth like melting ice in the spring. Was she using magic? No. He would have sensed it. This was something else. A sensation he hadn’t felt in a very long time Something that he had completely forgotten the existence of. And yet, here was that feeling once again. Whatever it was, it calmed him down and cleared his mind.