A flinging blade crashes down onto his. He struggled against the pressure, doing his best to keep it off. But, in less than a few seconds after the oppression began, he already felt his legs trembling. As he focused on maintaining his grip over his blade, and therefore the opponent’s weapon off his neck, he felt his legs give out.
Helplessly, he felt himself fall to his knees. But he couldn’t be defeated. He couldn’t let himself get defeated. With as much strength as he could muster, he pushed back against the incoming blade. Sweat trailed down his temple. His arms wouldn’t hold out much longer, not with this constant unrelenting pressure.
Clink, he stared in shock as his sword flew out of his hand and crashed into the ground beside him. Looking back at his masked opponent, he found that the man had the sword pressed against his neck. In his focus on his own weapon, he hadn’t felt the cold steel make contact with his skin.
“We’re done today.” The man said, sheathing his blade, and helping him up.
He let out a sigh of disappointment. It had already been a year since he’d started practicing, yet he was already behind all of those that have just joined the past month.
The others were already able to sustain the consistent pressure for an entire hour. But even after months of practicing, he was still barely able to maintain his defense for even five minutes. He was the senior disciple, yet his performance was worse than the newest junior disciple.
Dejected, he picked up his fallen blade. Staring briefly at his reflection, he put it away. He wondered if anything had changed since he’d left. His parents, his brothers, his sisters. He wondered if they were happy.
All the other students were able to return home for the holidays. His performance over the past year has been too disappointing. Even if his teacher let him leave, he couldn’t waste a holiday slacking off on his practice. How would he ever catch up with the others if he let himself rest? Furthermore, he couldn’t imagine how much worse he’d get if he dared to stop for so long.
Practice was a necessary part to skill maintenance and improvement. Everyone knew that. But he’d been practicing everyday, in every instance of free time. He stared into the distance, where the other disciples trained. They were making so much progress. What was he doing wrong?
He sighed. In the afternoon, everyone would be going back home to see their families. The mountains would be empty for a month, as the others travel back home, spend time with family, and travel back. Holding out his hands before him, he stared into his open palms. Others might’ve said that he’d been slacking, but the calluses proved otherwise.
So then, why? Why was it that equal effort didn’t lead to equal results? Silently, he watched as they packed away their weapons. Most of the others had already started to pack their things for the holidays. Now, it looked like these last few were leaving as well. It wasn’t surprising. Holidays were rare enough as they were. Choosing not to take advantage of the rare events almost felt wasteful.
As wasteful as it was, he was going to stay. Nothing would convince him otherwise. Not even the recent longing for his family, with everyone talking about their families and the holidays. A twinge of regret washed over him. He lowered his eyes to the ground, he wasn’t going to let his emotions sway him.
A hand clapped over his shoulder. He looked up to find one of the students that had been practicing before him.
“Senior, you’re staying again this year?” The other disciple asked.
“No. Not this year.” He answered, forcing a smile to his face. The other boy was probably one of the friendliest of the newer disciples. While others would openly laugh and mock the less skilled, he never observed such behavior from the boy. Even if the other boy participated in gossiping, at least it wasn’t done straight in his face. “I’m staying to practice.”
“You sure work hard, Senior.” The other boy observed. “Why not practice at home for a bit? That way you can visit your family and get the benefit of practicing.”
“I think it’s better this way.” He replied wistfully. “But, I already told you several times, you don’t need to address me as Senior. Your skills are already far superior to mine.”
“But you are my Senior.” The other disciple answered, cocking his heed to the side curiously. “You entered the school before I did.”
“Nevermind, forget it.” He replied, waving his hand. Then, smiling, he changed the subject. “You should hurry and pack, before the train leaves.”
“Right!” The boy gasped, putting a hand over his lips, before breaking into a sprint. “Thanks for reminding me!”
“No problem. Hope you enjoy your time off!” He shouted after the boy.
He shook his head at the other boy’s innocence. Such purity was rare around here, especially when most students joined the schools with ambitions or for some other ulterior purpose. He couldn’t even personally count himself out of that group, given that he’d applied to the school intent on taking advantage of the perks that the school offered its students, including the financial support it would provide his family while he remained in attendance.
After he was sure that the other boy left, he turned for his own room. Throwing himself over his mattress, he closed his eyes, in thought. He’d be alone on the mountain again. This time even the teacher planned to be away. For the first time since he abandoned his family for life in the mountains, he’d truly be alone. He let out a sigh as he opened his eyes. Perhaps that was a good sign. At least, no one would be around to laugh at his mistakes or discuss his inability.
Sitting up, he picked up the last manual he’d been reading. If he remembered correctly, it was one of the fundamental texts that all potential applicants in his village studied before seeking approval from the school. At least, that’s what he’d heard from rumors anyways. Not that any of that concerned him at the time.
He hadn’t even considered applying until a few moments before the applications closed. Even then, he hadn’t considered the possibility of actually receiving an acceptance notice. His application had been thrown together last minute without any review or prior preparation. His village celebrated him as a genius and prodigy when the news spread. Truth was, his family had fallen into extreme debt, and he had only applied out of desperation when they’d tried to take his sister. Everyone knew that debt collectors only wanted money and feared whatever the man in the mountains had up his sleeve.
His application had been a joke that the school humored. For that, he was grateful. For that reason alone, he wouldn’t give up, even if the school decided one day that his poor performance wasn’t worth the funding they sent his family. He wouldn’t give up until the day that the school deemed him no longer worthy and fully gave up on him. He wouldn’t give up even if reality proved time and time again that he wasn’t worth their approval. Until the moment the school gave up on him, he would do his best to repay their support, even if he knew that he had no talent in the art.
He’d been reading the manual and practicing the methods listed within its pages for over a month now, but he saw no progress. If today’s assessment was anything to judge by, he’d basically made no progress since picking up the text. He’d originally suspected that he was somehow lacking in the basics, due to his haphazard entry into the school, but it made essentially no difference in his practice. He looked down at the pages dejectedly. At this point, he wasn’t sure how he could improve.
He closed his eyes, trying to focus. Everyone else seemed to tell him that the key to progress was relaxing, but it was easier said than done. He normally had difficulty calming his nerves with the constant concern that someone would unexpectedly come seek him. But, with no one around, it couldn’t hurt to give the method a shot. He took a deep breath. He might’ve been a human, he might’ve been useless at home, he might’ve been a failure as a student, but the least he could do is try.
Suddenly, he felt a warm tingle pass through his torso and travel through his arms. He focused on the sensation, as it converged at the palms of his hands. At that moment, a knock shook his door, and his eyes burst open. What he saw left his hands trembling as a cold but familiar fear washed through him. No. It couldn’t be. He found himself staring at the blue flames dancing over his skin.
A searing pain ripped through his shaking hands, as soon as he realized what was happening. Panicked, he jumped off of the bed, crashing into a nearby vase and knocking it off of the window sill. He was human. He couldn’t have. Furthermore, he was the worst of all the students, no less. It was an irrefutable fact. His hands quivered, as he clutched his head in disbelief. There was no way that he could have. There’s no way…
He shook his head violently, forcing himself to calm down. Returning his attention to his hands, he found himself closing his eyes and breathing a sigh of relief. Whatever that was… Whatever he saw… it was gone. Perhaps it was never there to begin with. He must’ve let his desire for improvement get to his head. It was impossible for him to achieve that state.
According to his teacher, only the lucky… only those that could be described as prodigies had a chance of directly conjuring elements in their early stages of training. He couldn’t possibly be a prodigy. Not with his rate of progress anyway. Furthermore, summoning an element accidentally? Unheard of.
He found himself breathing easier the more he thought about it. he couldn’t be a prodigy. Therefore, he couldn’t have possibly conjured an element. Whatever he saw couldn’t have possibly been the flame from his memories. It must’ve been his imagination. There was no other reasonable explanation for it. In his craze to improve himself, he must’ve caused some type of deviation that left him hallucinating. That had to be it. Yes. That had to be what happened.
“Senior!” A voice cried from beyond the door, followed by a loud and urgent banging. “Is everything alright in there?”
“Yes! Everything is fine!” He shouted, straightening and heading for the door. Pulling the doors open, he was greeted by the student from earlier. “I just stumbled and accidentally knocked down a few things.”
“That’s good to hear.” The boy answered, clearly relieved to see him.
“So, what are you still doing here?” He asked. The boy should’ve left for his train already.
“I just wanted to stop by and say goodbye before I left.” The boy responded, sheepishly scratching his head.
“Thanks for stopping by.” He replied with a smile. It’s been a While since anyone had expressed any sort of genuine concern for him. As one of the most useless students in the school, most ignored his existence. “But you should really go now if you want to catch the train at all. You should know that it doesn’t stop by our mountains often… Unless you’re planning on spending vacation with me this year!”
“Right! Of course!” The boy answered, before turning and breaking into a sprint. He lifted an arm as he ran. “Hope you enjoy your break too! See you when I get back!”
He grinned, shaking his head. The child really didn’t understand how to fit into social circles, did he? Hanging out with the ostracized wasn’t going to do the boy any favors. Still, he appreciated the rare sentiment. He shook his head again, as he returned to his room, closing the door behind him. He would need to have a talk with the other student whenever the child returned from vacation. It would be good for the lad to learn the local social etiquette.
He should get back to practicing, every passing moment without putting an effort was a moment wasted. His eyes flashed back at his hand. Perhaps he should first assess the extent of the damage incurred by the deviation. He’d heard that unguided practicing immediately after a deviation could worsen the state and lead to costly consequences. Thinking about it, he’d never had a deviation before attempting the meditative concentration route. Perhaps he wasn’t doing something right. Or perhaps those that gave him the suggestion were messing with him.
Given his low popularity in the school, he wouldn’t put the possibility behind some of his most judgemental peers. It looked like he wasn’t going to be practicing via that route until he had a chance to consult his teacher about the particular form of practice. So, until vacation ended, he supposed he would continue practicing the methods suggested in the manual. That is, after he confirmed that the deviation wasn’t a threat.
It occurred to him then that he’d never consulted his teacher for a way to deal with deviation. Having never experienced one before, it had never occurred to him to ask. But, he couldn’t wait till after vacation to ask. That was much too long. Too much wasted time. Perhaps, he was over thinking things. As far as he immediately could tell, he felt fine. Checking his pulse and temperature told him that nothing was out of the ordinary. He didn’t feel particularly mentally unhinged either. Not that he could verify that.
He sighed, it was getting relatively late. He threw himself onto the bed. He’d stop by the library tomorrow morning. Perhaps there were more useful resources about deviation there. He closed his eyes. For now, he’d sleep.