Something chimed from the top of the hill, carried to Theresa’s ears by the late summer wind. The air was fresh and warm but inside, she felt cold.
Theresa Lu—great-granddaughter of Twinblade Lu—was almost as scared as when that giant insect monster had come rising from the dark beneath The Traveller’s sanctum. Taking a deep breath, she glanced at her little map of Generasi’s campus—looking at the spot on the green that LIFE-1075: Lifeforce Enforcement I was supposed to be held, if the day turned out to be sunny—before looking back up the hill.
A single immense tree rose from the hilltop and she could see a number of students already gathered there, with even more climbing the slope. Steadying herself, she wished she’d brought her great-grandfather’s sword along. Its solid hilt would have given her something to anchor herself.
She’d even left Brutus with Alex—who was back home watching both her dog and his sister before his class later in the morning—and hoped they were getting along. Brutus would have been a source of support, but today, she needed to do this alone. She started up the slope.
Other students were gathered all over the hill. Some were standing and looking around like they didn’t know what to do. Others had already sat down on blankets or cushions they’d brought to class with them, looking expectantly at the instructor.
Professor Kabbot-Xin was seated cross legged beneath the tree, and one look at her actually made Theresa gasp. She was old; something about her just seemed ancient. It wasn’t just her appearance—even though her face was crisscrossed by wrinkles and her hair was as white as a winter day after a snowstorm—it was something more. The way her breath seemed to be absent. The peace across her face.
Between her and the healthy tree above, Theresa would have guessed that the woman was older. It didn’t seem possible, but the last month had opened her eyes to all sorts of new possibilities.
She thought back to when she was a young girl, during those first few times she’d ventured beyond Alric’s walls and the roads into the trees of Coille. It had been like the world exploded: her whole life in town just seemed tiny compared to the endless sea of trees and green fields surrounding it. As a child, she had imagined that those trees and meadows had spread forever, and that she would never see another town again if she kept walking.
Of course, she knew even then that wasn’t true. Her mother and father had told her about other towns, cities, roads and even the sea to the south—across which her uncle lived. Over time, the world had shrunk as her family took her farther from Alric and she had explored Coille.
She quickly learned that that endless forest world had been really just a small patch of wildland in a country that had mostly been tamed. Stories of her great-grandfather’s adventures had promised a larger world.
A world she was now seeing with her own eyes.
Portals to other realms she couldn’t imagine.
Magic and monsters and even moving benches.
The world was a vast place, and she was learning not to assume too much about it too quickly. Here, where birds talked and benches walked? It was easy to believe that a woman could be older than a giant tree.
Finding a patch of grass on the edge of the hill, she sat down cross-legged like some of the others, wishing she had brought a blanket. A young woman seated in front of her turned around when she did. She paled for a moment.
Theresa’s face was doing that thing again that tended to creep people out.
She tried to soften it and gave the woman a nod of acknowledgement. She had similar features to hers and her familys’, and she wondered if she too had Tarim-Lung ancestry.
She gave Theresa a little bow and then—to her horror—started speaking in Tarimite, the language of her great-grandfather’s country folk. “Hello.”
She froze, trying desperately to remember what she knew of the language. Only her grandfather had spoken it regularly in the house. “Yes, uh…hello,” she stammered back.
“Ah, are you from Tarim-Lung?”
“Uh, no, I’m uh from Thameland,” she said in Common, then tried to add in Tarimite: “I…don’t speak…Tarimite…good…”
The young woman smiled expectantly and then began talking very, very fast while Theresa tried to follow. She only caught the words: ‘day’, ‘good’, ‘Tarim-Lung’ and ‘expect’. Inside, she was screaming.
“Day…good…” she tried to say.
The young woman continued to smile expectantly.
“Don’t…speak…” she muttered, then added in Common: “Oh, Uldar, help me.”
“Uldar? Who is Uldar?” the young woman asked.
“God…Thameland…” She strongly considered burrowing into the earth like a mole.
Then a chime sounded, and the young woman smiled and turned toward the tree.
She thanked Uldar, The Traveller, Ek-u-Dari and any other deity that might have been listening.
Professor Kabbot-Xin slowly opened her eyes and took a breath that seemed to last a lifetime. “Good morning class, and welcome to the first seminar of LIFE-1075: Life Enforcement I.” Her eyes scanned the students. “All forty of you have arrived. Good to see so much interest this year, it always warms the spirit when I see the young come for the teachings of my mother’s homeland.”
Her eyes glanced to the school. “In a few minutes, my teacher’s assistants will bring the testing bowls and the medical supplies, and we can begin testing your affinity. Before we begin though, can someone tell me what their understanding of lifeforce enforcement is?”
A short young man with long brown hair quickly raised his hand.
“Olaf!” the young man said brightly. “Life Enforcement is based off of qigong—the art of cultivating one’s life-energy, which originated in Tarim-Lung—which practitioners use to advance themselves and grow closer to becoming immortals and gods. That’s why it’s a form of Divinity.”
The professor waited for a few long heartbeats, making sure he was finished before she answered. “I can see you have some familiarity, Mr. Olaf. Unfortunately, you are only partially correct.”
She turned her attention back to the entire class. “Mr. Olaf said that Lifeforce Enforcement is based on life-energy cultivation, which is true. It is also true that the art was created in Tarim-Lung as a form of health promotion. Unfortunately, life-energy cultivation is no path to immortality. If you have come here with thoughts of transcendence, godhood, immortality and splitting the heavens with a tempered fist, then I am afraid you will be sorely disappointed.”
Theresa blinked in surprise. Was that what people thought cultivation was supposed to do? Was that what they believed?
“Life-energy cultivation is the practice of empowering one’s lifeforce through a careful regime of breathing, energy circulation, meditation and—most importantly—building a connection to the natural world and taking in its energy to build your own. The result is a greatly invigorated body: in addition to granting greater lifeforce to draw on for spellcasting, one will enjoy a healthy body, greatly enhanced strength, reflexes and speed, an energy pool that can be used to reinforce compatible physical objects and, indeed, an extended lifespan. But this does not mean living forever or splitting mountains in half or anything else that the imaginative writers and poets from Tarim-Lung, or elsewhere come up with. If you have dreams that indulge those fantasies, then I would suggest using the next three hours to go and select another course.”
Theresa thought about what the professor had suggested. It all sounded incredible to her. She had no real mana and little interest in all of the spell-guides, and formulas, and complex ‘this and that’, that fascinated her best friend. But this course seemed to promise its own wonders.
That was why she was confused when a full five students stood up seemingly disappointed—including Olaf—and started back down the hill.
‘Aren’t you being a bit too greedy?’ Theresea wondered. Then again, most of the folk here were wizards; maybe the things offered were too mundane for them.
“Alright, to everyone still with us,” The professor didn’t give the retreating students a second glance. “We will now begin a ten minute guided meditation. I will ask you to remain silent the entire time. Focus on the sound of my voice and let other thoughts pass. They are distractions. Now, please, close your eyes.”
Theresa did as she was asked, opening her ears to the sound of the wind, the rustle of the tree branches and their professor’s calm, ancient voice. The old woman guided them through their own thoughts and away from distractions, bringing their focus onto their own breathing. The huntress found the exercise soothing, pleasant and easy; she was used to walking through the woods, listening only to the sound of nature and not saying a word for hours at a time.
The ten minutes passed quickly, and she was surprised to find several students fidgeting as the professor told them to open their eyes.
“To those of you that found this uncomfortable, might I suggest bowing out of this course for the semester: there will be some classes where we will be engaged in breathing meditation and lifeforce circulation for an hour at a time and more. You will need to concentrate for all of it, so if you found these ten minutes difficult, then I would suggest joining a meditation club, practicing the skill and returning to this class next semester. Of course, the choice is up to you, but this is a dangerous art.”
Her eyes flashed. “You will need to decide carefully.”
A few more students got up and filed down the hill. As they did, several higher year students climbed the slope, carrying large bowls of liquid balanced on wide glowing disks that hovered at shoulder-level.
“Ah, the testing bowls have arrived.” The professor stood, almost like she was gliding to her feet. “Please form a line in front of me. We are going to begin testing your affinity. The bowls are half-filled with distilled water for pure conduction. You will place your hands in the water, and I will use my energy to examine your energy. Each of us has pathways in our body in which our lifeforce flows: think of it like a magic circuit but it powers youinstead of a spell. I will be using my energy to stimulate those pathways. You must be absolutely calm and clear during the process. If you have an affinity, your channels will begin to open which will make you ready for the art of Lifeforce Enforcement. If not…then unfortunately, you will not be able to partake in the course. Also, please keep calm during the process.”
For the first time, she frowned. “Agitating your energy during the test could have dire consequences.”
The young woman from Tarim-Lung looked at Theresa and gave her an encouraging smile before getting up. The students formed a line that extended down the hill, while the teacher’s assistants set up the testing bowls.
Professor Kabbot-Xin sat—facing the front of the line—with the first bowl in front of her. “Step forward,” she said.
She would ask each student’s name and why they wished to learn the art. Then, she would give them reassurance and ask them to place their hands in the bowl, then raise her hands over the water.
She would let out a breath, close her eyes and press her palms to the water’s surface.
Sometimes the water would remain still. To these students she would lean in and say something quiet. They would rise, gather their things and start back down the hill, with a dejected slump to their shoulders.
At other times, the water would churn and splash onto the grass. She also whispered something to these students who also gathered their things and took the long walk down the hill.
With some, the water would remain still and the Professor would hold her hands on the water’s surface for a long time. Then there would be a cracking sound. The professor would move her hands away and just say: “Into the bowl”.
The students would vomit black liquid into their bowl that smelled so awful, that even from where she was, it made Theresa’s eyes water. At first, she thought that something had gone wrong, but the professor only smiled at those students.
“Congratulations,” she said gently. “You’ve just expelled some of the impurities in your body as my energy opened your channels. Some of my energy will stay in you now, to encourage your lifeforce enforcement. Rest by the tree for now, and I will teach you how to circulate it.”
One by one the line decreased, and Theresa’s nerves doubled with each student that finished the test. Only about a quarter of the remaining students vomited black and took their place beneath the tree.
For one student, things went badly.
The young man screamed and fell back from the bowl, with every muscle tensed and every vein in his body standing out against his skin. His eyes had gone completely bloodshot and foam ran from his mouth. Bruises appeared rapidly as blotches formed on his skin.
“Hold him down!” the instructor shot up from beside the bowl and bent over the student. She placed her hands on his chest and pressed down once. His body flexed and then relaxed.
She pressed two fingers against his wrist and sighed in relief. “Lifeforce reversal, but not bad. He’ll recover quickly.” She glanced to her teacher’s assistants. “Take him to the infirmary.”
Two of them flanked the young man and cast a spell and he rose in the air between them. Carefully and quickly they ran down the hill toward the main castle in unison.
“And this is why I say to remain calm,” the professor sighed. “If you do not have the affinity, the process will feel strange. If you do have it, there might be some discomfort. In either case, please remain calm. Too much turbulence in your mind and body can cause your energies to grow unbalanced. This is one of the results.”
As she said this, two more of the students suddenly stood, holding their mouths, and running down the hill. At last, it was Theresa’s turn. Trying to calm herself, she sat cross-legged in front of her bowl. It was only still water, but still water could hide dangers.
“And what is your name?” the professor asked her gently.
Theresa forced her gaze up to the instructor’s eyes. “Theresa Lu.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Theresa. Tell me, why do you want to learn Lifeforce Enforcement.”
The huntress took a deep breath. She had considered how to answer this question. There were many reasons. The mystery of the dungeon core promised dangers and she wanted to prepare for those. The hive-queen in The Traveller’s sanctum had left her feeling unprepared and she wanted to correct that.
Yet, there were only two reasons that she wished to say here:
“I want to protect my loved ones, and I want to follow my great-grandfather’s path, to gain his strength and step into the world prepared for its dangers.”
Kabbot-Xin paused. “Your great-grandfather was a cultivator? What was he called?”
The professor’s eyes widened. “You are the Twinblade’s descendant?”
“Then I think you should be fine, child. If you inherited even a grain of his talent, then you will have the affinity. Now, place your hands in the water.”
Inhaling, Theresa did as she was told and closed her eyes. The water was cold against her hands. She thought of calming memories: painting the mural on the side of their common room wall. Picnicking in the woods as she watched Brutus—still a puppy then—jumping around and snapping at the fall leaves. Playing with Selina just before her bedtime.
The summer that Alex had baked her cookies.
Her heartbeat slowed.
The water shifted as the professor’s hands touched it, and her energy coursed through the water. The lifeforce conducted through the liquid and spread over Theresa’s hands. She felt energy pour into her through her fingertips. Her breathing remained steady, as she focused on letting the energy pass naturally. Pathways sprung to life in her body that she never felt before.
For an instant, her lifeforce touched her instructor’s.
There was a burning, wrenching feeling as she felt those channels stretch with the new energy. The energy coursed through her until it pooled in the pit of her abdomen. Something sprang to life. Her body shuddered. More wrenching as liquid shifted within.
Then her stomach was full.
Nauseated she leaned forward and spewed a line of black filth into the bowl.
“Well done,” the professor said. “Take your place by the tree and rest.”
Stumbling like she was sleepwalking, Theresa Lu collapsed beside the tree, panting hard. The professor’s energy coursed through her, continuing to open her channels. She felt as weak as a half-drowned kitten…but beneath that, she felt good.
Everything was a little sharper. Sound was fuller in her ears. Light was brighter. The taste of filth in her mouth…unfortunately, was a little stronger. As her head lolled to the side, her eyes fell on the young woman who had sat in front of her. She also panted against the tree, covered in a cold sweat.
The young woman looked at her weakly and slowly gave her a thumbs up. “Good…job.”
Theresa’s eyebrows rose. “You…speak the Common tongue?”
The young woman teetered her hand. “Don’t speak Common well. I am Zhao Shishi. And you?”
“Theresa. Theresa Lu.”
“Yeah,” Theresa sighed. “Congratulations.”
A memory came back to her: of the first time she had stood before Coille. She remembered very clearly the first step she had taken into the woods.
Today felt the same.
A first step into a wide forest, ready for exploration.
In a way, she wished this forest would be like those she imagined as a little girl: