Varin sat amongst his peers, eyeing each of them with curiosity as they passed by. A few ignored his stares, while others waved and stopped to say a few words. Sitting at a large wooden table, he smiled when Aiora and Thaddius approached and took their seat. They had some soup and a piece of bread, their silverware clanking against the clay bowls. Varin had given the last of his coin as thanks to the cooks. He tried to show appreciation whenever he could, big or small. Too few knew what an act of gratitude could mean for somebody in a lesser position than them.
In the center of the table was a bottle of wine for the trio to share. He felt particularly proud of himself after helping Cateline and training Senevia. So proud, in fact, that he poured himself his second glass gladly.
"Somebody is in a celebratory mood," Thaddius said as he dug into his meal.
Varin simply nodded, taking a sip of his wine. Senevia was a clumsy little girl, her footwork all wrong and her attacks on those poor trees weak at best. Still, she had the ferocity that would make any warrior tremble. If she kept at it, that girl would send even Varin running for the hills. It was doubtful it would ever get that far, for that father of hers would do everything he could to prevent her growth.
"Today has been a good day, Thaddius. Some of us tend to preoccupy ourselves with productive tasks."
"Ouch," Thaddius said, "and here I thought we were off to a good night."
"Oh, it is a good one." Varin smiled at him. "It's always a treat to see you throw a tantrum."
"It'd be awfully nice to see your balls hung by a clothespin," Thaddius grumbled under his breath and the two of them broke out in laughter after a brief moment of silence. Even Aiora chuckled at the crude joke.
Varin's eyes scanned the crowd as it grew thicker; elves, dwarves, and humans were all segregated into groups. While there were cases of intermingling, such as the table Varin sat at, it was common to see the pureblood elves stick their noses up to each time a dwarf made their way past them. It was both humorous and infuriating to watch.
The funniest thing of it all was each time the dwarves sat for their meal, they would make an obnoxious cheer to the elves that sat at the table next to them.
"To life and fortitude, you pointy-eared pricks!" a drunken, red-headed man hollered before taking a swig out of his goblet.
Aiora laughed loudly, covering her mouth as soon as an elf gave a passing glare. "Those rascals ought to be ashamed," Aiora fibbed loudly before cracking up again. Varin smiled at her laughter, watching as her cheeks turned the color of a ripened tomato.
"Lying is not of your skillset," Varin prodded after taking a swig of his drink. The irony of this segregation thrived under one truth: each person here had Elven blood in them. However, being a pureblood elf meant they were far stronger—and entitled—than the average hybrid. Varin was uncertain how much elven blood he had coursing through his veins, but it was enough. He didn't need much, regardless, he only wanted to learn magic to further himself as a warrior. His homeland had few fighters, and if he could go back stronger than ever to defend his mother, and town, that would be enough for him.
This academy was a wonderful place, one that housed guests from all around Denzethea to harness their magic. While most were invited, he knew the headmistress had taken in guests out of pity. Many had crawled to Lighthelm's doors, even more turned away before they could make their case.
Varin had little time to question the methodology she had to pick her scholars, but he was one of the fortunate pity cases. Traveling across seas to an unknown kingdom was one thing, but doing so in hopes to find this specific academy and be welcomed was an entirely different battle. One that he won.
"A maiden should never lie, Varin," Aiora said while batting her eyelashes at him, turning her head as the doors to the hall opened. Suddenly, it was quiet enough to hear a needle drop on the cold, stone floor.
At the opening of those large, creaking doors, was the headmistress and her esteemed guest. They were contrasting elements, it seemed, one of night and one of day.
Leolina held herself tall, her shoulders brought back and white hair pulled into a braid. With hands drawn behind her back, she guided Cateline down the space between the tables, her gaze never shifting away from the area in front of her. Cateline, on the other hand, looked to be a lost puppy. With wide eyes and parted lips, she took long strides to try and keep up with the elven headmistress, even tripping over a few looser pieces of the stone floor.
"That's the new girl, ain't it?" Thaddius said between chews, brow furrowed. "The one outside the tavern?"
"Yes," Varin said with a nod.
Aiora twisted her body to dramatically look over her shoulder, her smile growing wide. "Ah, Cateline! That woman has a stick up her arse, no doubt."
"Aiora," Varin said between a breathy chuckle, "be polite."
"What? It is only the truth!"
Eventually, with a shake of her head, Cateline scurried away from the headmistress to sit down at an empty table. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes darting across the room with nervous haste. She was fearful, for some reason, her lip twitching and brow furrowing at the sight of all the scholars. In fact, when a dwarf made way past her, he could have sworn he saw her jaw drop for the shortest second.
With wandering eyes, Cateline rested her focus on their table. She blinked toward him, offering a small wave before the headmistress grabbed her attention once more. Varin had never seen Leolina take so much care with orienting a new scholar into the academy. People came and went frequently, each otherwise irrelevant to the headmistress. Cateline, however, was important, else Leolina wouldn't pay so much mind to her whereabouts and well being.
Curious, Varin thought, what's so special about this new girl?
Later that evening, Varin followed Thaddius and Aiora around the empty wings. The moon was high in the sky, the only light from flickering flames that danced across the walls. Their laughter was plentiful but quiet, for if they were too loud they would awaken the scholars who rested above their heads.
"So, Thaddius," Aiora said, "where are you taking us? We've been winding around the halls for ages."
"What else is there to do, Aiora? Every time Varin and I go to the tavern, all hell breaks loose! I swear it, the next time we go to grab a drink, demons and angels will be fighting in the sky and raining fire down on us."
"Somehow, that sounds like a good time." Varin smiled, looking back at Aiora. "That woman you were showing around, Cateline?"
"She's trouble, no doubt."
"I have an idea," Thaddius said with a snap, breaking the two from that conversation. "Follow me!"
So, they followed. Their strides long and clumsy, Aiora struggled to keep up with the two taller men. "What about her is trouble, Varin?"
He shrugged. "Just a feeling, Thaddius and I discovered her outside the tavern about to be publicly executed. In the city of Daggernest, a town of farmers and families. How does that happen?"
Aiora's eyes grew wide. "What could she have done? That city is so tame. I've yet to see even a thief there."
"Exactly. And our beloved headmistress seems rather enthralled by the idea of her. It makes me uneasy."
"Leolina has always made me uneasy," Aiora said quietly, lowering her stare to the ground. Tucking her bottom lip between her teeth, she shook her head. "Regardless, I am sure she is fine. Wound tighter than a corkscrew, but fine. You never were one to relax, either."
Varin took note of her shift in body language and held his hands up in mock defeat. "Fine, fair enough." Turning his head, he watched as Thaddius crawled up the western wing. "Thaddius, where do you think you are going?"
"Follow me, worry later!"
Aiora and Varin looked between each other before shrugging, hopping over each step as they traversed up the spiraling stairwell. Just as they arrived at the landing, a loud crash filled the air, Thaddius standing before the broken door with an open mouth. Aiora began to crack up, one hand holding her stomach as the other covered her mouth.
"Thaddius—Thaddius, I must tell you I broke the door, but now that we've caught you red-handed, you've taken the blame!"
"If my head ends up on the end of a spike, I will haunt you until the end of your days."
"Knowing my luck," Aiora said between breaths, "my life won't be long anyway. Haunt away, dear friend."
Grumbling under his breath, he entered the storage room and moved to the doors. Varin sighed and crossed his arms, looking over all the dusty relics that were scattered about. There were candelabras, golden vases, and clay bowls; it was like stepping into the past and looking over all the useless things people have used, and since forgotten in this academy. On the other side of the room, Thaddius was messing with a set of french doors that wouldn't open.
"You know," Aiora said in a whisper and picked up a plate that was cracked down the middle, "I could help him. I was up here the other day with Cateline."
"Ah, yes, when you scared her to near-death by jumping off the balcony?"
"I'd rather call it a stepping stone, Varin. The landing was just beneath my feet!"
"Mhm, but did she know that?"
"Useless information." Aiora laughed, walking over to one of the paintings hung along the wall, a burlap tarp protecting it from the dust. Poorly, mind you, but some protection was better than none. Tugging at the corner, it fell to the floor with a cloud of dust exploding into the air, an old portrait of the headmistress tattered and warped at the corners.
"A picture of youth," Varin said beneath his breath. She was younger in this image, but not by much. Her hair had more yellow than it did currently, and the lines around her mouth nonexistent.
"Or, the artist was generous in his line work."
"That, too." Varin smiled, leaning down to inspect the textured paint closely. "I wonder how old she was when this was painted."
"What is she now? One-Hundred-and-Six?"
"Seven," Thaddius chimed in before grunting loudly, pulling at the door handles as his life depended on it, "or so the rumors say."
"Rumors?" Aiora snickered and walked behind him. "Have you seen the old bat? The woman has been on her last limb for the past decade."
"Looks awfully good for a skeleton—for fucks sake, how do I open this door?"
Aiora gently tapped him on his shoulder, moving him aside as she slithered her fingers over the brass handles. With an abrupt upward tug, the door screamed and opened without a fuss. Thaddius stood, wiped the dust off of his hands, and shrugged.
"I loosened the hinges for you."
"I am sure you did."
Thaddius patted Aiora on her shoulder after a sigh, waving the two of them outside with him. There was a rush of brisk, night air that filled the dank room, the moon shedding some light onto the dusty floorboards.
"Surely you are showing me more than some moonlight? It is far too cold for this."
"A little cold shouldn't hurt you!"
"A little cold? My sleeves are freezing with each breeze," Varin said, grinning.
Thaddius hoisted himself up and wobbled once he was upright on the ledge. Varin watched in amazement, his jaw dropped.
"I knew you had a death wish, Thad, but I didn't know it extended this far," Aiora whispered.
"No death wish," Thaddius said with his tongue stuck between his teeth, "but a yearning for beauty. Come on, you two, follow me."
He wobbled to the other end of the ledge and reached his arms up until the tips of his fingers were barely gripping the ledge of the roof above. After a brief moment of hesitation, he jumped and ground his hooves into the stone siding of the academy. Aiora and Varin stood there in bemusement, watching as he climbed with goat-like agility until he was propped on top of the roof.
Waving comedically, Thaddius urged the two to mimic what he just did. Varin sighed. "Thaddius, there is one issue. I do not have hooves."
"Psht, hooves have nothing to do with it. You either miss out on this view, or you man up—or, woman up—and find a way."
Without waiting for their response, Thaddius stood from his perch and disappeared into the peak of the roof. Looking at his dearest friend, he shrugged his shoulders.
"There is no way I am hoisting myself up on that ledge, I am too clumsy."
Varin looked at the balcony fencing Thaddius had used to climb, pursing his lips before nodding. He walked to the wall, knelt down to his knee, and cupped his hands for Aiora to step on. "Come along, then. I'll hoist you up."
Aiora eyed him carefully, her brow furrowed. "I am not so sure."
"Oh, please, Aiora. You have gone on more grave adventures than this. Worst case scenario, you fall on your arse and we both have a good laugh. That, or you can try to balance on that fence."
"I'll take the former," she sighed and walked up. Placing one hand on his shoulder, she looked down at him and rested her boot in his hands. "Drop me, and you're a dead man."
"It would be a delight to die at your grasp, my dear." Varin was mocking her, and she tightened her grip on his shoulder in response to a painful degree. He sucked in a breath and chuckled when she put her weight on his hand. He lifted her up, feeling the weight relieved when she grabbed a hold of the ledge. He only let go once she got the manpower to lift herself onto the roof.
Varin decided to take the route Thaddius did, and when he balanced himself on that ledge, he dared not breathe. The wind was infrequent but strong, each gust threatening to tip him over to his death. Varin was not a fearful man, but he was one that loathed heights. Each step felt unstable, the ground blurring in and out of focus. With his breath hitching in his throat, he gripped onto the wall the second he approached it and looked up at the ledge.
He was tall, no doubt, but even that ledge felt too far for comfort. He reached toward it, gasping when his fingertips hardly grasped the edge. Aiora looked over him with a worried stare, cocking her head.
"Varin, are you afraid of heights?"
"Nonsense. Just a bit hard to reach is all."
She hummed, moving closer to where he stood and reached out her hand. "Take my hand, then. It is difficult without the help of hooves, isn't it?"
Varin looked at her with a smile, nodding subtly, and accepted it. She grunted as she helped hoist him up, letting go once he had a grip and was able to do the rest. Varin let out a heavy breath, rolling onto his back the second he came in contact with that roof. The sky was clear, stars shining brightly above his head and flickering into the night.
"Thank you, Aiora."
"Nonsense," she mocked, "just a bit hard to reach, is all."
"Yeah, yeah. Don't hold this against me."
"We all have our fears, Varin. You are not immortal."
"You two," Thaddius called from the other side of the roof. They both stood and walked to the top of the slightly angled pitch. Thaddius stood at the bottom of the slant, waving them down enthusiastically. "Look there, over the horizon."
Joining the satyr, they looked toward the mountains and saw nothing but nightfall. Darkness peeked through the gaps of the crests, the greenery but mere shadows sprinkled across the landscape. It was dull, but just as he was about to ask Thaddius what he was on about, the sky erupted into flames.
Sparks of blues and oranges flared into the sky, a crescendo of eruptions fading back into silence. Varin blinked, watching the colors vanish as if they never had existed.
"Dragons," Thaddius said.
"Dragons?" Aiora breathed. "Dragons don't exist."
"They do, and I can prove it!" Thaddius smiled, holding his arms up in victory. "I saw one for my own eyes when I was a child. But that is beside the point—those eruptions of fire were dragons. They have been acting up every evening for the past week."
"Week? How has nobody noticed?" Varin asked.
The satyr pointed to the tree line that separated one of Traburg's smaller farming villages from the wastelands. "The Whispering Woods is cursed, or so they say. Those farmers never leave their land, their children are told not to go into the woods, and every mercenary that ventures into it is rumored to never return. That said, there are at least two dragons. They're mating, surely, with all the commotion they've caused the past few evenings—and dragon eggs sell for a fortune."
"Planning on being Traburg's next dragon slayer, are you?'
"Not in the slightest, but a satyr can dream." Thaddius sniffled, putting his hands on his waist as his eyes wandered back to the horizon. There was a glisten there, one that radiated curiosity and desire. Varin knew his friend was adventurous, but he had never seen him so excited over the possibility of something that was otherwise a myth.
He couldn't deny the existence of something across those mountains, though—in the wastelands of the unexplored land. Dragons existed only in his dreams, but this kingdom proved him wrong more than once. He would be a fool to deny the possibility of their existence.
Just as he turned away, another fiery eruption crossed the horizon. The sky lit up once more before it calmed and disappeared into the night.
"You know, Thad, a dream and a myth are one and the same. The only difference is one is told as a story, and one is told as a goal. Did you know my people thought you—satyr's, I mean—were myths for decades?" Aiora said. "Perhaps you should make your own adventure into those woods."
"Never," Varin said with a scowl. "I am more inclined to believe that heretics dance in those woods, sacrificing any poor soul who ventures too far. Dragons are folklore... monsters designed to keep children awake at night."
Aiora turned to look at him, her lips curved into a frown. "Such a pessimist," she sighed. "I say he should go for it. What is the worst that could happen?"
Varin looked at Thaddius whose eyes were drawn to the ground, nodding as he listened to their idle bickering. Strangely, he remained quiet when Varin most expected him to blurt out a witty response. There was this pained look that crossed his features, though, one that urged Varin to cut the conversation there.
"Alright, Aiora. Perhaps you have a point. But can we move on, perhaps away from this hellish rooftop?"