All she had for light was the sliver of morning sun through the gap in the shutters but that didn’t bother Iona. The darkness aided her concentration. She sat cross-legged on the bed and stared at the silver ball nestled among the sheets. The only sound was of her slow and heavy breathing. In that moment, her world consisted of the room, the bed, and the ball, and nothing else.
It was early. She still wore the clothes she’d awoken in. Her hair was a mess of wayward vines and twisted branches. Almost as soon as she awoke, she set to work: eyes narrowed, brow furrowed, lips pursed with intent. She’d been staring at the ball for a few minutes. She neither blinked nor looked away. With deep breaths through her nose, Iona cleared the thoughts from her mind. There could be no distractions.
The minutes ticked by but nothing happened. Her eyes were watering and her knees ached but she continued. She stared long and hard, battling the urge relieve her eyes of their itchiness. But despite her best efforts, still nothing happened. Her patience was wearing thin. Frustration grew like her discomfort. She wouldn’t give up so easily.
Iona’s eyes widened when the ball left the bed. Frustration instantly morphed into excitement. She couldn’t help but crack a smile. Up and up it went before coming to a stop and refusing to ascend any further. It hung in front of her face, as if on a string too thin for the naked eye to perceive. She could have stopped there. She’d already achieved something great. But it wasn’t good enough, not for her. She wanted it to reach the ceiling, and she wouldn’t stop until it did.
Iona pressed on, even as rivers ran down her cheeks and her eyes itched like there were feathers tickling them. Her stare turned into a scowl. She couldn’t understand it. She’d done better before. Why not this time? Her eyes begged for relief, but she kept going. She didn’t care how long it took. She wouldn’t let herself be beaten. She couldn’t.
Her concentration was shattered by the loud buzz that made her jump and the ball fell back to its original spot among the folds. Iona rubbed her eyes and stretched her legs. She could have done it. If only she’d been allowed to hold on a bit longer. The silence returned for a moment, then she heard a voice from outside.
“Iona? Are you up”?
She sighed. “Yeah. Come in”.
The door slid aside and the light flooded in, practically blinding her.
“Are you alright”? the familiar voice asked.
Her mentor, Sahel, was standing in the doorway, enveloped in the light of the corridor. He didn’t look like he believed her. “Are you sure”?
“Yeah”. Iona looked away, not wishing him to see the redness of her eyes.
Sahel crossed the threshold and she felt the touch of his finger on her chin, then the gentle pull of his arm as he lifted her head. “Your eyes”.
“It’s just my allergies”, Iona lied. She had no allergies, none she was aware of at least.
Sahel looked to the ball, then back to her. “You’ve been practising again, haven’t you”?
Iona said nothing, looked to her feet. She was in trouble now.
“Unsupervised practice is strictly forbidden, Miss Aventius. You know that”. Iona nodded. “Do you know why that is”?
She nodded again. She’d never liked getting into trouble. Even at eighteen, she would shrivel up whenever told off.
“Why is it”? He knew she knew the answer. He just wanted to hear her say it, to reinforce his point.
“Because we can hurt ourselves”.
“And others. I’m sorry. I just…” Iona trailed off, not sure what else to say. She was a good person, but she often found it difficult to follow the rules.
Sahel sat down beside her, placed a hand on her shoulder. “I understand. I’ve taught many arcanists and many of them were just like you: ambitious, determined, stubborn. They wanted to be the best they could possibly be, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they wanted it all straight away, no patience whatsoever. Does that sound familiar”?
She could only nod. He had her figured out.
Sahel sighed. “I’m sorry, Iona. It doesn’t work like that. Learning to use this power you have is a long and difficult process and requires many things, patience being one of the most important”.
Iona felt like she could cry. “I just want to be as good as you”. Another lie. She didn’t want to be as good as Sahel. She wanted to be better. She wanted to be the best there’d ever been.
“I know you do, and you will be”. The grip at her shoulder tightened slightly. “But only if you have patience. The rules are there for a reason. You have to allow the ability to harness your power develop naturally through structured and supervised practice. You can’t force your powers to grow. Many have tried and it has seldom ended well. Do you understand”?
She met his eyes. “Yes. I understand. I’m sorry”. Sahel was a wise man. It was always a good idea to listen to him, even if the things he had to say were sometimes difficult or even painful to hear.
Sahel patted her on the shoulder, smiled. “Good. Now I need you to promise you won’t do this anymore. Using Arcana by yourself while you are at this stage is very dangerous, and there are harsh penalties for those who break the rules”.
“I know. I won’t do it again. I promise”. She’d always done her best to keep her promises, but she wasn’t sure if she would be able to this time. The feelings that came with exercising arcane power were intoxicating, addicting even. The more she experienced, the more she craved.
Sahel patted her again, then stood up. “Good. Now why don’t you get dressed and we’ll go and collect Boltan for some structured and supervised practice”.
The sounds rising from beneath the sheets reminded Iona of how she imagined a broken lawnmower to sound. She watched, sniggering, from her spot in the doorway as Sahel crept into the darkened room, crouched by the bed, and slid his arm under the covers from where the beastly noises emanated. She bit her lip in anticipation, the frustration of a few minutes ago having vanished completely. There was silence, then broken by a loud zap as if from an electrical discharge, followed by a pained shriek that sounded anything but human. Boltan Sleck sat upright, quilt falling away to reveal bulging orange eyes and an inhuman face twisted in horror.
“That’s not funny! That really hurt”.
“Don’t be such a baby”, Iona managed through her laughter.
“I was sleeping”.
“Practice begins at nine AM sharp, Mr Sleck. You know that”. He might have sounded stern but Iona knew Sahel wasn’t really angry. He always seemed to have a laidback attitude and only got truly angry when his students did something really insane.
Boltan sighed, rubbing his eyes. “Alright. Give me a minute”. Boltan wasn’t human, as you would tell as soon as you took one look at him. He may have had two arms and legs, a torso, neck, and head, but the similarities ended there. His dark brown skin was as thick and tough as leather and he had a very long and wide face whose halves protruded from the rest of his head and met in the middle to form a prominent ridge from which his eyes jutted. Below on each side was a tube-shaped structure that acted as a nose and, further down, a mouth similar to a human’s but wider and more monstrous-looking. He was rather tall and muscular, as was typical for members of the Iringroat race.
Boltan took his time getting ready (as usual), and it was closer to ten AM when they set off. Iona stayed close to Sahel but Boltan dragged behind. They followed the path down the hill from the Selson Academy for the Arcane towards the forest that encircled it. One of many throughout the galaxy, the Selson Academy for the Arcane was a place where those “blessed” with the “gift” of arcane power could learn to use their abilities safely, and with as little chance of hurting anyone as possible. Arcana, the little understood and widely feared supernatural force had become not much more than a nuisance in a galaxy that embraced technology as the answer to its needs, all those with the ability to harness its mysterious and often dangerous power mostly shunned and distrusted wherever they went. By the law of the Confederacy, those exhibiting signs of arcane ability were required to be formally trained at an academy like the one on Selson, forbidden from leaving until it was clear they were no longer a threat to the rest of the galaxy.
It had been nearly three months since Iona arrived at the academy on the forest-covered moon. She hadn’t traveled far, hailing from its host planet: Valarayan, the capital world of the Human Sovereignty. Her homeworld hung above them like a giant blue-tinged pearl in the sky. So far, Iona had mostly enjoyed her time at the academy. It was a nice enough place and she got along well with the other students. The only thing she didn’t like were all the rules they had to follow. There were so many she sometimes felt like she was suffocating. The academy consisted of only one building, the great metal trapezoid dominating the hilltop in the middle of one of the many forests across the moon’s surface. All around it was nothing but green. Everywhere Iona looked, all she saw was a dense wall of trees, an impenetrable ocean of green. The only thing that wasn’t green (apart from the academy and the sky) was the starship floating nearby like a great metal cloud. It turned up the day before though Iona hadn’t seen any of the occupants. It was a naval ship according to the address from the Head Instructor. They were told it and its crew would likely be there for only a day or two, but nothing else. All they knew was to stay out of their way. Iona was fine with that. She just wished they could have parked their ship somewhere else. It really spoiled the view from her window.
It was a dull day on the forest moon. The sky matched the colour of the academy. The dark clouds let forth a gentle spray. The weather didn’t bother Iona but Boltan complained to no end, like always.
“It’s raining. Can’t we train inside today”?
“The forest offers more peaceful surroundings to better aid in the focusing of the mind”, Sahel replied. “As I’ve explained multiple times, Mr Sleck. A little rain will do you no harm”.
“But what about the tribals? I was talking to Matva Kulo yesterday. She said they’d been seen closer to the academy”. Within minutes of meeting her, Iona learned to take whatever their fellow student Matva said with a pinch of salt.
“The Mahleeka are not happy with our presence, but they have always kept their distance and, rest assured, we are well protected. I doubt they will be bothering us today”. The Mahleeka were the primitive natives of Selson. Iona had never seen one, but she’d heard much about them. Violent and territorial, they didn’t like anyone encroaching on their territory. She couldn’t help but wonder about the wisdom of building an arcane academy on a world populated by angry and hostile natives, but then she remembered the galaxy’s attitude toward people like her. There wasn’t much in the way of human population on Selson. Just a few small settlements as far as she knew. The government didn’t like allowing arcane academies on populated worlds, and Selson was the only moon of Valarayan with viable living conditions. As long as they were swept under the rug, the government was happy to pretend those with arcane power didn’t exist at all.
Boltan gave up on his complaining, though not without a final exaggerated sigh. Iona smirked. She always found him amusing. Despite being a bit older than her, Boltan Sleck seemed to have a child-like innocence about him, like he needed to be taken care of. She wasn’t sure what he was doing on Selson. The Iringroat Sovereignty had no shortage of arcane academies, and there weren’t many of his kind there, or many non-humans for that matter. She thought to ask why he was so far from home, but then realized maybe the reason she didn’t know was because he wanted it that way.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about, Boltan. The forest is lovely”. She always delighted in lightly teasing him.
“If by lovely you mean cold, wet, and dangerous then I totally agree”. Iona laughed. He could be so pathetic. Boltan would only continue his moaning as they left the path and headed toward the wall of trees. Iona stayed close to Sahel but he moseyed far behind.
They schlepped through the forest, ducking under low branches and stepping over the trunks of fallen trees. The ground squelched beneath their feet. Before long, Iona’s were soaked along with the bottoms of her jeans. She didn’t care. She liked walking in the rain. That was one of the reasons she enjoyed having Sahel for an instructor. He was the only one who took students into the forest to train, although, from what she’d heard, the other instructors weren’t too happy about it. They preferred to confine their students to the teaching rooms within the academy. Iona knew she would have hated that. She hated being stuck inside for ages, and had always had a love for the outdoors. The soft ground beneath her feet, the wind brushing past her skin, the patter of rain on her head. The song of the forest fluttered through the trees. The sounds and calls of the creatures that called it home melded into a messy chorus though most remained elusive. Iona would often lose herself in the sounds to the point of forgetting about her destination. As she followed her mentor, she allowed them to carry her into a world of her own, only to be snapped back to reality by the rustling of leaves and the wailing of Boltan as he tripped and went tumbling down an embankment.
The trees thinned, then gave way to a clearing with a large boulder at the centre. “This’ll do just fine”, Sahel said. Iona agreed. It looked so peaceful here, the kind of place she loved to be. Boltan looked like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Sahel wasted no time starting the lesson. Iona lounged atop the boulder, watching as Boltan stared at a smaller rock lying among the grass, neither blinking nor averting his eyes. He’d been like that for a few minutes and was clearly experiencing the same discomfort she had earlier. Iona wanted to call out and give him some encouragement but resisted. It would only make it harder to concentrate.
“Nothing’s happening”, Boltan complained as his frustration got the better of him.
“And nothing will continue to happen if you don’t shut up and focus”, Sahel answered. He could be harsh at times, but Iona understood the need for their mentor to sometimes push his students. If one isn’t willing to push themselves then it is easy to stagnate.
“I am focusing”.
“Not hard enough. Don’t let yourself be overcome by your frustrations. Use your surroundings. I didn’t bring you here just to see you suffer. There’s a deeper reason. Listen to the sounds of the forest: the wind, the trees, the creatures. Focus on these things and they will help you clear your mind and focus on the task at hand”. Iona loved Sahel’s words of wisdom. She could spend hours listening to him go on about clearing one’s mind and finding peace and tranquility in one’s environment.
Boltan went quiet, apparently following his mentor’s advice. A couple minutes passed until something finally happened. Iona’s face lit up when she saw the rock leave the grass. It pleased her to see her friend push himself and have his efforts rewarded. Boltan seemed more and more exhausted by the moment but he held on. The rock rose to about his height where it hung for a couple seconds before he lost control and it fell back to the ground. Boltan collapsed to his hands and knees with it.
Sahel dashed to over to him. “That was the best I’ve seen yet from you”, he told him as helped him to his feet. “I’m proud of you, Boltan”.
“I think I’m going to be sick”, Boltan groaned. Using arcane power took a toll not only on the mind but the body too. At their level, moving a rock was like trying to move a mountain.
“Let’s just sit down over here for a while”. Sahel led Boltan toward the boulder. “Your turn, Iona”.
Iona leapt from the boulder and strode confidently to where Boltan had just stood “Well done”, she told him, brushing a hand over his shoulder as she passed. She thought she heard him say thanks between breaths.
Iona fixed on the rock, going over the advice Sahel gave Boltan as she took up position. She used the sounds of the forest to clear her mind and strengthen her focus, thinking only of the rock ascending from its spot, higher and higher, as high as the tops of the trees, then even higher. She listened to the wind, leaves, and animals, let them take up her burdens and carry them away. Soon, her world was only herself, the clearing, and the rock, and nothing else.
The minutes crawled and her eyes began to dry out again. She wouldn’t give in. She’d held on longer before. She could do it again. But the rock wouldn’t budge either. Her patience dwindled as frustration crept into her head. Tears started to flow. She wouldn’t give up, not in front of Sahel and Boltan.
Iona felt a rush when she saw the rock move. Relief dulled her discomfort, frustration remedied by satisfaction. The exertion of her mind was taking its toll on her body. She felt like she’d ran a marathon. It rose to about her waist, then returned to the ground. Iona could have screamed.
She kept her eyes trained on the rock. Now it felt like she really was lifting a mountain. She could almost feel what little energy she had left being drained away as if by some malevolent creature whose fangs were sunk deep into her flesh. She didn’t know how much longer she could hold on for.
“I think that’s enough for now, Iona”, Sahel called.
“I’m fine”, she called back. She knew she could do better.
“You can rest for a few minutes”.
“I said I’m fine”.
Her cheeks were like rain running down a window. Her head felt like it was being sawn in half. The rock moved again but only a little. Iona pushed herself to make one final effort, but it was too much. The rock returned to the grass and she dropped to her hands and knees, anger boiling inside. She heard footsteps approaching, then felt Sahel’s arms around her.
“It’s alright. Don’t worry about it”, he told her as he lifted her to her feet. She knew he meant well but his words only made the fire inside burn hotter. With the strength she had left, Iona ripped herself from her mentor’s arms, then let out the loudest scream she could.
She stormed toward the forest, only to make it a few steps before falling again. It took every effort not to burst into tears, now embarrassed as well as angry.. She failed, then acted like a child in front of her friends. That was no way for an arcanist to behave. She couldn’t even look at them. She heard footsteps again. They stopped a few feet from where she knelt.
“I don’t understand. I was doing it before”.
“We all have bad days”, Sahel replied. “More so in the beginning. It’s frustrating but also something you have to accept”. More words of wisdom that were painful to swallow.
Iona couldn’t hold her tears back any longer. Learning to use Arcana was like learning any new skill; it was normal to be ropey in the early stages. But she couldn’t accept that. It was meant to be different for her. All she could think was there was something wrong with her.
Sahel knelt beside her. “I was like you once. I was ambitious and impatient and I did what you did just now. I pushed myself hard and ran myself ragged because I wanted to be the greatest, most powerful arcanist in the galaxy. Look at me”.
She couldn’t, not after how she’d behaved.
“Look at me, Iona”. She lifted her head to see her mentor looking down at her, smiling that warm smile of his. “Do I look like the most powerful arcanist in the galaxy to you”?
Iona didn’t say it, but she had to admit her mentor looked nothing like how she pictured a powerful master arcanist to be. All she saw was an unassuming little human with olive skin and black curly hair, nothing remarkable whatsoever. She got the point. Maybe’s she had been pushing herself too hard and expecting too much from herself.
“You want to be the greatest arcanist in the galaxy. I know. I can tell from the way you carry yourself, the way you push yourself, and refuse to let yourself be beaten. But like so many others, you want to be greatest right away, and that is not going to happen. Learning to use Arcana properly is a long and never-ending prospect. I’m still learning things, and so are all the other instructors. We’ll probably never know everything there is to know”.
It was difficult to imagine Sahel ever being anything like her. Iona could only see the same wise, easy-going man kneeling beside her. She’d have to take his word that he was once anywhere near as ambitious or impatient as her.
“If you are ever to become an arcanist, one of the most important things you must do is accept that it is not going to happen overnight, no matter how hard you push yourself. Forcing yourself too hard and then punishing yourself when you are not successful will only hold you back. Do you remember what I told you earlier”?
She always made an effort to remember the advice Sahel gave her. The problem was he gave so much it was difficult to know exactly what he was referring to.
“Learning to use Arcana takes time, just like everything else. You will have good days and bad and sometimes you will fail. All you can do is rise above your frustration and carry on. Do you understand”?
Iona nodded. “Yes”. He was right. Sahel was always right.
“Good. Now let us rest. We will continue in a little while”. He stood up and offered her his hand. “And no more swearing. It’s not becoming of a young lady such as yourself”.
Sahel headed for the boulder but Iona stayed where she was, still feeling sorry for herself. His words made her feel better but she couldn’t help but wonder if she had what it took to become what she wanted to be, to repay them for everything they did for her. He turned back to her.
“It will get easier, Iona. I promise”.
“Will it”? It seemed no amount of encouragement could relieve the doubt festering within her.
Sahel smiled, and then Boltan jumped to his feet in fright. Iona watched, wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the boulder rose, never once stopping or falling back. It was much bigger than it initially appeared, well over half having been hidden beneath the ground. It kept going until it floated almost as high as the treeline but Sahel only continued to smile at her, seeming to not even notice.