Out of Breath and Out of Her Mind
stamina / stæmɪnə / (n) 1: energy and/or endurance 2: cardio, always cardio
Why do we have to do this every three days... And why did it have to be today... She groaned dejectedly, willing time to pass more readily. As much as Shikya enjoyed the sixth day of rest, the following morning slammed her with a healthy dose of reality. Combat training. Standard Agranthian time was divided into six months, each with six six-day weeks. Because humans are as humans are. For her class, every week at the Grand Arcane Academy began with a day of training led by former Commander of the Sixth Interdisciplinary Force Jalind Senelnlaesal Entrik; Jalind Sen for short. Shikya found training on Ernsag offensive compared to three days later on Pelsag. Maybe my body is in protest having to move itself after a day off. Or perhaps they suck equally and my mind turns to mush by Pelsag.
Mornings did not sit well with Shikya. She did not rightly know if it was the ass-end of night or the ass-start of morning, but it was far too early for a sane person to have properly rested. With a flick of her wrist, she checked her timelet's translucent enchantment, summoned by the light twist. It read '04:28.' Shikya fell forward, hands on knees and sighed in resignation. Her friend Alvix patted her on the back once for support and a second time, harder, to alert her to Jalind's presence. Several soft, measured crunches on the gravel confirmed said presence. Shikya heaved her breath out and rose. Jalind coughed softly, adopted a stern gaze, but with a hint of sympathy.
"It's that time again, everyone. Stretch! Limber up! We'll be running the forest track today. Five minutes! Aen Drahkun!" Jalind flicked his own wrist and mentally logged the time, anxious to keep to strict schedule. He maintained a log of who in the class improved their times. Shikya loathed training, but there was no denying the efficacy of Jalind's instruction. They were vastly more fit than when they were accepted into the Grand and might even hold their own in a close-quarter fight with a solider. For a minute, at least. Shikya recalled his mantra: 'I'm training you to live, not kill. Basic combat fitness.' Survive until the soldiers get to you. That's all. I wish 'basic combat fitness' was a tinge less than a ten-mile run in full gear. Thank the gods wizards don't carry much.
In response to her mental dialogue, Shikya tapped and idly pulled at the quarterstaff sheathed on her back. Sheyla had gone as far as to name hers 'Hyrenth,' an elven name translating to 'grace' and 'hope.' She indeed wielded it with grace, but also with a brute force the name didn't suggest. Shikya, in keeping with her opinion of warfare, named hers 'Stick,' a human word she insisted was only coincidentally a homophone of an elven word for 'useless.' The rest of the class, humans all, thought them marginally insane for naming inanimate objects.
"Head up, shoulders back, Shikya. It'll be over before soon enough." Alvix forced a mirthful smile at her though he shared similar feelings on their morning sessions, twinging during a stretching pose. He was whispering so as not to disturb the devout Rundics chanting 'Aen Drahkun' and 'Drahkun Aen.'
"I'm quite sure I've never been surprised by training ending early because it never has." She kept her own voice to a whisper and proceeded through the same poses as the others. Rundic or not, Drahkun's Body-thing works wonders. She retained only a passing familiarity with the Ald Yvren sect, despite being surrounded by it. 'Do this, this way. Forever.' I guess Rundic gods are never bored.
"Well... today might be the day. Jalind Sen is looking gracious; it's not raining; the sunlight is about to crest the Barrier. 'Enjoy the best, find the better, acknowledge the worse, and avoid the worst.'" Shikya smirked, but with a warmed heart. "I'm with you though. We can't all be as eager as Alec and Sheyla."
Shikya glanced up to the two of them at the front of the group, as always. One was her closest friend and the other class exemplar. Alvix stood as he came to the end of the routine and shook the last few muscles out. She followed suit and replied, "No one's as eager as them. Not even our fearless commander is as foot-forward a-..."
A brown blur skimmed the ground toward her and Shikya jumped forward in reflexive shock, narrowly avoiding the low sweep of Jalind's staff. "Fearless commander, eh? Reflexes are improving... although you may just be lucky..." He winked jokingly at Shikya as she recovered her composure, nearly tripping over a rock jutting out from the path. Jalind paused as if assessing her, wearing a languid smirk. "...probably lucky this time more than better."
She promptly made a show of dusting herself off and crossing her arms. "Someone once said that luck comes to the prepared, so I must be prepared today."
Chuckling, Jalind responded in kind. "Sounds like something they said before they came across a jittery elf with more wit than sense." He nodded towards Alvix. "Could learn a thing or two from Alvix... other than whispering that is." Alvix coughed politely, offset by the compliment and that their conversation was overheard. Jalind winked before turning to address the class while walking to the front.
"You've all been doing this for almost two years. We'll be taking the forest path. Best keep your feet or the Kaokutians and Orphics will keep them for you." He checked his wrist and waited a moment. "What happens if you're last across the line?!"
Everyone shouted back on cue, "Clean up duty!"
Smiling, Jalind called out, "Then you better get moving!" The familiar sound of trodden grovel issued forth. Jalind himself turned and set a fast pace for the group, which maintained it for the path's first stretch before scattering slightly as they rounded a turn to north. A quarter-mile later, the runners had already spread out over a hundred yards. Shikya, notably more capable a runner than Alvix, found herself running solo, crunching the ground in solitude. She thought it odd she could feel so alone when a score of people were within shouting distance, but everyone focused on maintaining pace, not each other.
Shikya huffed annoyedly as she thought of the drills scheduled for the day as she passed the training fields to the south. Sidestep here! Jump up! Duck down! Flip this table! Batter that chicken! Shuck that oyster! The constant string of commands forcing students to hop from one exercise to another at breakneck pace built both muscle and muscle memory. She couldn't argue against the maneuvers' utility in combat nor the benefit to the body. Military wizards were expected to hold their own and contribute to the handiwork required of a battlefield. Hard labor all around. Gotta make those wizards to put up their own damn tents.
At the fork marking the end of the first mile, Shikya stayed on the left path along the forest's edge while she recalled her first drill injury. Before she developed the subconscious reactions to attacks, feints, grabs, and weaponry, bruises were commonplace and one notable incident of a broken arm. The Grand is the only place in a hundred miles with that many healers and some of the best in the Kingdom... Her eyes examined her right forearm as she clenched her fist. ...but the fucking creation students need more practice before they work on people... Keeping out of the infirmary manifested more urgency to dodge and parry in training than any theoretical future combat.
Bone is great, bone is good, but I didn't really need to have an extra one sticking outta my gods-damned arm. 'Overzealous application of creative mana structure' as they had called it. 'Most accurate. Might I offer a correction on the statement? You seem to have the improper honorific. It should be Enel-fucking-trying-to-eat-lunch-while-healing-dalcol.' Shikya winced at the recollection.
A couple of signs on an aether-lamppost indicated the path into the woods and she saw a few students already well on their way. With the sun's light barely crested over the Green Barrier's mountains, Shikya thanked whoever chose to supply the trail with an aetherline and followed the guidance of the sign. She subsequently thanked whatever collection of wizards first discovered how to harness the natural mana flow of the earth. Still don't understand why controlling aether vents is a field of aeromancy when its coming out of the damn ground, but not my discipline. Her studies of aether were minimal, but the basics were required for all students. I suppose it is essentially lightning running through the ground. Though that's as gross a mischaracterization as I am from this sweat.
Shikya flipped her wrist up in front of her, activating her timelet. '5:27.' Judging by the number of lampposts, that's four miles so far and another mile and a half of forest to go. It wasn't her fastest time, but Jalind should have no complaints. She slowed her pace as she came to an overgrown length of trail, the trees having grown and stretched to sap up the water of the bubbling brook, and watched her footing. As such, she did not notice Jalind standing by the next aether-lamppost. At least not until it was too late.
Looking back, she would prefer to say that she deftly dodged a trip intended to drop her to the ground by the tricky and mischievous instructor Jalind, landing on her feet in a readied combat stance. Tasting water and dirt, Shikya resolved not to recant her sudden bewilderment at Jalind's altogether too-polite 'Hello,' nor her subsequent loss of balance on a root, nor the fall on her ass and the tumble into the stream.
Shikya's eyes opened to a view of Jalind stifling a laughing fit, hands-on-knees and looking down at her. "Right. May I assume I was right about you being lucky earlier or would you like to enjoy another swim?" She found little humor in the situation and deduced the proper response would be to pout and lie in the water to stew in her own humiliation for another minute. Her head lolled back as she sighed deeply, defeated. Well, might as well think up a new nickname; get ahead of it while I can. Fumble-Foot the Frantic Fledgling sounds perfect. Her hand reflexively reached for Stick, which she was relieved to find somehow unbroken and sheathed on her back.
"C'mon. Let me help you up. I swear on Vlandun's name that I won't tell anyone you were bested by my cunning greeting." Shikya accepted his proffered hand and began to shake and brush off accumulated dirt, leaves, and other detritus. The cold cling of her robes felt good after a run, but she evoked a pyromancy cantrip into the robes' enchantment to dry it quickly. Lastly, she bent down and tousled her hair roughly to remove any obvious foliage and earth.
With finality, she cleared her throat and uttered, "Jalind Sen," in a muted tone.
Jalind gestured for her to follow him as he left at a light jog. "Come. Before the next student comes along. I want to show you something." Well, a light jog for him. Might as well be a straight sprint for me. Though middle-aged, Jalind was the quintessential soldier and could leave any of his students far behind him should he want to. Surprisingly, it did in fact feel like a jog, which was unusual for Jalind's pace. Works for me. Just as long as he doesn't want to chat.
"So... you're going to summon a demon soon?" Fuck. He wants to chat. Would that I had his fitness. Shikya also thought it strange that he asked about the summoning. Jalind normally avoided discussing magic where possible. He held no fear nor hatred for magic; it was merely outside of his expertise. If nothing else, he preferred to defer to experts or rely on others more well-versed. Probably makes him a better commander.
Shikya rasped a reply, in between breaths, "Yeah... I'm going to... summon one... on the twelfth..." Who has a casual conversation during a run?! 'Soldiers: Mad Men All.' They rounded a corner to the south, marking the last mile of the forest before their trek would return to the road. "Why... do you... ask?"
Jalind did not respond verbally, but pointed to the side, slowing as they approached a less-traveled path deeper into the woods. Shikya, confused, loped after him as it ventured downhill, careful not to further embarrass herself by tripping down the slope. Jalind stood at the bottom, looking at a cabin she would never have found without a purposeful search and his guidance. Well, cabin is generous. Hut might be too. 'Shack' seems about right given its craftsmanship. Shikya took the opportunity to catch her breath before addressing her nagging curiosity, which was happily satiated by Jalind's forthcoming explanation.
"Don't let too many people know this, but this cabin is built on top of an offshoot of the aether vent to the west. I'm told it serves no purpose but to fill the hole. Gods know why... though I suppose the wizards at the Grand know why too." Shikya stepped up to Jalind's side and channeled mana to her eyes, imbuing them with aether sight.
Though the shack appeared dismally crafted to the naked eye, it was shrouded in magical wards. Well-made ones too. She spotted mostly illusions and hexes, likely to gently push aside suspicion, not punish the curious. The enchantments were tied to the keyhole in the door as an activation point. "Let me guess: you have the key to stop all this nonsense?"
Jingling a keyring, Jalind smiled as he moved to the door, inserted the key, and turned it. Through her aether sight, Shikya observed the transmutation mana structure temporarily cease flowing; suspended while the key remained. Happy to not deal with the hallucinations they would cause, Shikya moved up to the doorway as Jalind opened it. She did not hide her surprise at what lay inside.
The hut surrounded a finished hole in a well-crafted stone floor. Runes circled the hole, each ring performing a different function. One was a geomancy spell pulling a continuous stream of small stones from a shaft in the bedrock at the back of the cabin. Another siphoned groundwater from a small well at the opposite end of the rear. The two streams met in the middle and were rapidly mixed with aeromancy into a slurry. Finally, an unusual transmutation imbued the slurry with... something. Shikya recognized part of the enchantment that would activate it when exposed to mana.
After a few moments of examination, she uttered, "Damn. That's clever," in a way that said she wished she could have thought of it. Using the aether flow to power its own constraint. Everything's powered by it and the slurry is turned to hard rock when it encounters the flow itself. Some wizards deserve recognition that they'll never get for this.
Jalind shrugged as he allowed Shikya to examine the machinations. "Well, at least it means something to you. I can't understand much of it; different kind of magic than you see at the warfront." Jalind closed the entrance as he spoke and re-ignited the enchantments' mana flow by removing the key.
Shikya dropped her aether sight, winced, and rubbed her temple. Oof, held it for too long... She looked at him quizzically. "Yeah, it's well-designed... but what about it?"
"Oh, I thought you would think it interesting; that's all." Jalind ambled forward to lean against a tree, sighing. "I wanted to talk to you about summoning demons." Shikya furrowed her brow warily. Summoning? He's never done anything magical but use a timelet. Jalind clarified, "Well, not summoning. About warlocks." Shikya eyed him rub at the back of his neck as he stared at nothing. Moments passed, but she waited for him to continue in his own time.
"I... spent time with a warlock during my last time at the warfront. Different regiment; not strictly against the military code, but near enough for us to keep silence." His eyes darted up to meet Shikya's. "I'd be grateful if you kept your own silence too." Shikya nodded in acquiescence. "Regardless, we were close and... enjoyed our time at Venprenta when the gods' whims aligned."
Jalind leaned forward from the trunk and walked toward Shikya, stopping a few feet from her, meeting her eye with an unfamiliar wariness. "He changed... and not for the better."
"Wizards do have a tend-..." Shikya gulped the remainder of her words down. Not the time, mouth. Though she had trained under Jalind for almost two years, she never felt menace from him. Menace isn't the right word. Hard, grim resolve. This moment, Shikya knew he wouldn't hesitate to strike her dead if ordered. There, of course, was no order, but the realization that Jalind was a soldier first and a teacher second hadn't occurred to her before.
"I hardly know enough about magic and summoning and demons to know an imp from a fiend, but I've seen that change in warlocks before. I saw it right in front of me and I'd rather not see it again." A tiny fleck of water played at the corner of his eye. Jalind continued in a gruff tone, "Don't let the magic consume your mind and don't let the demons' schemes into your mind." He pointed at Shikya firmly before dropping his hand.
Fucking gods. She had little idea of how to respond. Medias, Sheyla, and magical professors all echoed warnings on the subject of summoning. 'You could bring a walking catastrophe into our world. So take care to share your final wishes with your loved ones. Overly dramatic? I shouldn't think so. Being prepared is only proper.' However, hearing Jalind warn her with regard to magic was terrifying. It was the difference between a lecture on evoking a fireball by following safe casting practices and hearing from the burn victim who didn't.
"Did... did you give Sheyla the same advice?" Maybe it's something he tells every fledgling warlock...?
Jalind heaved a sight and gazed up into the forest canopy. "I don't know what star that one was born under, but she's too strong-willed to let a demon chain her and she's too stubborn to take any advice from me. I couldn't alter her fate even with the strength of Drahkun." Shikya flinched. The two elves, the only two in the current crop of students and with identical disciplines, were compared against each other often. The flinch was not unnoticed.
"Shikya, being strong-willed and stubborn aren't always qualities a commander appreciates. Don't set your mind on it. Just remember who your friends and family are." He reached out and gently pushed Shikya towards the path up the hill. Several snapped twigs and careful steps later, Jalind and Shikya found themselves back on the track. With a brisk wave, Jalind burst forward to the south at a sprint. Ugh... Wish I didn't need to hear it all, but I do. If I fuck this up, it won't just be me that suffers. 'Little Shikya of hex and circle; mind your demons or.. burn in... charcoal...?' Shit, I suck at rhyming...
Lost in thought, Shikya leaned forward as one does when beginning a run only to be clobbered by what she would later refer to as a 'passing branch.' "Oh shit, Shikya! I forgot about my staff! I thought I was going to pass you for the first time ever!" Alvix beamed and extended a hand to the grumbling, sprawled form. The lump groaned at an unpleasant protrusion in its side, courtesy of another tree. Whose damn idea was it that elves were supposed to love trees? Two times in one day they've done their damndest to gut me. Tonight, I'm going to burn an effigy of a tree. Shikya grabbed his outstretched hand and allowed herself to be hoisted to her feet, hoping her latest debacle would be a secret between them. Wait... is an effigy of a tree just a tree? Or are all trees effigies...?
"What are you doing... all the way back here anyway? You usually... are all-but finished by now." Alvix was not the fittest among the class and was panting hard. Sweat dripped from him despite the enchantments of his robes.
"Jalind took it upon himself to offer his thoughts. He..." She stopped short, wondering what to say without breaking her silence. Running her hand through her hair, she decided to be vague. "Everyone thinks I'm going to get myself killed summoning a demon... Why did I think being a warlock was a good idea..."
As Shikya's close friend, Alvix had heard this refrain many times before and believed it exaggerated yet understandable. Having caught some of his breath, he spoke his own refrain, "You are smarter, more talented, and stronger than you think. Remember, preparation, preparation, preparation!" He even ventured to mimic Medias' favorite gesticulations. Shikya chuckled, but said nothing. Instead, her response was the soft crunch of pebbles as she fought to catch the next student along the road.
Rather than assuage the concerns she held, Shikya remained a bundle of anxiety. Somewhere in the recesses of her thoughts, she assumed it would be easier after the summoning. Instead, Jalind has to warn me that even seasoned warlocks can turn on their friends. Oh yes, I’m perfectly chipper now. All I have to do is maintain constant vigilance, arm my friends with an arsenal, and choose a weak demon so I'm less of a problem to put down. She decided she was simply grumpy that it was training day.