Stories never really start at the beginning, but at a turning point. For me, this turning point has already started three months ago when I got the letter of a lifetime this past summer. As I wait at my village’s train station, I can’t help but take it out of my pocket and read it again. This is probably my one hundredth time doing this.
Dear Adrien Rivers,
We, the council of the Knight’s Academy are proud to inform you that you are accepted into the Knight’s Academy. We’ll be sending you your acceptance package and instructions in two weeks. We’re looking forward to having you join your brother-flight on our campus this upcoming fall semester.
Congratulations and good luck.
The Knight Council of the Knight’s Academy.
Just as I start at the top again, a voice I’ve been waiting to hear signals me that it’s time to put it away.
“Adrien! Wait!” Kai, my best friend calls my name.
I halt and smile at him as I adjust the bag strap over my shoulder. All I can do is wait and watch him maneuver his way through the crowd. His bag bounces at his hip as he tries to keep it from hitting other travelers. A trail of 'pardon me', 'excuse me' and 'coming through' echoes behind him as he finally makes it to the platform.
Just like for most of the friends we know, last Falling Season Kai and I earned ourselves an undergrad degree at the expected age of twenty-two. The difference is, we don’t want to be like everyone we know. We want to be like the ones we love - our parents. Like my mother and father, his parents were once active knights too. They have retired from their duty years ago and now it’s our time to take on those roles.
As exciting this all is, I’m also very nervous; waiting to be taken away into the outskirts of The Capital, the center of the United Domains is nerve-racking and having my best friend alongside me will make this change easier. In a sea of same-uniformed strangers, Kai is a life saver.
“Ready?” I nudge him.
“Ready,” he nods, but he isn’t speaking to me. Kai's blue eyes are fixed on a dream ahead.
The train must have heard us. It whistles, announcing its arrival. The machine huffs in relief as its speed dials down. Its iron joints scream under the squeezing pressure of the breaks. The metal monster exhales a breath of exhaust as it happily obeys an engineer’s command to stop, ever so smoothly. The machine is honored to undertake this journey and make the pickup for Knight’s Academy precious cargo.
With curiosity, Kai and I watch the station workers rush to cure the tired joints with oil and bring buckets of water to help cool down the monster’s core.
The conductors do not lose any time. They have a lot of cadets to board. “Calling all Academy cadets! Come aboard! Thirty minutes till departure to the Knight’s Academy!”
“Come on, gentlemen. Get on moving,” one of the train employees encourages us.
“Let’s do this,” my hand reaches for the rail and pulls the weight of my body to climb up the steep stairs.
“Alright!” Kai’s pumped up.
I think the uniform is starting to get to his head. The distinct black, white, and gold colors are unmistakable. This pattern and cut spells out to the whole world who we all are destined to become.
“Woo!” I can’t help myself either.
The conductors keep calling, but once inside the train cabin their yells are muffled by the glass window.
“I can’t believe this is fucking happening,” Kai says as he secures his luggage.
“Well...” I don’t know what to say. “It’s happening.”
My experience lacks the wisdom for situations like this and I'm in disbelief myself. The clicking and the adjustments of the straps temporarily fill the silence. With our bags secured on top of the shelves, suddenly I feel uneasy and let myself lower onto the seat. On the opposite of me I see Kai do the same. We say nothing, just stare out of the weathered glass.
A crowd of faces is here to see us all off. An unsynchronized dance of hands wishes us a farewell. The smiles are all the same, but the eyes are different from each other. In the depth of their irises I see admiration, pride, pity, worry, and the never-failing-to-show-up hate.
“We’re dead meat, you know that?” I realize it just in time.
“I know,” he keeps on observing at the audience looking up.
“Adrien!” a familiar voice calls my name and just like that I wake up from my sleep. Only a few images survive from my dream, but I just can’t remember what it was about. Forgetting so easily, that kind of thing bothers me.
“I’m up,” I stretch.
“We’re here,” Kai briefly glances at me, then glues his attention back to the glass window.
I join in and smile at what’s outside. Just over the misty hills, stands a subtle silhouette of a grand castle with twelve towers surrounding it. These beacons represent each of the twelve royal domains and a single test will determine which one we will be trained to serve. Behind them, a campus of many buildings stretches beyond my sight. This whole scene looks like some wizard used his magic to pluck out a downtown of a grand city and dropped it in the middle of the countryside.
“What kind of a test do you think they’ll do?” Kai scratches his brunette hair.
“I can’t even begin to imagine. Each year they switch them up.”
It’s quiet again, but only for a short time. Our silence is the calm before the storm.
“Alright you little shitheads get the fuck out!” a yell shakes the train’s halls.
This is it. We’re here. Kai and I jump from our seats and hustle to get out bags.
“Get out!!!” it shouts again.
Whoever it is, she has very little patience and holds no tolerance for simple folks like us. Bang!! The doors to our quarters bust open. In its frame stands a dwarf dresses in white metal armor. She huffs and puffs like an over-boiling soup pot. We stare at her in horror. Our dumb-stricken faces must have really pissed her off even more.
“Proceeding, Sir,” Kai tries to appeal to her.
Oh, no. I give him a look and hopelessly watch his fate unravel. He doesn’t even know it yet, but my poor, poor friend is about to have a new one ripped open.
“What did you call me!!” she squints at him. “What! Did! You! Call! Me!”
Before Kai can answer, the dwarf jumps up and takes hold on both side of the door frame. The wood snaps at her grip and the splinters dig into her fingertips. Her footing dents the paint as she hangs on.
She is at Kai’s eye level and gets right into his face, “Do I look like a Sir to you?!”
Shit. He did it again.
“Do I look like a Sir to you?!” her spit showers his face.
“No, Ma’am. You look like a Ma’am, Ma’am.”
“Get your sorry face out of mine,” she growls at him and jumps back down on the floor.
The knight dwarf has waisted enough of her time on us and went on to look for new victims. Kai and I rush out like scared goats. Like fools, we think that we are getting away from that little monster without even realizing that we are rushing right into the lions’ den. That dwarf was just a little sample of what's to come. I hear others being screamed at in other train cars and like frightened cats, they’re herded out.
“Well hello my darling princesses. Hope we didn’t interrupt your manicure,” another knight is waiting for us outside on the platform.
He is tall and has silver hair. His eyes are ice blue and his posture is equally as ridged and cold. Clearly, an elf. An elf dressed in full, white armor. There are others with him, with dignity and discipline they wait for their share of fresh meat.
“Welcome to your finishing school, Goldilocks,” he smiles. “Your acceptance letters please,” his hand waits for my comply.
Without a word, I place the letter with the knight’s seal in his palm. To my surprise I have no problem giving it up. For a split of a second, my reflection in his armor catches my attention and it’s disappointing to see myself looking like a lost idiot.
“Line up with the rest over there, mortal,” he points behind him.
I go forward to line up with the rest, but can’t see much beyond the platform. The fog from the hills made its way to the train station, but I don’t have to rely on my eyes to know what’s waiting for us.
I hear them. We all hear them. Their calls and roars are undeniable. Dragons.
“Your test will soon begin,” the elf knight grins at us.
I can’t believe my own self and feel my mind betray me as I begin to question my choice to pursue knighthood. This unexpected thought terrifies me.