Attaining the Mark

by Joshua Dyer

The first rays of the Suul were just starting to force their way through the dense vegetation crowning the hilltops to the north. The warmth of daylight surrounded Layol as he walked beside his Kanja.

“Master Bennegraf?” the boy asked.

“What is it, my apprentice?”

“I’m not feeling so well, my Kanja.”

“Go on,” the tall slender master of the art of Kanji said.

“My belly… It feels like it’s doing flips.”

“Ahhh!” Bennegraf said adjusting the small pouch at his side. “More than likely, those are your nerves, my boy.”

Layol brushed the bangs of his mahogany mane back over his ears – his hand unsteady.

“I just don’t know that I’m ready for this, Kanja,” Layol said.

Bennegraf placed one of his dark slender hands on the boy’s shoulder and drew him closer.

“You will do fine! You have studied and learned all that I can teach you on this level of mastery,” his Kanja said. “You can manipulate both Fire and Wind Symbiotics… You’ve memorized and mastered all the kicks, throws, and blocks of the Shanrka… I’d hate to be your competition in this test!”

Layol turned his gazed to the endless sea of green blades adorned with the morning dew.

“What if I am tested on knowledge, Kanja?” he asked his mentor.

“Generally, even at this level of the art – they don’t test you in that manner, but if it makes you more at ease… Explain the Symbiotic Theory to me, apprentice,” Bennegraf said.

The adolescent boy bit his lower lip – hoping that a bit of pain would help conjure up the correct answer.

“The Symbiotic Theory of Kanji states that…” Layol raised his sights to the looming thin cylindrical tower in the distance.

“I’m listening, boy,” his master said with a grin.

Layol felt his knees buckle – he thought his legs were going to topple him any moment. What if I give him the wrong answer? What if I did the same in my test? Similar doubtful questions were starting to percolate in the boy’s conscious.

“Uh…” Layol’s mind drew a blank. He fidgeted with a few strands of hair. Then it hit him. “Hah! The Symbiotic Theory of Kanji states that the energy required to manipulate a given elemental must be equal to the energy released by that manipulation.”

“Or..?” Bennegraf rolled an open hand in the brisk spring air.

“…Or the physical and energy foundations of that particular area will dissolve,” Layol said holding his breath in the hopes that he was right.

“Correct!” his master shouted. “Well done, Layol. You see – you are as prepared as you will ever be for this test.”

Layol let out a long sigh of relief – his face lit up with confidence. This would be one of the defining moments in his young career as a student in Kanji. Not to mention open possible avenues into a political seat in the Order of Tallam.

If I can continue to prove my skill and worth to the elders, the boy thought, and then maybe I stand a chance of being inducted into the Order and granted permission to study the higher forms of Kanji.

Layol continued to loll over his future possibilities as he and Bennegraf moved ever closer to Tallam’s Tower. The magnificent structure threatened to scrape the low drifting clouds on this particular morning. The tower itself was hewn from the very mountain that surrounded it. From a distance, an unsuspecting traveler wouldn’t even know that the structure existed at all. As Layol drew nearer to the tower, small holes began to emerge on the surface of the building. The boy imagined that they were windows to the studies of the elders, or perhaps to the virology labs where they devised remedies and cures for the afflicted. The boy’s overactive imagination ran wild on this tangent which was for the better anyway. It took his mind off the great task ahead of him, at least.

The large life-giving sphere of flame that was the Suul had climbed up to crest the hilltops. Layol and his master were now standing in front of a massive set of stone double doors. Bennegraf approached the dark stone entrance, and stood in silence. Not long after, the bust of a cat-like creature manifested itself in the center of the left door. The mouth of the chegna creaked open and greeted the mage.

“Who comes forth to enter the Tower?” the chenga bellowed.

“It is I – Bennegraf,” the old mage said, “and my apprentice, Layol!”

“What business have you here?”

“I have brought my young pupil here for his sparring test,” Bennegraf said.

The bust of the chenga fell silent and motionless for what seemed like an eternity to Layol. Then its mouth opened once more—only this time, it didn’t speak. A small thin blue screen pushed its way forward in the chenga’s widening jaws. The small, almost transparent, screen stopped behind the cat’s long incisors. Bennegraf approached the screen and pressed a number of symbols and figures in rapid succession. The screen receded and the chenga’s mouth fell shut again. Large echoing booms radiated from the other side of the doors as they swung inward before the boy and his Kanja. The plush red carpet at the foot of the long hallway was bathed in the day’s rays.

“Ahh, Bennegraf!” a petite young red-haired woman shouted from a set of doors to Layol and Bennegraf’s left.

“Selan! My dear, how have you been?” the old mage asked.

“Quite well,” Selan answered. “And who is this?” she asked focusing her blue stare on Layol. Layol could sense a flirtatious undertone in the question.

“This,” Bennegraf said patting Layol on the back, “is my young apprentice, Layol. We have come here for his sparring test.”

“Ohh,” she said leering at the boy. “Have you now? What mastery level are you here for?” Selan took the boy by his left wrist and turned his arm over. She studied the parade of tattoos that ended just above Layol’s wrist with the archaic symbol for the fifth level of mastery – one large four-pointed star with a smaller version fixed up and to the right.

“The Sixth, eh?” she asked. “Most impressive for a pupil of your age!”

“Thank you, Madame Kanja,” Layol said in a revered tone.

“You are quite welcome,” Selan replied her voice was seductive. “Well,” she said snapping back into reality, “allow me to take you the Grand Kanja’s quarters. I’m sure he’s expecting you.”

“We would be honored,” Bennegraf said bowing before his senior colleague.

“This way, then,” Selan said turning toward the belly of the mountain.

She led them down to the end of the long corridor. It smelled of decades’ worth of study and hard work. The air was cool and inviting as they made their way deeper into the tower. Selan halted at the last door on the left. It was a small round door constructed of a fine polished wood. Nothing fancy, by any means, but it still managed an air of dignity and wisdom.

“Here we are, gentleman,” she said. “Grand Master Ardymon’s quarters. Best of luck to you in your test, Layol.” With that, Selan swaggered back down the hallway adorned with large tapestries of former Kanji masters on either wall.

Bennegraf rapped on the polished surface of the small door.

“Who goes?” a voice cackled from the other side.

“It is I, Bennegraf – and my apprentice Layol,” the mage said. “We are here for his mastery test.”

“Ahhh, Bennegraf! Come in, come in!” the voice was more upbeat.

The small door swung open and Layol followed his master into the small chamber. Ardymon was an intimidating man of large stature. His long flaxen hair was tied back behind his head. The Grand Master peered into the very soul of the boy with his weathered gray eyes. Layol had no idea what kept him conscious at that moment, because he thought for sure that his world had gone dark.

“Young Layol,” Ardymon said looking down his nose. “An impressive career you have had indeed thus far!”

“Thank you, Grand Kanja,” Layol said – forgetting to breathe.

“Your opposition for this test is a fierce competitor, boy. I will give you the same explanation of the test that I gave to him,” the muscular man bellowed. “You will each be given a small tree to serve as your only – and I emphasize – only – source of energy for Elemental Symbiotics during this test. Once the tree has died – your use of Symbiotics will cease, and you’ll have to rely on hand-to-hand combat skill and weapons alone. So, manipulate your elements wisely, apprentice. As always, the first person to knock their opponent down three times first wins – and graduates to the next level. As always, should you fail this test, you can come back to re-test in one month’s time. Do you understand these regulations as I have explained them to you?”

Layol nodded his head.

“I understand, Grand Kanja.”

“Very well,” Ardymon said. “Then you are dismissed. A room has been prepared for you on the top floor. One of the officials will summon you from there when the elders are ready for the test to commence. Good day, and good luck!”

Layol followed his Kanja back out into the long corridor. They walked a few paces before the tall white-haired man came to a sudden halt. Bennegraf rested his chin in his aged fingers, and stroked the thin patch of hair under his lower lip.

“Hmm… I believe that the switch was in this general area last time,” he turned to Layol, “wasn’t it?”

The boy shrugged. Layol wasn’t even sure that he’d heard his Kanja’s question. Pressure had a way of doing that to him. Bennegraf waived his hand in front of his face, and another small thin screen materialized.

“Hah! I knew it,” the mage said. “Come, my boy.”

Layol twitched his freckled nose and stepped in to Bennegraf’s side. His master pressed a string of buttons, and a small light blue disc appeared under their feet.

“Ready?” the mage asked.

“Yes, Kanja,” Layol replied. His thoughts were elsewhere.

The thin blue disc levitated the two men up toward the ceiling… then through it. They passed on, sailing through several hallways, labs, and study areas before coming to rest next to a small window on an empty floor. Bennegraf stepped off the disc and made his way down the abandoned hall. Layol stayed behind for a moment, as he always did. It had become a little ritual game. Stand on the disc for a little while longer – then see if you could jump off and touch ground before it disintegrated. This time was no different from the others – Layol lost the race. He walked over and looked out the small window. The air was so clear and fresh today that he could see well over the foothills ahead, and out into the reaches of Rymon. The capitol city of Melborne was visible, but barely. Tiny buildings and structures gleamed in the distance. Sicon was a big world – he knew that from his studies in school. He only hoped that he would get to see all of it one day… if his duties of healing and peacekeeping would allow it.

“Layol,” his Kanja interrupted. “Come. We have only a little time left before your test. Let’s practice a little more – to be safe.”

“Oh… My apologies, master. I was just…” the boy began.

Bennegraf started to chuckle. He had almost forgotten what it was like to be a child.

“Think nothing of it, my boy. You were nowhere in the wrong,” the mage said.

Bennegraf opened the door to the small room – and waved his apprentice in. Layol slid between his Kanja and the door frame to the petite room with a single bed, and plopped down on the mattress. The wizened mage pulled the door shut and stood next to him.

“Now,” the boy’s mentor began, “fall into your meditative state, and we’ll work on your strategy.”

Layol closed his eyes and took slow deep deliberate lung-filling breaths. The realm of reality around him melted away into a serene shifting pool of color and light.

“Excellent,” the mage said. “Now, go through each and every move of your attack strategies. Take them very slow… feel each muscle shifting beneath your skin. Good…”

His master’s voice faded into the swirling spectrum around him. Layol was, in his mind’s eye, taking the test at that very moment.

Knock… Knock… Knock…

“Layol?” a voice on the other side of their door asked.

The boy slid back into consciousness with speed and ease.

“Is it time?” Bennegraf asked.

“Yes,” the voice said. “Please report to the gardens on the upper platform for the test.”

“Thank you… We will be there in moments,” the mage said.

“To the roof, boy,” his Kanja said.

A high-pitched gong was ringing in even intervals as the lanky boy made his way through the gates. They were large stone arches coated in leafy green foliage. His opponent was standing on the far side of the gardens, awaiting Layol’s arrival. The boy made his way onto the soft green turf and stopped on the red line in the short grass. The gong rang a single time… the muscular man that was Layol’s competitor and himself turned and bowed to the elders seated on a platform overlooking the gardens. The gong rang again… they turned to face one another, and bowed in respect. On the next sound of the gong, the two assumed their defensive postures – Layol crouched with one arm angled over his head and the other in front of him – his competitor flexed his fists forward to form a diamond with his arms. The two started to circle one another like hungry cats. Then the man launched an assault.

He came rushing in on Layol’s right flank, and leaped into the air, spinning as he elevated. The boy anticipated what was to come and ducked to the turf missing the foot cutting through the air. Once his opponent had one foot on the ground, Layol swiped his right leg around to take the man’s foundation out. The husky man fell to the grass with an audible thud.

The gong sounded… the official in his white garb raised an arm over Layol. The two competitors stood back on their lines… the gong resonated again.

The tree behind Layol’s opponent started to waiver as the man drew on its energy. The boy shifted back and forth on his feet awaiting the man’s move. The dark-haired man brought his open hands into his chest, and throughst them out toward the boy… A forceful blast of wind swept through the gardens knocking over the smaller shrubs and statues. Layol moved to the side and drew his hands into his chest. The gust of his competitor teetered him as he tried to raise his arms over his head… The wind’s force was too great – Layol toppled to the ground. They returned to their lines once more, and on the tone, re-engaged. This time the boy’s opposition ran at him head on. Layol stretched his arms out to his sides, and then above his head in one swift motion. A small orb of glowing yellow light formed between his palms. When his contender got within a few paces of him, Layol throughst his hands at the man releasing the orb. It struck the man square in the chest and stopped him stunned in his tracks. Layol rushed in for the quick kick to the face for the second take down. The two moved to their lines a third time, and upon the toll, started again.

The man was now flustered and angry. He ran to the rack of weaponry against the wall at his back and took a sword. Before Layol could turn to get to his own, the man was charging him – the blade raised over his thick shoulders. Right before his competitor swung the blade, Layol stretched his legs as wide as he could, and fell to the grass. The man wasn’t fooled, though, swinging the blade down to split the boy’s skull in half. Layol lowered his head – his eyes went shut… The world went into darkness – then to the pool of colors. The sound of a rushing torrent grew louder and louder… until it began to shake the boy. When the sound had reached its peak, Layol clapped his hands together. When he opened his eyes, the blade of the sword was clutched between his open hands. Layol began a low guttural chant, and shortly thereafter, the blade started to melt.

The boy grabbed the hilt of the ruined weapon and throughst its blunt side into the forehead of the stout man. His opponent staggered backward and collapsed to the ground unconscious. The gong rang a final time. The elders above the gardens stood and bowed to the boy. Layol returned the salute, and then jumped in the air unable to contain his excitement.

“Congratulations, Layol!” Ardymon shouted. “Let it be known throughout all of Sicon that on this day, Layol, apprentice of Bennegraf, has attained mastery on the final of the lower levels of the art! Layol, as a mage, you may elect to enter into the Order to study the higher levels of mastery – Do you enter?”

“Yes, Master Kanja – I elect to enter!” the boy shouted back – his voice full of life.

“Then, Brother Layol – report to the Engraver to receive your mark. We feast in your honor at sundown!”

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