“The physical stress required to awaken an Aspect only seems minute when compared to the mental fortitude that is needed to maintain sanity during the path of enlightenment. “
–The Dream and Dreamer authored by Talis Ranis.
The mood was dour. Quiet, dour and far too serious for a group of highschoolers. It had been a month since their hike up the mountain, the results of which had meant extra food portions, the lack of which was beginning to turn hungry eyes feral. Only two groups had “passed” the test. Uana, Hido, and Jillian, who had split off of Hijo’s group and went through the fake trails, only that trio had been able to finish first, before even Talayia. No one knew how they finished but if anyone were to pull off a feat like that then it would be Uana. The second group was Lo, Aulus and Winnow who had kept a steady pace and finished with all members of their group. These two groups were given twice the food portions, two bowls of soup a day, as opposed to the single bowl that the rest of the class had to survive on. The students were on a rigorous training regimen. Early morning runs followed by isolated muscle workouts followed by sparring with both fists and wooden staffs. Then there was a meditation session, which was blissful as long as you didn’t think about food, sleep, showering, physical exercise, or being on a mountain.
The Class for the Savant lived off of watery soup and a handful of hours to sleep. It takes time for the human body to adjust to such an extreme change in diet and lifestyle. Every student had experienced the taste of bile and what it’s like to puke when there’s nothing in the stomach. The students would have lost their minds if not for Master Klyle. He knew exactly how much to push the kids and when to give the right words of encouragement. He was a Master Specter but before that he was a master trainer and martial artist.
Hales struggled less than she thought she would. She still threw up on occasion, and her muscles burned like a wildfire. But her mental state had been unchanged, and that is something that has obvious influence on mood and energy levels. If Hales was being honest with herself she was used to the feeling of sleeplessness. The cold void feeling in the pit of your stomach when you go through consecutive days of insomnia. Her ability to dissociate and let her mind wander while doing any task was a lifesaver once again in her mind.
Master Klyle however had noticed the stillness and distance in her eyes.
“Do not dissociate from here! Do not let your mind wander! Feel every painful step on this mountain.” He had called out during one early morning run. He had a way of addressing the group with valuable motivation while being able to target a single student with the exact words they needed. It was uncanny to the students struggling the most.
Hales had ignored the advice though. She wanted to daydream, it’s what she’d always done. She could survive any trauma by staying safe inside her imagination. That’s what she told herself. She could barely even remember why she was in this place at all. She wasn’t sure how long they’d been here, the time between training, chores and meditation had blended the days and nights together. This was life now. There was rarely ever conversation between students. The mountain view was pleasant but got old fast. Her body was sore beyond belief but she threw herself into all the exercises regardless. Meditation was just daydreaming sessions without any physical labor to accompany it. She could admit it to herself that she was losing it completely. She didn’t care.
Hales wasn’t the only student on the verge of breaking. It was right at that limit when Master Klyle finally ended a sparring session early. The students were confused and relieved at the same time.
“What do you think it is this time?” Xander whispered to Hales who was her sparring partner for the day. Hales shook her head, too tired to give a real response, and plus she wouldn’t know either. Xander just nodded.
“Follow me.” Master Klyle declared and said no more, turning at once to walk up a trail. A couple students gave some nervous glances to each other. Everyone followed warily behind the large lion-man. Hales genuinely enjoyed the hike through the trail. It was one they had never been through before. It was very well kept. The trail was clean with plenty of flowers adorning the sides. If it wasn’t for the hellish training grounds they were bound to be going to she might of thought it was paradise. Abajem broke from her place near the front of the line and dropped to Hales’ position, walking by her side.
“Look what I found.” The short girl held her hand up near Hales’ eyes. There was a large green praying mantis standing defensively in Abajem’s open palm.
“She said her name is Grasso.” Abajem might have lost it completely. The strange girl had been acting even stranger. Talking to bugs and laughing randomly at “inside” jokes apparently.
“Hello Grasso.” Hales said to the mantis with a smile. She couldn’t blame Abajem for her behavior. This camp was hard as nails. Add on top of that the intense schedule and adjustments to the thinner oxygen and the already crazy could go insane. Abajem let the mantis crawl on her shoulder and it seemed to be satisfied hitching a ride.
“How you holdin’ up?” Abajem seemed suddenly like she always did. Unaffected by any circumstances. Her same wide eyed expression starring yet not all there. Hales gave a rue smile and decided to just say something ridiculous.
“Oh I’m doing fine. The training is easy.” She meant it sarcastically but she also wanted to see the reaction of the students around her within hearing range. A couple of heads turned but remained grimly silent. Abajem just giggled and started making small talk. Hales turned her responses onto autopilot and began daydreaming.
She was thinking about supernovas when suddenly the students stopped moving and one girl even gasped. Hales recognized her as Veron, a dainty but dark haired girl who had a number of strange tattoos artfully covering parts of her arms and legs and even a few on her neck. There were more on her chest, back and stomach no doubt. They had reached a clearing as students began to fan out to get a better view. The view Hales saw that got such a reaction as gasps and excited whispers was in fact paradise.
There was a waterfall a dozen meters high that fed the cleanest water she’d ever seen into a stream. This was the waterfall to the river they had hiked alongside when they first entered the mountain. Green trees and exotic plants furnished the surroundings and reflected beautifully off the crystal clear water.
“Welcome to the pride of the Camp of Awakening. Avaloo Waterfall.” Klyle spoke after giving everyone enough time to take in the vision, breaking them from the spell.
“If you look closely you can see one of Talis Ranis’ feathers sticking in that boulder under the waterfall.” It was true. Hales and a few others stepped closer to see it. A grey and white feather from a crane was sticking stem first into the rock. The rock itself was more of a smoothed platform under the waterfall. Hales didn’t notice at first but the feather was actually cutting through the water, splitting it as it fell. It was unmoved by wind and water, it was almost ridiculous to see.
“Does anyone here know the tale, or should I do the honors?” Master Klyle was smiling broadly knowing he had shook most students out of their tired trances that dreaded more training. One kid raised his hand, it was Magun. He had short cropped hair, broad shoulders and fierce looking eyes. He was every inch the military man.
“This is the waterfall where Talis Ranis became a Fable?” He asked in disbelief not waiting to be called on nor providing the explanation of the tale.
“Aye it is. Would you like to tell about it?” Magun nodded energetically and moved near Klyle in front of the students, taking the floor.
“Well for starters I had no idea this place even existed anymore. The name Avaloo Waterfall sounded familiar but then he pointed out the feather and I almost lost my shit.” Magun was about to really get into it.
“So in Talis Ranis’ book, The Dream and Dreamer, he describes a garden surrounding a clear lake and a waterfall that he meditated under for weeks. He learned many truths about the universe and the Aspect, and it’s where he says he developed his power further and became a Fable.” Magun looked as if he was going to say more but then decided against it. He started shaking his head in disbelief. Master Klyle began speaking again.
“Precisely Magun. At the time Talis Ranis was a Master but ever the learner he flew over these mountains and discovered the place. That was over a hundred years ago. Here you are today preparing to awaken your Aspect. Feel free to use this place to meditate. Take a swim, lay under a tree, just be mindful of others and respectful to the plants and animals.” Master Klyle knew he needed to give the ragged students something tangible, something to inspire them and remind them what the past four weeks were for. Hales was beginning to see just how effective Master Klyle was as a trainer.
“Take the day off and enjoy the water. You lot have earned it. And starting today the training regimen is as you see fit. Meditation, sleep and workout routines will all be decided by yourselves. Professor Vandle and I will be hosting training sessions all day. This camp is for each of you individually to grow stronger and awaken your Aspect. That is why you are here and you all will succeed.” And just like that the fire was reignited in people’s eyes. They were pumped and suddenly full of life. Hales found a spot to let her feet dangle in the water. It was cool but not freezing. It relaxed her sore muscles and felt divine. She wanted a moment to break down Master Klyle’s methods. She was fascinated by the psychology of it all.
For starters he had her class hike up over twenty kilometers up a winding mountain trail. After which they spent a couple hours sleeping before waking up and beginning their first workout. Regular runs, bizarre workouts and daily chores taxed the kids heavily. The little sleep and even less food was what really took a toll on everyone. It was so calculated. He wanted everyone to throw up, cry, bleed, sweat. Push everyone farther than they ever were pushed and then keep pushing. It’s what everyone figured more or less but it’s different once you actually experience it.
But in one five minute moment her class was suddenly lively and joking amongst themselves, the usual banter one could expect from highschoolers resumed. Most of the guys and a lot of the girls were swimming in the water, as if they weren’t almost dropping dead from exhaustion the past few weeks. Hales could only describe Master Klyle’s training as deadly efficient. Hales hadn’t forgotten why they are here, not just in this camp but their school in general. They are going to join the military and become weapons for their city.
“Hales!” Hales looked up surprised, shaken from her thoughts. It was Talayia who had swam up to her spot around the lake.
“Aren’t you going to go swimming!” Talayia had been quiet throughout the weeks, focusing only on working out. Hales didn’t think it was possible but the girl actually looked more fit. She was already the most athletic girl in the class but now she was even stronger and leaner. The class was about to go through a recovery period she guessed, which means all the muscle they had been abusing was going to grow back with savage results.
“No thanks, too tired to swim.” Hales was a little annoyed at being disturbed and Talayia took the cue and swam back to a group of guys and girls in the middle of the lake. In Hales peripheral she could see the group pointing and whispering about her. Hales knew she wasn’t well liked and Talayia was perhaps her only way in to having a social life among her peers but she was always awkward and caught at the worst moments which made her snappy and she couldn’t ever say the right things. Her only other friend was Abajem and she was even more fargone than herself.
Thinking of the girl Hales turned to see where she was. Abajem was off on her own near the treeline playing in a bed of flowers with some bugs. It was as if the girl could feel herself being watched she turned to Hales and waved from across. Hales waved back. She was always a little unsettled about the girl’s uncanny ability to be aware of her surroundings at all times. She had crazy instincts. Hales turned back to the lake and looked at her reflection in the water. The face looking back had brown eyes made brighter by the contrast of her dark sleepy eyelids. Her skin was more tan and her hair had grown past her shoulders now. It was messy and wild and she decided she’d cut it soon.
Hales looked tired even by her own standards. She had lost weight making the skin around her cheeks and jawline more taut. Hales couldn’t stand how her reflection looked at her, her features were too boyish. She kicked her feet, disturbing the water and sending ripples to blur out the mirror.
Sighing aloud she stood from her spot, muscles cracking along the way. She stretched briefly and walked over to where Master Klyle was sitting peacefully under a tree reading a small book. Well the book was probably normal size but his hands were so huge. On top of that he had reading glasses on. The image of a lion-man reading a tiny book with glasses on was too much for her to contain and she started laughing. Klyle raised an eyebrow, looking up from his page.
“Sorry it’s rude to laugh!” Hales said continuing to laugh despite apologizing for that very thing. Klyle wasn’t offended at all and gave a return smile. He set his book on the ground and folded his glasses over them.
“Getting too old to see small letters.” Knowing exactly why she was laughing and offering an explanation.
“What’s up lass?” He added.
“I want to train. Vacation life isn’t for me.” Her smile was gone replaced by cold determination. She was annoyed at herself. Annoyed at her classmates. Annoyed at being hungry and tired and weak and ugly.
“Aye I know. Head back to the trail, Professor Vandle is there ready for sparring. Yillo went back already, he felt the same as you.” Hales nodded and thanked him.
“I’m going to say some things to the folks here later on so we’ll be back at camp in a few hours.” Hales nodded again and turned to make her way out the trail. Klyle called out one more thing.
“Proud of you Hales. You’ve got the look of a legend on you.” Hales didn’t respond this time but she smiled to herself. She didn’t really know what he meant by that but it felt good to be praised a little. Klyle really is wickedly effective.
Maybe it’s because he cares. He genuinely cares about his students. That’s rare in anything. It’s his job though. We are to become weapons and it’s his job to make that happen. He cares only as far as we prove deadly. That doesn’t sound like Master Klyle. He’s not the type to put on a facade like that.
Hales felt guilty for even suspecting Klyle but she argued with herself on the walk back to camp. That was her nature to be suspicious of others. She couldn’t trust anyone without fully evaluating them. She returned to reality when she saw Yillo and Professor Vandle sitting around a fire eating.
“Ah Hales come join us for a meal.” Professor Vandle waved her to sit near them. Hales had tossed all thoughts of food from her mind, assuming she wouldn’t get to eat for a few more hours. The mention of food suddenly made her stomach ache in hunger. She gratefully sank beside them and Professor Vandle poured her a generous bowl of soup.
“Hey.” She said greeting the two. Yillo nodded in acknowledgement. Hales had never tasted such delicious food before. It seemed they had changed the recipe, there was a lot more flavor and protein.
“The easiest part of the camp is over for you guys. Congratulations for making it this far. There will be more meals, more sleep, more meditation and free time. But the training is going to be far more intense. Over the next couple of days your body will have adjusted to the mountains and work, so we’ll be able to start training in earnest. Which also means we are nearing the point where you guys will be awakening your Aspects.” Hales assumed this was along the lines of what Master Klyle would be telling the rest of her class at the waterfall later in the day. It seemed to Hales that Vandle was excited. Eager to see how his third year students would develop. Hales could imagine herself being excited if the roles were reversed. Seeing twenty-five new and unique abilities that you get to nurture and train. Hales found her excitement growing as well.
The general mood and energy of everyone at the camp had skyrocketed upwards. They finished their meal in silence and sat enjoying the cool air. Yillo eventually broke that silence.
“Want to spar?” He asked Hales plainly, but she could detect the hint of bloodlust in his voice. Professor Vandle did too apparently.
“You two versus me.” Vandle spoke standing up. Yillo was fine with that and Hales nodded in agreement.
“Sticks or no? Vandle asked.
“Sticks.” Hales spoke first. Vandle gathered three staffs and handed one to Hales and the other spare to Yillo. They all took positions. Hales on one side of Vandle and Yillo on the other. She gripped it tightly. The wood was dark and smooth but offered enough gripping surface area to hold without slipping. Professor Vandle was tall, broad shouldered and always prepared. Yillo’s brown eyes were blazing. He was angry at something and really needed to vent. He was slightly taller than herself but more toned and muscular. His sandy hair was long enough to get in his eyes and like hers it was messy and wild.
“Use your Aspect Professor.” Yillo demanded. Professor Vandle chuckled.
“Beat me without it first boy.” Yillo sprung forward, staff poised. He launched a series of wild swings. Vandle easily deflected them using both ends to block the attacks one by one. Vandle found an opening in Yillo’s assault and jabbed his staff, catching Yillo’s shoulder. Yillo grunted and continued his offensive. Hales inched forward waiting for the right moment.
Yillo was swinging left and right in wide arcs. Vandle remained cool and content with playing defense with the occasional counter. His counters never missed their mark. Each time adding a bruise and a grunt. Yillo kept swinging in high arcs allowing his attacks to be easily telestrated. Hales finally caught on to what he was doing.
It was a basic strategy. In a two versus one fight one partner should use one type of attack while the other partner uses another. In this case with staves Yillo is using horizontal attacks which means I need to use vertical attacks or thrusting attacks.
Hales finally made her move and sent a quick thrust to the low back of Professor Vandle. Vandle for his part was waiting for the double team and he sidestepped her attack, only to step into Yillo’s side swing aimed for his head. Vandle held up his staff with two hands and used an upright block to stop the blow.
Hales drew her staff back and made a swing aimed for Vandle’s left leg. At the same time Yillo prepared a thrust aimed for the chest. Vandle stepped into Hale’s swing blocking it and dodging Yillo’s thrust at the same time. Vandle swung his staff too fast for Hales to reset, hitting her hard in the shoulder. He spun in time to counter another thrust from Yillo. This time however, Vandle’s counter failed to touch Yillo. Yillo was fighting more seriously now and kept his swings tighter, ready to block any counters.
Vandle knew it was his turn to go on the offensive before he got overwhelmed. Yillo knew it too, but he was haggard and had received blow after blow. Pain was written all over his face, one arm was even trembling where he took a heavy counter. Hales could feel the shift in the mood. Yillo was about to get finished by Vandle, yet he remained stalwart and stood his ground.
Vandle advanced on Yillo. At the same moment Hales decided to throw her staff right at Vandle’s feet. Vandle, caught off guard, dipped his staff to stop the projectile but it left him exposed to Yillo, who seized the opportunity to jab Vandle in the side of his stomach. Yillo turned and swung again to the back of his legs, tripping Vandle before he could twist to his exposed flank. Yillo hit Vandle with lightning fast smacks as he fell. He stepped in and thrust his staff to the Professor’s face. Vandle held his hands up in defeat. Yillo lowered his staff and gave him a hand to get up.
“Impressive you two. Hales you were able to pick up on your classmates strategy and Yillo you left me no opportunity to adjust to the onslaught.” Yillo simply nodded, he was breathing hard and the adrenaline was settling, which meant his dozen bruises began aching in full force.
“You got me good a bunch of times, woulda’ lost in a real fight.” Yillo finally spoke after a moment of reflection.
“That may be true, but next time we spar, I’ll use my Aspect.” Professor Vandle said. Yillo shook his head.
“I spoke in anger when I said that. When I have mine then we can fight on even terms.” Yillo had certainly calmed down. He turned to Hales.
“Hales, you were really good. You picked up on my play and than gave me the opening to land some hits.” Yillo was rubbing at a large bruise on his chest.
Hales shrugged, “Just sorta realized it halfway through. I’ve seen you spar before and it didn’t seem like your style to swing so wildly. And I threw my staff because I saw Professor Vandle was about to go on the offensive and I just didn’t want to get hit.” Vandle just chuckled.
“It was a good move, did not see it coming, that’s for sure.” The group broke off after a few more minutes of talking and rehydrating. Professor Vandle finally left declaring he had some things to set up for the next day. Vandle was thinking seriously about his two students. He liked both of them dearly, Yillo a little too angry and Hales a little too dreamy. But they were among the smarter students. Yillo was a natural fighter and would become deadly with some practice and depending on his Aspect could easily be the strongest in the class. His anger comes and goes with the wind though. Hales on the other hand was cunning. She wasn’t particularly athletic but she was wickedly sharp and a thinker. She spends her time observing, like a hawk watching all the mice playing in the field, deciding whose turn to get snatched.
Professor Vandle was a soldier born and raised. He spent his life as a scout and sniper. His job in the military before he started teaching was to be the ultimate predator. He excelled at his job and killed numerous prey. He had an eye for such things, seeing the predator and prey in everyone. Sheeps and wolves. It was the way of the hunter. And Vandle’s instincts as a hunter told him this; that girl is lethal.