It is written that long ago, two men known only as Seraph and Aristides, lead their armies, the Hellians and the Empyreans, to fight a Holy War with one another. This war raged on for hundreds of years, each side sharing equal tactical prowess, strength, morale and numbers, and neither side gaining the upper hand. It is told that despite the hundreds of years the conflict went on for, both leaders remained in control of their forces, never aging, never faltering. Tales are woven of their magical abilities, and their abilities to summon the gods to do their bidding, but no evidence of this remains. It was not until one man double-crossed his friends and his leader that the other side claimed their victory, ending the skirmish that soon became known as the Great War. Despite the apparent victory of the Empyreans, all traces of them soon disappeared afterwards, taking with them the creatures of lore that both terrorised and entranced the humans with their strength and beauty. In the ashes of the Great War rose the Academies, a unified army and school of learning that swore to uphold the safety and protection of those under its wing.
Many claim the remnants of both armies still exist, and that the war has escalated to another world, and some believe that the war, and the creatures that disappeared with it, would all return one day, to remove the Academies from power and bring an end to this age of prosperity.
Chapter One: A Simple Bandit Attack
It is said that Zephyr Leoné was a great many things. Some say he was a hero, that fought those who could not fight for themselves; others say he single-handedly brought the war and the devastation that came with it onto the unsuspecting world. Some say he was a noble warrior, driven by justice to liberate the oppressed; others say he was a madman, fueled by chaos and corrupted by strength. It is not known which side speaks the truth, if either. All that is known is that Zephyr was a reckoning force, vicious and determined, whose very name shook tremors through his enemies. What few people know is that Zephyr was once a normal boy, in a normal world, who was drawn into a life of war and eternal combat by a series of seemingly innocuous events.
Zephyr Leoné was an orphan. He was no different to other orphans in his time; he lived in an orphanage, waiting to be adopted, and taught basic schooling in the hopes that he would grow up to be integrated into society as a regular person. He had no particular talents that stood out, or any physical features that made him unique. He was just an average boy living in a world where bandits were often spoken of in whispers, held at bay only by the armies of the Academies situated throughout the land. Not all Academies were militarised, as some felt that policing the world through force only lead to more force, but all were directly responsible for the protection of their provinces.
The small town of Lyrana was no exception. It was under the protection of the Valice Academy of Martial Arts, an extremely militarised facility that was under constant scrutiny for its dedication to warfare in a very particular time of peace. Lyrana itself was not a town with any notable features. Most travellers only stopped in on their way to visit or enrol in the Valice Academy, bringing with them the small amount of business that comes with travellers: drinking, gambling and accommodation. The bandits kept their distance despite it being on the outskirts of the Valice Academy's jurisdiction, mostly due to its small net worth. Like most smaller towns in Portica, Lyrana was as self-sufficient as it could be, relying on farmers for grain and meat, and the local tavern for entertainment. It was, however, also rife with poverty. With such small avenues for contribution or trade, many of the citizens of Lyrana survived on the charity of others. Zephyr, like the other orphans, was one who survived on the donations of the farmers, and raised by their wives and daughters.
Although Zephyr did not stand out, he did not fit in with the others, either. He did not know how to interact with the children his age, nor did he know how to walk away from conflict. He spent his days alone, secluding himself from the company of others, and only moving in to interject when fights broke out; his most notable quality was that he always fought for the underdog, and usually lost. The Matrons all knew there was something about Zephyr, something inside him that gave him an intense determination, a driving force that compelled him to fight for the weak, but they also knew in this world, where bandits lived on the whims of chaos, and killed without mercy or regret, that his future looked grim. There was always the oppressed, in every town in Portica, but the Matrons knew if Zephyr did not learn to accept that, and if he continued to put his sense of nobility behind his need to survive, he would not last. Zephyr was not a fighter, in terms of skill or expertise. He was just a child who was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in, and without the capability to defend himself he would always make himself a target.
Zephyr was fifteen when the bandits struck Lyrana. He had been aimlessly roaming the streets when he heard a clatter of hooves along the road. He looked up to see a stream of bandits cutting down the citizens mercilessly, storming into the shops and houses and leaving behind a trail of bodies and fires. He stopped, frozen in place, as the procession of horses thundered past him, so close that any of the attackers could easily have cut him down. The bandits seemed driven by some sort of purpose, however, and Zephyr was deemed insignificant to them. Perhaps if they had realised the future that was in store for Zephyr, they would never have passed him by. Whether such an act would have saved the world from countless destruction, or doomed it to servitude is unknown; all that is known is that they rode past him without so much as a second glance, and Zephyr watched as the town around him was plunged into chaos and despair.
The village was not completely defenceless, however. Some of the inhabitants had trained under the Academy, and others had been trained in self defence in preparation for bandit attacks. These few civilians bought valuable time for their friends and family to escape, but it was merely a delaying effort against the overwhelming numbers of the bandits.
Zephyr, his senses regained, scanned the area. The bandits had moved further into the town's centre, but there was something strange about their attack. Usually, bandits attacked the outskirts of towns and pillaged what they could, leaving before the local Academy offered assistance. This time, however, they seemed driven by a purpose, systematically razing a section of the town and moving further in. Zephyr proceeded to follow the bandits methodical destruction until he came to a circle of bandits around a single man. He watched as the man's wide swings and surgical strikes kept the bandits at bay, single-handedly stalling the attack upon the town.
Zephyr knew he would not be able to assist the man, but a nearby scream drew his attention. He turned and, without thinking, ran into the house. A lone bandit stood before him, eyeing off two armed men. The first man was middle-aged, battle-scarred and burly, while the second man was clearly aged and was well past his years of fighting. The younger man wielded a large sword, while the older man was armed with a black staff, littered in gold designs. In the corner huddled a woman, clutching a child no older than Zephyr.
"Well this is interesting," the bandit mused. "We were convinced that Qorr held the staff; I never would have expected it to be guarded by a withered old man like you."
"And since Qorr is likely surrounded by your goons and only one of you is here to challenge me, I would say his foresight proved valuable," the older man goaded.
"Yes," the bandit sneered, "we're all very impressed. Now return that which is ours and we'll be on our way."
"Enough talk!" the younger man interrupted, before charging at the bandit. Although he was physically more intimidating than the intruder, the bandit had the advantage of speed behind him. He casually jumped backwards and spun as he landed, slicing across the man's knee.
"Dad!" the boy in the corner protested.
"You should know better than to charge an Empyrean," he laughed, raising his weapon to finish the job. As the sword came down, however, it was intercepted by the staff, and the old man pushed the bandit back.
Zephyr knew this would be a one-sided fight, so his eyes scanned the room. Upon the wall he saw what he was looking for, a sword resting upon its mantle. He ran over and ripped the sword from its perch, but the weapon was far heavier than he had anticipated. The sword dropped to the floor and Zephyr fell to one knee. He could barely lift the weapon, and instead let it drag along the floor as he turned to face the two men locked in combat.
To his surprise, the old man was incredibly dexterous, twirling the staff as if it were an extension of his body. Zephyr watched in awe as the old man ducked and weaved through the bandit's onslaught, though with each strike his movements became slower and less fluid. The bandit would easily out-last the old man, as he effortlessly swung back and forth to batter the old man's defences.
Zephyr watched in horror as the bandit finally broke the man's defences, and plunged his sword deep into the old man's gut. The bandit, a large grin spreading across his face, twisted the blade sadistically, dropping the man to the floor. Without thinking, Zephyr charged towards the bandit while his back was still turned, but the bandit heard the sword dragging across the floor and batted the child away before he could strike.
Zephyr was thrown back into the wall and collided with a large thud. He grimaced in pain as he fell to his arms and knees, and the bandit turned back to the old man.
"Now, the staff, if you will?" he teased, his sword held to the old man's neck.
"Not if I have anything to say about it." Zephyr struggled to his feet and summoned all of his strength to hold the sword in front of his body. His eyes were filled with rage as he eyed the bandit.
"Well aren't you something?" the bandit sneered. He walked menacingly towards Zephyr, but the old man slid the staff across the floor towards the boy. Zephyr remained firm in his stance, but his eyes widened as the bandit reached him and held his sword up, ready to strike. He winced and held his sword across his body, and felt it get slammed out of his hands. Zephyr opened his eyes to look up at the bandit readying another strike, but before the sword could end his life he rolled to the side and picked up the staff.
As soon as Zephyr's hands touched the staff, the gold designs lit up. He felt strength flowing through his arms as he turned to stare the bandit down once again.
By this point, rage had also consumed the other child in the room, and he picked up the sword Zephyr had lost. His pose reflected training, but his lack of experience was evident in his shaky hands and timid stance. Roaring in anger, the boy charged at the bandit, but the bandit merely chuckled to himself.
"You've had training, I can see that," he chuckled, before batting away the child's sword and kicking him in the chest. The boy skidding across the floor as the woman cried out in protest. "But you have no idea how to use it." He raised his sword to finish the boy, but as he brought the sword down it was intercepted by Zephyr, now armed with the black staff. As the bandit continued his onslaught, Zephyr felt himself effortlessly blocking the incoming attacks. It was as if each strike was made without force, and Zephyr, despite his young age, was able to defend against the bandit with ease.
Zephyr's face contorted with anger as he flicked the staff up to send the bandit off-balance, before twirling the staff and striking the man across his face. The bandit was sent reeling back, caught off-guard by Zephyr's vigour. Consumed by anger, Zephyr charged at the bandit and swung wildly, forcing the man to recoil with each strike. Twisting and swinging, Zephyr hit the bandit with enough force to send him stumbling backwards. He lowered himself into a more aggressive stance and the room watched in disbelief as the staff transformed into a sword, still maintaining the black colour with gold designs.
The bandit's eyes widened in surprise. "You must be Zephyr," he realised. "Well that explains the anger..."
The bandit fumed as Zephyr swatted at him, but the boy was no more than a mere annoyance to his strength and technique. The bandit stepped back as Zephyr swung again, and delivered a kick to the boy's torso that sent him flying back into the wall. Zephyr struggled to his feet, but looked up to see the bandit charging towards him, sword held high. It was clear that Zephyr was no match for this man and that it would soon end with his blood, but still he remained defiant.
Zephyr did not say a word. Instead he dropped low and charged at the bandit, the sword held weightlessly behind him. The bandit, his technique beyond his emotions, stopped his charge and lowered himself into a defensive stance. The bandit brought his sword back to counter Zephyr, but before he could he froze. He looked down to see a sword protruding from his torso, so far extended that Zephyr had to skid to a halt to avoid running head-first into the blade.
Behind him stood the other boy Zephyr's age, blood staining his face, his chest rising and falling heavily as he caught his breath. "That was for my uncle," he growled, letting the bandit's body fall to the ground.
They did not exchange words so much as they did glance at each other, both rushing to the old man's side. Zephyr realised the strike was fatal, and he stepped backwards in silence as the other boy cried over the man. It was not Zephyr's first encounter with death, so despair did not overcome him. Instead he lowered his head and spared a thought for the man, leaving the other child to mourn his loss. He turned to walk outside, the staff still in his hand, when he was stopped by another armed warrior, the man from outside. The man was not hostile; his hands rested comfortably on the handle of his sheathed weapon as he eyed Zephyr.
"Impressive," he said approvingly. "Your defiance instils bravery greater than soldiers twice your age." Zephyr looked around to see Academy Warriors sweeping the area, wiping out the last remnants of the bandit attack.
"You must be Qorr," Zephyr said softly.
"Indeed I am," replied the man. The man stepped past Zephyr and walked to the grieving family. He placed a hand on the wounded man's shoulder and asked "how's the knee, Gaoto?"
"My honour is hurt more than my leg," Gaoto grimaced, referring to his dead brother. "Gaelen did a better job of protecting the staff than I."
"That may be so," Qorr nodded, "but the task was performed and performed admirably. You should be proud of your brother's sacrifice." Qorr turned back to Zephyr. "As you are no doubt aware, that staff is not of human design. It is a weapon crafted by the angels and can only be used by the angels. It is a gift for the one who can wield it. That would be you."
"What are you saying, that I'm an angel?" Zephyr asked.
"Not quite," laughed Qorr, "but you do share their blood."
"What do you mean, share their blood? And why would they leave this for me?" Zephyr questioned the man. "I don't believe in destiny if that's what you're inferring."
"As you shouldn't," Qorr agreed. "There is no fate but what you make. Your blood isn't some blessing by the gods to lead to some heroic destiny, it is merely a signature of the strength you will soon come to discover. The staff is yours to fuel that strength."
"So what happens now? Do I go back to the orphanage and pretend none of this ever happened?"
"No," Qorr replied, shaking his head. "Come with me." He turned back to the grieving family. "My offer extends to the boy too. He's earned his place in the Academy, with your approval."
The woman broke down in tears at Qorr's offer. "Please Gaoto, don't make him go. We've lost enough in these skirmishes."
Gaoto shook his head. "Syno was always a warrior at heart. I've trained him as best I can, but he still hasn't learned how to apply his training. The Academy can teach him the discipline he needs."
The boy, Syno, looked at his fallen uncle. He gritted his teeth and averted his gaze before replying "I need to learn how to protect the two of you. I won't watch anyone else die by my inaction."
Gaoto smiled weakly and nodded. The pain was evident in his eyes, but he knew the decision was Syno's to make. "Make us proud, son."
Qorr escorted the boys outside and turned to the nearest Academy Warrior. "Summon the Board," he demanded, "I have two new students for their consideration."
The warrior initially scoffed at Qorr's request, until Qorr held out his hand; upon his finger was a ring with a distinct insignia of an angel in flight, sword held above its head as if ready to strike. The Academy Warrior apologised for his dismissal and rushed to summon the Board as per Qorr's request. Minutes later, another Academy Warrior presented himself to Qorr and removed the boys from the man's supervision.
"My name's Lazaro", the Warrior introduced himself to the boys. "I'm one of the teachers of the Valice Academy of Martial Arts and I will be presenting you to the Oracles as per Qorr's request. Consider yourselves quite privileged, as Qorr carries with him the seal of the Empyreans."
In his time at the orphanage, Zephyr had heard many tales of the Empyreans. They were a close ally of the Academies; an ally who supplied equipment, troops and training to their soldiers, but similarly kept their distance from the specifics of the day-to-day administration of the Academy's dealings. The Empyreans had no direct authority over any specific region in Portica, but it was rumoured that the Academies answered directly to the Empyreans, and as such they were well-known for their influence.
In Portica, the Academies represented all facets of philosophical ideals. Rather than citizens choosing a government, or a political system, citizens aligned themselves with the beliefs of the region. The Academies did not vie for power, or territorial expansion, simply, citizens chose the region that best matched their own ideals. The Valice Academy represented justice and discipline, using a handful of relatively small squads and task-forces to execute precise strikes against those who did not live by the law. It was not known for the size or strength of its army, but for its surgical precision and quick response times. Other Academies were known for their judicial systems demanding criminals be judged by their peers, or their corporal system designed around redemption and prevention, guiding criminals back to society. If not for the Board of Academies making the most executive of decisions governing all of the Academies, they could scarcely even be referred to as loosely affiliated. Each system had its flaws, but one thing was certain: the Academies brought comfort and safety to all of their subjects.
"The Academy has a strict age limit for enrolment," Lazaro explained, "as it's much harder to instil the Academy's values once a child reaches a certain age. The two of you are well beyond that age, but since Qorr has put you forth, it's up to the Oracles to decide whether or not you will be accepted into the Academy."
"What do the Oracles do?" Syno asked.
"The Oracles have the innate ability to judge a person by their soul. They can feel the aura of a person and draw parallels with creatures of lore and otherwise, determining one's personality, qualities and potential. Put simply, they can see who you really are, at heart, and decide whether or not you are suitable for military training."
"They use magic, right?"
"Yes," Lazaro nodded. "While literature suggests that there was once an abundance of magic, such as the ability to summon the elements to battle or even to control the gods themselves, now only passive abilities exist among select few. The Oracles are psychics, capable of reading your thoughts and feelings, and our medics can channel restorative magic to heal wounds. There aren't any other types of known magic anymore."
"That's cool," Syno smiled, the sadness of his lost uncle briefly replaced by a glimmer of hope. "I hope I can learn to use magic one day."
"Unfortunately, you can either use it, or you can't. At your age, you would have already begun to refine any magical ability you had by now."
"Oh," Syno's face fell. "I still hope the Oracles accept us, though."