Catriel got Alex away from that room as quick as he could without picking the boy up and flinging him over his shoulder. It wouldn’t help right now, and as jumpy as Alex was about being touched, it would probably make things worse. They walked swiftly through the halls while Alex struggled to stop those damn tears.
Even when Catriel stabbed the boy when they first met, he hadn’t cried like that.
It was distressing, and it annoyed Catriel, because he wasn’t supposed to be getting attached to this cursed child. But after days of traveling together, he couldn’t help but like the strange, curious boy.
After they left the restricted dormitories, Catriel pulled Alex into an alcove off the main hall. “We can’t walk around like this,” the soldier told him, putting the boy in the corner where no one passing could see him. “Get yourself under control.”
“I’m trying,” Alex cried in frustration, continuing to rub his eyes.
“What did he do to you before I came in?”
“Nothing,” sniffled Alex.
“It didn’t sound like nothing.”
“He was just upset.”
Catriel scowled. “He hit you. That little son-of-a-Isten hurt you, and you’re making excuses for him?”
“He’s my brother,” the boy said. He pressed his palms against his eyes.
“I’ve known people like him. He’s a violent menace, and you need to stay away from him.”
“That’s not a problem, b-because… because he doesn’t w-w-want me around anyway!” Alex’s words turned into a heartbroken wail that brought more tears streaming down his face.
Fiends, kill me now, Catriel thought as he realized that seeing Alex cry made him want to go back and kick that silver-haired brat’s ass. Of course, attacking the heir of an Isten would get him demoted, at the very least. Probably even exiled.
Not an option.
“Damn it, stop crying.” Catriel grabbed Alex and pulled him close, hugging him to his chest. The boy struggled a bit, but Catriel just squeezed and held him tighter. “Stop it, Alexiel. We’re not leaving until you can walk through these halls without making a spectacle of yourself. Just calm down and stop crying.”
Gradually, Alex did relax. It helped that Catriel held him so tight he could barely breathe, but the boy managed to get himself under control. He was probably smearing snot and tears on Catriel’s tunic, but that was a problem he would deal with later.
“He hates me,” Alex muttered, leaning against Catriel’s chest.
“I don’t think that’s the problem,” the jagged soldier grumbled in response. He released Alex, but as he stepped back, the boy caught sight of his hand.
Black eyes widened. “You’re hurt. What happened?”
Catriel held up the injury in question. His hand was burnt. The skin of two fingers had melted together while the rest of his flesh was red and blistered. “That damn ward. Took more energy than I expected to break through it. Who the hell puts a ward like that on their bedroom door?”
“Gabriel.” Alex wiped his face one more time. No fresh tears dripped from his eyes, but his pale skin remained red and blotchy. “I think he learned it from a book.”
Catriel hissed low. That ward mimicked traits found in some of the highest level protection wards used in Mahat. There were still flaws to its construction, but for a child to pick up any of it from a book…
It reaffirmed Catriel’s suspicion that the silver-haired Ahnnak was something to be cautious of.
“I’ll be fine,” Catriel said, lowering his hand. “Now, if you’re done crying, let’s go find your room. I need to determine if it’s secure before I head north to Esh and submit my report.”
Alex blinked a few times and nodded his head. “I think I’m done. But Catriel?”
“What am I supposed to do if you don’t come back?”
“Don’t draw any attention to yourself,” the jagged soldier said. “And stay away from your brother.”
Alex swallowed like there was a lump in his throat, but he nodded again. “Okay.”
They walked back out to the hall and flew down to the boy’s dorm room.
“Alex! You’re back!” The boy that sprang at Alex moved like the explosion of flame after throwing water on a grease fire. It too fast, and Catriel reflexively grabbed him and pinned him to the stone wall of the room shared by the boys.
“Catriel! Let him go!” Alex shouted.
“He’s a threat.”
“He’s a friend!” Alex kicked Catriel in the shin, and though it didn’t hurt, it was definitely irritating.
The jagged soldier dropped the fiery boy, who coughed and scrambled back startled, but much calmer. That was good enough for now. Catriel took stock of the rest of the room. There was another winged boy sitting in the pit of pillows, slack-jawed. He didn’t look like he was sure if he should celebrate Alex’s return or prepare for an attack. At least he had the sense to remain seated until he figured it out.
The room held three stone bunks, a stack of barely used course books, more clothes on the floor than in the closet, and an array of board games that probably saw more attention than anything else in the room put together.
It was what Catriel expected from children that age. There was no threat in the room, except from the other boys.
Alex helped the fiery boy off the floor. “Uzzi, are you okay?”
“Yeah, Alex…” He looked at the soldier cautiously. “Who is this?”
“Catriel. He’s a soldier. He’s nice, but don’t move too fast around him.”
“Yeah. Got it.” Uzzi smiled nervously at Alex. “I’m really glad you’re back. I missed you so much.”
“I missed you, too.” Alex smiled at his friend, and it was the most genuine expression Catriel had seen on the boy’s face all day.
“Where were you?” Uzzi asked. Before Alex could answer, he continued with a barrage of questions and statements, hardly breathing between them. “Why didn’t you tell us you were leaving? I woke up and looked everywhere after you were gone. The first class instructor told us you’d been called home. Why’d you have to go? Is it true that a pardua attacked your Isten? Was it your pardua? Were you hurt? Is that why you didn’t come back?”
While the fiery boy overwhelmed Alex with questions, the boy in the pit cautiously stood, keeping his eyes on Catriel. He walked over to his roommates, but only when he was beside them did he look away from the soldier. “Uzzi,” he interrupted, “Leave Alex alone. Whatever he’s been through, he’ll tell us when he’s ready. Can’t you see how tired he is?”
Ah, so this one was the voice of reason out of the three.
Uzzi turned on him. “Don’t tell me what to do, Isa.”
Both boys’ wings puffed like they were rival starlings squabbling over territory. Standard behavior for that age, except Alex seemed to be their point of contention.
So maybe it wasn’t reason. Just jealousy.
“That’s enough,” Catriel said with the tone he used when commanding new recruits. All three boys stopped speaking. Alex was the only one who didn’t look terrified as they faced Catriel. “Present your name and lineage.” He pointed at the fiery boy.
“U-Uzzi,” the kid stammered.
“I can’t hear you,” Catriel barked. “Speak up!”
The boy stood straighter with eyes shut tight and arms pinned at his sides. “Yes, sir!” he nearly yelled. “Uzziel! Son of Medic Zoliviel and Terran Uthariel!”
“What is your focus?” the soldier asked.
One flame colored eye peeked open. “What?”
“Are you a healer?” Catriel growled, making the boy go rigid and close his eyes again.
“It’s fire,” offered the boy from the pit. “He burns everything.”
Catriel snapped his fingers in Isa’s face and pointed to the ground. “Twenty push ups for speaking out of turn.”
The boy balked. “You can’t make me-”
The boy dropped and did the push ups. He had good form. He was strong. It was clear he had done a lot of heavy manual labor through his life.
“-Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.”
The boy got back to his feet, lips pursed in skeptical irritation. He didn’t say anything else until Catriel requested, “Name and lineage.”
“Isaiel. Son of Terran Ygriel.”
“Unknown,” the boy answered with a hard look in his eye.
“What is your mother’s occupation?”
“Forrester. Lumber processing.”
Catriel nodded. That would explain why he was so sturdy and strong for a Terran of his age.
Last was Alex, who was just watching with a unreadable expression in his black eyes. Even after traveling with him for days on end, Catriel still found it difficult to tell what he was thinking. He wasn’t predictable, and that could be a problem.
“Well?” said Catriel to Alex. “Name and lineage.”
“Alexiel,” the boy responded flatly. The black of his eyes shifted, reflecting like the sheen of light on oil. “Son of the Isten Jequn.”
They held each other’s gaze for a moment, then Catriel said, “This room is secure. I’ll speak with the academy guards before I go to give them instructions, but until I return, you will not go anywhere except this room, your classes, and the dining hall.”
“What about Marut?” asked Uzzi.
“The Isten?” Catriel’s slitted eyes shifted to the fiery boy.
Uzzi’s brow furrowed. “No, the town. That’s where Remi is. He’s been so worried about Alex-”
“Who is Remi?” Catriel demanded.
“Nobody,” Alex said quickly, taking a step toward Catriel. “He’s just a friend who used to go to the academy. I’ll write him a letter.”
The black-haired boy was trying to hide something. Catriel frowned. “Alexiel-”
“I promise I won’t leave the academy until you return,” said Alex. “I’ll be good, so you better go before it gets too late to fly back.” He started pushing Catriel toward the door.
The soldier let the boy move him out of the room. Once they reached the hall, Catriel turned and bent low, getting close to Alex’s face. “Alexiel, be careful,” he whispered. “Those boys-”
“I’ll be fine,” Alex insisted. He held up his hand, the one Catriel had stabbed, even though there was no mark remaining. “Promise.”
The jagged soldier nodded and stood straight. “I’ll return as soon as I can. Just… Don’t talk to people too much.”
“Not a problem,” Alex said with a huff. “Be careful, Catriel.”
“You, too, child.”
The door closed and Catriel walked down the hall alone. Something about the name Remi was familiar, though he couldn’t remember where he had heard it before. Well, he would deal with that issue when he returned.
For now, he had to report to Esh. His mission was a failure, but with some luck, hopefully General Laeshiel and Wing Commander Torkaiel would grant his transfer to Archridge. He had recovered the lost son of an Isten, after all.