Mimic Arcanist, the sequel to Academy Arcanist, and the second in the Astra Academy series, is set to release April 18th!!
Since that’s right around the corner, here are the first few chapters to enjoy in the meantime!
A RECAP OF EVENTS
Last time in the Astra Academy series, Gray Lexly was plagued by monsters in his dreams.
Right before Gray would die from these monster attacks, Professor Helmith from the famed Astra Academy was there to protect him. Unfortunately, Helmith disappeared just as Gray was to about attend the Academy himself.
After entering the Menagerie, and bonding with Twain, a cat-shaped mimic, Gray promised himself he would find Helmith somewhere on the campus. Gray was joined by his twin brother, Sorin Lexly, as well as a quiet girl named Nini Wanderlin. Sorin bonded with a knightmare, and Nini bonded with a deadly reaper. Together, they were a trio that all the other students thought strange.
When Professor Helmith finally showed up to teach class, Gray realized she was an imposter. Determined to get to the bottom of this, he ignored most classes that discussed the abyssal hells to focus on his investigation.
Gray spoke with several professors at the Academy. The oft-hungover Piper, the stiff Leon, and the mysterious Professor Zahn, a man building a powerful teleporting gate in the basement of the Academy.
And while Gray thought the monsters in his dreams were no longer a problem, during his investigation, he was attacked by a monster in the woods. Through a long string of questions and after searching the Academy, he realized someone was targeting the eldest twin in sets of siblings, and Gray just so happened to be the eldest himself.
When Gray told this to Leon, the man informed Gray that Zahn was also a twin.
Gray thought he had allies to help him unravel the mystery, but when he put his faith in Zahn, he was betrayed. The professor was also a mimic arcanist, and he was using his eldrin to attack people in their dreams—specifically Gray and other older twins. Zahn needed the souls of older twins to activate his Gate of Crossing and enter the abyssal hells to find his brother, Death Lord Deimos.
Leon, Nini, Sorin, and Gray fought Zahn, Deimos, and Seven, a doppelgänger arcanist pretending to be Helmith, in the basement of the Academy. Gray and the others just barely defeated Zahn and the Death Lord, but only after Gray was sliced up by the Death Lord’s trident and nearly killed.
And Deimos wasn’t destroyed, he was simply sent back to the abyssal hells…
Gray and company closed the gate, but Zahn managed to flee with his life.
Seven was killed, and the true Professor Helmith returned to Astra Academy.
However, in the process of destroying the gate, it was shattered into thousands of pieces. The many shards scattered to the winds, presumed harmless.
Gray, confident he could return to the Academy as a normal student, didn’t give the fragments much thought.
And now it’s time to continue the story in Mimic Arcanist.
WELCOME BACK TO ASTRA ACADEMY
I had only been a student at Astra Academy for three weeks.
It was the best place I’d ever lived in my life. Granted, I’d only lived in two places: the Academy, and on the Isle of Haylin. My home isle was small, and my father, a candlemaker, had made sure we did the same old thing, every day—forever. He made candles, dreamt of candles, talked about candles, and generally avoided anything that smelled of progress.
Astra Academy had been anything but predictable and boring. Cloudy peaks, star shards raining from the sky, telekinetic laundry rooms… Death Lords in the basement. Every room in the Academy was far more interesting than my old home.
Even the boys’ washroom was a delight.
I stood in the large room, all alone except for Twain, just admiring my surroundings. The floor was covered in rough tiles to prevent slipping. The walls were bare, and the windows were set high. Glowstone chandeliers kept the room bright, despite the dark night sky. Steel pipes brought water into the Academy, creating baths and showers.
Plumbing. That was what they called it.
My home isle didn’t have this wondrous plumbing. We had tiny little washrooms with stoves with which to heat our own water.
My eldrin, Twain, sat on the edge of a brass bathtub. He was a mimic, but he resembled a kitten. An adorable kitten. His orange fur practically matched the metal. He stared at me with two differently colored eyes: one gray-blue, one pink.
“What’re you waiting for?” Twain asked as he tilted his head.
He had long ears with tufts of fur—like a lynx’s. And no tail. It was just a little bob.
I thought his tiny nub-tail made Twain cute, but he didn’t like whenever I mentioned it.
“I just want to make sure we’re alone,” I said, my voice echoing around the massive room.
The washroom was designed for forty people, bare minimum. There were several showerheads on the far wall, and numerous tubs, all separated by short privacy walls. A rack of towels and washcloths stood in the middle of the room, making it easy for everyone. And the place was clean—too clean, to be honest.
The housekeeper was an overachiever.
Once I was certain no one was looking, I slowly peeled off my shirt and trousers. I hated looking at myself. When I glanced down, it was only briefly. I set my focus on the showerhead and stood under the water as soon as it was warm.
My thoughts drifted and darkened. I glanced down.
Scars covered most of my body. Gnarly, twisted scars. The worst one was across my gut. I ran my fingers over it, my hand shaking. My scarred skin felt thinner than the rest of my body. It felt like, if I weren’t careful, it would just tear open, and my insides would spill out across the floor.
It didn’t help that I had memories of seeing my own insides.
Death Lord Deimos—who I had thought was nothing more than a myth a month ago—had sliced me open with his trident. Just thinking about it caused me to shudder.
“My arcanist?” Twain asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said with a casual shrug. “Absolutely.”
He didn’t believe me. That was fine. I was, technically, totally fine. I wasn’t bleeding. Nothing hurt. My life wasn’t in danger. I just had an overactive imagination. The Death Lord wasn’t coming back. I was fine.
Totally. Completely. Fine.
The shout caused me to nearly jump out of my skin. I practically gasped as I stumbled forward into the wall, my heart pounding in my chest. I whirled around, one arm over my scar on my gut, and one arm raised. I wasn’t really a fighter, but I wouldn’t go down without a fight, that was for sure.
Fortunately, it was just my twin brother, Sorin.
I let out a long exhale as I slowly relaxed. “What’s wrong with you?” I snapped. “I told you I wanted to be alone.”
My brother walked across the washroom, the shadows flickering around his feet with each step. He wore a white shirt that contrasted nicely with his black hair. It wasn’t big enough, though. The shirt was straining to keep itself together. It was a valiant effort, but I suspected the shirt would eventually lose the battle against Sorin’s pectorals.
My brother was just large.
Mostly muscle, but he seemed to have a layer of softness around his body that gave him a barrel shape. Not really defined, yet still intimidating. He was taller than me, too. I hated that. I didn’t tell anyone, though. We were twins, after all. Why had Sorin gotten all the height and muscle? Shouldn’t we have been more identical?
Instead, I was a few inches shorter, and lithe.
We shared the same inky locks, tanned skin, and gray-blue eyes, though. Everyone always commented on that. Even my mother, right before she had died, had remarked on my strange eye color. Hence, my name: Gray. Not a very happy naming story, but I cherished it nonetheless.
Sorin stopped near the rack of towels. The darkness shifted across the tile floor, pooling around his feet.
“I just heard something exciting,” Sorin said with a smile. “I couldn’t wait to tell you.”
I stood back in the stream of water, impressed with how it just kept coming. Did the Academy ever run out of water? I didn’t want to test my theory, but I suspected not.
I lathered up my hair with soap. “What’s so exciting that you would stand around and watch me wash just to tell me?”
“Ah, c’mon. This is important.” Sorin held up a finger. “We’re going on a trip. Our whole class. For approximately one month.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“From Captain Leon.” Sorin leaned onto the towel rack. It creaked under his weight. “Also, it’s a special trip. We will sleep outside in the dead of night, huddle close, blankets tight.”
I groaned as I tossed the soap to the side. “Stop with the poetry, I’m begging you.”
“We shall sit by bonfires, admiring flames, tell stories and play games.”
After rinsing myself, I turned off the water. The squeak of the metal as the valves closed intrigued me. How many pipes were in the wall, out of sight? I shook away the thought as I headed over to the towel rack.
With a sigh, I said, “You used twenty-five words, and I don’t even know what you’re attempting to tell me. Poetry isn’t an effective method of communication.”
Sorin handed me a towel. “Captain Leon said it was a camping trip.”
“See? Do you see how easy that was?” I rubbed my body down, and then my face. “Well… what’s a camping trip, exactly?”
“Remember those twenty-five words?” Sorin grinned. His smile could light up a dark cave. “Apparently, we’re going to learn how to survive out in the wilderness. And make campfires. And tell stories. Oh! And also, we’re going to help build a schoolhouse and a tavern for a little village on the edge of the empire.”
I threw down the towel. “We are?”
Sorin nodded. Then he stood straight. “Yeah. Apparently, we’re going to learn all about cultivating the land, and what it means to be arcanists who graduated from Astra Academy. Captain Leon seemed excited. He said it’s the headmaster’s idea to help out places that don’t have arcanists living there.”
“And apparently, there are highwaymen in the area. Captain Leon said we might have to handle the problem.”
Highwaymen was just another term for bandits. They were individuals—sometimes arcanists—who pretended to be local authority. They would demand tolls from people who wandered down roads all alone. If the people didn’t pay, the highwaymen would just rob them.
They were nothing but thugs and would probably run at the sight of Astra Academy arcanists.
I grabbed my clothes and pulled them on.
Twain leapt off the tub and then scurried over to the towel rack. He jumped up and landed on a rung next to me. His gracefulness was on full display. “I don’t like this. We have to sleep outside and deal with highwaymen? Ew.”
The shadows around Sorin’s feet fluttered at the edges. A gruff voice emanated from the darkness. “Learning the art of survival is important for any arcanist.”
“Says the knightmare who doesn’t have to sleep on the ground because you can’t even sleep.” Twain huffed.
A suit of shadowy armor lifted out of the darkness. It wasn’t a complete suit—it was missing parts of the legs and arms—but otherwise, it was a full plate suit made from the shadows themselves. The empty helmet and feathery black cape made the armor seem evil or haunted, but I knew that wasn’t the case.
Thurin was my brother’s eldrin—a knightmare.
My brother had a mark on his forehead, as did all arcanists. A seven-pointed star with a cape and shield laced between the points. It was a shallow etching on his skin, just like mine.
Well, not exactly like mine. I had a shallow etching on my forehead of a seven-pointed star, but that was it. My star had no creature. A mimic arcanist’s mark shifted to whatever their mimic was transformed into. And since Twain wasn’t currently transformed, mine was currently plainer than most.
Thurin threw back his black-feather cape. “An arcanist must gather all the skills he can in order to be a force for good.”
Sorin nodded along with his words. Then he pointed to his eldrin. “Did you hear him, Gray? You should be excited. This will be an amazing trip. You’ll see.”
“Our whole class is going?” I stepped around the rack and headed for the door. Twain leapt onto my shoulder before I got too far away.
Sorin followed me, his smile never waning. “That’s right. Nini, Raaza, Knovak, Phila, Nasbit, and Ashlyn!”
Thurin kept pace as well, the clink of his shadowy armor echoing throughout the empty washroom.
“Exie isn’t coming?” I asked.
Sorin let out a short sigh. “Oh. Right. Her. Yeah, she’s coming, too.”
“Hey, cheer up. Maybe she’ll accidentally fall into the bonfire.”
Sorin gave me a sideways glance. We exited the washroom, but he didn’t acknowledge my joke. He didn’t like it when I got “too mean,” as he so lovingly put it. Exie wasn’t really someone I worried about offending, though. She never seemed to care if she offended anyone else, after all. And she had made it clear several times that she didn’t like Sorin or me.
But still—I had promised Sorin I would try to keep any sarcastic commentary to myself. He was a kinder, gentler person than I was, and that was a good thing. Without Sorin’s noble disposition, I probably would’ve gotten into a lot more trouble as a kid. And even now, as an adult.
My brother happily embraced the role of moral compass.
“Oh,” Sorin added. “And Professor Helmith will be joining us.”
I caught my breath. “Really?”
Now that was good news. I had joined the Academy because of her. She was just so wise and magical and interesting—she knew so much about mystical creatures, and about the world. My whole first week, she hadn’t really been here. And I hadn’t spoken to her much afterward. Now we would be taking a trip with her?
“I knew you’d want to hear about your honeysuckle,” Sorin said as he punched my arm.
I shoved him back. “I told you. Professor Helmith’s not my honeysuckle. If you keep saying that, I’m gonna get angry. And she’s married.”
Twain purred as he nuzzled the side of my neck. “Who is your honeysuckle, then? Is it… Ashlyn?”
I covered Twain’s little kitten face with my hand. He barked out a “Hey!” as I playfully squished him against my shoulder.
“I think this will be loads of fun,” Sorin said, patting me on the back. “And you’re still young. You don’t have to be too worried about who your honeysuckle is quite yet. Who knows? Maybe you’ll experience love at first sight or be caught up in a whirlwind of romance.”
I ran a hand down my face. “I’m sure this camping trip will be an event, especially after that speech.” While my time at the Academy had been mostly fantastic, there was always the possibility something could go wrong.
But I was optimistic.
Professor Helmith would be there. Probably Captain Leon as well.
What could go wrong?
CAMPING TRIP PREP
Sorin and I traveled the halls of Astra Academy until we arrived at the dorms for the first-year students. There were four rooms: two for the girls, and two for the boys. Each room had ten beds, and enough wardrobes and chests to fit ten people’s belongings. Despite that fact, the boys’ dorms weren’t equally split.
Four of us shared one dorm room, while ten others shared the second.
It wasn’t difficult to see why the numbers were imbalanced.
Sorin, Raaza, Knovak, and I were all the lowborn islanders. We had bonded with our eldrin here at the Academy because the headmaster had been gracious enough to pay for our voyage. He had also given us the opportunity to see multiple mystical creatures and participate in their Trials of Worth. If it hadn’t been for him, the four of us likely would’ve never attended this prestigious Academy…
The other ten male students were all nobility, apparently. Or something. I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t much care for lineage or birthright. If they didn’t want to associate with me, I didn’t want to associate with them.
Sorin reached for the doorhandle to our dorm but stopped before opening it. Then he turned to me and placed a finger over his lips.
It was the dead of night. Only the evening lanterns kept us company.
“We don’t want to wake them,” Sorin whispered.
I nodded once. “I know. I’ve been doing this for a while now.”
“Showering at night?”
My brother furrowed his brow. “I knew it.” Then he tightened his grip on the doorhandle. “But why?”
For a long moment, I said nothing.
Twain twitched his long ear. It tickled my neck. “Gray doesn’t want anyone to see his scars.”
Again, I squished his little kitten face with the palm of my hand. “Don’t listen to him. I just like my privacy.”
My brother glanced between us and frowned. “What’s wrong with your scars? You should be proud. You saved everyone in the school from a Death Lord. Kind of.”
I crossed my arms. “Look, it’s just weird, okay? Arcanists aren’t supposed to scar.”
“We heal faster than mortals. And Doc Tomas used his magic to stitch me back together. There shouldn’t be a trace left over from the attack, and yet…” I glanced down at my shirt, my mind picturing the twisted scars on my body. “I just wish they weren’t there.”
Sorin nodded once. “Well, maybe we can find an arcanist who can help you.” He slowly pushed open the door to our dorm. Light shone from within, and my brother’s eyes widened. “Is someone awake?”
We both stepped inside, our eldrin in tow.
A single lantern was lit at the far end of the room. Despite the late hour, Knovak and Raaza were still awake. And for some reason, they were both… trying on clothing?
Knovak, who slept in the bed closest to the door, had donned a full pompous ensemble. He wore red pantaloons, a black vest, and a puffy white shirt. He had topped it all off with a pointed hat straight out of a book depicting old-world wizards. A small mirror sat on the dresser next to his bed, and Knovak admired his own reflection for a few seconds before turning to face us.
His dirty-blond hair had been combed back, and most of it was hidden under his hat. He had a plain face—a forgettable one, really—but his forehead carried an arcanist mark, his star laced with the image of a unicorn.
Knovak forced a smile. “Oh, the Lexly twins. You’ve finally returned.” Then he turned his back to us and focused his full attention on the positioning of his vest.
I had said we were all lowborn islanders, but Knovak was in a bizarre situation. He came from a rich family of merchants. The Gentz family. He loved his fancy clothing and food and summer vacations, and boy did he love to regale us with tales about how large his house was.
It had really upset Knovak when all the other mainland nobles hadn’t immediately made friends with him.
“What’s with the outfit?” Sorin asked as he walked by.
“Haven’t you heard?” Knovak straightened the sleeves of his puffy shirt. “We’ll be traveling to a far-off town to represent Astra Academy. We should look our best.”
“I thought it was a tiny village without a schoolhouse?”
Knovak stopped sprucing up his shirt and stared at it. Then he hurried over to his wardrobe and hastily went through a few of his outfits. He settled on a black silk shirt and compared it to his body, measuring his arms against the sleeves.
“I shouldn’t wear white,” Knovak muttered to himself. “That’ll get too dirty.”
I walked by, not bothering to get involved in the conversation. Our school uniform was a velvet robe of blue and black with hints of silver. I suspected we wouldn’t wear it while we were neck-deep in construction materials.
Raaza’s bed was in the middle of the room. Like Knovak, he was trying on clothes, but unlike Knovak, Raaza’s seemed more… practical. He wore a straw hat with a wide brim, and a pair of thick leather trousers. He also had on a tunic that seemed light and breathable.
Raaza was a kitsune arcanist. His star was marked with the foxlike creature woven between the seven points.
His kitsune, Miko, sat on his bed, watching as he dressed. Her red fox coat appeared glossy in the lantern light, and bits of flames flickered around her black paws. The fire wasn’t real. It didn’t burn the blankets or damage the bed in any way.
“I like this hat,” Miko said with a tilt of her head. “When you stare at the ground, it shields your eyes. It’s so mysterious!”
Raaza grabbed the brim of the hat and fidgeted with the edge. He didn’t reply.
“Is everyone excited for this camping trip?” I asked as I kept walking. My bed was at the far end of the dorm, near the gigantic window.
“I’m not excited,” Raaza snapped.
He glanced over at me, his dark eyes narrowed. The man never seemed to smile.
“You’re not excited?” I asked. “At all?”
“This is a waste of our time.” Raaza removed his hat and threw it on his bed next to his eldrin. “I came to this Academy hoping they would teach me in the art of combat and magical mastery. I don’t care about some tiny village in the middle of nowhere.”
I half-laughed. “Wow. What a hero. A true role model for everyone to aspire to emulate.”
Raaza just glared at me.
He had scars on his face. Small ones. Like something with claws had gone for his eye and just barely missed. Raaza had gotten them long before he had become an arcanist, but they still reminded me of my own scarring.
Miko stood and then walked in a circle around the bed, her fox tail swishing as she moved. “My arcanist already knows how to survive in the wilderness, thank you very much. There’s little for him to learn on this trip.”
“And it’s a month long,” Raaza said with a groan. He patted his eldrin on the head. “I’d rather stay here and learn more about our magics.”
Most nights, Sorin and I slept next to each other. I walked past my brother’s bed and went to my own. When I sat on the edge of the mattress, Twain leapt off my shoulder and landed on my pillow. Then he used his claws to knead the casing. He practically ripped it all up while I just glowered at him.
“Why are you so obsessed with fighting?” Knovak asked from across the dorm. He had changed into his black silk shirt and was now admiring himself as he spoke. “We live in a time of peace and prosperity. The God-Arcanists War is over, the arcane plague no longer haunts the land or troubles the mystical creatures. There’s little need for combat proficiency.”
Raaza scoffed. “Are you serious? The basement of the Academy was blown open like a ship hit by a cannonball because a Death Lord was about to rampage out of control down there. How am I the only one who understands the importance of combat training?” He threw his arms up and sat down hard on his mattress.
“Captain Leon did mention the possibility of highwaymen,” Sorin interjected. “I mean, sometimes combat is necessary to stop scoundrels.”
Raaza nodded once and gave my brother a brief smile. “Yes. Exactly. That’s a real problem.” Then he straightened his posture. “Wait, are we really going to deal with highwaymen? Ourselves?”
He sounded a little too eager for my taste, but what did I know? Maybe highwaymen gave him those scars and now it was payback.
The room went quiet for a moment.
Sorin didn’t interject himself into the conversation. Sorin’s knightmare sank into the shadows, out of sight from everyone else. As Sorin ambled over to his bed, he shrugged. “Captain Leon said the whole trip would be a learning experience. We need to cultivate and protect the land. He made it sound like we’d be dealing with all the problems.”
“Good.” Raaza turned away. “Good,” he repeated, his voice softer, almost inaudible.
I just sighed. This was going to be an interesting trip, for sure.
Then Raaza shot me a glare. “You agree with me, don’t you, Gray?”
“In theory,” I said, shrugging.
I had never learned how to fight. I figured I would use whatever magic I could mimic if there was ever a problem again in the future. That probably wasn’t the best plan. Raaza had a point. If I had been forced to fight Death Lord Deimos—rather than just exploding the gate he had been walking through—I would’ve died faster than a fish in the desert.
“You’re all soft.” Raaza grabbed his kitsune and brought her into his lap. “You’ll see things my way once you experience the harshness the world has to offer.”
Knovak dramatically rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. No one has ever had it as hard as you. We’re all simpletons for not wanting to become brooding warlords.” Then he leaned in close to the mirror and picked at his eyebrows, making sure they were just right.
Raaza rubbed at his face, his frown deep. It seemed like he had choice words for Knovak, but he held them all back.
“I think you should focus on learning diplomacy on this trip,” Knovak commented, either unaware of Raaza’s anger, or he just didn’t care. “You could use some.”
Raaza gritted his teeth. “You can shove some feathers up your—”
“Hey, hey!” Sorin leapt in between them, smiling. “No need for any of that. We’re all new arcanists, in the same class, sharing the same dorm. We should help each other as allies, not squabble like bickering children.” My brother glanced over at me. Then he motioned for me to join the conversation.
Why did everyone want my input? It was a camping trip, not an end of the world event. Couldn’t we just… go with the flow?
The door to our dorm slowly creaked open. Everyone stopped what they were doing to glance over. Who was entering at this hour? No one else lived in this dorm, and it was well beyond curfew.
A girl walked into our dorm.
It was Nini.
While I hadn’t known her long, she had quickly become friends with both Sorin and me.
Nini held the door open so her eldrin could enter. She had bonded with a reaper—a bizarre mystical creature of death and ruin. His name was Waste, and he was nothing more than a floating cloak, seemingly worn by an invisible man. The edge of the cloak was tattered and threadbare, and a small chain hung from inside the dark red folds of cloth.
The reaper also had a scythe. The weapon floated around the creature, twirling and moving, seemingly on its own. Waste had a hood, but it was empty inside, just as the knightmare was an empty suit of armor.
Sorin turned to face her, his smile fading. “Nini? Is everything okay?”
Although it was impractical most of the time, Nini tended to dress in several layers of clothes. She wore a tunic, a shirt, a jacket, and her robes—and that was only on her torso. She also wore long pants, boots, and a pair of glasses, practically covering every inch of her small body.
Her bloodred hair fell to her shoulders, but even that was almost swallowed by the collar of her large coat.
Nini fixed her glasses as she muttered, “I heard about the camping trip and, uh, wanted to speak with you all about it.”
“The girls are coming as well,” Sorin stated. “You didn’t want to speak with them?”
“They’re… not really my friends. I don’t think they want to speak with me about anything.”
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” Knovak said with a sweeping gesture to the room. “This is an area for the boys. Only boys. You’ll need to leave.”
“Oh, yikes,” I said, unable to hide my sarcasm. “That means Miko needs to go. Sorry about that, Raaza.”
The little kitsune stood in Raaza’s lap, her faux flames flaring around her feet. “I’m allowed to be with my arcanist! It’s my right as his eldrin. Besides, his magic will be weaker if I’m too far away…”
“That’s different.” Knovak placed his hands on his hips. “Eldrin are different. Stop trying to confuse the issue.”
“Relax, everyone,” Sorin said as he leapt over an unoccupied bed and then jogged over to Nini. “We’re not asleep yet, right? Let’s just all talk about the trip together. It’ll be fun.” He placed a hand on Nini’s shoulder and offered a bright smile.
Although Nini wasn’t one who emoted much, she managed a small smile of her own when my brother drew near. Her reaper hovered close, his chain rattling. He reminded me of a snake, warning anyone who would attempt to do his arcanist harm.
Knovak huffed. Then he glanced around. “Everyone has their eldrin with them? You know they’re supposed to sleep in the treehouse.” He pointed to the back window. “It was specifically designed for them.”
The treehouse was a massive structure that wrapped around most of Astra Academy. The branches of the colossal redwood had been carved into walkways that connected with most of the windows. Mystical creatures came in all sizes—some large, some tiny—and instead of changing the structure of the Academy to accommodate all of them, the treehouse had been built with their needs in mind.
It had waterfalls, shallow pools of water, lush gardens, and dark cave-like spaces so each creature could find its own special accommodations.
“Miko will go to sleep in the treehouse once we’re done packing,” Raaza stated. He gently stroked his eldrin’s fur. “Besides—we were undertaking some magic training together, and I prefer to do it here.”
Nini grabbed the edge of Waste’s cloak. “I just… feel better with my eldrin around.”
Sorin pointed to the flittering shadows around his feet. “My eldrin doesn’t sleep. And also, he likes to hide in the darkness, so I think it’s perfectly acceptable to keep him with me.”
Everyone turned to face me.
Twain had curled up in the shreds of my pillow long ago. He stared at everyone else with wide eyes.
I grabbed my blankets and threw them over my eldrin. He barked out a “Hey!” as everything settled over him. “Nothing to see here,” I quipped.
Knovak frowned, his eyes narrowed. “Fine. I’ll be the only one who follows instructions. Clearly.”
The others half-laughed and turned away, obviously not in the mood to argue about it. I preferred that. It was irrational, but I didn’t want to send my eldrin away. Ever since the attack in the basement, I had been afraid of something coming out of nowhere to get me. Either from my dreams or from a nearby open window. I carried this lingering dread from the attack.
It felt like the terror from the abyssal hells hung around like a dark fog through the halls of the Academy.
I shook the thought away and patted Twain through the blanket. Despite being buried in the sheets, he purred.
A camping trip away from Astra Academy started to seem a little more appealing to me in that moment.
TRAVELING THROUGH GATES
A new dawn.
Light cascaded through the giant window, brightening the dorm. I slid off my bed and dressed before Twain even awoke. Then I scooped up my kitten eldrin, and my small bag of belongings, and headed for the door. Everyone else had already left the room, leaving me and Twain as the last to depart. It surprised me—had everyone else gotten up before sunrise?—but I didn’t dwell on the situation long.
Anxiety hounded me. It crept up my spine and across my scalp, giving me goosebumps. I hurried into the common room between dorms, wanting to see someone, I didn’t care who. The thought of being alone just didn’t sit right.
Luck was on my side today. People stood around the common room in small groups.
I walked around large, blue couches set up in a pleasant half-circle near another large window. Pathways to the treehouse were built into most sills, allowing for eldrin to come into the Academy from the outside. The window was shut, keeping the cool air at bay, but the glass was clean and polished, and it was easy to forget it was even there.
There were twenty-seven first-year arcanists attending the Academy. Nine of them were in my class—Class One. The common room connected all dorms, and while I didn’t really know the other first-year students, I was happy to have them around. They chatted with one another, most wearing their velvety robes.
Were all the classes going camping?
It didn’t look like it.
Sorin had told me to pack for the trip, which was why I had a bag slung over my shoulder, but none of the other classes had any of their belongings on them.
“Shouldn’t we be heading to the lake?” Twain asked. Then he yawned, his little kitten body shaking as he did so. “That’s where Sorin said we should meet him.”
I smiled as I said, “There’s someone I want to speak with.”
I stepped around the other first-years until I reached the far couch. Ashlyn and Phila sat together, conversing in hushed voices. When I approached, they both fell silent and turned to me.
Ashlyn’s blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail, secured with a decorative strap of leather woven into her locks. She wore a pair of tight white trousers under her robes, along with a black vest and similarly colored shirt. For some reason, she reminded me of an adventuring scholar.
It was probably her athletic build and keen gaze. She also had a pouch tied to her belt, and a backpack stuffed with supplies sitting on the cushion next to her.
Ashlyn stood and gave me the once-over, her blue eyes quickly darting over me. Then she frowned and placed a hand on her hip.
“You don’t look prepared,” she stated, her voice flat.
I wore my usual outfit: a simple pair of trousers, boots, and a tunic. My school robes were over my shoulders, but they hung loose. My clothing wasn’t as neatly tailored as hers.
Compared to Ashlyn, I probably looked like a vagabond.
“Good morning to you, too,” I sarcastically said with a slight bow.
A growl of irritation caught my attention.
Ashlyn’s eldrin—a typhoon dragon—came into the common room through the window. I hadn’t heard the window open or felt the cold winds of morning, but the dragon had walked along the branch of the gigantic treehouse and slid into the room.
The beast’s scales came in every shade of blue, from the indigo of twilight to the deep aqua of the ocean. He was a dragon of the water, which meant he didn’t have wings. Instead, Ashlyn’s typhoon dragon had large fins across most of his body.
Ecrib. That was his name.
The dragon was as large as a couch, and when he came stomping over, his claws scraping across the stone floor, several students leapt out of the way.
“Is this kitten arcanist giving you trouble?” Ecrib asked as he sauntered around his arcanist. The tip of his tail twitched as he shot me a glare with his golden eyes.
“Ha, ha, very funny,” I said as I rolled my eyes.
Twain puffed his fur until he was nothing but a large ball of fluff. “I’m a kitten who can kick your tail, I’ll have you know.”
The gills on Ecrib’s long neck flared as he hissed. I stepped away, concerned we might get into an actual fight.
Ashlyn patted her eldrin’s shoulder. “Calm down. It’s too early for this.” She eyed me again. “I just think Gray needs to rethink what he’s wearing for the trip.” She pushed her bangs to the side, revealing the arcanist mark on her forehead.
Her seven-pointed star had a typhoon dragon—fins and all—laced between the points.
When Phila stood from the couch, she startled me.
I had forgotten she was even there.
Unlike Ashlyn, who had the muscle and physique of an adventurer, Phila was delicate. Her long, strawberry-blonde hair went all the way to her waist, and it practically glistened in the morning light as she ran her long fingers through it.
Phila had an artist’s expression. Wide-eyed and dreamy, like she saw the world differently than the rest of us. With a smile, she tilted her head and met my gaze.
“I think Gray is perfectly prepared for this trip,” Phila said. She gestured to my ill-fitted clothing. “No matter the weather, he’s sure to be comfortable.” Then she pointed to my small bag. “And he isn’t encumbered by unnecessary weight.”
Ashlyn glanced between me and my bag. She maintained her dismissive frown. Her dragon joined in the frowning.
“You’ve participated in a camping event before, right, Gray?” Phila asked. “You must’ve experienced so many.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What makes you think that?” And hadn’t Sorin said it was a camping trip and not a camping event? Did she even know what she was talking about?
“You’re an islander, aren’t you?” Phila patted her lower lip with a single finger. “You must sleep outside and in small tents all the time. That’s what my nursemaid said. She said the islands flood with water from storms. Well, the islands without arcanists protecting them, that is.”
I bit my tongue to prevent myself from getting too sarcastic.
What did Phila know about island life?
Phila wore a similar outfit to Ashlyn’s. Tight, white pants. A beautiful black vest. But she wore a pink shirt underneath, one fashioned from silk and decorated with tiny beads around the collar and sleeves. Her family had coin to spare—it was obvious—and from what I knew of Phila, she had grown up in a palace, far from the Academy.
She knew nothing about the Isle of Haylin.
Sure, we had storms. And yes, sometimes we had to go to the storm shed to weather the downpour, but that didn’t mean we slept on the ground or in tents! Camping wasn’t an event we participated in because—where would we have gone? The island wasn’t large enough to justify sleeping in a location other than home. I could walk from one side of the island to the other in less than a day.
“We should emulate Gray,” Phila said as she crossed her arms. She glanced me up and down, taking her time to examine my clothing. “We don’t want to look like we’re new to this. I want to blend in. I want to look like an islander.”
Ashlyn half-smiled and shrugged. Her dragon wrapped his tail around her legs, holding her close, his mouth somehow also curled in a smile, like Ecrib knew exactly what she was thinking.
“Captain Leon said the student who earned the best marks on this trip would be given a special trinket made by the artificers here at Astra Academy.” Ashlyn patted her eldrin. “So, while Gray may be more comfortable, I’m not here to relax. I’m here to win.”
She said every word with the intensity of a challenge.
Twain puffed his fur, obviously feeling the same.
A trinket was a minor magical item, but they were still useful and rather expensive. I had never owned one. Winning one from this camping trip would be a fantastic way to show the elitists of the school that I was a contender to watch, even if I had been raised on a backwater island.
“Well, I don’t know if your fancy clothing will make up for your inexperience,” I said. Even though I knew nothing about building schools, camping, or dealing with highwaymen, Phila and Ashlyn didn’t know that. “This is second nature to Twain and me. We already have this in the bag.”
My confidence seemed to shake some of Ashlyn’s away. But her hesitation was quickly replaced by fire. She huffed and then smiled, as though eager to get this started.
“I underestimated you before,” Ashlyn said, sweet but cold. “Your tricks won’t catch me off guard this time. And I’m already number one in our class.”
“It’s a friendly competition, then. May the best student win.”
We locked eyes for a couple of seconds. Phila glanced between us, a slight frown on her face. My shoulders started to hurt from the strain of keeping my posture as straight and tall as possible. Competing with Ashlyn would be difficult—but I wasn’t going to let her know I was thinking that.
Phila brushed back some of her long hair. “Well, while the two of you are dueling over honor, I shall investigate the natural phenomena of our destination.”
Ashlyn turned to Phila, her eyes narrowed. “What natural phenomena?”
“I asked the professors why a tiny village existed out in the middle of nowhere. They told me it was because of the waterfalls. They’re magical, and the locals bathe in them.”
“Why?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s why I need to investigate.” Phila smiled afterward, her attention drifting with her imagination.
“My arcanist,” a soft voice called out. “I have your things, my arcanist.”
We all turned to spot Phila’s eldrin—a beautiful coatl. He was a five-foot-long corn snake with white and orange scales and beautifully colorful wings, much like a parrot’s. What was his name? Tenoch. Yeah. That was it.
Coatls were considered rare and powerful. Once Tenoch was fully grown, I assumed he would be gigantic, but right now, he was just a hatchling. His wings were the size of a raven’s, and his body was thin.
Which was awkward because Tenoch was attempting to drag Phila’s backpack across the ground. He had his little snake tail wrapped around the straps, and he struggled to haul the overly-stuffed bag even just a few feet.
“I’m almost there,” Tenoch said with a hissy wheeze. He yanked the heavy backpack half a foot more across the stone floor. “Don’t worry, my arcanist. I have this.”
Ecrib huffed and then stomped over. Typhoon dragons were so large that, even as a hatchling himself, Ecrib was more than twenty times the size of Tenoch. Ecrib grabbed Phila’s backpack with his claw and effortlessly lifted it from the floor. Phila’s coatl—too stubborn to let go—dangled from the strap of the pack. The coatl spread his wings and flashed his fangs, hissing at the dragon.
“It’s my sacred duty to help my arcanist,” Tenoch shrieked.
“You’re pathetic,” Ecrib said as he carried the backpack—and the coatl—over to Phila. “This will be faster.”
“I should catch up with my brother.” I turned away from the comical scene, allowing my shoulders to relax. My irrational fears about the abyssal hells had disappeared, and now all I wanted to do was spend time with Sorin.
“Wait,” Ashlyn said.
I stopped and glanced over my shoulder.
“Let’s go together.”
Phila, Ecrib, and Tenoch all turned to me. There was a tense moment where they exchanged strange looks. For some reason, I suspected they thought this was an odd arrangement.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Ashlyn hefted her backpack onto her shoulder and then jogged over to my side.
“Hmm,” Twain said as he snuggled into my arms. “They better keep up!”
That was an ironic statement coming from a kitten who refused to walk himself anywhere. I had to carry him, either on my shoulders or in my arms, lest he wildly complain.
Once the others had joined us, we all traveled together through the halls of Astra Academy.
The plan, apparently, was to take the Gates of Crossing to an area close to our intended destination. I spotted the rest of Class One out on the docks of the nearby lake. Astra Academy had been built along a mountain range. Parts of the campus were located on several peaks, including one that was permanently awash in thick, white clouds.
The mountain lake near the Academy had five Gates of Crossing fixed in the water. Each gate was an impressive circular ring made of metal, all of them large enough to allow for a three-masted ship to sail through. The Gates of Crossing were shaped like an ouroboros—a serpent eating its own tail—and engraved across each were images of rizzels. Those ferret-like creatures were masters of teleportation, and their magic was the key to the gates.
I found my brother on the edge of the dock, standing a few feet from the others as he examined the water. The rest of our class stood around on the wood planks of the pier, none of them saying a word to the others.
A single boat was prepared for travel. It wasn’t anything impressive—just a single mast, and no real hold to speak of. It was a fishing boat, nothing more.
Was it going to take us through one of the gates?
Sorin turned to face me as I came walking down the dirt path.
“Gray,” he said with a smile. Then he held out his arms and embraced me as soon as I was close enough. “You’re finally awake!”
The morning sun hung low in the sky. How was I late? This was still considered early.
I returned Sorin’s embrace, but that just meant Twain was squished between us. My eldrin made disgruntled noises until we broke apart.
Using poetic rhythm for his speech, Sorin said, “With the sun as our ally, and the wind as our friend, we shall brave the unknown, where we shall transcend.”
I grabbed Sorin by the collar of his robes and pulled him to the side. “You need to stop that,” I said in a hushed voice. “And we’re not using the wind to travel. You remember the Gates of Crossing, don’t you? We’re teleporting.”
Sorin pulled his robes from my grip and then patted his clothing back into place. He wore the same outfit as I did—our father hadn’t had much to give us before we had gone to the Academy—but Sorin’s barely wrapped around his barrel-like body.
“I remember the gates,” he said, his voice low. “The wind was more of a metaphor for travel.”
The shadows shifted around my brother’s feet as his eldrin moved around. I ignored the darkness and instead pointed to one of the nearby Gates of Crossing.
“You should come up with a tribute to one of those.” I shrugged. “They’re powerful artifacts. Impressive feats of magic.”
My brother’s eyebrows knitted together.
But he didn’t finish his sentence.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
In a whisper, Sorin replied, “They remind me of the upside-down gate.”
The upside-down gate.
According to legend, the abyssal hells had been sealed closed with an upside-down gate. That was why the gate in the basement had been upside down. Professor Zahn had done his research and had gone way out of his way to make the perfect portal. The Gates of Crossing in the lake were similar to the one Zahn had created, but each was slightly smaller and had been made with less magic, apparently. They wouldn’t take us to the abyssal hells.
“You liked the gates when they brought us to Astra Academy,” I said.
“But…” Sorin rubbed at the back of his neck. “I just don’t think I’ll be able to think of something epic and poetic when all I can imagine is the abyssal dragon and the Death Lord.”
“C’mon. Nothing is as epic as a Death Lord.”
Nothing was as terrifying, either. But I didn’t say that. I wanted my brother to focus on concocting some other poem or phrase so he would be distracted for the travel. He liked spinning words into cute little poetic sayings, but I suspected no one else appreciated it. They all probably thought it was silly and childish. I was just trying to save my brother from the inevitable embarrassment.
“I guess you’re right,” Sorin eventually muttered. “Death Lord Deimos was impressive, even if he was dark and frightening. I’ll try to use him as inspiration for something.”
“I think it’s for the best,” his eldrin said, the knightmare’s voice drifting up from the shadows, disembodied and haunting. “You should turn your fears into a battle cry to intimidate your foes.”
“Also, poetry is like any other skill,” I said. “You gotta practice in order to get good. You can’t just rhyme things together and call it art. That’s insulting. You need to really invest yourself into the words. People don’t pick up a sword one time and call themselves a swordsman. That takes time and practice. Same with poetry.”
Sorin nodded as he stared at the darkness around his feet. “Yeah… You’re right. I need practice. And I need to learn more… I need to progress.”
I liked this. Perhaps Sorin would cut down on the number of times he burst out into random poetry.
I patted Sorin’s shoulder. “All right. Let’s get this whole camping trip over with.” I turned and glanced around, searching for Captain Leon and the professors.
Where was Helmith?
I didn’t see Professor Helmith anywhere.
Guardian Captain Leon was obvious, though. His short, white hair fluttered in the wind like a dying flame. He stood on the gangplank of our fishing vessel, his armor shining in the morning sunlight. It wasn’t a full suit of metal armor—just the chest piece and a shoulder pauldron. He wore sturdy trousers, leather gloves, and an impatient expression.
“Listen up,” Captain Leon shouted. “Everyone should form a line and file onto the boat. Keep your belongings with you. We won’t be on this ship long.”
He had a neat beard on his chin, and he stroked it as everyone in our class slowly complied with his command. Captain Leon’s skin had known the sun for years. It was tanned and leathery, and he seemed like the sort of person who thrived away from civilization. The mark on his forehead was a seven-pointed star with a three-headed dog woven throughout.
When Captain Leon caught me staring, he narrowed his eyes. “You Lexly boys doin’ okay?”
Occasionally, he seemed to speak with an accent. I wasn’t sure where he was from. Not the islands, that was for sure.
“We’re fine,” Sorin said as he waved his hand. “Thank you!”
“Why are you thanking him?” I whispered as we took our position at the end of the line.
“For looking out for us.”
I held Twain close to my chest and lifted an eyebrow. “Maybe he thought we were troublemakers.”
Sorin shook his head. “Nah. Captain Leon has been asking about us all the time since…” My brother lowered his voice as he said, “Since the basement.” Then he resumed his normal volume. “I think he’s just worried about us.”
I hadn’t thought of that. It made sense. Captain Leon had almost died fighting Zahn; the doppelgänger arcanist, Seven; and Death Lord Deimos. If Leon hadn’t been there, I suspected Sorin and I wouldn’t be here, either.
“Nini?” Captain Leon called out. He pointed at her. “You okay?”
Nini walked over and took her spot in the line right behind me. She kept her gaze down as she nodded. “I’m fine.”
“Good,” Captain Leon replied with a huff.
Nini had also been in the basement. Sorin’s theory held more weight, it seemed. Captain Leon was concerned about all three of us. Which was unexpectedly kind of him, if I was being honest. He tended to rely on yelling as his primary form of communication.
“The Academy looks horrible,” Nini whispered as she turned around and squinted.
Everyone in line turned to glance up at Astra Academy.
It sat on the top of the nearby mountain, its black, stone walls, giant windows, and pointed towers a glorious sight to see. Except for the massive hole in the lower section of the back wing. It was a destroyed wreck—a gaping wound left over from the battle with the Death Lord. Zahn’s modified Gate of Crossing, the one that had led to the abyssal hells, had exploded so thoroughly that bits of it had gone everywhere, including through the stone walls.
Headmaster Venrover had summoned some of the professors’ arcanists to help repair the damage, but they hadn’t yet arrived, apparently.
At least the treehouse was still in one piece. None of the exploded gate had ripped through the colossal redwood that grew on the eastern side of the Academy. Even from our spot on the docks—at least a mile away from the tree—I spotted the many rooms and personal spaces for mystical creatures all throughout the trunk.
“You were here less than a month, and already you ruined the place,” someone said.
The prissy tone and snooty commentary were instantly recognizable. I slowly turned to face Starling, the unicorn. The little foal clopped his hooves on the pier and swished his ivory mane back and forth. His horn, made of pristine bone, was still small, only a few inches in length. Once Starling was a fully grown unicorn, it would be an impressive sight, but right now, he was just a baby horse, practically all legs.
Knovak patted Starling. I didn’t know when Knovak found the time, but he had altered his pointed hat to include a small stitching of a unicorn’s head, complete with the horn. I suspected he had done that because half his arcanist mark was covered by the hat.
“I’m surprised the headmaster didn’t have you help clean it all up,” Knovak commented.
I just narrowed my eyes into a sardonic glare. “You know it wasn’t me who made a gate to the abyssal hells, right? It’s not my fault there was an explosion.”
Starling lifted his little muzzle into the air. “Hm! I’m sure you had some hand in it. I’ve seen the way you Lexly twins operate. Shady. You use all sorts of questionable methods. If my arcanist and I had been there that night, we would’ve handled things in an organized way, thank you very much.”
I opened my mouth to lash out with something sarcastic, but Sorin quickly placed a hand on my shoulder. He knew me too well. I bit back my commentary.
“I bet you two would’ve been great to have during the fight with the Death Lord,” Sorin said, smiling through it all. “I heard unicorn arcanists used to be honorable knights, known throughout the lands.”
“Now they’re just washed-up nobles,” I commented under my breath. Sorin jabbed me with his elbow. I held back the rest of my statements.
Knovak grabbed the brim of his cap and turned away from us.
Sorin and I couldn’t ever seem to get along with that guy, it seemed.
“Hurry up now,” Captain Leon said, jerking me out of my thoughts. “We should be sailing out soon.”
One by one, our class funneled onto the fishing boat.
Ashlyn first, with her typhoon dragon, Ecrib.
Exie second. She liked to keep herself in Ashlyn’s shadow whenever possible. She wore a long, white dress, which was probably the single worst outfit someone could wear on a trip to build a school, but I wasn’t about to say anything. I’d just laugh to myself whenever she attempted to do anything.
Exie’s eldrin, an erlking by the name of Rex, flew through the air behind her, leaving an illusion trail of afterimages. His wings were like a peacock’s, and his little body was covered in fancy clothes. More illusions? That was what erlkings were known for, after all.
Phila was third on the ship, followed by her coatl—still dragging her overstuffed backpack and breathing like a bellow.
Raaza and his kitsune leapt up the gangplank afterward. Both of them seemed quick and nimble, and Raaza hadn’t packed much outside of what he was wearing. His large hat shielded him from the sun.
Knovak and Starling both pranced onto the ship. They were made for each other.
Sorin and Nini managed to get on the gangplank next. My brother smiled at Nini the entire time. He whispered something to her, and she giggled. Her reaper, Waste, floated nearby, but he didn’t need to walk on the pier or the plank of wood. Waste just floated along, untethered by gravity. His empty cloak body was still disturbing, though, even if it was intellectually interesting how he moved about.
That left me and…
He was a golem arcanist, and his eldrin, a sandstone golem by the name of Brak, stood on the pier. Nasbit’s eyebrows were knitted, and he continually wrung his hands together, even as I walked by him.
He was a portly fellow—large and pillowy, like a sack of grass. Nasbit wore the fine clothing of nobility, just like Ashlyn and Phila. Silky shirt. Tailored vest. Pants that fit a little too snug. His velvet robes were tied shut in the front, probably to hide some of his gut, but I wasn’t judging. People came in all shapes and sizes, after all. And there were more important things in life to worry about than one’s silhouette.
“Aren’t you getting on the ship?” Twain asked as we walked by.
Nasbit exhaled. Then he gestured to his golem. “I’m not sure if Brak will make it up the gangplank.”
Brak was a hefty mystical creature. It was made of large stones all held together through magic. Bright gold flecks of dirt were speckled throughout the boulders of its body, glittering in the sunlight. The golem had no eyes or mouth—or fingers or toes. It was just a massive beast, a little over four feet tall.
It was… heavier than all the other creatures, including Ashlyn’s typhoon dragon.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I said with a wave of my hand.
Nasbit poked his fingers together and then frowned.
“What’s wrong with you two?” Captain Leon snapped. He stood on the deck of the ship, glaring at us like we were insane. “Just get aboard!”
Nasbit and his golem didn’t move, however.
“You heard the captain,” I whispered.
“I’m worried.” Nasbit kept his voice to barely a breath of volume. “What if I break the gangplank? I’ll make a fool of myself. I mean, the others already make fun of me for my weight…”
I hadn’t heard of that. It didn’t surprise me, though. Sometimes people were cruel and made fun of anything they could see.
With a sigh, I glanced down at Twain. My mimic stared at me for a long moment before realization dawned upon him. Once Twain understood what I wanted, I glanced back at Nasbit. “I’ll go up first. I’ll make sure the gangplank can support your eldrin’s weight.”
Nasbit frowned in confusion.
That was when I dropped Twain to my feet. I closed my eyes and concentrated on our surroundings. The magic in the nearby area felt like threads to me. Strings. They all led back to a source. I just needed to tug on a specific thread—to make the connection taut.
I picked the stone golem.
With all my focus, I tugged on Brak’s thread.
Twain meowed. Then he bubbled and shifted, his whole kitten body practically exploding outward in a burst of rock and sandstone. He grew large, his fur disappeared, and then so did his facial features and claws. He warped into an exact replica of Brak.
The star on my forehead—normally empty—filled with the image of a stone golem.
Nasbit’s eyes grew wide. “Oh! You’re going to test the gangplank for me?”
I patted his shoulder. “Glad you’re keepin’ up.”
Before he could reply, I briskly walked up the gangplank and stopped on the deck of the ship. Everyone from our class watched as Twain lumbered up after me. His stone stomps strained the plank of wood. It groaned in protest, but it never broke.
The handful of sailors on the ship watched, their mouths agape.
I hadn’t realized how amusing this was.
Once Twain was on the ship, he shimmered and shifted back into his kitten form. The rocks disappeared, and his orange fur puffed back out across his body. A veil of magic faded from his body as he dashed over to my feet.
My arcanist mark changed again, reverting to an empty star. The shift never hurt, but I felt it every time—my skin rearranging itself.
“It’s all good,” I said, loud enough for Nasbit to hear me on the pier. “This whole ship is sturdy. I like it.”
Nasbit and his stone golem shuffled onto the ship a moment later. None of the other arcanists paid attention—they were now focused on Captain Leon, who held a star shard in his hand.
The star shard wasn’t large—it was just the size of his thumb—but it sparkled with the brilliance of a dozen stars. The inside of the shard was filled with magic and power, and it captured the attention of everyone in the vicinity.
“Now that everyone is finally aboard,” Captain Leon said, obviously holding back a quip, “it’s time to go over a few things. We’ll be heading to the very edge of the empire, far from most roads and civilization. Then we’ll camp near a tiny village known as Red Cape. We’ll be learning the art of survival, as well as the beauty of cultivation and community service.”
He made the last part sound as dull as mud.
The rest of my class must’ve felt the same way, because not a single person said a word, not even while Leon waited in silence. Was he expecting a round of applause? Why the pause?
When no one did anything, Leon cleared his throat and continued.
“Treat this camping trip like one long extended class session. We’ll be practicing our evocation, and I’ll also be teaching you all your manipulation abilities. As a cerberus arcanist, I evoke fire, and then I can manipulate fire. Some arcanists manipulate different things—unrelated to their evocation—and while some of you have already begun expanding your magical knowledge, I would recommend you wait for my instructions.”
Raaza groaned loud enough to be heard from the Academy’s tallest tower.
The heavy stomp and huff of a large creature drew everyone’s attention away from Leon. I glanced over my shoulder and spotted a fully grown cerberus running down the pier. It was Sticks, Leon’s eldrin. The three-headed dog was a massive creature. His black-and-rust fur—thin and shiny—barely covered the dog’s rippling muscles.
Sticks galloped up the gangplank and then hurried over to his arcanist’s side, two of his three heads panting. The third head—the one in the center—carried a small pouch in his mouth.
Sticks also wore a saddlebag, something typically meant for horses. Both bags were stuffed full of supplies.
Captain Leon patted his eldrin on the head. Sticks wagged his long tail, practically whipping Knovak in the face. Fortunately, Knovak stumbled out of the way just in time.
“Now that we’re all here, I have an announcement,” Captain Leon said with a smile. “We will have a competition, of sorts. I’ll be awarding points for your performance during the trip. The individual with the highest score at the end wins a trinket.”
The ship filled with whispers and excited murmurs. Ashlyn and I exchanged a knowing glance. When our gazes met, I smiled. She answered with a smirk.
“Oh, one last thing.” Leon held up a hand. With a cold and serious tone, he added, “There are rumors of highwaymen near our target destination. If we should stumble upon these fiends, it will be our job to handle them. As your instructor, I will give you clear directions when—or if—the time comes.”
Raaza perked up at this announcement, like it had been specifically crafted for him. His eldrin flashed fire from her feet as she danced around him.
Captain Leon gave us all a final once-over. “And that’s it. Let’s set sail!”
But there was someone who still wasn’t here.
“Wait,” I called out.
Everyone turned to face me, even Sticks, all three heads.
“Where’s Professor Helmith?”
The others in my class quickly exchanged glances and snickers. Someone whispered, “Of course he’s anxious to see her.” Someone else commented, “Does he ever even think of anyone else?”
Captain Leon ignored the hushed murmurs. “She’ll be joining us there,” he said. “No need to worry about it.”
I wanted to make a joke about how Leon hadn’t recognized the signs that Helmith had been in danger before, but again, I just kept it to myself. Sorin wouldn’t appreciate a sarcastic quip, and the, what would Sorin do? test seemed to be working so far. I was trying to keep my sardonic comments to myself.
“I was just curious,” I said.
Captain Leon walked to the bow of the ship and planted a foot up on the railing. He grimaced slightly, and I suspected he hadn’t stretched that far in some time. “We, er, are ready to set sail,” he said through gritted teeth. Leon didn’t move from his position. I suspected he couldn’t without rolling to the side.
The sailors knew what he wanted, though. They set our little fishing boat in motion. The single sail carried us toward the Gate of Crossing in the center of the lake, and while Leon remained at the bow the entire time, it wasn’t long before we were nearing the silver ring of metal.
The star shard in Captain Leon’s hand glowed a bright white. He tossed it onto the deck of the ship.
And that was when we sailed through the ring.
FOX FIRE PRACTICE
The etching around the Gates of Crossing glowed with the same light as the star shard
The brightness blinded me.
I held up an arm to shield my eyes. Where were we going? The moment the ship teleported, I stumbled forward, shaken. The light vanished, and I regained my ability to see. We had arrived at another body of water. It wasn’t a lake, but the ocean. An ocean. I wasn’t sure which.
The waters were a vivid blue laced with green, the white foam at the edges of the waves a welcome sight. I missed the fierce waters of the ocean. They were beautiful and deadly at the same time. If sailors weren’t careful, the waves would claim their lives.
Twain leapt up to my shoulder. He dug his claws into my clothing. “Where are we?”
I chuckled to myself. Then I pointed to a spot beyond the bow. “There. See the shoreline? It’s that dark spot. It’s probably Red Cape.”
“Look at those waves!” Twain’s fur puffed out, making him into a spherical orange mass. “And all that salt! Yuck. I hate everything about this.”
“I love it.”
Twain’s ears went flat against his skull. “Boo. I don’t like it when we disagree.”
I patted him along his back, scratching near his bobtail. “Then I’ll just have to change your mind, won’t I? How much do you like… fish?”
His ears immediately perked back up. “More than I like breathing.”
“Then I’ve got good news.”
The ocean winds picked up, breezing across the deck. Leon and his cerberus stood near the bow, both staring at our intended destination. Leon had his hands on his hips like this was the start of an epic adventure.
Exie walked across the deck and approached me. The gusts played with her white dress, practically tangling it around her legs. Exie stumbled once before correcting her posture and huffing in irritation. Her erlking flew next to her, occasionally spinning in the air after a strong blast of wind whipped by.
Her curly, chestnut hair was pinned down to keep it from flying about. Exie had a knack for maintaining her regal beauty, even in the worst of conditions.
She was definitely the prettiest one here.
It wasn’t much of a competition, though. The others in our class didn’t seem too concerned with appearances. Well, that wasn’t true. Knovak was definitely invested—he just wasn’t as good as Exie in the execution department.
“Good morning, Gray,” Exie said as she walked up to my side. “How are you?”
Even her speech felt rehearsed and polished.
“Pretty good.” I shrugged. “No nightmares, which is all that matters, right?”
Exie forced a laugh and then waved one of her hands. “So true.” Then she cleared her throat. “But the real reason I came over was because you’re an islander, right? I was hoping—because I’m not very well versed in all this—that you might help me once we reach land.”
“Help you do what?”
“You know. Find my way around. Assist me in all the physical tasks. Help me with the assignments so I can gain points. Introduce me to the local arcanists. That kind of thing.”
“I’ve never been to Red Cape.” I offered her a shrug. “It’s not an island. It’s just a port city on the coast. I have no idea who the arcanists are.”
“But you can find them?” Exie narrowed her eyes. “I just need your help, Gray. A simple yes would suffice.”
“A simple please would go a long way, too.”
I probably shouldn’t have been sarcastic. Exie’s mood soured in real time, her frown forming in a matter of seconds. She really didn’t like me. I didn’t much care for her, either. She had been rather rude to Nini, even making her cry, and I had never forgotten it.
Rex, her erlking fairy, fluttered close. “Your disrespectful attitude is unbecoming of a student from Astra Academy.” He had a cute little voice that undercut his chiding. “My arcanist asked for your assistance. A chivalrous and noble arcanist would have accepted in an instant.”
Twain cuddled his kitten body close to my neck. “Uh, I’m pretty sure anyone can walk around a port and ask for the local arcanists. She doesn’t need our help.”
Erlkings were strange little creatures. They were fairies—with humanoid bodies—but Rex’s skin was an odd color, similar to ash. Despite that fact, his face grew red as he clenched his little fist. Then he waved his hand, and an explosion of bugs flew straight for Twain and me.
I leapt backward, flailing my arms, completely caught off guard.
Twain hissed and swiped his claws.
Bees, wasps, mosquitoes, and gnats swarmed around my head, landing on my cheeks and crawling toward my eyes. The sudden panic actually gave me a moment of clarity.
Erlkings evoked illusions.
None of this was real.
With my heart pounding, I forced myself to stop flailing around. Twain was a little slower to catch on. His claws dug into my shoulder as he took turns swiping with his left and right paws, his fur puffed out to its fullest extent again.
“I’m so sorry about that,” Exie said as she grabbed her erlking out of the air. She hugged her eldrin close. “Rex is just a little touchy. You understand.” With a smug smile—like she delighted in my panic but didn’t want to admit it—Exie patted Rex on his head.
The bugs vanished just as quickly as they had appeared.
Twain gulped down a breath, his eyes wide, his pupils dilated.
“Well, I’ll be on my way, then. Sorry to bother you.” Exie wheeled around on her heel and strode off down the deck of the ship, her dress threatening to catch around her legs a second time.
She went straight for my brother.
I almost wanted to storm over and tell Exie to leave my brother alone, but that was ridiculous. My brother was a grown man. He could make his own decisions. I was certain he would be kinder than I had been. Sorin never turned someone down if they asked for help—even if their request was preposterous.
Twain huffed as he twitched his whiskers. “I don’t like illusions.”
“Do you know anything about them? What if you transformed into an erlking?” I laced my fingers together and then rested my hands on top of my head. “That’s an evocation we should master in our free time.”
“I don’t know. It seems… difficult.”
“It’ll be fine. We can do anything we set our minds to.”
Twain turned to face me, his eyes narrowed. “I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.”
I shrugged. “Hey—I’m just trying to be optimistic. Also, I made some pretty big claims in class about being the most magically powerful one here, and it would be embarrassing to mess up now.”
Twain snorted out a little laugh. “I think you need a better reason to become a talented arcanist. Not embarrassing yourself seems too low a bar for us.” He puffed out his chest. “We’re amazing, and we need amazing goals to aspire to.”
I turned my attention to Ashlyn. She stood at the starboard railing of the ship, her typhoon dragon by her side. She waved her hand over the side, and water splashed up to greet her palm. Was she practicing her manipulation? Could typhoon dragons control water? It made sense.
Even now, she was practicing.
It made me angry, but in an excitable way. It wasn’t the same frustration I felt with Exie. This was different. When I glanced over at Ashlyn and saw her practicing, it made me think, Why aren’t I doing that?
It made me feel like I was falling behind.
And I couldn’t have that.
Determined to improve my own magic, I headed for the port side of the ship. On my way, someone else hurried to speak with me.
The scarred man practically tackled me onto the deck. He hurried over, his kitsune hot on his heels. They were by my side in an instant, Raaza’s face set in a glower, his kitsune’s eyes also narrowed, mimicking his mood.
“Gray,” he said. “I thought we would teleport closer to port.”
“Professor Helmith told me the Gates of Crossing are set up far at sea to safeguard against crashing. Ya know—so people aren’t surprised by what they find on the other side of the port.”
“That’s fine. And logical. But now it’ll be a good thirty minutes before we’re docked.” Raaza grabbed the brim of his wide hat and shielded his eyes from the sunlight. “I don’t want to waste that much time. Train with me. Help me get better.”
I almost made the same joke I had made with Exie—no one wanted to say please anymore—but Raaza wasn’t even asking. He was demanding. Did it really matter? I had been about to train anyway.
“All right,” I said.
“Good.” Raaza half-smiled. “My fox fire is unique and special. Since I can create tangible illusions, the possibilities are endless.”
“Why do you need my help?” I asked.
“Because my imagination will be the limitations of my fox fire, and you’re an individual who likes to think outside of the box. Help me think of useful ways to use my ability.”
Raaza held out both hands, palms facing skyward. A burst of red fire lit up our portion of the deck, but just for a moment. When the flames died, both his hands held a gold coin each.
“I’ve seen your coins before,” I said. “Can you make anything else yet?”
“Not currently… Coins were the first thing I manifested, and since then, it’s like I’ve had a mental block. It’s the only thing I can create.”
With a shrug, I said, “Well, you can use those to buy things.” Then I half-laughed.
That didn’t amuse Raaza, though. He just shot me a glare.
“Way to think outside the box,” he snapped. “If you have the mind of a common thief, I’ll go elsewhere.”
I sighed. “It was a joke. Besides, I can’t help you unless I know the circumstances you’re in. Are you creating coins in the middle of combat? Or are you in town?”
Raaza’s kitsune, Miko, trotted up to me, her fluffy tail swishing. “I have a scenario. We’re hunting down a villain. No, wait! Highwaymen. We’re hunting down the highwaymen.”
She leapt into the air and landed with all four feet spread, as though on the prowl.
Then Miko continued. “Then the highwaymen stop at a river,” she whispered, her voice harsh and overly dramatic. “And we want to sneak up on them. How would you use fox fire?”
Twain purred slightly as he said, “Oh, I like this.” His eyes grew wide, and his pupils expanded to circles. “It’s like we’re detectives, trying to bring in the villains.”
Although Raaza had come to me asking for solutions, he held up a finger to answer Miko. “I could throw the coin into the water to distract them. While they’re investigating, I can sneak up from behind.”
“The villains might just think it’s a fish,” I said. “Then they would ignore it, and you’ve wasted time.”
Raaza slowly nodded. “True.”
“Just because you’re limited to creating coins doesn’t mean you have to think about them like coins.” I grabbed one out of Raaza’s hand and then held it up between two fingers. I turned it around until one side caught the sunlight and glinted. “See that? You could hang the coin in a tree so it catches the light. Then the villains would see the twinkle in the forest and get intrigued. As they stomp over to your hanging coin, you’re lying in wait with plenty of traps.”
Raaza’s eyes went wide. “Traps. Yes. Exactly.”
A bell rang out across the ship.
“We’ll be pulling into port soon,” Leon shouted. “Everyone, gather your things and meet me on the quarterdeck. We’ll be disembarking shortly.”
Although I wanted to spend more time with Raaza and his kitsune, I handed him back his fox fire coin and shoved my hands in my pockets. The bug illusions the erlking had created didn’t have any tactile sensations. Despite the fact that I had seen the creepy crawlers on my cheeks and hands, I hadn’t really felt them. My mind had just filled in the blanks for the few moments I had been panicked.
But Raaza’s fox fire was different.
The coin had been very tangible. Even the light had bounced off it, acting as though it were real.
There were so many possibilities with that—Raaza was right.
How could I use it to my advantage? I would have to think about it for a while.
And that’s it!
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