Fear, fail or foul…
Humans live in a constant state of at least one,
to those unfortunate that live in all three,
let this whispering endearment reach open ears.
You are not alone.
One year in a flash. Almost to the exact day that the most valuable group of kids in Garghent, daresay the world, awakened their powers, the illusive Aspect. Today, before the grand soiree of the military’s top officials, Hales and her famous class would show-off their powers, like circus animals performing for the master clowns, but only after five hours of intense, brutal written exams. Another long day in summary. Nothing new to Hales, for most days are long, that is until they aren’t.
A simple concept upon first glance, yet one that Hales didn’t fully comprehend. Days are the same length more or less, perception however, could verily alter such a notion as time.
And what is time?
It was with these airy thoughts that Talayia found Hales, making the usual trek to school. The last one, at least as an attendee of classes. The next time being the graduation ceremony.
Talayia shoulder-charged Hales, who stopped mid step and leaned back, effectively dodging the energetic freak. The girls long legs wheeled around for a kick. Hales blocked the foot with her forearm, a blow aimed for her neck. Talayia jumped back, a devilish grin breaking out on her handsomely contoured face.
“Whoa Hales, you’re awake?” Talayia more exclaimed than questioned. Rolling eyes answered for Hales.
“Seriously, good morning. Morning!” Talayia emphasized, incredulous.
“I’m excited!” Talayia said while linking arms with the already exasperated Hales.
“I noticed.” Hales took in the scenery. The air, the smells, the streets, the buildings, it all felt so familiar, which of course it was. Though now it had a different sense to it, one of nostalgia.
“I’m having the worst case of deja vu right now.”
“Let me guess, you dreamt of this last night?” Talayia teased.
“No, I was remembering the day we took the bus to the mountain camp. Today has that same feeling, the sensation of everything changing, a mix of dread and anticipation.
“Yeah…” Talayia started slowly, “We’ve come a long way in such a short time. This is only the beginning really.” Hales nodded her agreement.
“Your plans are the same?”
“The only difference is I am closer now.” Talayia’s mood darkened, a grim and set expression. The average, every day Talayia wore the mask of a free-spirited, fun and energetic girl. Hales knew that mask only served as a means to pass the time, a way to force herself into getting the optimum amount of joy in her waking hours. In hours alone she became a single-minded machine hellbent on training, perfecting her skills to the utmost level. All to catch up to her brother.
“You got in?”
“I got in,” Talayia confirmed.
“Will you see Gavin soon, you think?”
“Probably not for a long time yet. He’s way above our pay grade.” She said with pride.
“A big step closer.”
“Gotta pass this exam first.” Jerking her head towards the school, the entrance gate materialized into view.
“Early today, miss Hales.” The stocky guard said with a salute.
“I’m on time!” Hales retorted while showing her ID.
“That’s early for you. I guess your last day is as good a time as ever to start showing up when you’re supposed to.” He waved Hales on with a wide smile.
“Better late than never!” She called back from the hallway beyond.
Talayia as usual got caught up chatting to everyone along the way and fell behind. The interior was filled by students and faculty milling about their day in a sullen reluctant duty. Classrooms filled as everyone settled in to take their end of year final exams. Garghent Elite Military Cadet High School had far more than the Savant class that Hales was a part of, there were hundreds more students preparing for the military at this exclusive institution, they merely lacked powers. With the occasional rare exception.
Hales found her classroom, a dark wooden door with Professor Vandle’s name plastered on the wall adjacent to the entrance. Hales slipped in and was promptly greeted by Vandle.
“Welcome, Hales.” He looked serious, though he was clearly trying to hide the immense honor he had for the group of superweapons he had come to know so well. He had the privilege of teaching the most elite class in the school’s history. Only one more obstacle stood in their way, to this competitive group, however, it was probably closer to an opportunity to achieve the best scores on record. Hales predicted no one in the class would score lower than eighty percent with the majority scoring above ninety percent.
Hales grabbed her seat and closed her eyes, forcing relaxation. Five hours to dish out an entire year’s worth of mathematics, science, chemistry, history, warfare studies, strategy theory, language, biology… The list went on and on. There were no breaks in the allotted time. A mad sprint to the finish line. A Six month long seminar awaited any who failed, though it was the shame and dishonor that really served as punishment. The mark of failure would remain permanently on both school transcripts and military records.
After the paper exam is the Aspect exam, which tests each Savant one at a time under the scrutiny of a dozen judges, the Generals of Garghent, the highest ranking officials of the military faction and second in command to only the Janiform.
“If all of you are settled in and comfortable, we should begin immediately.” Vandle checked his wristwatch and waited an additional thirty seconds for the clock to hit precisely on the hour before handing out the exam papers. A packet as thick as a children’s book. Hales arranged half a dozen pens and pencils in front of her in a neat row. Valuable time would be wasted sharpening or shaking ink.
The test booklet cover was simple, the name of the school, the academic director, the name of the test; Specialized Test Z, the hardest exam the school offered, and in fine print at the bottom ‘Good Luck’.
“You may begin.” Vandle’s last words for five hours. A coincidental group exhale marked the beginning of the test. The sound of paper being scratched by writing utensils would echo in the room for a quarter of a day. Not knowing an answer was not an option. Questions had to be skimmed, interpreted and answered correctly in an instant, as is expected of Garghent’s finest.
Hales read the first question.
‘How many questions are in this exam?’
‘How long, in minutes, is this exam?’
‘What is the rate per hour that questions must be answered in order to finish in the allotted time?’
C. 400 questions per hour
‘What is the rate per minute that questions must be answered in order to finish in the allotted time?’
A. 6.6 questions per minute
‘How many unanswered questions result in failure?’
‘How many incorrect answers result in failure?’
Hales frowned at the semi-aware test questions, but launched herself to meet its ridiculous demands. The questions start as broad human and world concepts, the basis of all branches of knowledge.
‘Chemical name and formula for adrenaline?’
B. Epinephrine, C9H13NO3
‘Average visual acuity of the human eye?’
‘Average human body temperature?’
D. 37 degrees Celsius
‘Formula for the acceleration due to gravity.’
C. 9.8 m/s2
‘Average human reaction time to auditory stimulus.’
C. 0.17 seconds
‘Layers of our planet, from outside to inside.’
B. Crust, Mantle, Outer Core, Inner Core
Questions continue like this for a hundred and fifty. Hales only stumbled on the last of the ‘Foundational Questions.’
‘How many pain receptors does the human body have per square centimeter of skin? How many for cold and warmth?’
C. 200 pain receptors, 6 cold, 1 warmth
Hales lost fifteen seconds deciding between C, the correct answer and A ‘200 pain receptors, 10 cold, 2 warmth. She knew there were more cold pain receptors because humans react to cold with less tolerance than warmth. The exact ratio came down to a lucky guess. In a test with four or five multiple choice answers ‘C’ is statistically more likely to be the answer. However this is only the case in tests made by hand when the creator attempts to randomize quiz answers by avoiding patterns. Specialized Test Z is computer generated and therefore more authentically randomized, Hales’ guess of answer C was purely based on luck, though she knew the answer to be either A or C effectively giving herself a fifty-fifty chance of scoring the right answer.
Questions concerning the city-state Garghent were next as well as other geographic knowledge.
‘Population of the Metropolis Garghent.’
D. 80 Million
‘Largest and most populated Metropolis on the Sister continent.’
‘Etymology of Garghent. Hint; based off its government.’
Hales had Deo to thank for that answer. She never would have remembered that name unless Deo had explained in a less biased description of the government. Argentocracy is a government ruled by money. The wealthiest citizen buys the position of Janiform whenever the slot is vacant, usually when the previous one dies. Garghent is an archaic word based on that type of rule.
‘Backbone of Garghent’s economy.’
‘What is the leading industry of Garghent?’
D. Steel Refinery
‘What raw resource is most abundantly found around Garghent’s extended domain?’
This test kept its wrong answers cataloged to be consistent throughout the course. For example in the previous series of questions an alternate answer was A, Agriculture and the raw resource was D Wheat. Garghent did have a significant farming industry yet it wasn’t its staple product. Hales always remembered steel because of the city’s sprawling skyscrapers, something no other city boasted as many of.
Hales breezed through the military section of the exam, a few hundred questions long, thanks in part to her extensive captain training. Strategy, military terminology, weapons, history, and general warfare questions made up this part.
Language and psychology came after. Hales thought she did fairly well, with a few possible wrong answers. In total, her self-assessment of the first half of the exam would be nine-hundred eighty out of one thousand. She had a tiny bit of wiggle room. Her right started cramped so she switched to her left. A couple pencils had suffered grievous wounds. There was little time to reflect and so began the second thousand questions.
First aid basics, nutrition and survival skills supplied the next couple hundred questions.
‘Roll of hemoglobin in the bloodstream.’
C. Carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body
‘Boiling temperature of water.’
A . 100 degrees Celsius
Some questions were easier than others, still it was all information useful for having a broad knowledge base and a deeper understanding of chemical processes, psychological effects and geo-political affairs.
Mathematics and science took a huge chunk of the remaining exam. Hales felt confident in this section, the hardest questions being graphs and illustrations of various equations such as velocity, trajectory and geometry. Hales always had a keen sense of timing and distance but converting that talent into numbers on paper required a different kind of skill. She lost valuable minutes working through these questions.
The next hundred or so questions were from all the previous subjects in randomized order, rounding out the exam and tying everything together. This section required a flexible mind that could switch between subjects one after the other. No easy feat four and half hours into an exam.
Finally came the last section, ‘All About Aspects’.
Hales was most excited about this one, it should prove to be easy and considering powers was all she could think about in her free time anyway, the answers would come naturally.
‘Molecule theorized to be the progenitor of the Aspect within each individual.’
‘Talis Ranis wrote which book on the nature of powers?’
B. The Dream and Dreamer
‘Classification of Specters whose powers control a material or resource?’
‘Classification of Specters whose powers are uniquely named after their most defining feature?’
‘Classification of Specters whose powers are intellect based?’
First level of Aspect awakening’
‘Classification of Specters whose powers enhance their physical or mental abilities?’
Classification of Specters whose powers can briefly influence fundamental laws of the universe?’
‘Highest level of awakening known as Aspect Kinship in which the user literally merges with his/her Aspect?’
‘Level of awakening associated with full control over one’s Aspect?’
‘Seven original colors of the universe’
A . Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet
‘Human body’s primary producer of energy?’
‘Part of the body where breathing is most efficient?’
B. Base of the spine
‘How to connect the circuit of energy in the human body?’
C. Touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth
‘Vital pathways where energy flows through the body?’
They learned all about meditative practices from Klyle in the camp of awakening, knowledge gleaned from a Master is far too valuable to ever forget.
Hales marked the final answer and immediately let her eyes enjoy a brief moment of blissful darkness. Lines of blurry black words were imprinted on her vision. A timer buzzed, the end of the examination. Hales got up at the same time as everyone else in her class and walked in file to turn her test in.
“This concludes the paper portion of the exam. Unfortunately the rules dictate that I cannot discuss the exam with you and I must immediately take these to be graded. Congratulations on making it this far, I couldn’t be more proud of a class than I am with you all. There’s a couple of hours before the Aspect exam so use this opportunity to get lunch, a nap, stretch out. Do whatever you need to prepare.” With that, Professor Vandle left the room with all the tests, leaving the exhausted students to decompress.
Emilo let out a long string of curses when the door shut behind their professor, although a distant chuckle responded out from the hallway.
Conversation erupted following Emilo’s outburst, making up for the five hour intellectual marathon.
“How’d it go for you?” Hales battled through a yawn to speak to Abajem. The small girl looked confused.
“How did what go?” Hales dropped her head to table, her arms serving as a pillow. How could anyone retain humor after something like that? Apparently Abajem was never affected by anything.
Abajem laughed and pulled up a small terrarium box from under her seat. She opened it and reached her hand in, pulling out a vivid green praying mantis.
“I wish I didn’t have to use her life up like this, just to show off in this exam.” Abajem was totally enthralled by the critter as it crawled from her left hand to her right hand and began as she made an infinite loop for the insect to move across.
“I’m going to nap, wake me when it’s time.” Hales fell asleep almost instantly, a strange dream of worlds colliding and stars flashing to and fro across a sort of time lapse visual of the galaxy.
It seemed only a minute had passed when Abajem shook her awake.
“They finished scoring the exams.” Abajem said in her same indifferent tone.
“How long was I out?” Hales asked, rubbing her eyes.
“A million years.”
Never a straight answer with you, Hales thought, shaking her head in mock-disapproval. Abajem raised a knowing eyebrow.
“Come on let’s go, we are gathering in the field.”
Hales and Abajem made their way to where hundreds of uniformed people stood and sat, waiting expectantly for the Aspect exam. They were the last two students to arrive. Professor Vandle was there as well as all the teachers and faculty members that had worked with her class throughout the last couple years. Cull Marcarios stood sentinel-like in full decorated uniform beside other cold looking soldiers. The students were grouped together, waiting for everything to be set up.
A few other preparations took place, a group of soldiers with various weaponry arrived and began checking their equipment, bodyguards lined the whole field up and down, and finally twelve veteran, ornamentally dressed generals took their seats on a panel that had been set up on one end of the field. Each came with a few retainers and aids. They were mostly between the ages of thirty and fifty with one that was closer to a hundred than he was to fifty. A lady introduced each of the generals, who would act like judges for this exam. Hales spaced out during the droning of endless achievements and medals and accomplishments of the generals. A few names she recognized, General Vecar, General Draje and General Yivel. These twelve generals were the top of the military, only under the Janiform, and in a sense co-ran the entire branch of Garghent’s warfare.
A few prominent citizens and politicians added to the growing crowd. The whole event was quite a bit bigger than Hales expected.
“All that’s missing is the damn Janiform.” Genjam muttered under his breath.
“Are we fighting those soldiers?” Whispered another student, pointing to the group readying weapons. Everyone straightened out when Professor Vandle gave the class a hard look. They understood his meaning. They were the elite, the next generation of superpowers that would give a fine edge to Garghent’s military. No acting like lost puppies here.
“Let us begin!” Spoke one fork bearded general-judge into his microphone.
“Yes, who is first?” A creepy looking wizard of a man said while his hands rubbed together. Hales recognized him as General Draje. A more scholarly man in glasses checked a paper in front of him. He cleared his throat into the microphone, silencing the crowd without so much as a word. “Emilo Prantis, please step up.”
“This is the Steelskin Specter, right General Vecar?” An impossibly average looking general asked, who appeared to have an identical twin sitting a couple seats down. Vecar, the scholarly one nodded. Vecar, Draje and the heavily scarred Yivel were most renowned of the twelve. Yivel stayed silent.
“Emilo, we will now begin your examination. Do your best.” General Vecar said and gestured for Emilo to start. Emilo was over two meters tall and weighed more than most grown men. Even in the last year he had hit a growth spurt and the already large kid had nearly doubled his mass it seemed.
“Yes sir.” Emilo said formerly, his voice only slightly too light for his behemoth body. Emilo went to a power stance and took a deep breath, his bulky shoulders and chest heaving.
“Steelskin!” Immediately he became solid, immobile and indestructible. One general waved an arm. A firing squad took point a couple dozen meters in front of the steel statue.
“Aim, fire!” The thunder of lead shot rang abruptly across the field, smoke and shells were left in the wake of the blasting rifles. Twenty seconds of intense but controlled shooting later, the firing squad emptied their magazines and the generals looked intently at the aftermath.
Nothing more than mere shavings of steel and a few dents here and there damaged Emilo. Barely any evidence that eight soldiers with rifles were firing twenty bullets each into the big man. Emilo dropped his form and breathed. The biggest drawback of his invulnerability, besides the lack of mobility, was the limit his oxygen set for him. Nothing from the outside could damage him, however his body’s internal functions still had to carry out their chemical and molecular processes.
“Can he withstand explosives?” Inquired one bald-headed surly general with a mad glint in his eyes.
Emilo’s expression turned choleric. The explosion was rather extreme. Emilo said nothing, which suggested he was confident in his ability to keep him alive. Once more he settled into his Steelskin. A soldier bearing a landmine approached Emilo, set the round and flat object down and backed away. The soldier checked left and right, ensuring no one was near, and detonated the mine. A small charred crater appeared after the dirt and grass stopped falling from the sky. Emilo again remained intact, the steel appearing no worse for wear. He returned his form to flesh and challenged the generals with his eyes. What his face said was this, ‘throw everything you’ve got, sick bastards!’
The bald general grinned and chuckled, “I like what you’ve done, Willem!” Willem was Professor Vandle’s first name. He bowed in response to the general’s praise from the sidelines of the field.
“I’ll take over from here.” The bald general stood, and what a stand it was! There was nothing that special about it, it’s just that he would have dwarfed Master Klyle in terms of sheer height and body mass. What are they feeding these guys, Hales thought? The bald general’s name is Garald, and Emilo looked like a boy in front of the giant.
“Your opponent will be me, son.” The lack of a microphone did not stop his voice from reaching every corner of the field.
“I’ll take you down old tree.” Emilo said through grit teeth. He changed after Jonatan’s death a year ago. He had stopped his bullying ways and dedicated all his time to working out. Perhaps seeing his friend die put the fear of mortality in his heart, or perhaps the tournament as a whole spurred him to focus only on becoming the strongest and most physically robust. He certainly was larger than any other student in the class.
An ‘old tree’ trunk of a fist barreled into Emilo’s chin, spinning him around, despite his weight. He turned around in time to see the follow up fist coming, and activated his Steelskin. Garald didn’t falter. His fist ground into the steel, neither moving Emilo nor cracking his own knuckles.
Garald left his fist in place, waiting for Emilo to lose his steel. A minute passed before Emilo let it down, and before he could react, Garald punched from his place, rotating his body to launch Emilo off his feat to the side.
Garald gave a hearty laugh. “Come on boy!” He leered. Emilo growled and got to his feet. He jumped into a punch, turning into steel as his weight and momentum carried him forward. Emilo charged like a train, nothing short of an equal force could stop it.
Garald of course, was that equal force.
“Babel!” Garald called while Emilo was still on the ground, activating his own Aspect. A keg sized mallet made of what looked like wood with a meter long shaft dropped from the sky to land in Garald’s outstretched hand. With a mighty haul, Garald smashed his mallet into the ground in front of the attacking steel form of Emilo. Erupting from the ground was a structure that looked like an ancient tower made of clay, dirt and grass. The tower extended upward at a rapid rate until the steel Emilo charged over it, jumping and turning into steel. The tower’s momentum of growth was halted by Emilo as it crashed into him, exploding chunks and pieces all over the place, even as it continued trying to sprout up from the invisible form of Emilo. Emilo himself was stopped by the tower, though he didn’t suffer any damage, it was enough to keep him in place.
Anticipating a savage hit, Emilo kept up his steel. The right move. Garald swung his mallet around, spinning in a half circle. Babel collided into Steelskin, like two tectonic plates exchanging chthonic punches. A groan with the percussion of a banging roar reverberated from the impact and Emilo propelled off the ground, a still form displacing the very air as he launched undamaged and somewhat movable now. Movable on account of Garald.
Emilo landed hard in his flesh, his breath had been taken from him mid-flight and he skidded across the turf, fresh bruises and burns marring his vulnerable skin. With a frustrated gnarl Emilo charged again, building more momentum and speed than his last attack. Garald stood waiting, a soft chuckle escaping from his chest, “You’ve got game, son. Few can stand after a hit from my Babel.” He hefted his mallet and prepared for another swing. Emilo jumped again, this time higher with a more accurate trajectory into Garald. He turned steel and dropped hard.
Garald brought down his mallet once more into the ground, causing another tower to erupt. The size, velocity and height of his towers were determined by how much force his Babel mallet hit the ground with. This tower was a whole meter in diameter, and raised into the air a half a kilometer. This time Emilo was taken with the tower, its foundation strong enough to carry the statue form of Emilo up into the sky without him collapsing through it.
An angered shout came from way above.
“You’re failing right now, boy!” General Garald called back.
Emilo leapt off the tower in a dive. In his free fall he shouted, “Stoneskin, Gargoyle!” Emilo’s skin turned into stone, not steel, and great wings unfurled from his back, stretching out wide as if they had been folded for too long. His face was replaced by wicked eyes and bat ears and a snarling mouth and a snout. The stone was a dark, ashy grey, and the wings were shaped like a demon’s. Gargoyle-Emilo flew into the tower and tore through it with his claws. It crashed to the ground, crumbling back into dirt and dust.
“That’s more like it boy!”
Garald’s booming laughter contrasted with Emilo’s stony screeching. The gargoyle charged into Garald’s Babel mallet and the rest of the class stood watching from the sidelines with a collective thought, so this was the final exam…