“To be fed by the universe, you must first yield to it. Succumb to it. Beg for it. Worship it. Nurture it. Exploit it. The universe is the self, therefore become the universe.”
–The Dream and Dreamer authored by Talis Ranis.
“Naaahhh!” Abajem broke the brief silence, extending the word in a bratty tone. Hands on her side she continued, “If that was true then you’d also be expelled because I didn’t hear you warn the class either.” She was using a berating tone.
Professor Vandle made to speak but Abajem cut him off, “Come on Hales, it’s gonna be a long night, let’s get going.” She started on down the trail.
Hales shrugged, palms upward and gave an apologetic smile to Professor Vandle. Hales half ran to catch up to Abajem and the two girls set off at a leisurely walk.
Professor Vandle just sighed and rubbed his chin, there was no winning against girls like Abajem. The type that rarely ever spoke but when they did it was with sure knowledge that they would win the interaction. Not a bad tactic but the girl was also somewhat estranged. Professor Vandle eventually caught up to the two girls. Further up ahead a student was using a walking stick, making excruciatingly slow progress. They caught up to him within a couple minutes.
Hearing the approaching group he turned and gave a cursory wave. It was Antho. He greeted them with a casual, “Yo.” He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. Which he probably hadn’t.
Hales knew he had joined a local vigilante group called the !#&*$&* or it might have been the ______. It was impossible to pronounce, or something like that. Either way, he had joined it and was always coming to school looking haggard and bruised. She wondered how he had been able to maintain his grades.
There wasn’t much discussion in the group. Hales and Abajem weren’t usually talkative and Antho was too tired to care. Only Professor Vandle seemed capable of speaking, breaking the silence occasionally. It’s as if it was his obligation as a teacher to make sure there wasn’t any awkward silences. They had a long way to walk.
Yillo was breathing hard. He had been running for almost two hours he guessed, if the sun creeping lower and lower was any indication. The air was cool and fresh, good running air. There was a lot of uphill, which was to be expected of course, but knowing that and running on it were two very different things. He felt like someone had stabbed burning hot needles all up and down his legs. His shoulders and arms grew numb.
Yillo was ahead of all the students in his class, with Tayalia right behind him using his draft to reduce air resistance. He was sure she could pass him whenever she felt like it. Talayia had called out a few minutes ago that they had ran about fifteen kilometers, which left about seven left. Yillo had never ran that far in his life in one go, Talayia however seemed unperturbed.
He wanted to win, as this was clearly a test. Master Klyle wanted to see who could transition from a state of waiting to a state of action. Some students had hesitated and some had set off immediately. Yill had been the first to start running, ignoring the stiffness of his muscles.
Being an experienced marathon runner she was suited to this test. Yillo noted that the sun almost appeared to be floating in place. The test had been set with a lot of factors in mind. For one if you could keep the steady pace Master Klyle had set then you would never be in the dark. Always raising your elevation as the sun was setting gave the impression that the sun was stuck in its place. Yillo and Talayia weren’t quite running at that pace, the sun was slowly inching its way down. Master Klyle was probably a couple kilometers ahead, but with the way the trail snaked they couldn’t see him.
The other choice for this test would be to walk. Maybe “not taking” the test was an option. In which case there was no passing or failing, it was designed to see how each student would react in the situation. Either run and make it to the destination before dark, or walk and navigate the trail at night. One could of course switch between walking and running, but eventually it would get dark and the risk of running into a log or tripping on a root was too great.
A sharp pain hit his chest. His legs stopped moving and he almost fell. He was light headed and exhausted. He felt his pulse quicken, faster than it had when he was running. I can’t breathe. No, that’s an exaggeration. He started to hyperventilate. Talayia had passed him without a backwards glance. Yillo’s head was pounding, the blood rushing around his head. He staggered and puked.
Why can’t I catch my breath? I don’t have any medical issues and my breathing was steady the entire time. I had been taking progressively deeper and deeper breaths but that’s to be expected in a long distance run is it not?
He wiped sweat from his eyes and steadied himself against a tree. If he fainted here he could easily suffocate or choke. Gotta stay standing.
He glanced around, there was no one in sight, he could see in the distance a valley far below his spot on the trail. Then a thought struck him. You’re on a mountain, the air is thinner the further up you go. Idiot.
He relaxed and his breathing slowed, he closed his eyes and focused only on breathing slowly and deeply, in and out. He had pushed his body too hard keeping up the pace that he had. There was less oxygen in the air and his body eventually gave out. Almost gave out. Pure determination had kept him from passing out altogether.
The river should be nearby. He left the path and found the stream almost instantly. It was clear and steady. The camp would be built around a source of drinkable water if they expected to train students here for five months.
Yillo washed his face and cupped some water into his mouth. He sloshed it around his mouth and spat to take the taste of bile out. Afterwards he drank deeply and began to stretch. His legs felt like lead and the stretching did help. He would probably have to deal with cramps for the next few days. He pulled his shoes and socks off and dangled his feet in the stream. It felt divine. He unstrung his bag from his shoulders and pulled out a snack and began eating a protein bar. There goes the idea of winning he thought with a smirk. Even though he had come to the conclusion that there was no winning, still he wanted to arrive first. The sun was only a sliver in the sky, casting a reddish orange light on the valley below. It was a sight to behold and he found his thoughts wandering.
He heard a set of footsteps back on the trail, he couldn’t see past the trees but if he could guess he’d say it was Jid. Jid was more of a sprinter, he had been behind him and Talayia for a while, though he lagged behind towards the ten kilometer mark. Yillo shivered. It was getting cold. Time to get moving again. He walked back to the trail barefoot and waited until his feet were dry before putting his socks and shoes back on.
It wasn’t long before the next group of students made their way to where Yillo was walking at an absurdly slow pace. It was Winnow, Lo, and Aulus. Some of the more athletic of his classmates. They were running at a methodical pace. Aulus slowed to a walk next to Yillo, the others did the same.
“Why’d you stop running?” Aulus’ voice was even, his breathing controlled.
“Got bored.” Yillo lied, but it wasn’t any of their damn business anyways. His expression darkened, his good mood from earlier quickly evaporating. Why couldn’t they have just kept running and left him alone?
“Gotcha. Want to jog with us, might be less boring with a group?” Yillo knew Aulus was trying to be earnest, but he could hear it in his voice, sense it in the trio. They were looking down on him. Smug and arrogant. Like he needed their company and friendship. A wild dog needing a master.
Yillo held back from scoffing, letting a breath out spoke instead, keeping his eyes fixed in front of him, “No, thanks.” Aulus apparently took that as in invitation to stick around longer. Lo pulled out some food and water and shared it amongst the others. Yillo could hear him unpacking the food from behind and shook his head before anyone could offer him any.
If he had the energy he would have sprinted ahead. Only he didn’t, instead he had to focus on ignoring the people beside him. It had gotten considerably darker, the sun having dipped below the mountains.
“We should get moving.” Winnow had noticed the tension for a while and she decided she’d had enough.
“Right. Lo you want to lead? You’ve got the best eyesight to pick out a path.” Aulus was swinging his arms, stretching.
“Aye.” Lo’s voice was deeper than Aulus’ was. Deeper and rougher. Aulus had more of the city temper to his voice. Lo on the other hand had grown up outside the city which gave him a bit of an accent, Winnow wasn’t originally from the city as well.
“You sure you-” Aulus was cut off before he could finish.
“No.” Yillo’s patience had run out, walking for half an hour with these people had irritated him beyond reason.
“Alrighty,” Aulus raised his hands in defense. “Let’s jet.” The three took off without another word.
Yillo was alone at last, but instead of walking peacefully through the night like he wanted he was walking with cold anger. He couldn’t help but think how much he really despised this school. And the military for that matter. It was all bullshit. Just lies and fakery. He had a good reason for joining. It would have to be, to make it worth all the jeering and name calling. Yillo joined for one sole reason. He really really wanted to kill people.
Night chilled the mountain air reminding the land and its inhabitants of the recent winter. Abajem was right though, the moon was full and brilliant. Hales was standing under a break in the forest, looking towards the night sky. There was enough light to competently navigate the forest trail. In addition the nearby river reflected the light, making it doubly easy to orient yourself. Just follow it upstream, simple enough.
Apparently it wasn’t. According to Xander and Bria there were fourteen students in the group that got themselves lost. That group divided into two more which had split off, going in different directions. Xander and Bria backtracked to the main trail, electing not to help search for the remaining students. The pair had been embarrassed, exhausted, and more than a little annoyed at their classmates for “getting them lost.” Too mortified to meet back up with their group no doubt.
That had been close to an hour ago. Hales, Abajem, Antho and Professor Vandle were on one of the fake trails, following the footprints of the larger of the two lost groups. Antho had suggested taking a break to eat once they entered a small clearing beside the river. Hales had welcomed a chance to sit, though sitting let the blood run cold and the muscles to stiffen. It would be harder to start back up, but it was completely worth it. Hales wasn’t the most athletic girl in class by any stretch. Her build was pretty average for a girl her height, she hadn’t weighed herself in a while but if she were to guess she was close to fifty-five kilograms. Hales was just plain uninteresting Hales. Average height, average weight, average looks. Abajem on the other hand was thin and petite but didn’t seem worse for wear despite having been walking for hours up a mountain.
She wasn’t jealous, fate deals a blind hand to everyone. No use worrying about it. Hales was lost in thought again. She knew she needed to get in better shape, this camp would surely do that, if Master Klyle being an instructor was any indication. Being in a sort of haze caused her to almost miss what happened next.
Antho had asked Professor Vandle how they were supposed to find all the missing students since it appeared their tracks led off the trail. It was his reply that snapped her attention back to reality.
“With my Aspect of course.” Professor Vandle spoke with a hint of pride in his voice. They knew he had an Aspect and that he came from a special forces division in the military but his file was not in the public registry. He had never demonstrated his Aspect in the two and a half years teaching the class.
Now he was finally revealing it. Hales was staring wide eyed, she loved seeing powers in action. They were almost magical in nature. Antho had a similar expression though he tried to hide it, failing to suppress a grin.
Professor Vandle placed a hand over his eyes, took a deep breath. Held it. Then exhaled. He removed his hand and at the same time called out.
“Seeker!” His eyes glowed a yellow-gold. Two beams of the same color erupted, one from each eye. The beams sped forward, snaking and zig-zagging through the forest. They split off covering immense amounts of ground in mere moments. The beams of light remained attached to his eyes. They were extensions of his vision.
He could see everything in a large radius around all the ground they covered. They had covered a few kilometers. His vision was enormous. It was almost unfathomable to imagine. Having eyesight that grew and extended, reaching further and further with every passing second. It gave him a panoramic view of the mountain.
The odd part was that the beams of light didn’t illuminate the area around them, nor could they pass through objects.
Hales sat transfixed at the beams of lights, the ends of which were well out of her sight. Easily a few kilometers worth of coverage. Efficient.
“Found them,” Offering no real explanation to the astounded students around him. “Lets go pick them up.”
“That lets you see?” Antho was the first to ask.
“Aye. Right now they are arguing whether to set up a campsite for the night or try to finish the hike.” Professor Vandle was speaking as he walked, following the path the beam of light set.
“What else can you do?” Antho blurted out the question.
“Now now, can’t be spoiling every little secret.” Vandle turned as he spoke, winking at the three students walking behind him. The wink severed the connection of the beam to that eye, yet the beam didn’t disappear, it remained as it was, a trail of yellow light.
“They’ve noticed the light and are following it, we should run into each other in half an hour.” Just as Antho was about to say something, Vandle cut him off saying, “No more questions.”
Antho instead whispered to Hales and Abajem, “You think he can hear through those things?” Referring to the lights obviously.
“Maybe, maybe not. If anything he can read lips with it,” Offered Abajem. Hales nodded in agreement.
The three talked amongst themselves, debating the possible uses and abilities of Professor Vandle’s Aspect. They decided to stop whispering, talking loud enough for Vandle to hear. He only shook his head as their ideas became more and more ridiculous. One theory they came up with made Vandle into a being of pure energy that could travel at the speed of light, materializing where he landed. For Vandle’s part he remained removed from the conversation, not being baited into a response.
Before long the two groups met up with each other. There were eleven students in that party, all of them bore the look of shame and failure once they saw Professor Vandle. Hijo was the first to speak, “It was my fault sir, I set myself up as the leader and it was my decision to try the shortcuts. Don’t blame the others.”
“Nah man, some of us suggested the shortcuts. We win or lose as a team.” Magun was speaking up in defense of Hijo, whilst not naming anyone directly. A smart more civic move. Regardless arguments erupted all at once.
It seemed to Hales that people were always eager to either justify or atone for their actions. Though it was mostly the former. She knew what they were supposed to do, what would have been the appropriate action to take once being found. For some reason however she didn’t say anything, deciding to quietly observe, as usual.
Professor Vandle made no attempt to silence the arguments, he simply raised an eyebrow to the general situation. The arguing began to die on its own once students started to realize that Professor Vandle wasn’t going to say anything. One student brought up the beams of light and a whole new eruption of voices initiated. This time on the topic of his Aspect.
“Enough.” Vandle didn’t shout, but everyone recognized his voice and shut up. Without another word he strode from the group, following the second light trail, which he disconnected from his eye. The first light trail that had led to the group disappeared without a trace. Antho, Hales and Abajem were the first to follow behind, staying quiet as they passed their sullen classmates. The group was upset, with no one to blame but themselves.
Well they could blame Hales and Abajem for not warning them, but they of course didn’t know that the two girls had figured out the fake trails. Hales wasn’t going to say anything on the matter. She was tired from all the walking and just wanted to sleep. Hijo and the other students lagged behind.
The going was slow for the students as Professor Vandle picked out a route that was more direct than the main trail, which tended to be more forested. The lack of light mixed with an uphill climb made for a painstaking hike. Professor Vandle seemed unaffected by the conditions, picking his footing perfectly, a result of his Aspect giving him prescience of the area.
“Your classmates are safe as well, they all made it to the campsite.” Professor Vandle didn’t need to point out that nobody had asked the well being of their other group of lost classmates, or even Xander and Bria who had backtracked to the main trail. They had been too self-involved with excusing their own mishaps.
That was the thing Hales had been holding back. It was the obvious response. If a group is missing some of its members then it only makes sense to worry about them promptly after being rescued. Admittedly Hales understood how she was a hypocrite as she made no effort to say anything. Maybe it was the same for the others.
The rest of the hike was uneventful, the general mood of the group was one of gloom and fatigue. It was well past midnight when they arrived at the campsite. It was a fairly large area with three buildings in a clearing, two of them on one side and the other by itself. The river continued to flow up the mountain, but it was thickest around the campsite. The buildings were wooden and primitive looking, but they fit in the environment fairly well. At the very least they weren’t an eyesore to its surroundings. It was likely they were built with that thought in mind.
Professor Vandle instructed the students which building would be their dorming space. The two buildings were divided between boys and girls. Hales gratefully found her way to an empty spot in the corner of the girls building and dropped to her bed. She practically sank into the mattress, for once she slept almost the instant her head touched the pillow.
Only to wake up to what must have felt like five minutes later. Except it had been hours, just not enough hours. The sun was shining through the various windows in the barracks. The rest of the girls were groggily getting up and stretching. One girl fell down trying to message a cramp out of her leg. The exception was Talayia. She seemed to be wide awake, already jumping up and down excitedly. Talayia out of everyone likely had the most sleep since she would have completed the hike as one of the first.
“Now that your all awake, Master Klyle and Professor Vandle would like everyone outside to begin your training.” The voice came from a middle-aged woman, standing at the entrance. She was tall and matronly, obviously a curator for the campgrounds. Hales walked to where Abajem was throwing a sweater on. Hales had just slept in her own sweater, too tired to care what she slept in.
“Ready?” Hales asked Abajem, almost absently, she was dog tired. Abajem for her part looked like she always did. Not overly tired but not all there either. Her same bug-like eyes never changed.
“Ready.” Abajem agreed. She stood and the two girls made their way out of the barracks. They weren’t the first nor the last students to arrive. They fell into line with the other students. Master Klyle and Professor Vandle were standing across from the wall of students. No one was saying a word.
The last of the students lined up. All twenty five accounted for. Master Klyle was a behemoth of a man. Intimidating and fierce, not to mention his large predatory cat features. He was awesome to behold. A legend to all the students as one of the only people alive to have developed his Aspect to the level of Master. But it was Professor Vandle that broke the silence.
“Welcome to the Camp of Awakening.” Vandle spread his hands in welcome. “We’ve got work to do.”
“We’ll need to divide into groups. Some for chopping firewood, some for hunting, others for filling the water supplies. There’s plenty of chores to do. However, first we train.” There were a few groans from some exhausted students. Vandle turned to Master Klyle who took over speaking.
“To awaken your Aspect you first need to die. So we’ll be training you to death.”