“It must be known that any who awaken the Aspect must resolutely accept their own death. There can be no other fate for those with power.”
-The Dream and Dreamer authored by Talis Ranis.
“Strength is more than just muscle, more than raw power.” Master Klyle’s voice was booming in the midday sun. The class was undergoing a grueling circuit of various workouts, and of course Klyle was also partaking in the exercises while teaching.
“Strength is as much a mental attitude as it is a physical one. We aren’t lifting anything more than our bodyweight in this circuit. But we are doing it over and over again.” Master Klyle continued as the class transitioned to abdominal training for the third round.
Hales had lost track of all the different workouts they had been and still were doing. She knew her way around a gym but these workouts didn’t use machines, dumbbells or barbells or resistance bands. It was entirely bodyweight. Everyone had heard of crunches, push-ups, pull-ups and all the basic ones. They did those sure, but they also did things like reverse crunches, pistol squats, L-sits, handstands and dozens more she couldn’t remember the names of.
“The truest definition of strength is this,” Klyle had moved into a one armed handstand during the usual minute break between super-sets, “Control. To have power over the self and the environment, that is what strength truly is.” He completed five one armed handstand push-ups with ease and could easily have done more but transitioned into the next exercise routine.
It was the fourth day of the bodyweight circuits and for Hales they were just beginning to be doable. She was more than glad to have lost weight in the previous weeks at the camp. The most difficult part of the workouts were how slow they were.
“You must be able to hold any position for long lengths of time, and then transition smoothly to the next one,” Klyle explained. Training strength, or control as Klyle called it, meant doing each rep of every workout as intimately as possible. Klyle had specifically used the word intimate as you are meant to feel every burning second of your body as you performed the workout. To understand your whole body. The class would start in a push-up, move to an L-sit, then to a handstand and cartwheel into a single leg squat. It was almost like a dance, or a sort of martial art. Being able to flow from one exercise to the next nonstop in long circuits was true control in Klyle’s belief.
The idea was foreign and silly to most of the class, they were used to pumping out workouts as fast and aggressively as possible. To get strong you need to lift faster and more powerfully, that was the common philosophy. After the first day under Klyle’s tutelage they no longer found it silly. It was as Professor Vandle told Hales and Yillo, the real training was just beginning. The schedule was on and off workouts throughout the day. The exercises could last for hours at a time. The time in between was free. Students could grab a meal, meditate, sleep, hang out with other classmates, hike, or attend Professor Vandle’s sparring lessons. Yillo had spent most of his time training with Professor Vandle, though Yillo had never won again since he and Hales sparred against him.
Hales hadn’t missed a single one of Master Klyles workouts, some of which happened in the dead of night. Hales could hardly sleep anyways, her insomnia reaching an all time high. She didn’t care. Hales was throwing herself into every single workout Klyle hosted. She talked even less than before, in a constant state of fatigue and sleep deprivation her psyche had become a foggy mess. Hales pushed herself nonetheless. She didn’t even really know why. A way to distract herself as the weeks passed by perhaps.
But that wasn’t entirely true. It was her coping mechanism. When something traumatic happens she shuts away. Its less of a distraction and more of a retraction. Hales retracts into her mind, sending her body recklessly into whatever situation she was in. It was entirely unhealthy and she knew it, but it was her way. The past trauma and current hell, she was nothing more than a product of violent silent pain. It was precisely this retreating into the self that allowed her access to her Aspect. Her first touch of limitless power.
Hales was sitting by the waterfall in Avaloo. Somewhere along the lines she had finished a strenuous workout and had walked to the glade. Dried sweat caked her body, muscles and bones aching. It felt good. She was alone, no workouts for a few hours, and her stomach was neither hungry nor full. She was tired, exhausted really, but she was about to close her eyes so that wasn’t a problem. In fact, she found that it made meditation easier. Hales laid back and let her mind free.
Oh right, I’m alive still. When did that happen? I like zoning out, its makes life feel like a dream. I’m just floating through my life. Is anything real? How can I be sure either way? The days are blending together so intricately. My eyes are seeing trees and a waterfall and a clear lake and the sun is setting and I can barely bring myself to care. This is isn’t real anyways so what does it matter? Who is Hales Ailor. This is no question but simply a statement of fact. Who is she. Why is this my life? We are destined to fight and die, nothing more.
Am I ready to kill? Not now of course, but in the future?
The future. I have no place in this world. I am nothing. I don’t want to go to war I barely can handle all this training. The military is just going to be more and more training before dying in some place far from home.
There’s no point in getting worried, Hales. Remember why you are here. You must create a suitable life for your siblings. They deserve a chance at a fair existence. The military is simply the most logical way of securing the money needed. If my worth amounts to nothing in this world than I must become valuable, deadly. I will awaken my Aspect here, focus only on becoming a Master, like Klyle.
Hales ended the dialogue in her mind letting her imagination to wander freely. She found herself more at peace than she had ever been in her seventeen years. The girl with the messy hair and boyish features with guy clothes was finally beginning to accept herself. Maybe it was the fact that all the pressures of society and their standards for everything was insignificant here on the mountains in nature. Perhaps she was noticing a change to her body, it was more fit, stronger, tougher, she felt more confident. Or the other likely explanation was that she was far too tired and exhausted to really give much thought to how much she hated herself. Either way Hales felt herself growing, evolving in a way. All her fears and doubts could just melt away once she set her mind to finding a solution. As if life was a series of interconnected puzzles and one merely had to find the best answers each time a problem arose.
A noise rested the girl from her thoughts, her eyes opened casually. She was far too relaxed to care what was heading in her direction. There were at least a few pairs of feet marching through the path to Avaloo. The sun was hanging low in the sky. The first to emerge into sight was Yillo. He was wearing sweatpants and a long sleeve shirt, his dirty blonde hair grown out naturally, his expression set. A group of three students followed behind him. It was the usual group of troublemakers.
The first, Jonatan Velm, was tall and sly, with an expression of malice almost always decorating his face. Now it was especially twisted. Next was Garriot Hasley. He was average height but built like a bull with violent looking brown eyes. The last was Emilo Prantis. He was wearing a jacket which fit tightly around his protruding belly. Hales had no idea how he had managed to stay alive in the camp, being as fat as he is. He must have the mental fortitude of a monster thought Hales. It was the usual squad of kids, minus a few that were constantly picking on Yillo. Hales remained hidden in the shadow of a large full tree.
“Here works.” Yillo broke the silence first. The trio looked at eachother grinning.
“I’m not allowed to hit girls so one of you gotta’ fight him.” Jonatan raised his arms innocently, walking backwards mockingly, for his eyes never left Yillo’s, challenging him all the way. Yillo scoffed, his eyes furious.
“I can take the boy-chick,” Garriot spoke as he shook off his jacket, leaving just an undershirt. “I don’t mind hitting girls if they’re being naughty.” Emilo chuckled at that.
“Fine you take her, I call next time.” Emilo said as he backed off with Jonatan, giving Yillo and Garriot space. Yillo’s masculinity was the usual subject of bullying since as long as Hales had gone to school with him, and probably even before. Yillo’s nails were painted white and he tended to wear eyeliner and more close fitting attire. Since they were in camp only the painted nails remained on the angry boy. Hales actually liked his overall look. It was unique and adrogenous, he wasn’t an ugly kid. Just hot-tempered and solitary. It had something to do with his mother, the reason he dressed how he did, but Hales didn’t know much of the details.
Garriot was stretching his shoulders in circles. Yillo stood stone cold. Hales could see Emilo and Jonatan whispering to each other but they were out of her hearing. Yillo and Garriot were close to the same height but Garriot had maybe twenty kilograms on his opponent. It was to be a fistfight, and Yillo showed no signs of concern to his larger advisory.
The jeering finally stopped as the two boys began circling each other, getting a feel for spacing and reach. Hales had learned quite a lot about fighting at her time at this camp, and one thing she learned was when two experienced fighters started out slowly it meant that it was going to be a long and brutal fight. The reason being that both parties recognize the talent they faced. It’s a way to warm up, to feel your opponent. It reminded Hales of a duet.
Yillo made the first offensive move of the dance. He lunged forward into a combination of three quick punches. Garriot kept his arm up, blocking each punch naturally. Yillo backed up before Garriot could counter. Yillo kept his feet moving, going in for a fast jab and bounding back out. His punches weren’t doing any damage and he was wasting energy fast. Garriot charged to capitalize on his fresher stamina. Yillo ducked under the wild swing and delivered a punch to Garriot’s ribs. Deciding not to push his luck Yillo jumped back as Garriot swung a savage back hand where Yillo had just been.
“He moves like a ballerina!” Emilo hollered out. “ Maybe he thinks this is a dance recital and not a fight.” Emilo speaking to Jonatan this time, loud enough for the fighters to hear obviously.
“The pretty princess frolicking in the forest.” Jonatan said with venom in his voice, staring again straight into Yillo’s eyes. Hales felt the animosity Jonatan had for Yillo. She shivered in her spot under the tree.
Yillo flashed an angry look at Jonatan for his comment but Garriot moved in and delivered a crushing blow. Yillo barely threw his arm up in time to stop himself from getting hit in the jaw, and possibly the knockout. The punch was strong enough to paralyze his forearm for a second, the bone bruising underneath. Yillo grunted in pain but instead of staying on the defensive he rushed into Garriot who was expecting Yillo to evade, his arms were out of position. Yillo’s right arm had been weakened so he wedged it in front of Garriot’s left arm, stopping him from raising in defense. Yillo’s left fist crashed into the bigger man’s face multiple times. Garriot reeled back after the onslaught, pushing Yillo off of him.
The two boys were breathing heavy. Feeling was returning in Yillo’s right arm and Garriot was rubbing his cheek where the skin had been split. Garriot cracked his neck to the side. His eyes were filled with bloodlust. He advanced on Yillo. Garriot left his face exposed, leaving Yillo to send blow after blow to his face. Yillo took the bait. Garriot slammed his fists into Yillo’s open stomach and chest. Garriot had decided he could muscle through Yillo’s headshots which left Yillo defenseless. Yillo had noticed his mistake too late, sending one more uppercut to Garriot’s jaw before collapsing. It was weak and failed to knock the bigger man out. Yillo fell to one knee. Shots to the stomach and chest will leave the body winded. As soon as Yillo needed to breathe after his attack the muscles around the lungs would be too sore to properly function.
Yillo received a kick to the face sprawling him on the ground. Garriot pounced on the defeated man and wailed into him with massive hits. Yillo was knocked out. Jonatan and Emilo cheered Garriot on.
“Don’t kill him Garriot,” Jonatan was speaking, “if he dies we won’t get our turns.” Emilo laughed in agreement. Garriot gave one final punch to the unconscious man’s eye, which began swelling instantly.
The three boys left the glade joking and in high good humor. Their bloodlust and bullying satisfied no doubt. Hales ran over to check on the boy. She half carried, half dragged him a few meters to the small lake. Cupping her hands she gathered water and splashed his face. Yillo groaned but took another splash before waking up. At first his eyes were lit and dilated but he calmed down once assessing the situation. Which was his utter defeat.
“Damn.” Yillo said as he nursed his wounds. He was bleeding and bruising.
“Might be sore for the next week.” Hales pointed out. Yillo groaned. His face was bloodied and one eye was black and shut tight. Yillo was fingering his ribs lightly.
“Anything broken?” Hales asked.
“No, I don’t know. Hurts a ton.” Yillo managed to sit up as he spoke.
“Getting pummelled tends to have that effect.” Hales said teasingly. Hales wasn’t close to Yillo but she did like him more than most of the other boys in class. He was solitary and so was she, they had talked more at this camp than they had in the few years attending the same middle school and high school.
“Here,” Hales spoke as she helped Yillo to his feet, “Let’s get you into the lake, the water will feel good and clean those wounds of yours.” Yillo made no complaints as he gingerly stepped his way to the water. He stripped off his shirt and pants and shuffled into the water. Hales decided the water looked pleasant enough, throwing her clothes on the shore, diving into the water at a higher point. Yillo remained in the shallow area dunking his head in the water and massaging his muscles. Hales hadn’t gone into the lake more than a handful of times since it was usually crowded. It was clean and felt divine, she found herself smiling as she made her rounds swimming back and forth across the lake.
After half an hour she began shivering and found her way to the flat rocks under the waterfall. She picked a spot outside of the waterfall’s radius and sat hugging her knees to her chest. Yillo took his time but eventually joined Hales on the rocky outcrop, bringing their clothes with him. Yillo was never one of the creepy boys so Hales didn’t mind as much sitting near him in just her underwear until her clothes could dry. She was still wearing a sports bra anyways.
Not like I have much of a chest anyways. Makes me wonder if any of the boys are attracted to me. Probably not. I don’t even know if Yillo likes girls.
“Bastard was tough. These last few days of training has me weaker than I imagined.” Yillo was talking more to make conversation than anything else. He figured she didn’t care too much either way. He handed Hales her clothes and folded his own and set them on a dry part of the rock they were both sitting on. Hales did the same. She nodded in response to his observation and thanked him for retrieving her clothes.
“What were you doing here anyways?” Yillo asked after a minute of silence.
“I was meditating. I think I’m getting close to awakening my Aspect.” Hales wasn’t sure why she said that but it suddenly sounded true. She could feel it. The peace, the centering of the self, tapping into the subconscious. It was hard to put into words.
“Oh?” Yillo sounded genuinely interested. He kept his eyes down over the lake. “How do you know?” He asked before Hales could say anything. She spent a minute thinking.
“Hmm, instinct I guess. I feel calmer and more myself if that makes sense. It’s hard to put into words really.” She said echoing her thoughts. The conversation died down. Yillo didn’t press her further. There wasn’t much to go off of with her response and demeanor. Neither were very conversational.
After a few minutes more Yillo declared he was going to go back to camp. He donned his shirt and slipped into his joggers. Rubbing his black eye as he stood up, he thanked her and slowly picked out a rock path back onto the land. Hales smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.
Alone once more she decided to move to the rock with the feather sticking out. The one Talis Ranis left many years ago. She sat right behind it staring at how the water was being split as it fell. Hales herself was being drenched by the cold water and began shivering intensely. The sun had gone down, dropping the temperature with it. She closed her eyes. Dissociated from all feelings of cold and soreness and exhaustion and hunger and thirst.
Fifteen minutes became forty-five. Forty-five turned into hours. Hales was deep into meditation, her body freezing, lips blue from the chill flow of the icy waterfall. She had been thinking about nothing. It was strange to think of nothing and feel nothing. Like sleeping awake, without any dreams. She could feel it. A sense of some sort, energy almost. Laying dormant inside of her but also connecting to nature and the universe. Something cosmic and infinitely out of her understanding. Her body was feeling faint. Her brain becoming muddled from its state of tranquility. She opened her eyes for the first time since beginning her trance.
Sense returned to her body. Her thoughts restored. She could feel every stabbing needle of cold pain that threatened to overwhelm her body. Broken from the trance she was surprised to find herself still sitting under the waterfall. She looked around. It was night. Clouds covered most of the stars and there was no moon. Her gaze turned downward to the water in the lake. She didn’t recognize the eyes staring back at her in the reflection of the crystal water. She knew it was her eyes, but they never looked this way before.
Staring up from the lake water were two illuminating eyes. There were no pupils or irises. Only two galaxies spiraling inside black space. A word appeared in her mind, and this she whispered.