Cold wicked prayer,
Forgive the lack of reproach,
Bloody hands do stick.
“The five of you have been selected based on your professor’s recommendations as well as outstanding academic and athletic repertoire to receive promotions into the captain rank upon graduation and your formal introduction into Garghent’s standing military. Now, that day is only a couple months away, so I would like to begin immediately. Let’s start with introductions. I am Cull Marcarios and my Aspect is Fulmen. Cull being my rank of course, the next above what you are here to receive. I will be your instructor for Captain School and eventually your commanding officer. Let’s start with you, name yourself and your Aspect.” Cull Marcarios was a broad and burly man who looked every inch the warrior, sporting a full black beard and thick eyebrows with hard brown eyes and a voice tempered to be deep and loud.
“Xander Tar, Karma Aspect.”
“I’m Genjam Beatal, Chaos Blue Aspect.”
“Uana Elis, I have the Gale Aspect.”
“Bregan Brand, Synthesis.”
“Corvan Enery, the Chorus Aspect.” An older boy said with a surprisingly high voice. He was a few years older than the others, an alumni of the school and a soldier of two years.
“Hales Ailor, Solar Aspect.”
“Juy Feigh, my Aspect is Moonblink.” A dark haired girl spoke from behind long bangs. Hales didn’t recognize her but guessed that she was a transfer student from a different school in the city.
“Excellent, you lot look like a sharp bunch. I expect good work from you. Now, this training will be held four hours a day, seven days to the week. You are not to be late, and you are not to miss a single session. We will cover battlefield tactics, develop leadership skills, study the operation codes, rules of engagement, independent decision making and most importantly, how to keep you and your squad alive. Luckily for you all, captains don’t have to endure torture training as your intel basis is not at a high enough classification, though keep in mind that nothing leaves this room.”
“At the end of the year the captains will gather in the central barracks where each of you will select your squads, one at a time in a draft fashion. You will have ample time to review dossier files on the soldiers you are to select. It’s seven to a squad including, the captain and each squad can draft two other Specters. As Savant captains you will manage small specialized squads. I tell you this now so you can begin to brainstorm the type of team you want as we proceed through this training. Garghent’s military encourages autonomy among its captains and no one knows your own strengths and weaknesses better than yourself. Missions and operations will be assigned to you based on your squad’s dynamic.”
Genjam raised his hand, Marcarios raised his brow. “This is essentially a war room, raising your hand is what children do, not soldiers. When you have something to say, merely speak your mind.”
“Oh sorry, sir,” Genjam stammered. “My question is, are we at war? I mean, it seems like that’s what all the rush is for but I haven’t heard anything official.”
Marcarios nodded as Genjam spoke, “If nothing official is declared by Janiform Gemma then it isn’t so. However, to be frank, war is always not far from Garghent. It is the world’s way that the greatest cities are demonized and attacked.”
Hales almost smirked at the thought of Deo hearing that last phrase, she imagined how his brooding face would look, brows furrowed and eyes incredulous. Hales could hardly take her mind off of the violet-eyed boy. She reasoned that it was more a way to distract herself from the endless studies and training and the looming anxiety that she was about to be a soldier. The other possible reason for Deo’s constant harassment of her mind she didn’t dare consider…
“Ms. Ailor, is there something funny?” Marcarios sounded irritated that he had to stop himself from teaching for a single sentence. Hales didn’t tell him to interrupt his own lecture, but she also didn’t realize she was smiling.
Hales blinked back to reality. “Nothing worth sharing.” Maybe Deo’s casual defiance had played a small role in her answer, not that she meant to cause any conflict, but she wasn’t going to lose the time she spent daydreaming on account of anybody, certainly not by the military. It was who she was.
He tapped a finger in vexation. “Well, let’s continue. Now, the first rule of our military is to survive. When the choice arrives, and rest assured the day will arrive, always put the lives of your soldiers first, the mission is secondary. Dead men can’t fight tomorrow. Once you’re out in the field the only thing we fight for is to live. All talk of freedom and the future and pride and honor, all become null in the face of the enemy. What matters is your strike hitting first. War will be nothing like any of the training you’ve gone through, there is no holding back and there are no second chances. The purpose of battle is to emerge victorious, because if you don’t kill your enemy, they sure as hell will kill you.”
“I’m not going to sugarcoat a single detail. Understand the horrors of war, and train to survive them. That is what we are doing, boiled down to its essence. A resolution to die is required if one is to do battle, that much you already know from just awakening your Aspects. It applies tenfold more potently on the field. Alongside you will be warriors with Aspects and warriors without ones. You’re all mortal, and you all are warriors.”
“Now, enough of the damning speech. Let’s go over squad management and rules of engagement. Call this lesson one if you will.” Marcarios led the small group straight into their first lesson, referencing historical events and wars, breaking down the chain of command within the military, and explaining the standard practice for the treatment of property and civilians as well as prisoners and war crimes. The information proved to be similar to what Hales already heard a dozen times from Professor Vandle. Hales started doodling stars and planets on her paper rather than taking extensive notes on everything Cull Marcarios said like Genjam and the older kid Corvan seemed to make a point in doing. To Hales, information would come and go as it pleased, writing things down only would cause mental strain and confusion. The brain will naturally hold onto the most important pieces of knowledge, filtering out the rest.
Maybe my brain isn’t exactly natural but it’s gotten me this far, Hales pondered. Above most of her class and far above the thousands of students who applied to Garghent’s most advanced military school. She wasn’t being arrogant, though perhaps she did come off that way, even to herself in some amount she could admit, but that was life for her. Perception is fickle, she found, and if her perception allowed her to go off in a daze during captain training than so be it.
Marcarios, however, was not happy. He pinched his nose after about an hour of lecturing, as if Hales’ behavior and nothing else, gave him a headache. “Ms. Ailor, I asked you a question.”
“Oh, I didn’t hear,” she found herself saying.
Marcarios gave an exasperated sigh before the scolding would begin. “Professor Vandle warned me about you, he said you have a tendency to space out. Now, if you were to space out during combat what do you think would happen?”
It was a rhetorical question and one Hales couldn’t resist answering. “I think my incapacitated enemies wouldn’t have much to say.”
Marcarios stiffened at the shamelessly arrogant comment. He was clearly a man bred on order, place and rank. Stuck in the ways of the military and their rules. So much for encouraging autonomy and open mindedness. Hales almost felt her individuality being drained by Marcarios’ words alone.
“I will be your commanding officer, Ms. Ailor, I have the sole responsibility of prepping you and your fellow students here for the immense responsibility of leading a squad of soldiers into the thick of battle, and then leading them out. If I have a single iota of doubt that you are not fit to be a captain, someone I can entrust lives to and someone who can follow my orders to the punctuation, I will remove you from this school in the blink of an eye.”
Hales turned red under the scrutiny, put in her place she apologized. “Won’t happen again.” She managed quietly. When did the atmosphere become so tense? Lately, everyone is on edge.
“Now, take fifteen.” Marcarios left the room, probably to cool off. Hales breathed again.
“If he says ‘now’ one more time I think I’m joining Vallis.” The dark haired girl, Juy, said with unsuppressed humor. Vallis was another metropolis, far beyond the mountains and desert, that constantly antagonized Garghent, though in recent times mainly through trade and business. Hales smiled at her and shook her head, still too embarrassed to talk after being chewed out.
“So, what does everyone’s Aspect do?” Corvan, the oldest of the group, asked suddenly as an icebreaker.
Xander was the first to respond about his Aspect, Karma, displayed as blue eyes that had become shadowed by dark, sleep deprived bags. He looks worse than me, Hales thought ruefully. Everyday something new and unfortunate happened to Xander, yet still he performed well enough to be recommended for a captain position. Perhaps the school took into account his effort, or maybe he was that good?
“My Karma Aspect allows me to choose between good or bad.”
“Like good luck and bad luck?” Corvan questioned in before Xander could elaborate.
“It’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s a balance between the bad and good, having large amounts of one makes the other more potent when I switch to it.”
“What is it now?” Corvan pressed.
“Bad.” Xander said, sounding exhausted. Corvan didn’t question further, sensing Xander’s mood.
“What about yours?” Bregan said to Corvan. Bregan had that tone of voice that suggested he was more interested in knowing Corvan’s Aspect to gauge the older kids skill, rather than any sort of genuine bonding.
“Ah,” Corvan started, as if he didn’t expect to be asked. “Mine gives me mastery over my voice, such as adding layers of sound and projecting it. It’s interesting too because it is tied to my vision, wherever I see I can throw my voice to. Makes it seem like I’m in other places, as well as copying any voice I hear.” Corvan stopped randomly, reluctant to reveal any more of his power. The instinct of wariness and secrecy ever-present in the young Savants.
“Yours?” Corvan nodded to Bregan, feeling the temperature rise from anticipation, from the thrill that comes with adrenaline and excitement upon meeting an opponent worth challenging.
“Synthesis allows me to combine two elements, say fire and water, to create steam. I can emit it from my body however I want.” The swagger in which Bregan spoke with bordered on conceit.
“Genjam over here,” the tall, broad-shouldered boy attempted to diffuse the rising suspense, “my Chaos Blue gives me a material from which I can craft objects based on my hand and finger motions.” Genjam mock demonstrated with his fingers, pointing a single index finger out. “This would create a spear, all I do is point and it flies.”
Genjam’s attempt backfired.
Corvan’s whole face lit up. “Oh! A Color Specter, I’ve never actually seen one in person before!”
Genjam made to answer but was aptly cut off by Bregan, “Want to go outside and see?” He challenged.
Corvan wanted to tease Bregan by playing the ‘bigger’ man. A power play. “We will have plenty of time for that, no need to be hasty.” Corvan smiled and winked. Bregan was about to say something more when Marcarios entered the room. Bregan went quiet, though the tension only intensified.
Marcarios sensed it in an instant, Hales was impressed by his instincts. “Sitting all cooped up does little good for us soldiers does it? What say we stretch our legs and head to the courtyard?”
Marcarios led the group out of the school into the vast courtyard surrounded on all sides by the school’s wings. Windows with classes ongoing became crowded with spectators, peaking out for what was obviously going to be a fight.
Obvious because Marcarios divided his students into two groups of four.
“Hales, Juy, Xander, you’re with me. Bregan, Corvan, Uana and Genjam, you’re a team. We’ll have ourselves a friendly duel.” Marcarios knew all these kids cared for is fighting, a necessary attitude for future soldiers, but one that is arguably immature. The importance of the group acknowledging each other’s ability and placement in the captain’s training was paramount for the team to grow. A few wasted minutes alleviating stress and tension would be worth it in the long run. Too many crashing heads causes dissension which invariably leads to casualty.
In an uncanny display of that principle was Bregan fuming at Corvan, “You better be good.”
“Won’t let you down!” Corvan mock saluted.
“Take out Hales first.” Uana said, her voice icy, not in the metaphorical sense, but literally icy. She had been increasingly freezing over, her biology adjusting to her power. Her long flowing hair now straightened and stiffened, its color highlighted with an icy white. Her skin too sheened with a thin layer of ice and her overall complexion became pale as her resting body temperature dropped considerably, so much so that the air around her even chilled. The same ice-blue color in her hair began spreading until all over her body was dotted with tiny flakes of snow, sparkling when caught in the right lighting. Uana’s lips too turned more blue, usually a sign of frostbite, though it had a healthier appearance, if such a concept could exist. Of course in dealing with Aspects the strange always found a way.
This was all without her Gale Aspect being activated, the background effect one might call it.
“Go for Hales because she’s beaten all of us here in fights, including that Xander on her team.”
“Ice I presume?” Corvan inquired, wanting the jist of his new teammates’ power. Uana nodded.
“Let’s get some distance!” Marcarios ordered before taking steps back. A staff member entered the courtyard but stayed under the confines of the extended roof of the school building.
“Call it?” Marcarios asked the spectator. The man waved and nodded.
“Ready?” His voice was surprisingly deep, and carried clearly across the courtyard. “Fight!”
Marcarios unclipped a device that fit smoothly into his hand, with tiny metal prongs at the end which sparked with electricity after he pressed his thumb into a button. “I’ll go easy on them,” he said smirking.
“Fulmen.” Marcarios placed his free hand where the taser’s end crackled mildly. A louder ‘pop’ sound filled the air, then he slowly moved his hand away from the point. Electricity followed his movement as he drew out his lightning, almost like he was unsheathing a sword. He spread his arms as wide as his wingspan allowed, a stable yet seething bolt of lightning filled the gap between his two outstretched hands. He flicked the oversized taser and the lightning snapped like rawhide but with the sound of thunder on the ground in front of him. The lightning sword reacted as if limp, instead of stiffly but then straightened again. So it was more of a whip than a sword, at least when he made sudden movements. The crackling sound remained constant.
The seven students in the captain training called out their Aspects within the same few seconds, a choir of abilities activating at once.
“Moonblink.” The final voice to speak following far behind the others.
“What’s with the hesitation?” Xander whispered frantically. He kept his Bad Karma but was jumping up and down anxiously.
“Sixty seconds!” Hales warned Xander, as she drew out stars.
“I know, I know!” Xander shouted back.
“There’s no moon.” Juy said, crestfallen. “I need the moonlight to use my powers.”
Xander muttered something under his breath then left in a sprint. Sixty seconds was how long Uana needed to hold her breath before her exhale’s wintry chill would begin to exponentially increase. The longer she held in air, the more powerful the blizzard. Galeforce is what she called it. Already she had inhaled deeply, expanding her lungs to the very max. Breathing exercises had been a focus for her these last months. The effects were devastating, but really only after a minute.
Xander rushed to force her to breathe out before she hit that sweet spot.
Hales launched her stars in Uana’s direction and Marcarios altered his advance slightly to target Uana. It was clearly who his team wanted to stop first, so he would comply. Hales recognized his presence of mind and nodded to herself in approval.
Genjam launched blunted spears at everyone, though he focused on hitting Hales’ stars, easily cutting them off at their predictable trajectory. One spear he planted at Bregan’s feet, who promptly put a hand on it, ready to use his Synthesis on the steel-like material of Genjam’s creations.
“Now.” Bregan ordered Uana. The tall, fair girl standing near him blew out a fraction of her lung’s air supply from her nose in Bregan’s direction. It was cold enough to ice over Bregan’s hand.
Spear in hand, and ice forming in the other, he clapped the two elements together as he used his Aspect. “Synthesis.” Steel and ice formed into an element of brittle, frozen chunks of a strange pseudo-metal. It was weak enough that he could crush a block of it in his hands into small shards.
Bregan lets the shards fall to the ground. He knew everything he needed to know about his new element. He started to throw metal ice balls at Xander and Marcarios, the two closest of his opponents.
Marcarios easily whipped his lightning taser at the projectiles, shattering them into hundreds of pieces. Xander spread out in a wider path, making Bregan choose who to focus on. He chose Marcarios.
Their commanding officer had no problem charging through the dual barrage of Genjam’s spears and Bregan’s synthesized ice and steel, his taser crackling and flashing nonstop in a loud and colorful blur.
Corvan finally made his move, producing an annoying buzzing hum right inside everyone’s ears. His four opponents were within his peripheral vision and so he could throw his voice at the most painful possible place. Right outside the eardrum. Corvan used his Chorus Aspect to cause a disorienting range of pitches to blare inside the heads of his victims.
The ears were directly related to balance which in turn affected most other senses. Hales tried plugging her ears with her palms but the sound was unaltered. It felt like a dozen voices all humming loudly on both sides of her head, each with a distinct vocal range that only added to the chaos of the debilitating ringing already going on.
Hales fought back the urge to puke. Blinking back tears, she tried to remember how much time had passed. Was it forty seconds yet? Or did a minute already go by? Her world spun and rang. It was the same for the rest of her team. Marcarios fought through the ringing hums, only to be stopped short by a single exhale with the impact of a full fledged blizzard. Two minutes worth of icy buildup released in an explosive flurry of snow, sleet and wind.
The temperatures dropped far below zero and Marcarios froze on the spot.
Hales slowly began to find her bearings, enough to see how strong Uana’s Gale had become. No one was going easy. Marcarios’ lightning whip remained unaffected by the cold, though he could hardly move. Uana knew Hales was the only one that could thaw him out quickly. Hales would have to grow a large star and let it orbit the frozen Marcarios. Clever. Uana was serving as a diversion, specifically to stow Hales from wreaking havoc.
“I’ll play along.” Hales whispered, as she started to expand an orange star.
“What?” Juy asked, she was hovering around Hales, unsure of what to do. Xander was holding his own, fighting Genjam and Corvan simultaneously. Somehow Xander could still fight through his Bad Karma, Corvan’s voices and Genjam’s spears. Genjam and Corvan’s irritation showed clearly. Every accidental slip and ill luck that befell Xander served only to add to the unpredictability of the fighter. He flowed naturally with each new random development of the fight and matched them in hand to hand combat, dealing blow after blow.
Hales had forgotten about Juy. “Try this,” she said absentmindedly. All her attention was focused on dealing with the ringing, preparing a star and defending against Bregan’s cold metal blasts. A few shards had lodged themselves into her legs and arms, and any place her planetary defense left holes.
Hales sent a sun and a planet to orbit around Juy with a complementary moon. It was worth a try.
“Oh!” Juy exclaimed. “I can feel my power!” It was minute, but the changes were definitely there. Juy’s hands started glowing with a translucent silvery light. Her whole demeanor improved, no longer looking out of place in the fight.
“Moonblink!” She said again, barring no excitement. Her eyes whited over, glossy and pure, then turned into a brighter silver than that of her hands.
“Who?” Juy asked. Hales had no idea what her power did, but her own suns were being snuffed out by Uana’s frostwork. Marcarios’ freeze only solidified, Uana’s heavy breathing bringing the entire courtyard down into chilling temperatures. The windows fogged from the ice and snow flurries precipitated chaotically.
“Uana.” Hales grunted as another blast from Bregan tore into her arms as she shielded her face.
“Right.” Juy turned to Uana, twenty meters away.
“Incoming!” Bregan called out. Xander, Genjam and Corvan all paused briefly, reacting to the warning.
Juy made her play. A stream of light in the form of a silver beam directed at Uana flashed for a split second. The beam connected with Uana and disappeared in the same instance, the only trace being a silvery cloud hovering around the Gale specter’s head. Uana reeled back and turned without knowing her orientation and began shooting air out in random directions.
“Visual impairment and motor skill scrambling.” Juy explained swiftly to Hales.
“Got it.” Hales sent out half a dozen flaming stars to Marcarios, taking advantage of the opportunity to thaw him.
Bregan cursed under his breath and redirected his attacks toward Marcarios, though still frozen none of the cold metal shavings landed solid hits. This particular Synthesis had proven to be too weak to stop Hales’ stars.
Genjam, seeing the change of momentum, made a spoon out of his hands and then closed them together. His swirling mass of dark blue sped to Xander and formed an egg-shaped cage around him, trapping the Karma specter. Genjam used all of his Chaos Blue for this move, and effectively surrendered his own use of his Aspect to take Xander out of the battle. He would have to call back his steel in order to use more.
Corvan swiveled back, facing Juy who seemed to be recharging her Moonblink, and focused his entire voice into shrill screeching right in her ear. Juy collapsed, muffling ears in hands.
Marcarios snapped back to life, as if he was merely released from a stall in time rather than frozen in ice. His lightning whip crackled as he slapped it back and forth, stretching his shoulder.
“Two to two.” Corvan said, coming up beside Bregan.
Bregan sniffed. His frustration was apparent, his synthesized element lacking real firepower. Hales hypothesized that combining two elements arising from Aspects was far less effective than naturally occurring elements. He also fought unconsciously subdued, hesitant of Hales who had beaten him before in the tournament against his strongest Synthesis.
Genjam recalled his Chaos Blue and then instantly made a new cage around Xander. This one was far tighter and crushed the prisoner inside. A pained grunt, followed by a limp body collapsing, came from the trapped Xander inside. Genjam made a fist and called back his material once more before causing permanent damage, leaving Xander only semi-conscious and bruised all over.
“Three to two.” Genjam corrected, taking point a few meters to the side, keeping their team from grouping too tightly.
Hales checked on Juy, she had passed out. Uana, released from the Moonblink, joined her teammates.
“I guess that’s four.” Corvan observed with a wide grin.
Marcarios grinned back, making Corvan hesitate for a second. The Cull brandished his lightning whip, preparing for his students to gang up on him. Hales stood meters behind still, with only minor injuries.
“Going to stop hiding in the back there, Hales?” Bregan taunted. Hales ignored this and racked her brain for ideas, solutions. Anything she threw at them would be easily countered and destroyed, three specters that knew her fighting method and one who adjusted easily was too much to take on. She didn’t doubt Marcarios, but with Uana’s freezing and Genjam’s various objects and Corvan’s Chorus and Bregan’s endless spewing magic, the odds were slim at best. Especially since Marcarios wasn’t going to use his Aspect to its fullest. Still, Hales was not ready to lose.
She searched her inner galaxy, seeking out anything that could turn the tide.
They engaged Marcarios by peppering him with blasts of ice and cold shrapnel and steel spears and painful ringing. Marcarios whipped his lightning back and forth, blocking the attacks he could manage and trying to gain ground, but his opponents kept a four-point formation around him. Attacking from multiple angles and never staying within reach of his Fulmen whip.
Hales noticed two things. One, that Marcarios was actually preventing any of them from attacking her. As much as he was on the defensive, they couldn’t afford to take even a second off him. He simultaneously defended her and occupied all their attention. Though he was fighting a losing battle. At least until Hales did something.
Which brought Hales to her second observation. Genjam’s steel spears and Bregan’s ice-metal both conducted electricity fairly well anytime Marcarios’ lightning hit them. Sparks would fly and lightning would burst. Genjam always withdrew his spears before the electricity could spread around and Bregan used shrapnel that all but disintegrated on contact with the lightning whip.
Hales knew what to do. Searching her galaxy she instantly summoned fifteen planets abnormally high in metals, selecting specifically one’s high in silver, gold and copper. The most highly conductive metals.
She grew the planets to fist sizes and spun them extremely rapidly in a cluster over her raised index finger.
“This better work,” she told herself, while taking a power step forward and swinging her arm, throwing the mass of planets. The gravity was set to orbit Marcarios, who stood in the center of his spread-out opponents. She launched the mass of planets as fast as she could, they would have to be fast enough to survive Genjam, Uana and Bregan’s attacks. They zoomed forward and Hales shouted, “Hit them!” She bet on Marcarios being the only one who could react in time. He swayed to the side, dodging them by a finger’s width and snapping his lightning whip up.
He didn’t aim for the cluster of planets directly, instead aiming ahead of them, at Genjam’s shield. Apparently, and maybe this had to do with Genjam being furthest from Hales, he also reacted in time to throw up a shield to block the whirling planets.
Marcarios obliterated the shield while still electrocuting the planets as they passed through his outstretched whip, which had straightened. Marcarios pinched the end of the taser handle, where the electricity spawned from, and physically grabbed the lightning off from it. Holding it in his palm, the lightning stretched from his hand to the planets even as they sped out of the whip’s original reach.
Gravity pulled the planets back as they reached the apex of the launch, and just as Hales judged, some orbited back to the left and some to the right, taking a wide berth around their opponents. Lightning crackled and licked from planet to planet creating a giant shock net of rotating planets with Marcarios at the center, acting as the source of lighting.
The sound was deafening and rivaled Corvan’s own Chorus ability. It took only seconds, but Corvan, Genjam and Bregan all were paralyzed by the electricity, no time to escape or defend themselves. However, Uana had somehow found a way to avoid all the lightning, though seeing her teammates downed, she held a hand up to cease the fight.
Marcarios released his hand and the flow of lighting halted, the courtyard becoming eerie from the sudden lack of obnoxious noise. The planets continued to rotate in circles benignly even as all other movement stilled.
Cull Marcarios gave a thoughtful ‘hmm’.
“I see now, why Professor Vandle recommended you, Hales,” He spoke too quietly for her to hear.