“You must believe in yourself, if not with utter confidence than with a wild desperation. Believe in the self at all costs.”
-The Dream and Dreamer authored by Talis Ranis.
Hales woke up and stretched. Light was flooding in her room by the dawn sun. A couple of the girls were already up and moving, the rest were just beginning to stir. The normal routine was being interrupted for a special exercise, which could mean anything. Talayia walked to where Hales was tying the laces of her shoes. Talayia had an even gait, always in balance. The movements of a natural born athlete.
“Morning Hales.” Talayia greeted with a wave.
“Morning Tals.” Hales responded glancing up at the lithe girl and smiling. Talayia was tall and lean and had a never ending supply of energy, something Hales was reminded everyday of.
“Ready for today?” Talayia offered a hand to Hales, which she accepted, and was pulled to her feet. The two girls hadn’t spoken much since their arrival at the camp. Talayia had probably noticed Hales solemnity and given her space. However, sensing the mood change in Hales somehow she now approached her casually. Strange how other people could feel the difference in you, thought Hales.
“Yeah, I think it won’t be half bad today. But maybe that’s just my muscle’s wishful thinking.” Hales said between sips of water from her bottle. Talayia nodded.
“Ready to go?” Talayia made one final stretch, touching her toes.
“Yeah.” Hales dropped her half empty bottle on her bed and together the two girls left the barracks and walked out to the courtyard. The dawn air was fresh and Hales breathed it in deeply. There were a dozen students already marching toward the river, the spot Master Klyle designated for the day.
It took half an hour for all twenty-five students to arrive at the location. Most looked ready and determined to mount whatever task Klyle had in store. A few students had dread and exhaustion written on their faces. Regardless of the mental state no one was really ready for today’s training.
“Today we will be training one of the most fundamental techniques a human can develop.” Master Klyle was standing with one leg resting on a large log, one arm resting on his propped up bent knee, “Balance.”
“Balance is more than just stopping yourself from falling or tripping. Balance is a state of being where the body and mind are both centered to your core. The key is to trust in your ability wholeheartedly. It sounds easy but today we will test how much you trust yourself.” Master Klyle stepped off his log and squatted down. He lifted the log with ease and held it to his shoulder. Behind him was the river, at a wide point. He easily set the log across the river, creating a bridge. Klyle then pushed down on the log, setting it in place.
“Now, the river is cold and the stream is rapid. Unless you want to take a swim you all need to focus and prepare yourself.” Klyle was speaking as he stepped onto the log and began walking across it. Hales estimated the river to be about eight meters long at this point. The log itself seemed large at first but now the contrast of Klyle casually lifting it and the vastness of the river transformed it into an insignificant twig. Two forces of nature, Master Klyle and the mountain stream.
“Now who wants to go first?” Klyle decided to long jump across the river back onto the bank where the students were standing.
“I’ll do it!” Talayia spoke up, jumping while raising her hand. Klyle gestured her to begin. Talayia walked up to the log gingerly. She supported herself with her hands until she found her footing. Taking a deep breath and exhaling, she began to walk slowly along the makeshift bridge. Her arms were spread wide giving balance. She swayed slightly but righted herself. She was already more than halfway across the bridge before she dropped her arms and casually walked the rest of the way, hopping down to land at the end.
Talayia turned around giving a wide grin, relief and excitement adorned her expression. “Very good,” Master Klyle applauded Talayia. “So who’s next?” Multiple students raised their hands and stepped forward. It didn’t take more than a second before the competitiveness developed. Talayia made it look easy and now it was a game to see who could go across the fastest and easiest. The class for the Savant lined up and started taking their turns across the bridge. Hales made her way to the very back of the line and observed one by one her classmates crossing the bridge.
Jonatan Velm was the next to cross after Talayia. He was naturally athletic and crossed it with no issue. Garriot was after and this time he started by jumping a meter onto the bridge and almost losing his balance. He caught himself and flashed a taunting grin at the students behind him. He smoothly finished the bridge.
Hales was impressed by her classmates’ abilities. This was the first time doing something like this and they had made it into a competition. No one could quite top Garriot’s jump until Uana decided to walk backwards across the whole bridge without peeking forwards once. She did it better than most people walking normally. Uana was on a level of her own. Both in looks and in talent. She had managed to finish the hike up the mountain despite going on one of the fake trails. Hales had wondered if she purposefully chose that route just to prove she could. Hales was somewhat jealous of Uana’s looks too. Most every girl was. She had a classy sophisticated look, a well toned body, and her light brown hair was always put up in a fancy extravagant way that gave her a regal attitude.
Even in the mountains she managed to rarely look stressed or weary. Her ice blue eyes gleamed with the confidence of a woman who knew how to win. Hales only ever had a handful of conversations with her despite being in the same class for years. The girl was unapproachable, even most of the boys were too anxious to ever try befriending her. There was something about her inept ability to read people and take control of a conversation that made her distant from the average person. She had a dominating preppy demeanor but the talent to back it up.
Hales had missed the next few crossings as her mind wandered thinking of Uana. More than half of the students had crossed and so far no one had fallen. This class really did consist of the best of the best as far as teenagers were concerned. But it didn’t end there. Hales’ attention was grabbed when a student gasped, and others began cheering as they got hyped.
Hales leaned to the side to get a better view. It was Bria Keena, the dancer with her baggy pants and shirt tied above her midriff. She was walking along the bridge in a handstand. There was some wooing and clapping as Bria definitely had the most impressive crossing. Xander was next. Not wanting to be outdone by anyone he chose to wrap his eyes with a piece of cloth. He walked it blindfolded. The pace was slow at first and everyone held their breath in anticipation. Hales expected him to fall but was surprised to see him touch dry land.
That was it for the most athletic students in the class. No more circus acts. The last remaining kids in line walked the bridge haphazardly. Still no one fell. And now it was Hales’ turn.
She was calm, which was unusual for her. She mounted the log and started walking immediately. She set an even and quiet pace. She paused a second to take in the view. The river was flowing rapidly, birds were soaring, minding their own business. The sun was beginning to warm up. Hales glanced across at the far side, she was close to half-way across. No one was really watching her. Everyone too bored with the uninspiring last few kids. Hales closed her eyes.
What a dream this is. I feel so unreal, so different. Yet I am the same.
Solar. My aspect is Solar. I wonder what I can do. Everything seems big, infinite. Inside my mind is vastness itself. All my thoughts just melt as quickly as they come. It’s so freeing. This is like a bizarre dream experience. There are lights inside here. Tiny spinning balls of light. Millions, no there has to be billions of them. It’s so beautiful. They all are me, not just a part of me, but actually me. I can feel them all. I’m inside my mind but much more than that, my soul perhaps, or some spiritual self. Coursing through my Aspect is an entire spiraling galaxy. It seems endless yet it must be impossibly small if it’s inside my mind, right?
Amazing, I can stay here forever. I want to move inside here.
The girl named Hales standing on the log took a step forward in the wrong direction and immediately splashed into the river. She produced a high pitched yell from the shock of the ice cold water. Her mind returned to reality as she wailed pathetically in the steady current of water. She found her bearings and swam to the other side. Abajem and Talayia had rushed down stream and helped her ashore.
“What were you doing?” Talayai asked bewildered. Hales was shivering from the cold and Abajem was simply staring at her with her blank expression.
“Must’ve slipped.” Hales said through chattering teeth.
“What! You just stood there for five minutes with your eyes closed daydreaming probably.” Talayai shook her head grinning and punched Hales in the shoulder. Hales ‘ouched’ in reaction and tried her best to give the girl a dirty look but couldn’t help smiling. Talayia was always teasing her about her dreamy personality. Talayia and Hales were friends but they never got very close, Talayia was the type to befriend everyone she knew for her own amusement of simply meeting different people.
The three walked back chatting. Hales glanced at Master Klyle who gave her a look of intelligence. A suspicious, knowing gaze. Can he tell I made contact with my Aspect.
Now that all the students had attempted the log, Klyle walked over to them, this time carrying a wooden staff with two buckets of filled water. He chose not to press Hales but gave her a cursory nod as he stood in front of the class.
“Now you are going to cross it holding this staff over your shoulders behind your back. There’s plenty of buckets and staves right over there.” Klyle pointed to a nearby tree with bundles of wooden staves as well as stacks of buckets. “Fill them to the top and don’t let a single drop of water fall. Balance is key but so is the strength to maintain that balance. We are building control. You must overcome the fear of falling in, overcome the worry in your hearts and minds. This is just an exercise but understand the principles it teaches and apply them to your everyday life. To awaken your Aspect you will need to learn control of the body and mind and spirit and senses and everything about yourself that makes up, and is made up of, you.”
“You lot did well the first crossing, but this will be ten times more difficult. Now go get ready, multiple people will be crossing at the same time so there is also the added pressure of your classmates behind and in front of you.” Klyle’s voice was both inspiring and intimidating. He was a beast of a man and probably did these exercises a thousand times over.
The class spent the next few hours crossing the bridge back and forth. The difficulty progressing excessively each time. After the buckets hanging from the staves was a blindfold walk across, something Xander already proved he could do. Almost everyone had slipped, fallen, and splashed into the river, with the occasional chain reaction causing the entire group of students in a line on the log to fall. There was the added difficulty of the log becoming wet from students still dripping river water from previous failed attempts. Furthermore, the day was well under way, which meant hunger and fatigue. Frustration was mounting as each failed attempt made the bridge more slippery.
Hales struggled through the challenges performing near the worst out of everyone. Only upon completing a crossing with the specific challenge would a student be able to go onto the next challenge. Xander and Bria were far ahead of their peers. Doing single leg hops and piggyback rides over the log, half a dozen challenges passed the initial one.
Hales always knew Xander was adept, but seeing this now put a whole new perspective on him. He was amazing! Cool-headed and sturdy, Xander excelled at everything he did. He was handsome too, far more handsome than any other boy in the class. He had perfectly bleached hair, high cheekbones and an angular jaw. Hales could only guess that Xander must come from a line of princes from ancient times. He had that look and air to him.
Bria on the other hand was more exotic looking, with jet black hair that almost reached her waist, bright blue eyes, and an impossibly flexible body. Pound for pound she was among the strongest students in the class. Her baggy dancer clothes gave her somewhat of a circus look, but she was far from anything silly. Bria was ruthlessly completing challenges that Master Klyle had set.
This class consisted of the best of the best that Garghent had to offer in the way of students. Master Klyle was a living legend and here training those gifted students. During the log exercise he gave advice, offered criticism and even joked with his students. But most of all, Klyle knew how to praise those he was training. It is foolish, especially for teenagers, to break them down completely and offer no way of recompense. Klyle was a Master, being trained, worked, and trained again by someone of his caliber meant a little praise was worth more than gold for an apprentice. Klyle knew when and how to give his trainees their gold.
Hales rung out her hair for the twelfth time that day. Abajem was sitting quietly nearby picking at grass. Hales was exhausted, mostly from swimming, and Abajem had decided she didn’t feel like doing the exercise anymore. Abajem could be weird and moody like that. She was more than capable of completing the exercises. She was always calm and centered, but Hales didn’t mind the company as she took a break.
“Can you believe Xander is at the tenth challenge?” Hales was impressed and felt like talking about it.
“What is the challenge, I wasn’t watching?” Abajem asked.
“Klyle tied his hands behind his back so who knows.” Hales shrugged. There were three students still on the log, it appeared Xander was waiting for the bridge to clear.
“I think he has to sprint across it.” Abajem guessed. Hales nodded, keeping her eyes on the tied boy. Hales had been laughed at a lot for failing so bad at the day’s training, it had discouraged her more than she cared to admit. The cognitive dissonance of awakening her Aspect and feeling grounded, then performing atrociously on the first challenge the next day was eating at her. Did she really expect a one-eighty turnaround suddenly becoming this athletic goddess. She was plain, weak Hales. Nothing had changed. She didn’t even know what her Aspect could do. Her mind had wandered so much that she missed Xander plummeting into the water. At least he’s mortal.
Abajem was looking at Hales strangely, reading the despair on her face. Abajem was about to speak when Master Klyle strolled by and sat his massive frame down next to the two girls, who were dwarfed in comparison. He was stroking his mane unconsciously when he spoke.
“Xander’s pretty good, might be the fastest I’ve ever seen someone do that course.” Klyle’s deep voice seemed to vibrate through the bones of anyone standing near them.
“How many challenges are there?” Abajem’s small low voice was mouselike when talking back to back with Klyle. The contrast was humorous if not a little cliché.
“There are twelve, but the last one is sort of endless. Bria is going to finish before Xander though.” Bria had fallen behind by two challenges as she was stuck on the eighth challenge, which was going across with feet tied together and arms bound. Hales watched with renewed interest, it seemed unlikely that Bria would beat Xander at the pace he was going. Speaking of whom, Xander was in line to cross again, hands still tied behind his back. Magun was waiting downstream in case he fell, it was one thing to run across a log without hands, but swimming without hands against a current was indisputably a lot more difficult.
Xander stood ready, took a deep breath, stepped onto the log, then broke into a full sprint. His eyes were fixed on one thing alone, the other side. His footing held true, legs tumbling at the finish. Xander’s landing was far from graceful but who could laugh, he was way more coordinated and balanced than anyone else, save perhaps Bria.
“Looks like he’s ready for the real challenge, see you in a bit lass.” Klyle strolled over to where Xander was having his tied hands unbound. Master Klyle slapped Xander on the back and congratulated him. The penultimate challenge. Klyle was explaining it to him and the usually composed boy grew pale in an instant. Hales saw the change in him and could only imagine what the next challenge was to be.
Klyle and Xander left the area. Klyle had declared that if anyone were to finish the ten challenges they were to go upstream to the large oak tree and follow that trail to the right. Students could only exchange glances but most of the real competitive types were getting pumped up, not wanting to fall behind any further. The slacking and jokes and laziness and exhaustion wore off in an instant as the Class of the Savant remembered why they were here. To awaken their Aspects and become soldiers. An elite that was second to no one. All brevity left the camp, and specifically that brown speckled log that laid over the river. Klyle must have known what effect going off with the student who did the best would have on the rest.
Everything is so calculated with him. The lion-man seems like the typical brute who muscles through everything but there is a feral intelligence to him, if he is this effective as an ally, one could only picture him as an enemy.
One by one Hales watched her classmates complete the challenges, if Xander and Bria were in first and second place, Talayia was the third behind, on the eighth challenge. Bria just finished her ninth. The others were catching up. Uana, Lo, Aulus, Winnow, Jonatan, Garriot, they were all catching up. It was nearing afternoon, the class still hadn’t eaten. It was safe to assume they had to complete the challenges before they could feast. Abajem left to reattempt the challenges. Hales decided to try napping.
Xander stood at a cliffside. There was another cliffside fifteen meters away, and a long deep drop below into rocks and trees, almost too far to see the bottom clearly. The sun hung low in the sky. Looking down to the drop made him noxious so he tried not to look. It was clear to Xander at this moment, Master Klyle was completely insane. Another tree log was placed as a bridge over the ravine. Xander was deathly pale, and nearly dead. The first attempt was a close call. He had slipped and dove back to land, and that was within the first couple steps. All Klyle had told him was “Grab a staff, it’ll help for balance, and watch out for the draft.” The second to last challenge was a death walk over hell, or rather a hell-walk to your death. There was still another challenge after this.
Xander bent over and puked water. He hadn’t eaten all day and the nerves of the task in front of him was enough to put him over the edge. He sat down and sipped on some water. Just in the last few hours he saw himself overcome intense and equally crazy athletic performances. He was the best, and now he couldn’t stop the shaking of his hands and the trembling in his legs. His breathing was ragged as panic started to overtake him. He fought for calm, a battle he was losing indisputably. He was frozen in fear. The worst fear of his life. No one could call Xander a coward or weak, and yet this cliff was tearing his confidence to pieces. Klyle offered no encouragement, instead going through a series of light stretches and exercises.
Just passing the time until I plummet to my death, thought Xander.
Another hour passed and Xander was no closer to crossing the bridge than he was when he first arrived. A group of voices talking excitedly made their way closer and closer. It was half his class, he noticed Talayia, Bria, Jonatan, Winnow, Lo, Aulus, Magun, Jid, Uana, Hijo, Benhan, Antho, Garriot and to his surprise Abagene.
“So what’s the eleventh?” Garriot could clearly see the fear in Xander’s eyes and decided to play arrogant. Bastard. Conversation slowed down as the group began to take the scene in earnestly. A large drop and a small log in comparison. It was obvious based off the last near dozen hours what they had to do. Bria walked to Xander.
“Is that throw-up?” Bria asked concerned, not mockingly. Xander could only nod.
“You should go grab something to eat.” Bria suggested.
“We have to finish the challenges first.” Xander pointed out.
“No! We just got finished eating, there was broth prepared for us already.” Bria explained.
“But I thought we had to complete everything.” Xander accused Klyle who was standing nearby answering questions from the now-anxious set of students.
“I said no such thing.” Klyle raised an eyebrow. Xander pursed his lips debating. After a minute he decided that he would stay and finish the course before eating. He wasn’t going to show any weakness. Xander had renewed vigor. He stood up finally, a new intensity to his eyes.
The group was psyching themselves in preparation, much in the same way Xander did. Even the justifications were the same; no one would call anyone at this camp a coward, but to ask someone to put their life in danger for no real reason besides ‘training’ is another matter entirely. These kids are supposed to become the elite of the elite, not splatter. These thoughts were circulating around everyone’s head. Xander picked up his staff and took a deep breath, exhaling after a moment. He stepped forward, but was cut off.
Bria with a staff of her own stepped in front of Xander right at the start of the log. She flashed him a wicked grin, her eyes burning with excitement. Xander was about to speak when Bria leapt deftly onto the log and without pause began a careful and balanced walk across the bridge. Everyone held their breath and all talking ceased.
Bria’s steps were so quiet that despite the group’s silence not even her footfalls could be heard. It was like a ghostwalk, only the girl was alive with the potential to become a ghost should she fall. Bria walked at a balanced pace, her toes landing first in very much the ballet fashion. Her staff was held horizontally and was neither too far nor too close to her, she held it at an even distance in front of her.
At last she reached the end and leapt down onto land. She spun around to catch the reactions of her stunned classmates. Hijo was nodding and reappraising the bridge, Xander was making eye contact with Bria and preparing to cross. The others began forming a line behind Xander. Pride alone was motivating the group more than anything else.
“The log looks bigger than the first one.” Magun pointed out.
“None of us fell in the first test either.” Aulus added.
“How difficult was it?” Garriot called out to Bria, who was sitting and observing her classmates getting prepared.
“Step up and find out!” Bria shouted back.
Garriot shrugged assuming he wouldn’t get an answer anyways. Talayia was next in line after Xander, who stepped onto the bridge for the second time.
“We all die one day Xander,” It was Lo Otano speaking, he had a thick mountain accent which meant he tended to overemphasize his consonances. He continued, “You can’t be afraid every time your life is in danger.” Xander nodded, either to himself or to Lo no one knew.
Something finally clicked in Xander. Nobody in the entire area saw, and Xander himself didn’t notice, that his eyes changed from their light blue to a magnificent golden color. He ran across the bridge, the staff in one hand ready, in case he fell it would give him a slight chance to hook the staff across, over the log and grab the other end with his off hand.
He never needed to test his ludicrous contingency plan. In a matter of heartbeats he was safely on the other side, eyes returning to normal. He was exhilarated and felt more alive than ever. His arms and legs were trembling and he paced back and forth and was talking up a storm to Bria who had to hush him as Talayia stepped up to the log.
Hales was walking behind her classmates. Half the class had gone an hour before to where Klyle had taken Xander for the eleventh log challenge. The second half had finished together and was following the designated trail. Hales was surprised to see Genjam and Yillo among the group to finish second. She always considered them to be among the most able students. Yillo had been thrashed pretty severely so that must have affected his performance. As for Genjam he just looked off today, a result from overtraining perhaps?
The sun was further along on its path to setting. Whatever the test was, they better finish fast as dusk was swiftly approaching. Hales of course hadn’t even completed the second challenge, the buckets proving to be too heavy for her worn out shoulders to support. She was overtrained too and she knew it.
Hales walked in sight of the challenge. The person standing there was Master Klyle, waiting patiently. The rest of her class was already on the other side of the chasm. Abajem waved to Hales. Slightly embarrassed, Hales gave a quick raise of her hand before dropping it into her pocket.
Yillo didn’t hesitate for even a second before stepping onto the bridge, without a staff. Master Klyle didn’t have a chance to say anything. Hales shook her head to herself, how is everyone so good at everything?
Yillo undeniably crossed successfully. Despite the darker skies, despite not having a staff, despite the draft over the ravine, despite his bruises. He was a scary man. Hales wondered if he would lose his next fight with Garriot, Jonatan, and Emilo, which was pretty much guaranteed to happen. It was their nature. Yillo always looked so furious. But Garriot is a brute of a man, and he finished the challenges before Yillo did. Jonatan’s cruelty might even outweigh Yillo’s fury, it has in the past. And Emilo who seems to be the weakest of the three, still weighs more than Garriot and is even harder to take down, even if he is weaker and slower than his accomplices.
Genjam took up a staff and followed right after Yillo finished. Another clean march over death. The rest of the class followed suite, silently and with teeth grit they made the walk. Before she knew it, Hales was the only student yet to cross the bridge, and she was the only student that hadn’t finished the previous challenges, something her class certainly knew. Klyle didn’t say anything about it, so she stepped up in front of the log.
Hales was so anxious she forgot to grab a staff. She didn’t want to seem on the verge of panicking so she decided she’d go without the staff. The sun was awfully close to sliding behind the mountains. She closed her eyes.
This isn’t good. I’m too exhausted for this. How can everyone do so good at this? Even Dartan has gotten so much more athletic, he’s definitely surpassed me now. I guess I’m the worst in the class. They probably expect me to fall down. I’ve been training as hard as anyone else and no results to show for it. I’m maybe more toned but some of these guys and girls have gotten shredded.
Hales shook her head trying to break her trance. A few students were watching her, mostly though people were minding their own business, talking in small groups. They were all waiting on her so they could move onto the next thing. Hales breathed in. Held it.
How stupid am I? This is just a straight line. I’m literally getting beat by a straight line, how asinine is that! The others probably figured that out. That’s the whole secret. Just walk in a straight line and nothing else. Come on Hales don’t be so annoying. Just another deep breath and a stroll over a nice looking pit. May as well enjoy the view while the sun is out.
Hales finally mounted the log. She looked below. Below was actually very beautiful. The sun was peeking in between the valley casting the scene in orange and red, the light reflecting off the new spring leaves.
Hales blinked, and kept her eyes shut. She could feel it. Stronger than before. Way stronger, almost too strong. A force so vast.
Hales saw the galaxy in her closed eyes.
Her eyes flashed opened, a spiraling galaxy in each eye. She could hear the exclamations of a few students but she was entirely focused on the solar system in front of her.
It was miniature. There was a red star in the center, the size of a tennis ball. Orbiting around the star in different speeds were seven planets, in various marble sizes. Each planet was unique and rotated on its own axis, some more extreme than others. It was a fully functioning solar system floating above her outstretched hand. She hadn’t even realized her arm was stretched out. She had felt something in her eye, moved her hand to feel it, and ended up drawing out an entire tiny solar system.
It was breathtaking, the star in the center giving off light, not blindingly so but enough to reach the planets casting day and nights. Revolutions around the sun ranged from one to five minutes. She could hear voices but she was too far in a daze to comprehend the words.
Hales had produced a real solar system, taken from her own galaxy. The system moved with her hand without breaking any orbit. It moved in union but the center of gravity was always the star.
“Hales!” It was a loud voice, and a hand gripped her shoulder, the hand being the size of her shoulder. It must be Master Klyle.
“Go see Professor Vandle back at camp, I have to take care of the lads over there.” Klyle spoke softly, his voice surprisingly soothing. Hales nodded absently, turned and started walking back the way she came, never taking her eyes off the glowing solar system.
“Proud of you Hales, you earned your Aspect.” Klyle told her again as she walked away.
Hales whispered in response without turning back. “Thanks.” Klyle smiled, though she didn’t see.
Master Klyle turned and strolled over the log bridge to the other side where the students were standing jaws-dropped. Klyle spread his hands and spoke.
“So who’s ready for some night training?”