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This Academy has been my home, my life, for many years. And now, as I stand on next to my fellow graduates, I can’t believe the time has come to say goodbye. Goodbye to my professors, fellow students, and the staff members. There’s a rare chance I’ll see more than a few of my schoolmates after this, being that most of them are traveling away from Arakashi, like myself, to find a strong guild to join. I can’t say I’m sad about it, though. While I have made friends here, my ties have been deep, not wide. And while I know the names of nearly everyone in the school, not just my grade mind you, I don’t talk to hardly any of them outside of simple questions on homework or a request for a sparring match. So when those faces fade into nothing more than memories, I will only feel happiness as I am able to let go of this chapter in my life.

My name is called, and unlike those around me, with sweaty palms and nervous glances, I am confident as I stride up onto the stage, shaking each of the teachers’ and administrators’ hands as I make my way over to the podium. I’ve been asked to give a speech, as I was valedictorian for my grade, and the microphone in front of me poses no threat. I’ve written and spoken the words of my speech more than a hundred times. It’s practically a waste of my time as I speak of the important people who have helped me along the way, smiling and even laughing where I believe I should. To me, it's practiced and holds no meaning other than I worked harder than everyone here, but to others, it seems genuine and heartfelt, and they're clapping and cheering when I've finished, and that's all that matters.

I give a wave as I step off to the side of the stage, starting the line that will form this year's’ graduates. Names are called off one by one, all receiving a diploma exactly like the one I am holding, but with their name instead of mine. How false this whole system is. To have worked as hard as I could have ever worked and I get a piece of paper that says I graduated, which is not my achievement at all. I far surpassed just graduating, I aced every class I've ever taken, and I took more classes than the school has ever seen a student take at once. I didn't waste time, I didn't look out for friends, I worried about what I needed to do. The stage fills in 45 minutes, and we take a bow. I am first to step off the stage, and first to exit the building. My parents came but only stayed for my speech. I don't hate them for it. In fact, I'd rather they spent time working instead of dawdling like the stupid parents I have to push my way through to get outside.

I walk briskly to my dorm, changing from the formal clothes I wore for the ceremony into casual attire. In five minutes flat, I have dressed in a pair of blue jean shorts and a plain navy blue t-shirt. I've tied my hair into a high pony, pushing my bangs out of my face with the help of a few bobby pins. I walk back out of my dorm, and over to the garden of the school. Nostalgia fills me when I realize this could be the last time I ever see this place again. However, I keep any sadness at bay, only wanting to think fondly of such a beautiful place. I allow my mind to wander, thinking of the possibilities after I leave these grounds. If this is simply my first step, in what direction should I go now? Of course, I need to join a guild, but which one? I've heard of Koma Inu, and while a strong guild is what I need, Koma Inu isn't what I want. They don't help people, they just ambitiously search out greater strength. Fighting monsters to steal their hide for their own personal use, killing criminals to claim their riches for themselves. They are no better than pirates, but technically they do nothing wrong. The Toranku 15 is helpless against the many loopholes the guild has found to continue their heinous ways. I can't help but scowl as I think about it.

Someone approaches my left side, and I turn to face the newcomer. It's Silver, one of my friends whom I have known since before this academy. We grew up as neighbors, playing house and pretending to have magic in our connected backyards. Silver is my closest companion and the lengths I'd go to ensure his safety are immeasurable. Not that he needs protecting. He's a natural at anything he does, and his pure heart has allowed him to practically master Light Magic in his short time studying it here. He's highest ranked in our school in fighting and strength though he lacks the finesse and battle tactic I have. He's hot-headed and hopelessly stubborn, to the point that I’ve called him an ass more than a few times.

“Well, Ms. Valedictorian, what have you on your agenda today?” he asks teasingly, slithering up to my side. I grimace visibly but give him a smile and the tiniest laugh to show that the gesture was a joke.

“Finding a guild, of course. What else would I have planned, nitwit?” I flick his forehead, and he pouts, giving me the fakest whimper I've ever heard.

“Dakota, why are you so mean to me?” he whines, rubbing his forehead. “Your flicking has gotten too strong. I bet I'll have a bruise because of you. Now no girl will fall for my handsome face.” I flick him again.

“Silver, we don't have time to worry about girls. If we don't find a guild, we'll be placed in whatever ones have the least members. I don't know about you, but I want to have a successful future.” I deadpan, and he whines again.

“But Dakotaaaaa, we have more than 3 weeks to find a guild. Can’t I try to win one girl over?” he pleads, and his pout returns. So does my flick.

“You're going to give me brain damage,” he whines, rubbing his forehead.

“I can't damage something you don't have.” I retort, turning away from him. He walks around so he is in front of me again.

“Fine. We'll do it your way. But once we find a guild to our liking, I'm flirting with all the girls there.” he announces. I flick him again.

We joined a guild called Crimson Lily in Zakuro about a week after graduating. I'm not particularly happy about the choice since it's not a very strong or large guild, but I quite like the atmosphere of the city it's in. The flowers are always in bloom giving off an intoxicating aroma, and the skies are almost always bright. Silver is satisfied since he has more than enough flowers to send his ‘lovers'. The annoying twat hasn't stopped talking about this girl he met on our way here, and I've barely been holding back the urge to strangle him. I've sent several cold chills his way, even making a small ice beetle to crawl down his shirt. He was still blabbering, but at least, it wasn't about the uselessness that is love.

In all honesty, love was never something that appealed to me. It always led to too many complications, my parents were living proof. They loved each so much that the became total pushovers to each other. Decisions were a matter of rock-paper-scissors half the time at my old house. It's more annoying and less fairy tale happiness, and absolutely unnecessary. Silver gets infatuated with any girl who gives him a second glance. He could go on and on about a cute blonde haired girl one minute and a busty brunette in the next without so much as batting an eye. I've had to pull him away from our grocer more than once! The boy has no common sense for himself, and I constantly have to play conscience for him, not that I mind. He plays the instigator of my life, bringing joys and obstacles that need to be overcome. Without him, I'd never take risks, so if I have to occasionally pull his head out of his ass, I think it is a fair trade. Life is all about give and take, something that I've learned from my parents. If you give something, you will get something. You give money, you get food. You steal something, something gets stolen from you. It's simpler than anything else I have ever had to study, yet one of the greatest things ever, so great that I feel philosophers should be taking notes.

Upon joining the guild, Silver and I immediately created the team Winter’s Light with myself as its leader. We met two other young mages in the guild, Zephyr and Lacey, and have forged a shaky relationship after completing a job together. I say it's shaky because it’s truly a rare sight to see us together without one of us yelling. Lacey is too much like Silver, the two of the managing to get on my every nerve just from simply existing around someone of the opposite sex. I actually don’t mind Zephyr, and he easily changes to best suit us, much like the wind supporting a bird’s wings. However, he is much too destructive for his own good, jeopardizing the jewel that we get from our jobs by accidentally destroying property. I remained as leader after increasing our members, and the name stayed as well. We work surprisingly well together despite our troubles, Zephyr supporting the ice and snow of my and Lacey’s magic, and vice versa, and Silver gaining strength for his light magic from the shine of our frozen fractals.

We’ve taken a number of jobs, ranging from finding lost pets to protecting important business peoples as they travel. It came as no surprise when after three years within the guild, we are given a job to combat a strong group of dark mages. The plan to victory is simple. With only seven mages to combat, the four of us can easily take down this threat. If only Lady Fate had agreed with our optimism.

Because there are guilds in every city, this threat comes from our own, and I feel a deep pang of guilt as I realize what this means. I failed to defend this city from the evils I swore to end. How can I try to correct this and gain a reward when it shouldn't have even happened? Silver reacts immediately to my thoughts as though he can read them, and it really wouldn’t come to a surprise to me if he could. We’re just that close I guess.

He puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder, leaning slightly into my side to whisper, “I know Dakota, but we’re here now and that’s what matters.” he gives me a smile and squeezes my shoulder assuringly. I give him a smile of my own, bumping into his side slightly to show that I am okay. He nods, and then goes to Lacey’s side, and they both begin to talk about which of their ‘new-found lovers’ has the greatest smile. They never learn, do they? I flick them both in the back of their heads.

“Focus,” I ground out, eyeing both of them with a dangerous glare, “We have a mission ahead, and I can’t allow you fools to be messing up my plan.” I say, and they both look slightly guilty. “This isn’t a game, got it? These guys we are facing have already mercilessly killed innocent citizens, and they will continue until we stop them.” I state and they nod, their postures becoming straighter, their minds focusing on the task ahead.

We reach their lair in fifteen minutes on foot and Silver, Zephyr, and I all duck into the bushes as Lacey steps up to the door. She knocks, then waits patiently, arranging her appearance. Her blonde hair is tied into twin tails, hanging down in front of her shoulders. She is dressed in a tightly fit crop top, with a mini skirt that leaves little to the imagination. I hate exploiting her like this. I had insisted it be me up there since I was the leader, but she just waved me off, saying this was a job designed for her. After nearly a half hour of arguing, I relented, stating that she could do it as long as she didn’t enter the building, just wait until I gave the signal to attack.

A tall man answers the door, and he looks surprised to see such a beautiful young girl there. She’s flaunting everything she has, pushing her breasts up between her arms so they pop out, swishing her skirt slightly so that even more of her skin starts to show. The man is immediately entranced, eyeing her hungrily. She begins to spout nonsense about being lost and needing a big strong man to help her back home. Just as she’s about to be welcomed into the building, Silver’s magic explodes outward, blinding the man. We all assume a diamond formation, myself at the front, Lacey and Silver next to each other, and Zephyr behind them. I create a giant scythe from ice in an instant, twirling it expertly in my hands for intimidation purposes. The man has called in reinforcements, the six other people gathering behind him. Three have fire magic, flames already dancing in their fingers, three have shadow magic, and the last one, which I assume is the leader, has yet to do anything.

Two fire mages are commanded forward, and Zephyr calls forward a strong wind to blow their magic into nothingness. They look surprised to have lost the flicker that decorated their fists only moments before, but continue forward anyways, fists clenched as they wind up for a punch. They focus entirely on me, and with a simple swing of my scythe, I’ve caught them by their stomachs, and they are flung several yards away. One of them hits a tree, slumping against the trunk, appearing unconscious, and the other gradually stands up again. That doesn’t last long, after Silver launches a blade of light at him, knocking him back with the force of his attack.

The weapon in my hands changes forms, into two thin katanas as a shadow and fire mage are dispatched. The fire mage attacks Lacey, who roundhouse kicks him in the chest, and then launches a blast of snow right where she’d kicked him. He staggers back, but then his fist ignites, and he swings.

Zephyr has been attacked by the Shadow mage, who had changed into a shadow to get around me, so he can’t help Lacey to douse the flame.

Reacting to my instincts, I throw my sword at the fire mage, which turns into seven different knives as it flies through the air. Three miss, one digs into his hand, another stabs into his leg, the third unfortunately hit him in the side with the blade handle, and the fourth slices across his face, leaving a shallow gash on his cheek as it flies past. He howls in pain, and I leap forward at the same moment Lacey kicks him to over to me and my blade changes as I make a side swing, forming into Ice Excalibur. As it makes contact with his body, he is frozen solid, and I knock him away from the battlefield with the hilt of my sword.

The shadow mage is covered in scratches, his clothes tattered, and his pupils are much too small for it to be a cause of the sunlight. In the mage’s blind daze, Zephyr and Silver make a combined attack, blasting him with a strong burst of wind and light. He’s flown into the building, breaking through the cement. The remaining dark mages look frustrated at having half their numbers taken care of in less than ten minutes.

The final two shadow mages attack from afar, launching several attacks, which are easily neutralized by Silver. They fade into shadows after having failed for the umpteenth time, and I change my weapon into a rope. The first shadow mage who appears is easily captured by my trap, and I yank him towards me, kneeing him in the gut, and then his face as he doubles over. I swing the rope until he spins above me, and launch him into the wall of the building, and instead of making an indent, he crashes straight through. Silver may be physically stronger, but I am no pushover.

The other shadow mage is surrounded by my other teammates, Silver having chased him from the shadows with his light magic. He is attacked by a barrage of wind and snow based attacks, Silver keeping his light magic up so he cannot escape into a shadow. The dark mage is taken care of only shortly after I have dispatched my own opponent, badly bruised, snow coating him at random intervals, and his clothes whipped into a wild and tattered form.

The final opponent, judging by the strength of his underlings, shall take no longer than thirty minutes. His entire being glows with a purple light, and he exudes an exceptional aura, changing my earlier thoughts in a moment.

“You destroyed my guildmates. For that, I will make you pay!” He shouts, launching straight behind me, where Zephyr waits. He is jabbed right into the gut, and he convulses slightly at the pain, but returns an uppercut right to the man's jaw, wind magic powering up his fist. They both stagger back, Zephyr falling down onto his knees. He shakes, sweat leaking from his pores immensely. “Wha-?” Silver begins to ask before the man is upon him. Luckily, I was able to react, protecting him with an ice dome as I run over to Zephyr. I want to cry at the sight I see. He’s holding his side, which oozes a thick poison and blood, coating his hands in a mixture of red and purple. I fall to his side, wrenching his hands away, my hands shaking as I place them over the wound. My hands flash brightly, freezing the wound over.

“Zeph...Zephyr, don’t… don’t move, okay?” I say, my voice betraying my fear that I’ve kept off my face. It's not like he wouldn’t be able to tell from the shaking of my always sure hands. He nods, leaning back with my help.

I stand up, turning my attention back to the battle, which has taken an impossible turn. The dome is still intact, Silver still within its hold, but Lacey…

“Lacey!” I shout, a bow forming in my grip as I pull my arm backward. Upon release, more than a hundred arrows rain down on the man who stands over my friend. Her clothes, which were already skimpy, barely hang to her skin even as she lays down. The man turns away from her at my attack, but the damage has already been dealt. She is covered in purple wounds, her body convulsing from the poison that courses through her veins. The arrows were all neutralized as the man swung a poison covered arm across his body.

My bow changes to Cold Excalibur once more, and I launch forward, swinging the sword in a diagonal path. It catches across his chest as he attempts to dodge my attack, and his skin is instantly frozen, the ice creeping slowly outward. I release a constant stream of attacks right after that. I create ten swords around me and then launch them at the leader, who dodges them all, but I was hoping for this outcome. I run straight down the center, and swing my sword at him, but I guess I was read in the end because a purple-clad fist is flying at my stomach before I realize what’s happening. But I never feel the impact, because there Zephyr is, taking the full brunt of the attack without even so much as flinching.

“Zephyr, what the hell!?” I shout, yanking him backward so I can see the new wound. Just like before, blood and poison pour from the opening on his stomach, and I place a hand to the area, freezing it over again. I lay him on a kite of ice and fly it to a copse of trees, doing the same for Lacey. The leader just watches, laughing at me. “Oh, you cannot hope to save them, especially that whore. While you’ve slowed the poison down, once your ice goes away, they will die.” I let out an enraged scream, and the area around me freezes over completely. Even the air ceases to shift.

“You cannot insult any of my friends like that, and I will not allow you to live for such comments,” I hiss, and two Ice Excalibur's form in my hands. The leader, without weapons and in an extreme disadvantage due to the playing field, is frozen solid in a matter of moments. I shatter the ice that covers his body, ending him with a simple slice of my sword. The ice around the area disappears, and I run over to my teammates, collapsing next to them. Tears flow unhindered as I try and tend to their wounds. They’ve gone unconscious from the pain. “No no no no no no no,” I mutter, worrying over the wounds, but powerless to do anything.

“Dakota, we need to get them to a hospital.” Silver says emotionlessly, approaching my side, viewing the damage that has been dealt. I nod, standing, and create an ice kite. Silver helps me lift Zephyr and Lacey onto its surface, and we hop on afterward, keeping them still so their wounds do not break open.

“Why did you lock me up in that ice dome?” Silver asks after a while, staring at the area ahead of us.

“Because your safety means more to me than anything,” I say, keeping my gaze carefully away from Silver.

“Then you should know that your safety means just as much to me. Dakota, we could have won that. Why didn’t you just let me help?” He asks, focusing his gaze on me. I turn to face him slowly, and the tears begin to prick at my eyes again. Silver’s own eyes are heavy with unshed tears, and it takes all my willpower not to bring him close and soothe him.

“I did win. We are all here right now, and the threat has been dealt with.” I say, keeping my voice steady despite the burn in my throat. This answer does nothing to soothe Silver, whose tears now begin to drip down onto his cheeks.

“No, you didn’t win. Lacey's so beaten up she’s barely breathing, and Zephyr’s got a wound so deep I’m positive I can see bone.” He growls out, and I flinch back. “But you’d rather sacrifice them than ever think about losing me, so you kept me safe, away from the battle. What kind of leader does that?” He spits, and the tears finally fall from my own cheeks.

“I do, Silver. Because I’m not cut out to be a leader. I’m hopelessly selfish, I cannot bear the thought of losing you. I can believe that my teammates are expendable if it means you are safe. If you were to hate me for the rest of our lives I would not care as long as you were safe. That is how much you mean to me,” I say, keeping my gaze steady on Silver, even as my voice cracks. Tears fall freely from his eyes, staining a path down his cheeks, and I watch as they collect down to his chin, not moving a single muscle.

“Then you have to believe I wouldn’t throw my own life away! I thought we could trust each other to come back to one another, but I guess you’d rather be a one-man army than try and do that!” He shouts, his voice staying steady despite the constant flow of tears.

“That’s right.” I state, and then I just slump down against myself, my eyes shutting tight, curling in on myself. It’s a wonder the kite keeps flying at all. Silver grasps my shoulders then, squeezing lightly.

“Why can’t you put a little faith in me?” He asks, and I shake my head.

“Because you're so reckless! You throw yourself in harms way if it means you’ll look brave in front of an audience! Because you're so stubborn that you’ll fight until you drop! Because I’m stronger than you in every aspect and I have what it takes to get the job done!” I retort angrily, and Silver lets go of my shoulders, fear shining in his eyes.

“If that’s what you really believe then why the hell are we on a team?” He asks, his voice dropping down far enough to send a chill down my spine. “I am strong enough to protect myself. If you don’t believe me then you don’t have to, but I promise you, I am just as strong as you are, if not more. I don’t need you.” He says, and my heart drops down into my stomach. That one phrase ‘I don’t need you,’ bounces around my head continuously, and the tears fall down my face with greater vigor.

“When we get back home, we will have to seriously talk, but right now, we’ll worry about Zephyr and Lacey.” He says after a long lapse of silence, and I nod my head, wiping my face and focusing back on the ground zipping by.

When we arrive at the hospital, I am hysterical as I demand that Lacey and Zephyr be taken care of, and the nurses comply with a calm patience that fills me with rage.

“Don’t walk as though they have time! If your slow pace kills either of my friends, I will bring this whole place down.” My voice is low and dangerous, and all the employees spring into action. I fall to the floor after such a display, hanging my head in my hands as I sob and scream, the tears coming once again. I am distantly aware of being guided to a chair, but I can barely feel my own body let alone understand what’s going on around me.

I spend the entire day in that chair, sometimes crying, sometimes not, but the aching in my chest never goes away. Silver is there, occasionally bringing me cups of water so I can rehydrate myself. Lacey was announced dead upon arrival while Zephyr’s condition has not gotten better, but the doctors reassure me that it isn’t getting worse.

“Isn’t it your damn job to make it better, not worse?” I ask, standing up to glare at him. The doctor returns the gaze. “Excuse me ma’am, but I’m pretty sure you’ve already threatened us once. I think I just might call the Council if you act up again.” He states, and that’s it. That’s the last straw.

“You could call down every known god in this entire universe, and I would never leave this place. I would gladly be thrown in a jail cell as long as my friends were healed in this sad excuse for a hospital. All your employees are slow, and half of them couldn’t even figure out what was wrong with them, despite the fact that they had deep wounds clearly visible all over them.” My voice never raises above a neutral volume, but my words cut and chill the doctor to his very bones.

“Now I suggest you get back to your job before I freeze this entire place over,” I say, sitting back in the chair. He flies away now, and I slump down, knowing I can no longer be seen.

Several hours later, Zephyr is gone too. I want to pound the doctor’s skull in, but even more I want someone to do the same to me. None of this would be happening had I been a better leader. My head throbs now, a deep ache takes home in between my bones, and hatred runs boiling through my veins. I rest my head on Silver’s shoulder, my hand placed tightly in his. He doesn’t speak, for which I am thankful, only running his thumb over the top of my hand, tracing small circles.

“Silver, I can’t be in the guild anymore.” I say after a while, and his thumb stops the slow circular rhythm. He says nothing, which signifies that I should continue.

“I can’t stay there knowing I’m responsible for the deaths of two of the strongest and brightest mages there. I can’t bare to sit at the bar, knowing Lacey should be there too, downing several vodka shots before dawn even breaks. I can’t go into the library knowing that Zephyr should be there too, thumbing through a book that explains the uses of wind magic. I can’t Silver, I just can’t.” My voice breaks and tears run silently down my face, dripping down onto his shoulder.

“Then I’ll leave with you.” He says, and I shake my head.

“You need to remain in the guild to keep it strong. Maybe someday, I’ll come back, but for right now, you will keep Winter’s Light alive. You might even find a girlfriend without me nagging you all the time.” I let out a choked laugh, to which Silver remains silent, staring at me sincerely.

“Hey, Dakota. Look at me, please?” He asks, and I do, lifting up my head to stare into his eyes. He runs a hand over my cheek, drying my tear stained cheeks with his thumb. He pulls me in for a hug, giving me a gentle kiss on the crown of my head.

“I need to come with you, Dakota. Because without you, I am not strong. I am reckless and you were right to say all that stuff about me because I will always need you more than I need anyone else. More than you need me,” He whispers softly, and I desperately want to nod my head, to say ‘yes, Silver, just follow me,’ but I can’t.

"I promise I won’t go anywhere you can’t find me,” I whisper back, resting my forehead against his. “But, for right now, I need time on my own,” I say, standing up despite the pull to rest my head on him again. I mutter a small ‘goodbye’ as I leave, and Silver just watches as I go. Part of me wants him to get up and chase me down. But I know he won’t, because I said not to. That is the respect we hold for each other.

I leave the hospital without a second glance, for once the bright flowers of my home no longer comforting me. I get on a train, leaving the city, but going nowhere in particular. I feel as though I’m not actually in my body as I move from train station to train station, watching as cities go by.

I end up in Hylion’s capital city in the wee hours of the morning, crashing at an inn. I stay there for a few days until I find an apartment to purchase. I force myself to join Koma Inu the day after I buy my new house, knowing that if I don’t the Council will only deport me somewhere else to join another guild I don’t like. None of the guilds have Silver, or Lacey, or Zephyr, and the deep pain I feel if I think about any of them leaves me immobile.

Upon joining the guild, I put on a brave face, smiling and laughing because that’s what I need to do. Because Silver, Lacey, and Zephyr count on me to be strong no matter what. I try to keep my time there to a minimum, and as a distraction, I begin working for the government. It’s mostly small jobs, like delivering messages or filing paperwork, but I’d rather be in there than at Koma Inu’s guild hall, so I’m fine with it.

I talk with Silver regularly through letters, and I haven’t built up the strength to visit him since I left. I tell him to stay where he is, that one day I will go to him, but he continues to ask if he can visit, or if I will, anyways. It hurts, not seeing my childhood friend, but I know if I see him, I will only hurt him. To see him, to speak with him, it will be more than I can bear. I will fall apart if I see those forgiving eyes I know he uses every time he writes letters to me.

Three years pass with little changing, except moving up the ranks in the government. Because of all the recognition I’ve gotten as a reliable and smart member of our government system, the people of the city have elected me, at a mere twenty-four years old, as the city’s next leader. I feel undeserving, but happily take the job with the promise of working even harder. I leave Koma Inu shortly thereafter, with the excuse that I have too many duties as leader of the capital, and one the younger ones at that. I can not, and I will not fail as a leader this time.

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