Hales launched three stars in succession followed by five planets, moving with her momentum in efficient martial exercise. The left arm draws out a planet while the right leg steps forward, creating forward balance so when the arm snaps out, sending the planet hurling to her target, the left leg can propel her into the next motion. The right arm draws out another planet and from here she has the option of rotating her body into the throw or stepping forward with her right leg. Meanwhile, Hales increases the size of the planet, taking less than a second to grow it larger than a person. She can sustain a steady fire of one at a time planets for almost an hour.
Stars take more energy and using special techniques like Solar Disc and Star Shower require even more effort.
Hales’ improvements were vertically springing. Everyday her movements were smoother, her timing and aim better and the size and speed of the planets and stars wildly upgraded. As her body endlessly became fitter, stronger and more coordinated, her Aspect was among the most powerful for her age group.
Her squadmate and sparring partner, Yillo, a fierce Specter in his own right, was fortunate to train with the Solar Aspect. Because she constantly evolved each day, the normal plateauing of the body seemingly non-existent in Hales, it forced Yillo to push himself as she relentlessly upped the intensity of her techniques and tactics. Yillo was naturally the better fighter, sharper instincts and quicker on his feet, yet he recently found himself always on the defensive in their duels.
Just when he was getting a hang of her attack patterns, Hales would launch a star backwards or sideways only for it to not come back. Instead, the star would be an obstacle minutes into the future as the duel shifted from one end to the other. Hales took advantage of a space outside of the physical. She took into account future positioning, possible areas of combat and potential situations.
The average fighter does not consider their own defeat. The average fighter does not anticipate themself losing in multiple stages of the duel. The average fighter does not imagine their own death, in vivid detail with specific wounds and weaknesses. Hales does all of this without spending time or thought. Her overactive imagination and tendency to daydream was becoming a fighting tool. A sixth sense of image training where her own exposed areas and openings are targeted by her shadow self. Hales imagines herself as her opponent, and imagines winning. It is as if she has a second imagination, whose only purpose is to daydream combat scenarios in real time, uninvasive to her actions or thoughts.
Yillo struggled to destroy each planet that spun his way. His Aspect, Paroxysm, turned his body into various hues of oranges and reds depending on the length of buildup and rage. A single blow or hit either given or received depletes this hue, focusing on the area of impact and unleashing the heat that was stored up in fire, explosions and energy. Hales never gave Yillo more than a second to build up his power before forcing him to expend it on blocking a planet or obliterating a star. Dodging planets just meant that Yillo would have to deal with them later as they orbited around him or another fixed point that, without fail, ended up in his way at some point in the duel.
Yillo focused on trying to increase the speed of his build up and the taming of his anger. As an all or nothing power, Yillo needed anger and rage to get the most out of his Aspect. Over months and years, really his whole life, he had been learning to let the anger overwhelm and consume him, like a fire engulfing dried kindling. Often he had gotten too angry, hurting those around him or himself. It was destructive and blind.
If Hales, in their training, had developed a combat imagination, Yillo had uncovered a truth.
The truth of anger and rage, that those were petty emotions, lashing out, uninteresting and irrelevant, the way something dying lashes out. Yillo no longer succumbed to the demonic side of himself, no longer used it as a crutch to lean on, an excuse for when normal behavior was too hard.
Yillo learned about wrath. He learned the difference between the obnoxious emotion of anger, all hot and noisy, and the cold, calculating apathy of wrath. Being conscious of the wrath, mindful of the sensation, of the physicality of an ire untouched by petty emotions and ardent fervor. This was something else entirely, unrelated to the mental or emotional. Wrath was a pure choice, an action centered, almost meditative, certainly therapeutic, and wholly violent.
Yillo found his core, the axis of his spiritual self. In wrath, Yillo placed his being.
Between Hales and Yillo, an unspoken bond formed as the two spent everyday in training or in the field completing assignments. The strongest of Klyle’s brood, power-wise, with a camaraderie felt by both but mentioned by neither.
Garghent was becoming foreign and unfamiliar as the military made plans of conquest and pillage. They were isolated, with fewer friends and more orders. Hales had her siblings, who she visited as often as possible, Abajem who was always away in the Odd Division doing missions, Talayia in the Espionage Division, Magun and Dartan had been deployed to Deadal and the rest of her class she never really became friends with. The exception was Veron who was always around and lent aid by healing her with the Bloom power of her Jinx Aspect. Other than that, work and training filled the days, of which only Yillo was a constant, being in the same squad and the only other Specter.
Hales remembered the day Yillo got into a fight with Garriot, Jonatan and Benhan by Avaloo waterfall so long ago in the Camp of Awakening. Garriot had whooped him pretty bad that day and left Yillo battered and bruised. Yillo and Hales spent the day in the water, hardly saying anything.
Yillo was a troubled soul and Hales a tortured one. Together they were ruthless in combat.
Garghent’s two most elite frontline Specters.
In that peak physical shape, the best of her life. To the point where that Camp of Awakening was closer to a warm up for her now. She’d come to terms with her life, her body and her situation. Balanced in the world, lonely perhaps, but not completely alone. She was good at her job and was securing money for her siblings and their futures. Everything was according to her middle school self’s plan.
At the end of her training, on a rare free afternoon, a letter came in her mailbox.
An order from high command to receive a psychiatric evaluation.
Hales was stunned. The timing was immediate, the appointment scheduled for that same afternoon.
Hales walked to the psychiatric ward, dreading the whole experience. She checked in and couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by the looks and glances of those who may recognize her.
After a short wait, Hales found herself in a chair in front of a doctor.
“You are probably wondering why you are here, no?” The doctor started.
“That’d be a good start.” Hales replied, testily.
“We received multiple anonymous tips requesting that you get an evaluation.”
“Who said that?”
“It could have been anyone, colleagues, members of staff, faculty. If a close friend hasn’t talked to you about it then it probably wasn’t them. We want to keep things anonymous but we don’t want you accusing your friends.”
“How thoughtful.” Hales faked a one second-long smile. She was peeved because it was the military who trained her to be a weapon and now they are checking to see if their weapon is broken.
“We are just going to have you fill out a questionnaire and get a brain scan. It won’t take more than an hour before we review the results and give you your evaluation. Honestly, this is supposed to be standard for all military personnel after their second year serving.”
“Fine, I know the Generals won’t give me missions if I don’t do this.”
“Excellent, let me get the room ready for the CT scan and in the meanwhile you can complete this form.” The doctor handed Hales a packet and a pen and left the room.
The questionnaire asked mostly about basic memory function, cognitive performance and emotional status. They were simple multiple choice answers which Hales thought was a thoroughly inefficient way of gauging someone’s mentality.
‘How do you feel?’ Pretty good, good, bad, pretty bad.
This wasn’t a true example of the questions but this is how Hales summed it up. She bulldozed through the packet just to finish it quickly. The idea of putting real effort into this evaluation made her head hurt.
Hales finished a few minutes before the doctor came back with another technician.
“All done?” The doctor asked first.
Hales nodded and handed him back the papers.
“Alright, we’ll just get you synced to the scanner and we’ll conclude things shortly after.”
“Okay.” Hales said plainly.
They hooked wires and cords to her head and she laid down on the bed. A further helmet was placed over head to protect from radiation. Hales decided the whole process was actually more asinine than she originally anticipated. The radiation will probably cause more brain damage than anything else, she thought bitterly.
They started the machine and she slid into the scanning tube.
She let her mind wander as the whirring machine seemed to never stop. She was there for probably half an hour before the machine powered down and her bed pulled out.
“And we’re done, wasn’t so bad was it?” The doctor asked.
Hales just smiled.
“Excuse us for a minute as we interpret the results.” The doctor left again and Hales closed her eyes to pass the time.
Once again the doctor returned.
“This isn’t going to be easy to take,” the doctor said, “and I need to ask one further question.”
Oh great, Hales said to herself.
“How many times have you seriously injured your head?”
When Hales didn’t respond the doctor continued. “We have on file two major concussions. But the x-ray shows some damage that would suggest older trauma.”
Hales thought through the years. “Umm, one time when I was a kid. There might have been another time. The really bad one was the helicopter crash. But doesn’t brain damage affect people when they are much older?”
“Well that tends to be the case, it’s somewhat of an cumulative issue. In your case we are seeing the sort of trauma we usually find in much older folks.”
“So you’re saying I have the brain of an old lady.”
The doctor gave a slight, polite smile, taking it as a joke. “There are other factors that can lead to improper healing after a major concussion. You were severely dehydrated, being in the desert for days, I understand.”
Hales nodded, feeling a sickly knot in the pit of her stomach..
“Being in combat is highly stressful, plus the damage from the helicopter crash and the desert as well as one or more childhood incidents. I imagine there are more from training and other accidents you might not fully recall. It’s all of these events in addition to a diagnosis we have… interpreted.”
“Ms. Ailor, you appear to suffer from dissociative delusions. We haven’t pinned a specific disorder as there are too many factors to consider right now, namely your Aspect and possible exposure to other Aspects.”
Hales felt unreal.
“Is it correct that you experience long moments of daydreaming and dissociation? Especially in mundane or intense situations.”
“I… suppose.” Hales stuttered.
“Ms. Ailor you are among the most well renowned of the young Specters in the military right now. You’ve survived and accomplished a lot. My job is to make sure you remain healthy.
Hales rubbed her face and let out a shuddering sigh.
“I hate to bring this on you all at once, but there is more.” The doctor paused for a second to sift through his pile of papers. “We also found an anomaly. There is an odd sort of crystallization around your amygdala. It is not something we’ve ever encountered before but it does not seem cancerous or harmful. In fact we suspect it may aid in mental processing and perception of surroundings and your fear response. The crystallization patterns are unlike anything in medical science which is why we presume an Aspect may be responsible.”
“My own Aspect?”
“Hmm, hard to say for sure, but it does not seem to align with what we know of your Aspect. While it does not appear to be an immediate threat, we do not know how this might interact with all our previous diagnoses, you follow?”
“Think so.” Hales said quietly.
“I am not going to pull you from work or training, but I must stress caution and regular visits so we can monitor your brain and mental state. As a doctor I am going to prescribe certain medication that will help you from dissociating. Normally I would give an order but the policy is that the Specter will decide based on whether you believe your performance may suffer negatively.”
“I will pass on the medication.”
“Not a problem, the referral is valid nonetheless should you change your mind at any point.” He handed Hales a list of medication she could receive.
“This is a lot to take in, Ms. Ailor. There are people available if you need to talk and I will make a phone call to ensure you aren’t given any high stakes missions for a while.”
“Is that all?” Hales was eager to leave this cold room.
“Yes, I am sure you need time to process. Stay safe, Ms. Ailor.”
Hales thought it an odd thing for the doctor to say at the end. She said, “thanks,” and excused herself from the office.
The doctor rubbed his eyes. He was ashamed of himself. Upholding truth and honesty was a doctor’s vow. His higher ups demanded that certain information be withheld from the Solar Specter. The fact was the CT scan revealed two anomalies. The crystallized amygdala came as a surprise and was not in his orders to confirm the existence of, therefore he was allowed to tell the girl. Not even the higher ups knew of its existence, the least the doctor could do was try to keep it that way.
The purpose of Hales’ visit was to check the imprint. The doctor found the little blooming seedling on her orbital prefrontal cortex. It was like a drawing, minute and almost blending in with the natural grooves and nerves of the brain. What the average person did not know, even most Specters for that matter, was just how physical the Aspect manifested itself with certain abilities. Prolonged use can alter the biology of the user’s body, cases like Master Klyle and Uana Elis, two people that also had paid visits to him with drastically different biologies than the average human. That much is common knowledge.
What he’d discovered was the manifestations of Specter abilities from one to another person or Specter. Real, physical manifestations. In the form of objects, growths, parasites, viruses, or in Hales’ case, a drawing and a crystallization. Not being a Specter himself, the doctor came to know abilities and their damages to the body expertly. He became the go-to doctor for Specters, though his life and work was kept private from the public and most officials, save for those in the top tier.
The higher ups wanted to check the status of the drawing in Hales’ brain, but did not know of the amygdala. The doctor used the amygdala to hint at a deliberate infestation of another Specter in Hales. He just hoped she caught his allusion.
The other diagnosis was real, though again it was not something he was ordered to do. He wanted to give Hales the best chance for whatever the higher ups were planning.
Upon arriving back at her apartment, Hales received a summons by Cull Marcarios and General Draje, her superiors. Exasperated, Hales had no time to think through the day before setting out to headquarters. She lived near the center of the city, where the primary military district was located as well as the Janiform and many of the wealthiest Gentlemans. On her way up to the building she ran into Veron.
“Hales! So good to see you.” Veron gave a silly salute. The tattooed girl shook hands with Hales.
“You too, Veron.”
“Long day?” The Jinx Aspect asked.
“Something like that. It’s about to get longer. Got a meeting with General Draje. Probably a new mission.”
“Oh me too! Guess we might be going into the field together!”
Yillo was already at the door. “You got the summons too?” he asked.
“Yeah, both of us.” Hales answered.
Yillo had painted his eyebrows white, along with his nails and eyelashes. It made his caricature unrealistically proportioned, highlighting deliberate features like the eyes and hands. It was Yillo’s usual look to paint himself, adorning his body to look deadly, unpredictable.
Veron was now covered in ornate artwork, with creatures, designs and patterns. Hales knew some of these to be her Jinx and others to be actual tattoos.
By contrast, Hales was rather plain and uninteresting. She did not play to her Aspect or personality to enhance and stylize her body. Still, the three Specters and former classmates walked into the meeting room together.
There were several Generals, Culls and Gentlemans already in deep conversation. They stopped to greet the three Specters.
“Welcome, have a seat.” General Draje said. “There is much to discuss for your mission.”
Hales found a seat, Yillo and Veron each took ones adjacent to her. Hales’ mind tended to wander during these meetings, out of boredom more than anything else. Today she tried to make a special effort to pay attention, the doctor’s visit eating away at her thoughts.
She was doing good not daydreaming until they mentioned what and where the mission was.
She was to be a bodyguard, protecting an ambassador to Ophir. One Gentleman and one General were going to establish public relations with Deo. The bodyguards were insurance, should Deo prove to be unwilling to talk.
There had been a large meeting with all the highest ranking members of Garghent and this is one of the conclusions; gather intel on Ophir and talk to Deo in person, city to city.
Hales, Yillo and Veron would make up the Specter bodyguards for the envoy. For a mission that should remain peaceful, Garghent would ensure it remained peaceful. The balance of not displaying weakness or aggressiveness was important. Garghent was not seeking a war with Ophir at this time, this embassy was strictly a perfunctory admission of Deo’s domain legitimacy. How Deo chooses to respond to the open offer is what Garghent is after. Is he an immediate threat or not?
“We researched Deo and found that he is the same Deo as a citizen of Garghent who was drafted to the military in the siege and deserted before it was over. There was no record of Deo having an Aspect during his time in Garghent, therefore we conclude he must have awakened it sometime between the siege of Garghent and his conquest of Ophir.”
“Our records also show that he was in Hales’ squad when he deserted.” the speaker, a Gentleman, turned to Hales. “Hales, do you recall this Deo having an Aspect, or any signs that he might have awakened one?”
“No, nothing that I knew about.” Hales replied.
“I am assuming you knew him before the war, hence why you made a special request to bring him to your squad.”
“He worked near where I lived, at a flower shop. I requested him because I knew he was not a fighter, at least I thought that at the time.”
“Ah, I see.”
Probably going to get into some trouble for doing that, thought Hales.
“Part of the reason we are sending you as a bodyguard for this embassy is because you know him. It may get a reaction out of him and we can see how you think he’s changed or he might even want to speak to you. Either way, I believe it gives us an edge in the meeting, throw him off a little, learn his motivations and personality. It all helps us measure him.”
“Good, now moving on to the broader goal here…”
Hales had too many things banging around in her head at once to make sense of. The meeting droned on. She once again found herself in a maze inside her own mind, thinking, talking to herself, imagining, planning, pondering
Not even Hales knew what she was going to do when she met Deo.
So much is different now…