Chapter 11 - Shaping Up
“…And as Matron Avapaya convened the council, the Second Doctrinal Age of the Patronage began” droned Matron Muyon in class the next morning. “It would span some thousand and a half years until what event? Anyone?”
Faeron glanced at Auri, expecting her hand to shoot up. Instead, she glared blankly at the board, her mind seemingly somewhere else entirely.
“What about you, Olive?” said the Matron, calling a name at random.
A pale faced girl from Faeron’s year popped suddenly to attention in her seat near the back of the room. “End of the second era…” said Olive. “Oh! With the recovery of the Archpatron’s journal.”
“Correct,” clucked the Matron. “The writings of Glavius shed light on his relationship with the Old-Spirit Nylk. They were as mother and child. As her trees protect us now…”
“Pssst,” whispered Faeron, reaching out a foot to nudge Auri. “You there?”
Auri turned, eyes narrowed. Raising a finger to her lips, she shushed him softly then turned her attention to the Matron’s lesson.
Less than ten minutes passed before Faeron caught Auri staring off again. This time, her trancelike state wouldn’t be broken until the familiar four-note chime signaled the end of class.
Together, Faeron and Auri rode the crowded elevator down to the cafeteria where they loaded their trays with food and searched the tables until they found Quinn, grinning from ear to ear. He was seated with a tray of crispy fish sliders at a small round table, just big enough for the three of them.
“Classes go well this morning?” asked Faeron, stepping over the bench with a bowl of steamy faux-muum stew.
“Just fine,” said Quinn simply. He scarfed down one of the sliders, only to return to grinning the moment he finished chewing.
“Then why are you all smiles?” asked Faeron.
“Oh,” said Quinn, glancing over at Auri, who had occupied the seat beside them, “you know… just cause.” Every time his eyes met Auri, Quinn’s smile brightened a little.
Auri didn’t seem to mind the attention, in fact, she didn’t even seem to notice. She was staring off, as if focusing on something all the way across the cafeteria.
“You alive?” asked Faeron, snapping twice beside her face.
“Yeah,” she said, blinking back to the table. “Sorry, I’m just thinking about tonight.”
“Excited?” asked Faeron.
“I’m ready. I know this is it…” she said, “but I’m also worried. I don’t know how many times I can repeat the meditation. It takes more than just focus…”
“Is this… what you told me about last night?” asked Quinn through a mouth full of food. “With emotions and all?”
“I can’t imagine how hard it must be to do it even once,” said Faeron. “If you need me to do anything—”
“I don’t know what you could do…” said Auri, smiling softly, “but thanks for the thought. I just need to keep myself calm today, save all that passion and energy for tonight.” Suddenly, she seemed to notice her food for the first time. Her baked potatoes were topped in gooey golden cheese and the loav sprouts accompanying them glistened with butter. Wordlessly, they all dug in.
Auri carried the same focus when Faeron met her at the ape statue after classes that afternoon. Not even waiting for him to complain about his new AI Upkeep assignment, she led off at a march toward the athenaeum.
Mathas was already waiting for them in the workshop. Everything was the same as before: the bunball on the table, the platform just a couple feet off the mats, and the model alca track winding around a mountain.
“Faeron, Auri, welcome,” said Mathas. He rose from a seat at the nearest table and procured the Gloves of Give and Take from the pocket of his flowing brown robe. “Ready for another run?”
“More of the same?” asked Faeron, a bit disappointed they wouldn’t be trying any new artifacts.
“For the near future,” said Mathas. Snatching up the ball, he limped over to them. “Think of this like your martial arts. You must master the basic motions before you can combine them into complex movements. Once you have mastered capturing and releasing energy, we will move on.”
“Can I go first?” asked Auri suddenly. “This moment… it’s been in my head all day. I’m ready.”
“Of course,” said Mathas, offering her the gloves. She eagerly snagged them and pulled them over her hands. “Faeron, would you like to drop the ball?”
“Naturally!” said Faeron. He plucked the ball from his mentor’s hand and, together, he and Auri scampered over to the mats. Climbing the platform, Faeron felt his heart thumping. He felt almost as excited for Auri as she must be. Even now, without the light of peridom flowing through them, her bronze eyes were shining.
“Faeron… listen,” said Auri, sounding serious, “I still can’t hold my meditation for long, so don’t drop the ball until I tell you.”
“Sure thing,” said Faeron. He stepped to the edge of the platform, holding the ball out over the mats. “Just tell me when.”
Auri closed her eyes. Her nose scrunched up tight and her fists balled until her knuckles turned white. “Now!” she shouted.
Faeron dropped the ball just as Auri’s eyes shot open. Deep bronze light surged from her irises like tongues of flame. Auri held out her hand, her gaze locked on the ball. Only, the ball never stopped. The fire in Auri’s eyes died and the ball continued its descent, landing with a soft thud on the mats.
“I don’t understand,” she said, looking from her gloves to the ball to Mathas. “What did I do wrong? I was meditating. I focused on the ball. I’ve listened to all the things you’ve told Faeron, and I did them all! Why didn’t it stop?”
“Patience and practice,” said Mathas definitely. He hobbled over and placed a long hand on her shoulder. “Nobody gets it on their first try.”
“Here, hand me the ball,” said Faeron, reaching down. “You can go again.”
Auri’s second attempt was equally futile; her third as well. Each time she closed her eyes, the meditation took a little longer and lasted a little shorter. By her fourth attempt, Auri couldn’t make herself mediate at all.
“I’m out,” she said, her eyes blinking open. “It only works so much at once. I don’t think I’ll get it again tonight.”
“Understanding your limits is important to growth,” reasoned Mathas. “Faeron, why don’t you practice for a while and give Miss Lem a break.”
Stopping the ball in midair quickly became like second nature for Faeron, and, at the end of class, he was given another chance to leap from the platform. As he landed, the light rushing through his fingers proved too much to control. Faeron’s arm shot up into the air, and a fresh crack appeared on the gem.
The next couple weeks at the kytra workshop went much the same; Faeron and Auri would spend the first half of the lesson trading places in the ball-catch experiment. Though she had yet to succeed, Auri gave her all in every attempt. After a few tries, Auri would need time to recover, and Faeron would leap from the platform. He could stop himself almost every time, but the sudden rush of light still proved too much to control. By the end of the second week, Auri was growing visibly tired, even outside of practice. Her eyes were shadowed and distant, and she struggled to force a single waking meditation in the hour.
“Faeron, Auri, could I speak to you before you leave?” asked Mathas one night as the two kytra finished up practice. Auri was in the worst shape yet, stumbling every so often as she walked back from the mats. “It’s clear we’re pushing too hard,” said Mathas.
Faeron needed only to look at Auri to agree with his mentor.
“We’re not—” Auri began but was cut off.
“It isn’t up for debate,” said Mathas. “This isn’t healthy. For the rest of the semester, I want you to come in only twice a week. Lowend and Hyend nights, if that fits your schedules.”
“More time for homework,” said Faeron, thinking on the papers piling up back at home. He had recently been assigned his semester-long “lost law,” a project that required him and a partner to attempt to piece together old laws of physics, lost when the servers went down. He and Razzy would be teaming up to tackle Eucelkin’s Density Principle.
“And more time for Prophet’s Guard,” added Auri weakly. “Wanna go spar for a while in the Cresh challenge?”
“Tonight?” asked Faeron. “I’d topple you with a poke. Probably best if we head home.”
“Probably,” Auri conceded without defense.
Their new schedule proved its value within just the first week as Auri was soon back to her normal self. She had yet to stop the ball, but she went into each practice with renewed drive.
Faeron continued to struggle with the light of his jump, adding several new cracks to the gem, though he was having far more success outside the workshop. In Bo-Kora, Faeron could now block and even return simple blows without breaking his connection to peridom. By the time midterms rolled around, he was even studying in his meditation.
Faeron’s dreams were long, but he remembered little. The images he did have were of smoky rooms, clouded faces, and days spent hunched over a writing desk. Despite the clouded memories, Faeron woke each morning with a sense that Jakob was making swift progress on his book. He only hoped Jakob finished it before the plague, now looming on the horizon.
Exams were spread out across the week of midterms, with Faeron’s last test, AI Upkeep, scheduled for Hyend afternoon. With all the extra time he had to study, Faeron felt more than prepared. Physics was a breeze and Faeron finished the exam period on a high note in a joint presentation with Razzy. She had run down a rabbit hole with their lost law resulting in a formula they believe to be close to the original. There was still plenty of testing to go, but Lieutenant P offered them praise regardless. The Global Politics and Life and Legacy exams were just memorization, tedious but straight forward. Finally, on Hyend, Faeron walked out of his AI Upkeep midterm in high spirits. The sky above was a gray haze, clouds masking the tops of the towers and walls, and a wet breeze swept through the Academy courtyard. Nothing could sour Faeron’s mood. He was finally free of studying, and the only thing left between him and the weekend was another session in Mathas’ workshop.
Their time in the workshop unfolded like any other night until it was nearly the end of the hour, when Mathas gave Faeron a few tries at the platform. As usual, no matter how hard Faeron clenched his hand around the slithering ropes of light, they quickly broke free and sent Faeron spinning.
“It’s not a trial of bodily strength,” said Mathas from the edge of the mats.
Faeron rushed around and climbed the platform, likely for the last time this hour; his impatience was beginning to affect his meditations.
“Relax your grip. Will the light, as you would command a limb,” Mathas continued, “send it through the gem into peridom. It will fight you, but a kytra’s will must be stronger. Once the light has passed through the stone, the gloves will do the work for you, holding it there until you are ready to release it.”
“I think I understand,” said Faeron. The whole workshop shimmered in peridom’s light as he stepped off the platform. Faeron dropped two feet to the mats then pulled back with his left hand. Ropes of muted green light zipped through his body to his hand, and his arm trembled as the energy gathered there. Focusing his whole attention on the glove, Faeron imagined the gem on its back like the drain of a bathtub. He held the image in his head and the light began to form a vortex around the crystal, disappearing beneath the glassy surface. Pressure eased off his arm and the gem flared brighter.
“Excellent,” said Mathas, calmly. “Hold it… look to your target.”
As the last light sank into the gem, Faeron raised his right hand to the model town on the table. He focused every ounce of his attention on the toy alca and imagined it in motion. His right hand lurched upward as light poured from the gem. A streak of green flashed across the room and the alca sprang to life. Speeding up one hill then another, the alca came to rest just short of a mountain tunnel.
Unable to contain himself, Faeron grinned ear to ear and the light of peridom faded. “I did it,” he said, looking down at the gloves then back to the alca. “I really did it!”
“A moment to be proud of,” said Mathas. “In fact, at this halfway mark for the semester, I want to take a moment to recognize both your progress thus far.”
“Both?” said Auri, sounding unconvinced.
“You’ve uncovered more in half a semester than we have in years of study,” said Mathas, “from the concept of meditation through passion to your testing in potentials and limitations. As I’ve said before, this is unmarked territory.”
“But…” Auri’s eyes rested on the model alca.
“You will shape again soon enough,” said Mathas. “And when you do, I have no doubt it shall be resplendent. This journey isn’t measured by the distance of a toy on a track. You walk a new path, untread by boots. The heavy brush ahead will slow you, and at any time you can choose to turn back; the other road will always be there. Though, something tells me that’s not what you want.”
“No. This is me,” said Auri, smiling. “A trailblazer… guess I am like dad after all.”
“More than you can know,” agreed Mathas. “Now, one last—”
“Apologies for the interruption” came Serris’ voice as the ball of light popped suddenly into the workshop, floating near the edge of the mats. “I have an urgent call from the Host.”
“Of course, put it through,” said Mathas.
“Hope I’m not interrupting,” said Eamon as he materialized into the room. He wore a night-black button up and well-fitted pants with a golden belt matching the buckles on his dress shoes.
“Good evening, Eamon,” said Mathas warmly. “Faeron and Auri were just finishing up.”
“Brilliant,” grinned Eamon. “I have Marzón Cointell in the other room. She’d like to meet our famed kytra over dinner. That dinner happens to be right now, and… you don’t keep a Cointell waiting.”
“Quinn and the twins should be just out front,” said Mathas. “I’m sure they’d welcome dinner over class.”
“Maybe not the twins,” said Eamon. “The Cointells are very particular about etiquette. Quinn, of course, would be a welcome addition. Just make sure you three are on your best behavior.”
“You can count on us,” pledged Auri.
“I’m sure I can,” said Eamon. “Now, I should see to Marzón. Meet us at the Mercy Elixer House, quick as you can.”
“Wait!” said Auri. “Should we change first?”
“No time,” said Eamon. “Your uniforms are fine. See you there…. And Mathas, have a wonderful weekend.”
“You as well,” said Mathas. “Goodluck with Miss Cointell.
Eamon disappeared and Auri marched over the tables where her academy blazer lay neatly folded next to Faeron’s. “Come on,” she said, tossing Faeron his blazer.
“You two enjoy the weekend,” said Mathas, following them to the door. “Will you tell Quinn the same, and please, send in the twins.”
“Of course,” said Faeron. He slid the gloves off his hands and passed them back to Mathas. “See you Lowend.”
“Yeah! Have a good one, Mathas,” smiled Auri.
In the foyer, Faeron and Auri found the twins fast asleep, slouched in their seats near the elevator. Beside them were a pair of matching bright-pink duffle bags bulging with pads and equipment. Quinn sat opposite the twins. He leaned over a small table, soldering a circuit board held up on a pair of clamps. The iron he held was linked to a small box, glowing green at the edges. At their approach, Quin waved his free hand without looking up from his work.
“The twins asleep?” asked Faeron softly.
“Think so…” said Quinn. “Myllie told me that they played three games back-to-back. Apparently a virus went around the league the last few weeks and a bunch of matches got pushed to this weekend.”
“Can you wrap that up?” asked Auri quietly but firmly. “We just got invited to a diplomatic dinner with Host Eamon. You, me, and Faeron, right now.”
Quinn tapped the iron on a sponge beside the clamps and then set the tool down. “Alright, that should do for now. What about them?” He nodded toward the twins.
“Apparently ten-year-olds don’t make the best diplomats,” joked Faeron. “I vote not being the one to tell them.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” said Auri. “Hey girls.” She spoke louder now. She knelt beside the twins and placed a hand on each of the arms. “You two taking a nap at Mathas’.”
“Auri!” burst Myllie, blinking awake.
Kaelynn yawned and stretched out in her chair. “Did we miss class?” she asked, sounding somewhat hopeful.
“No, afraid not,” chuckled Auri. “You two are up. Just you today.”
“Just us?” asked Myllie. “What about him?” She jabbed her pointer finger toward Quinn.
“He has to go to a boring dinner with us,” said Auri. “You two get to have fun with Mathas.”
“Fun?” asked Myllie. “Bunball is fun. Mathas is old and boring.”
“Maybe right now,” said Auri. “But someday his advice will be very important to you. Now go on, he’s waiting.”
“Fine,” sighed Myllie. Slinging her back over one shoulder. “Come on, Kae.”
“And we should move too,” added Auri.
“Works for me,” said Quinn, who had just finished packing away his soldering kit.
As the twins disappeared into the classroom, Faeron, Auri, and Quinn stepped out into the cool evening. Laughter laced the chatter from the park as all number of students celebrated a much-needed break from studying. The clouds had broken and the setting sun over the wall painted the whole park gold.
“Faeron! Hey, Faeron!”
Faeron’s gaze tracked the familiar voice to a pop of pink in the busy street. Lydia broke from the crowd and skipped up the athenaeum steps. Her pink hair fell freely to her shoulders, and instead of her usual white blazer, Lydia wore a pink crop top that matched her hair and a pair of high waisted black shorts.
Of all days she could show up, Faeron told himself as his heart froze in his chest.
“Had no dance tonight so… here I am,” beamed Lydia. “Sorry it took so long to get out here.”
“Oh,” said Faeron, cold panic in his blood. “It’s just—”
“Your timing couldn’t have been better,” Auri cut in. “Quinn and I have to be at an event, so Faeron’s all yours.”
“But—” Faeron began, only to be interrupted by a sharp pain as Auri stomped down hard on his foot. Glancing over, he saw Auri wearing her ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ glare. “Actually, yeah,” Faeron said, giving Auri a subtle nod of thanks. “Perfect timing.”
With quick goodbyes, the two pairs parted ways. Quinn and Auri scampered down the street, while Faeron retreated back into the Athenaeum, with Lydia close behind.
“It’s so pretty and… quiet,” whispered Lydia, wandering the foyer. “I see why some people prefer to study here.”
“Just wait until you see the windows,” said Faeron. He led down the south hall and heard a gasp from Lydia behind him as he stepped into a curtain of shimmering blue light. Rays of color poured in through the stained-glass murals, and every few shelves the colors changed. Here there were shades of blue from a mural of a legendary galleon on a churning sea. Further down, the rainbow blade of a funny looking knight cast a particularly wondrous display across the book spines.
“You were right,” said Lydia softly. “It really is something in the evening.”
“Romantic, even?” asked Fearon hopeful.
“Oh yeah,” said Lydia enthusiastically. “Give me a soft couch and the right book, somewhere we won’t be disturbed…”
“I know just the spot,” said Faeron. “Come on.”
He led her down the hall to a round reading room with a grand spiral staircase at the rear. They climbed to the third floor, where the only difference from the rooms below was a wooden door with a plaque reading: Evolice Lovel.
“Way back before we were shaping in class or even meditating in class,” said Faeron as he wandered slowly toward a wide sapphire-blue couch, running his hand along the brass banister overlooking the steps, “Quinn, Auri, and I used to come up here to do our readings.”
“It’s certainly peaceful up here,” said Lydia. She went to the office door and examined the plaque with his mother’s name. “It must be hard for you… seeing this here.”
“It is,” said Faeron. “In fact, Mathas asked if I wanted it taken down, but… that feels wrong. It’s her office. She’ll need it once we find her. Besides, seeing it there is a reminder of how important our work here is. Every second I waste is a moment she’s out there, in danger.”
Lydia turned, facing him with sad eyes. “A decade later you still fight for her… That’s what I like about you, Faeron. Your drive… your ambition… they’re genuine. You’re doing all this because deep down you believe that you can save her. Every day I see so many gifted people waste their talent on all the wrong things; fame, riches, the high of it all. They don’t realize that none of that matters anymore. The world is gone because our ancestors were self-indulgent, and now, it’s time our generation asked what we can do to make things right. I… I’m ranting, aren’t I?”
“No, I’m relieved I’m not hearing it from Auri for once,” laughed Fearon. “I’m glad we found time for this.”
“Me too,” smiled Lydia sweetly. “You hang tight, make sure no one steals our spot. I’ll go find a book.”
“Aye aye,” said Faeron, getting comfortable on the sapphire suede couch. “By the way, this floor’s all reference. You may have more luck downstairs.”
“Maybe,” said Lydia, “but… maybe not.” She skipped off down the row, and a minute or so later Faeron saw her stop sharp. “I know this book!” she called back, just loud enough for him to hear.
Lydia pulled a massive tome off the shelf and effortlessly hauled it back to the couch.
“What is it?” asked Faeron, trying to get a look at the cover.
“A Visual Encyclopedia of Irasil,” said Lydia excitedly, taking a seat beside him. “My mom keeps a copy of this on our coffee table back at home. A lot of it’s her work.”
“Really?” asked Faeron, scooching close to see. Their arms were now touching and the scent of her perfume filled every breath. Suddenly very conscious of his hands, he folded them in his lap and looked down at the massive book.
“She’s a photographer,” said Lydia. “Before Eredith, she used to travel all around taking pictures for publications like this. It’s funny, she said she’d never seen a physical copy of her work until she came here. It all used to be digital.” She flipped through the pages, past forests and lakes, cities and sandy beaches. “Hey, I’ve got a question.”
“What’s that?” asked Faeron.
“Where would you go?” asked Lydia. “If the walls came down, the plague disappeared, and the world were suddenly as it once was… Where would you go?”
“North Ri’Kalla,” said Faeron without hesitation. There was nowhere he wanted to see quite so badly as the city of his dreams. He wanted to walk the streets Jakob walked, see the storefronts of the art district for himself.
“Ooh, let’s see… here!” said Lydia. She flipped to a page depicting a skyscraper made entirely of black glass with a massive golden ribbon climbing its height. Behind it, Faeron saw the familiar Ri’kallan skyline of black-glass towers and smaller white-and-gold structures. “The city of artists and aristocrats,” read Lydia from the caption. “North Ri’kalla is known for its boundless extravagance and ’round the clock entertainment.”
“It’s not about any of that for me,” Faeron interjected, feeling rather self-conscious naming a city of riches after Lydia’s speech about vanity. “It has to do with… well… it’s a really long story.”
“We’ve got all night,” said Lydia. “Go on. I want to know.”
“Well, you’ve already heard some kytra stuff,” reasoned Faeron, “so I suppose you won’t think I’m completely crazy.”
“I make no promises,” teased Lydia. “In seriousness. My dad was the furthest thing from religious. He’s an engineer, only in Eredith because he helps keep up the tech that runs our sky. After he was spared the plague in the Unity Day Miracle, Eredith became more than a home. He knew the Patronage stories had to be true, because he lived through one. So no, when it comes to you kytra, I don’t think anything is crazy.”
“Alright,” said Faeron, his confidence breaking through his nerves. “Ten years ago I touched the Host Stone and it shattered. I remember a bright light in the stone and then… poof, nothing. When I woke up my mom was gone. Vox, Auri’s dad, said I’d had a vision, but I didn’t remember it at all. Since then, I’ve lived out that vision little by little every night in my dreams.”
“Like watching a VUE?” asked Lydia.
“Sorta,” said Faeron. “Except I am the main character. I can see and feel and think just like him. It’s all so real, and it goes on for weeks at a time… well… he lives in North Ri’Kalla. So that’s why.”
“I don’t get it,” said Lydia. “If you live in North Ri’Kalla every night then why go there? Why not do something you’ve never done, see someplace you’ve never seen?”
“I only remember bits,” said Fearon. “Vivid moments like the colorful displays in the winter markets. I just want to be set free, to explore in the snow, the real snow. Get all wrapped up, a coat, scarf, gloves, all of that…” He looked up into her soft blue eyes. “Maybe I’ll bring a date, and we’ll get drinks and exchange gifts.”
“Ooh,” said Lydia shifting closer. “And who would the lucky date be?”
Faeron’s heart was pounding, but confidence had ahold of him. “I wouldn’t mind if you came along. I distinctly remember there being dancing, so… maybe you could teach me the basics.”
Lydia pursed her lips and looked off to the side as if considering it a moment. “Hmm,” cooed Lydia. “I accept… only… I think we’ll have to postpone. There’s forecasts for plague.”
“Well,” said Faeron, inching even closer, “maybe until that clears up, we could do Unity Fest instead?”
“I can make that work,” whispered Lydia, her face so very close to his. “Last year, I went alone. I distinctly remember there being dancing, so… maybe I can teach you the basics.”
Unable to hold back any longer, Faeron moved in. Before their lips met, Lydia stopped him. Gently placing her hand on his chin.
“Not yet,” she said. Instead, she kissed him on the cheek. “I want it to be special. I want to save that for the dancing.”
Every day seemed longer as Faeron wished for nothing more than to fast forward to the Unity Festival. Lydia was always busy dancing. She certainly put even more time into her art then he did being a kytra. It was inspiring enough to keep him from getting too distracted. The hardest part was Bo Kora. Trying to spar in his meditation while fighting the urge to glance over at Lydia proved difficult. Any time he dared peek, she’d meet him with a smile that sent his heart fluttering, only for Saitum to land a blow that sent his head spinning. In the first couple weeks, he was bruised all over.
As Cropsun waned and Lowsun loomed, Faeron’s bruises disappeared. He and Lydia studied together any chance they got, but when the Bo Kora bell rang, Faeron had to let those emotions go. No matter how he looked forward to his Unity Fest date, he knew that conquering his dreams had to come first. The longer it took him to master shaping, the longer his mother was alone. Faeron began to go entire class periods against Saitum, never taking a hit and never breaking his meditation. In the heat of their spar, he could swear he saw a shimmer in her arm any time she was about to swing. Like the light of peridom was warning him of her attacks. Their duels became legendary in the classroom as other pairs stopped dueling to watch.
In the workshop, Faeron was having equal success. Every few weeks, Mathas had to bring out taller platforms to keep up with Faeron’s mastery of the light. Around six feet, the jumps became daunting. Faeron not only had to conquer the unwieldy light, but also the fear that tugged at his chest as he looked down from the platform.
Auri, meanwhile, made no progress at all, so Mathas devised a new strategy. Instead of wearing the gloves, he simply had Auri hold her meditation as long as she could. His theory was that, without shaping to distract her, Auri would be able to concentrate more wholly on her meditations, to hold them for longer. This would bring mastery, mastery would bring shaping. Auri went along with it wholly. As she would say, “If Cresh could hold it for battles, I can hold it for seconds at least.”
The change in course proved effective. As homework ramped up and finals appeared on the horizon, Auri was managing to meditate for minutes at a time. Meanwhile, Faeron was leaping from a platform nearly ten feet tall. Leaping from that height, he could send the alca flying with enough force to do three full laps around the mountain.
There was only one week left in the semester, two before the unity feast, when Mathas gathered Faeron and Auri after class.
“I have something special planned for our final class of the semester,” he told them, sounding quite excited about whatever it was. “On Hyend evening, I want you to meet me at the Woven Dome, same time as always.”
“The bunball stadium?” asked Faeron with a furrowed brow.
“Indeed,” said Mathas. “And be sure to bring a mask and padding. I trust you still have your old gear?”
“I think it should all fit still,” said Faeron.
“Same” chimed Auri. “Might be worth a wash though. Neither of us have worn ’em in years.”
“It’s settled then.”
Finals were the hardest of any year so far and Faeron was up to his neck studying all week. It was a good thing his Lost Law presentation was a hit, because the written exam was a mess of complex math that ran circles around his mind. Coming out of Global Politics, Faeron was sure his final grade had just taken a hit, though, at least Life and Legacy tests were a breeze.
Faeron and Quinn shared a mutual last exam of the week in their AI Upkeep final, and Faeron was ecstatic to learn Quinn and the twins would be joining the older kytra in their special lesson at the Woven Dome after class.
Faeron, Auri, and Quinn caught a shuttle from the Academy that dropped them right into the trophied halls of the Woven Dome. Everywhere Faeron looked he saw sports memorabilia; signed jerseys, golden cups, wooden plaques with photos of famous bunball players.
“So where is your bag?” asked Faeron as they followed a nearby tunnel with a sign reading: Field. He and Auri both had large duffel bags full of pads, a mask, and sticks. Quinn didn’t seem to have anything beyond his normal backpack.
“Mathas just asked me to bring Logic,” said Quinn.
“I wonder what he’s up to…” said Auri, her mouth twisting to one side as she looked off in thought.
They emerged from the tunnel into a massive octagonal field, and the wall slid shut behind them. On every side of the octagon was a goal, each a different color, with matching grass spiraling into the center, making the whole field a rainbow vortex. Sparse drifts of snow fell through the open ceiling of the Woven Dome. Faeron reached out his palm, only for the shimmering flakes to disappear the moment they made contact.
“Did you know, with real snow,” said Faeron, “people used to catch it on their tongue like this?” He leaned back his head and stuck his tongue out. “At least Jakob did. Too bad it doesn’t work with the snow here.”
“What in Inya are you doing?” Myllie’s voice carried across the field as she ran out from another tunnel in full gear. Off-white pads with bright pink striped lights covered every inch of her. She wore a mask as well, silver with a strip of pink-lit glass covering her eyes. Kaelynn was just behind her wearing matching gear. The only difference between them was that Myllie held a single silver bunball stick, lit pink at the tip, while Kaelynn held two.
The tunnel didn’t close just yet, however, as another shape emerged behind them. It looked like some sort of sack, big enough to hold one of the twins, floating several feet above the ground. It was bound by ropes of shifting green light, clearly a product of peridom. They twisted and shimmered, connecting Mathas’ outstretched hands, clad in the gloves of give and take.
“Catching snow on one’s tongue,” said their mentor as he stepped from the tunnel, “a popular tradition before the plague.” His voice sounded focused, as he continued to suspend the sack, carrying it to where Faeron and the others were waiting.
Upon closer inspection, Faeron saw Mathas was wearing some sort of backpack. The light seemed to be traveling from the backpack to his left hand, then out the right glove to the sack.
“Is that some kind of battery?” asked Faeron excitedly. He’d never considered using an alternate source of power for the gloves, but seeing Mathas now, he suspected this was how the old capillum moved the platforms in and out of the workshop.
“Indeed,” said Mathas. There was a series of loud clanking noises as the capillum dropped the sack and the sage light disappeared. He then turned to show them the battery on his back. There were five rings, and each served as a track to a small ball, zipping around them in circles. “The many rings allow us to draw continuous energy, pulling from one then the next. By the time the fifth ring is reached, the first has regained its momentum.”
“Rad,” said Faeron. “Are we using it today?”
“No,” said Mathas, reaching down toward the sack. “Not quite yet. Today, you’ll be using these.” He reached inside and pulled out a bunball, tossing it to Myllie. “Go on, get those pads on.”
Faeron’s pads were a bit tight and difficult to secure, but his helmet fit perfectly. It was silver with twin panes of glass. One swooped from the bottom left to top right, and the other mirrored it, crossing in the center of his face to form an ‘X.’ Faeron pulled on the mask, and the glass lit up white, the last color he and Auri had played. Auri’s mask was more similar to the twins’ in design, though it too glowed white. Once Faeron and Auri were geared up, Mathas walked them over the nearest goal. Its net was blue, as was the grass.
“Faeron, you were once a keeper, were you not?” asked Mathas.
“A few years back,” answered Faeron.
“Good, then do just that,” said Mathas, “but with these instead of sticks.” He slid off the Gloves of Give and Take, handing them to Faeron. “Auri, twins, take the sack to the penalty line. When I say go, I want you to take turns shooting on Faeron.”
“What about me?” asked Quinn.
“For now, just watch,” said Mathas. “We’ll get to you in a minute.”
Auri and the twins stood about ten yards out and dumped the balls into a big heap.
“Can I go first?” asked Myllie hungrily. Faeron couldn’t see it, but he knew she was grinning ear to ear behind her mask.
“Of course,” said Auri. “Make sure to nail him good.”
“I remind you,” called Mathas, “the goal is to score in the net, not injure Mr. Lovel.”
“Too late!” yelled Myllie. She scooped up a ball with her stick and sent it hurtling toward Faeron.
With barely enough time to reach, Faeron ducked out of the way. “At least let me meditate first,” he protested. He closed his eyes and calmed his mind until the light of peridom flowed through him. “Okay, I’m ready now.”
Auri was next up. Faeron breathed slowly and purposefully as Auri scooped up a ball and lobbed a fast shot straight toward his chest. He reached out with his left hand, stopping the ball midair. Shifting the powerful sage light into the gloves, Faeron reached out with the right and released the energy back into the ball. It zipped toward Auri, who was caught unaware. Just before the ball struck her, Kaelynn stepped in its path, catching it with both sticks.
“Mathas never said to throw it back at us,” Kaelynn protested.
“Well, he never said not to,” pointed out Faeron.
Kaelynn chucked the ball back at him. Again, he caught it, only this time he used the energy to chuck it out into the empty field. “Happy?” he asked.
“Alright,” called Mathas, “let’s try something a little more challenging. Quinn, did you load the program I asked you about?”
“Ooooohh,” gasped Quinn, seemingly coming to some great realization. “Yeah, give me a second to load up something… we can start easy and then… aha!” He ran out onto the field and placed Logic a few feet behind the other kytra. “Go ahead, Logic, run the routine. Start countdown on my mark.”
A dozen floating targets suddenly materialized, moving in slow patterns just above Auri and the twins’ heads.
“Just like before,” began Mathas as Quinn scampered back to the sideline. “Catch the ball, and use the energy to throw it. But we’ll make a game of it. Let’s see how many targets you can hit. Auri, Kaelynn, Myllie… get ready. On my mark, don’t hold back.”
With his mind still drifting in peridom, Faeron readied himself for the onslaught.
“Three… two… one… GO!”
Quick as Auri might be, Myllie was even faster. She was the first to throw a shot, and nearly scored. Faeron caught her shot just short of the goal, only for two more to fly at him. Quickly threw the first ball, smashing a target, then caught the second. He had no time to hold the balls, instantly shifting the energy between the gloves and throwing them back just in time to catch the next. By the time they’re run through the whole pile, Faeron had only let a few balls in (most courtesy of Myllie), and nearly all the shots he did return hit their targets.
“Twenty-six of thirty,” called Mathas from the corner. “Impressive work, Faeron.” He hobbled toward them, his large dark eyes beaming with pride. “I once told you that if you mastered the flow of energy, I’d let you move on to more advanced techniques. I believe you’ve proved that today.” Then, turning to Auri he said, “Your waking meditation has come far. From seconds to minutes, you’ve proven there’s room to grow and that you will stop at nothing to reach that growth. Today, I’d like to offer you the chance to shape, should you wish it.”
“I do!” exclaimed Auri, throwing down her stick.
“Good, because I have wondered for some time if our experiments were simply not inspiring of passion,” continued Mathas. “This experiment should prove far more intense than catching a ball. Perhaps it will bring the spark you need to shape.”
“Of course,” said Auri, wide eyed. “We’ve only ever heard of Cresh shaping in battle. And the park was… tense,” She marched over to the goal. “Alright, Faeron. Hand ’em over. I think I can do this!”
Faeron passed the gloves to Auri then helped the twins gather all the scattered balls. Once the pile was full Auri’s breathing quickened. Her fists clenched tight. Through the glass of her mask, he could see her eyes erupt in bronze light. “Do your worst!” she barked with confidence.
“Go ahead,” called Mathas.
Myllie threw first. The ball zoomed straight into the corner, hitting the net with a swoosh. Auri growled.
Kaelynn swept up a ball and sent it hurtling.
“STOP,” shouted Auri. She reached out toward the ball, but there was no light. The ball struck her palm and Auri yelped in pain, nursing her fingers.
“Hold,” called Mathas, but Auri wasn’t ready to quit.
“No!” she howled. “Throw another. Faeron you’re up, throw another!”
Faeron picked up Auri’s stick, still resting on the ground. He looked to Mathas for permission, and when his mentor nodded, Faeron swept up a ball.
“Right at me,” said Auri. “Right at my chest!”
Faeron might not be the best bunball player around, but he was confident in his aim from this distance. He threw, his aim true, as the ball stuck Auri flat in the chest. She coughed and gasped for air, her eyes burning brighter than ever.
“Again!” howled Auri.
“I think—” began Mathas.
“Again!” Auri ripped off her mask. She looked ferocious, bronze burning eyes, teeth gritted, staring them down. “Right here,” she pointed to her unguarded face. “I’ll stop it. I know it. Just do it!”
“That’s enough of this,” said Mathas, sounding sterner than Faeron had ever heard him before. “The exercise is over.”
“No, it’s not,” shouted Auri. “I know I can do this. Faeron, please, trust me. I need you to do this.”
“I…” Faeron looked into Auri’s burning eyes. He couldn’t deny the power, but he couldn’t hurt her either. “I can’t… Auri, I won’t do it.”
Myllie moved fast as lightning. She swept up a ball and threw it dead at Auri’s face.
Faeron cried out, reaching with his stick for the ball, but Myllie was too quick. The ball was out of reach. He could only watch as it hurtled toward Auri. She reached out and screamed with all her might as the ball came closer and closer and—”
A blinding light flooded the stadium, and the sound was like a fist to gut. Faeron couldn’t breathe, his legs went weak, and he fell to his knees. Heat washed over him, like the sun beating down in highsun. Then, just as quickly, there was a chill, frigid as Talon Park in lowsun. The sudden change sent goosebumps down Faeron’s body. For a moment he couldn’t think straight, but then… Auri!
“Auri!” cried Faeron, forcing himself to his feet. He could see better now. She was hunched over in the goal, the ball resting just beside her. Had she been hit? Faeron’s chest beat as he ran to her. Mathas and Quinn were just behind. “Auri, are you all right?”
“I…” Auri looked up. Her face looked fine but for the tears leaking from her eyes. There were no bruises left by the ball. “My hands!” she managed to say, holding them up for all to see.
For a split moment, there was utter silence as everyone observed the gloves. Both gems were gone, reduced to shimmering sand at Auri’s knees.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, but her words turned to sobs. “Mathas, I’m so sorry.”
“Nevermind that,” said Mathas urgently. “Myllie, Kaelynn, do one of you know where the aid kit is?”
“We do!” cried Myllie. “Kae, let’s go!”
The twins ran off, and Mathas knelt beside Auri. “Let’s get these off,” he said, slowly peeling back the gloves.
Auri braced her teeth and groaned.
“Just a little more,” said Mathas. “Done.” The gloves fell to the floor, and Faeron could now see her hands, burnt red all over. The worst was the back, where the gems had been. The skin was already blistering.
“We’ve got it,” yelled Myllie as the twins returned with a big white case. They set it down beside Mathas and he flipped it open.
“Some tempra gel… and gauze… we might just avoid a hospital visit.” Mathas unscrewed a tube and applied the white gel inside to her hands and wrapped them in bandages.
Auri’s breathing slowed, her tears dried, and all that was left was a look of shame.
“Do not let today defeat you,” said Mathas softly, placing a long hand on her shoulder. “This is a lesson you will never forget, but it does not make you a failure. Not if you learn from it.”
“Come on,” said Faeron, reaching down to help Auri do her feet.
She didn’t budge. Instead, she simply stared forward, blankly.
“Go on, all of you,” said Mathas. “Auri and I will chat for a while. Have a replenishing break and a joyous Unity Festival. I’ll see you in four short weeks.”
One by one, they filtered out of the Stadium. Faeron was last, looking back at Auri and Mathas, speaking in quiet tones by the goal. He wished there was something he could say that would help her, but in truth he didn’t have a clue. Returning to their apartment, Faeron soon found himself in bed, feeling equal parts relieved from academic responsibility and burdened by his inability to help Auri. He meditated beneath the covers until sleep took him, sailing free from his body in the currents of peridom.