The rhythmic tapping of a pen was the only thing that broke the silence around the room. I looked around. Pictures of various classes adorned the otherwise plain walls. A middle-aged man with glasses and a slightly recessed hairline was flipping through a folder while I stiffly sat in a hard, wooden chair.
I wondered how much longer this would take. I counted the flashing of his digital clock as the seconds rolled by, lost in how many minutes it had been since I sat down. I was eager to finish up and get the hell out of here.
Finally content to proceed, the man lightly tossed the folder onto his desk and sat back in his chair, giving me a discerning eye.
“Mr. Evers, is it really that hard for you to choose a path to aim for?”
“I can’t think of anything I want to do,” I responded blankly.
The man before me was a guidance counselor, whose job was to oversee students as they took the first step into the world of adulthood.
“Looking at your records, your standardized test scores are better than average. Yet, it appears that your tendency to skirt your coursework is the main thing holding you up. You have the opportunity to go to a decent college, but starting off with an undeclared major, what are you trying to achieve?”
I took a moment to let those words sink in. I had no particular goal in mind when I had applied for college. It was simply a way to get out of the house. Feeling like the course work was redundant and boring, I rarely did them. Instead, I had merely focused on doing well in the exams. Not like anyone cared if I knew the material anyway once the exam was over. I just wanted my parents to stop bugging me to try harder when it came to meaningless things.
“Just not sure what I want to do. Thought I’d figure something out once I got there.”
The counselor sighed. He found it difficult when students with no direction came to his office. There were no easy ways of goading them into a career so that they could quickly be on their way. To him, I was a problem student that he had to waste more effort than usual to correct.
In this case, I had happened to be accepted to a decent college, so even if he dodged the issue this time, the school would probably overlook it. He decided to take the easy way out.
“It is not my responsibility to find something to drive you forward, Mr. Evers. You have a chance. You were lucky to be accepted there despite your lackluster application. Be sure to think hard about what you want to do. You may go.”
Those were the words that I was waiting for. I swiftly got out of my seat and made for the door.
Before I could open it, I heard him address me one final time.
“Remember, it requires effort to foster talent. And I believe that you can try a little bit more. If you don’t try, how will you know?”
For some reason, those words rang in my head. Those words lingered in the back of my mind even when I decided to ignore them and continue on with my day. They remained with me even when I continued to hesitate at every opportunity and flounder my way through college.
They rang in my head as I woke up from my dream.
Bright sunlight crept into the room that I was sleeping in. I turned to my side, my field of vision lining up with the floor. The distinct Asian style of this room was something that I still hadn’t gotten used to even though I had been here for two months already.
Trying to roll out of bed, my body fiercely rejected that notion. The soreness from exercise the day before had set in, causing me to move as stiff as a man three times my age. From my arms and legs to my back and stomach, there wasn’t a single muscle group that I could think of that didn’t want a day off.
The only source of relief would be the gentle footsteps that I expected to show up right around this time.
Sure enough, those footsteps had not been imagined since the sliding door opened right at that moment. The gentle smile of a blue-haired girl with glasses dressed in a loose robe greeted me.
“Good morning, Claude.”
“Good morning, Katsys.”
Katsys bent down and cast a recovery spell. Almost instantly, the cries of pain across my body lessened as I could sit up without any difficulty. It was enough to get my body back into motion and ready to face the day.
Of course, I knew exactly what to expect next – another grueling day of training overlooked by Lau as he tried to whip me into shape during our stay. I took him up on his offer since he had coerced me into improving myself while I waited for the signal to return home. With a foe like the Chancellor waiting there, it didn’t hurt to gain some skills, no matter how little they might help.
However, I hadn’t expected how serious Lau’s intent had been to train me.
Every day was a repetitive sequence of exercises designed to work on my basics. I started the day with a rigorous round of pushups, sit-ups, and crunches, followed by a long-distance run. Though it felt like Lau was trying to get me fit for a marathon, if I managed to get up to a certain number of sets, I wondered if I could ‘one punch’ everything, too. I wanted to keep my hair though, so that wasn’t an option.
After finishing the warmup, Lau led me to an enclosed area where I was greeted by a very elaborate course. Climbing, balancing, jumping – it looked like one of those obstacle courses from a TV show, where you fell into the water if you slipped or your strength gave out. Luckily, I would stay dry here as there were just bags stuffed with hay to break my fall.
Having the strength of an average lazy person, my body was naturally not athletic. However, the constant exercise that I had routinely endured when fighting monsters and cooking had slimmed the fat that had accumulated from being a typical couch potato.
Balancing on the unstable platforms, my legs were a bit shaky but I managed to hold myself upright. Moving on to some climbing ledges, my hands gripped the first one and tugged my body up. Using the momentum from that swing, I managed to grab ahold of the next one, and then the next. My childhood memories of playing on monkey bars was dredged up from deep inside. However, I could only manage a few more swings until my hand missed the next ledge. The resulting backswing ripped my hand free, causing me to tumble into the cushioned ground.
“Don’t worry. Move on to the next one.” Lau ushered me forward.
In this manner, Lau pushed me to try each one of the obstacles one by one. Each one of them seemed to work different muscle groups and test my body in different ways. If I failed, I was told to move onto the next one. Eventually, I had circled around after trying every single one of the obstacles.
“Hmph. Looks like we have a long way to go. From now on, you’ll be training here until you can manage to do every single one in sequence without falling. Do that, and your abilities will grow dramatically. You rely too much on your Crit skill and not enough on basics, like footwork and endurance.”
I had to admit that Lau was right. Having never been formally trained, I just aimed for a strike when I had the chance. I was a complete novice when it came with body control.
“Keep at it. I’ll return when lunch is ready. And remember, if you fall, keep going to the next one. Don’t stop. Let your body feel the mistakes, not your mind.” Lau turned his back and hit a button on a pedestal before leaving.
Left to my own training, I dashed forward to the first set of uneven steps. After two steps, my foot slipped, and I tumbled to the ground. My head turned in surprise towards the first obstacle which should have been easy.
“Am I tired already? I was able to do it last time…,” I mumbled to myself.
I shook my head after recalling Lau’s words. I moved on to the climbing ledges and swung myself forward. This time, I could only do half as much. My fingers seemed to lose strength much earlier than before. This continued as I moved through each obstacle in a cycle. My runs through each section were remarkably worse than the first time.
By the end of the entire circuit, I felt like collapsing onto the ground, sweat profusely running down my forehead. This course was kicking my ass.
“Giving up already?” Lau had returned early to check up on me.
“It’s too tough… I’m already… so tired…,” I said in between gasps of air.
“Of course, it’s tough. I designed it.” Lau briskly walked over and got into position.
Nimbly gliding through the steps and hopping onto the next section, Lau wasted no time swinging from each ledge, easily making it through the first two parts. I watched in awe as Lau swiftly bounded through unstable platforms, traversed the climbing structures, and ninja-ed his way through the entire course.
In the span of five minutes, Lau had flawlessly performed the entire course with barely a drop of sweat on his brow. As a person three times younger, his abilities put me to shame. No old man that I knew could move like that.
Lau Ki Young, or should I say, ‘Low Key Young.’
Seeing him in action had raised my spirits a bit. If he could do it, then I should be able to, given enough time. With my breath once again calm, I walked back to the starting point and renewed my efforts, trying not to mind that I continued to fail.
After lunch, Lau took me to the courtyard and practiced sparring with me. Though I said sparring, it was really just him smacking me with a strange stick as I attacked and defended.
However, the stick that he had was not normal. Every time he hit me, I felt a noticeable drain of strength around that area, as if something was being drawn out of my body through the point of contact.
Noticing my wariness of his training weapon, Lau informed me. “This is a Syphon Rod. The tip is imbued with Drain magic, which sucks up mana. If I hit you too many times, your mind will start growing weary and your body will eventually shut down.”
Thus, Lau continued to jab at my weak points, draining my mana each time I gave him an opening to do so. As the sparring progressed, it became harder and harder to focus my attacks on his weak points. Not that I was able to hit them anyway, but Lau would let me know if I happened to touch any of the magic shields that he had set up to cover his pressure points. He even made the shields glow brightly so that I didn’t have to use my skill. However, painting himself as an obvious target didn’t do any good for my self-esteem when I couldn’t hit any of them.
When it was time for dinner, I would see Katsys and Ludmila again. They were also being trained by Neiya and Kanade, though they wouldn’t tell me in what.
“I’ll just have to surprise you.” Katsys smiled.
“Secret from Master,” Ludmila said in a soft tone.
Too exhausted to even retort, I could hardly shovel the food into my mouth and swallow before getting ready for bed.
With that kind of training regime set into place, two months rolled by. Every night, I reviewed in my head what I was doing wrong. Every day, I set out to get just a bit farther.
If I could just reach the next step, if I could catch the next hold, if I could climb the next piece – my enemy for the moment was the course and myself. It was up to me to muster the will to make it through. However, this course happened to be the exact thing that pushed me to continue forward, while never fully discouraging me. Rather than long-winded explanations, this was an experience that enticed the competitive nature of a person. If I thought too hard, my movements would become dull and unable to respond to what was needed in front of me. Rather, I had to learn to trust my body and instincts to feel my way through.
Lau’s training had been all about developing a solid foundation, so that I could act more efficiently. So that I could feel in the air, what any other fighter would also feel – the initiative to act and be confident in my actions.
Throughout the two months that I had trained, I could quickly see my own improvement. The pieces had started coming together as I started completing entire sections of the course. My movements became more fluid and craftier during the sparring sessions as I could see signs of perspiration dot Lau’s face as he moved with me.
All of that had led to today. Giving a quick stretch, I stared at the now-familiar course that had once been daunting to me. I leapt onto the first step, determined that this would be the day that I completed it.
Bounding over the first steps, I jumped up to the ledges without pause. Transitioning to each ledge without disrupting my momentum, I swung myself off the last one. My body blazed through the course with a sense of confidence and fluidity.
Log run – check!
Pole climb – check!
Body prop – check!
Sliding bar and leap onto platform – check!
Wall run – check!
My mind mentally cleared off each section as I perfectly bounded through the obstacles. Now, came one of the hardest obstacles – a set of hanging objects of different shapes that my hand could barely keep a hold of at first.
Grabbing onto the first one, I could feel the strong tug of gravity concentrated solely on my fingertips as my body weight swung towards the next one. Grabbing onto it, the different shape messed with my fingers as they nearly slid off its surface. However, one of my fingers had managed to catch the tip before my palm automatically wrapped around it, quickly distributing the weight before my grip was torn away.
My momentum had come to a stop due to this distraction.
“Woo, close call,” I sighed in relief.
Gently, I rocked my body back and forth to restart my swing. This time, I didn’t underestimate the next shape. With a good rhythm, I continued forward and grabbed the next, and then, the next. However, I had to pause just before the last one. Initially, I had no idea what to do about the final hold as it was a smooth ball that I couldn’t hold onto no matter how hard I gripped. The surface was slick to the touch and too large to wrap my hand around, teasing me with one final challenge before the end.
However, something else had naturally developed in the past two months. I discovered it by accident one day, when my hand missed the swinging hold but still caused it to be batted away. Despite not touching it, the object moved away from me as I reached for it. After multiple tries, I realized that it had indeed been pushed away – not physically by my touch, but by the mana that extended from my fingertips. Though it was a strange feeling at first, my mana could be formed into an extension of myself, opening up more possibilities than before.
Reaching out for the final hold, I willed the mana from my hands to extend wider. As my hand touched the smooth surface of the ball, it firmly stuck to the side of it. For those that could not see mana, it was as if my hand had magically glued itself against it. However, those that could detect mana would see distinct fingers of mana that had wrapped themselves around the entire object.
With the final goal in reach, I pulled the last shape extra hard to increase my momentum. With a hard clack of my feet landing on the last platform, I looked back at the entire circuit that I had completed. Not a single fall had happened.
I raised my arms in celebration, imitating the Glico man pose. Finally, I had completed it.
The light sound of clapping echoed behind me. Lau had been standing there since I started, but I had been too focused to notice him.
“Good work. You’ve finally passed. Come with me.”
Lau led me away. It was a bit early to start sparring, but apparently, he had other plans instead. Eventually, we stopped in front of a round boulder that was twice my height. Lau smacked his palm on the side of it.
“Here is your final test. Destroy this boulder with your bare hands. Do this, and your mana control will be complete.”
Huh? He expected me to slice through a boulder with my mana? What kind of weird shounen battle anime was this?! At least, give me a sword!
I tried to ask him what he meant, but Lau simply shook his head.
“You have what you need already. If you don’t try, how will you know?”
Those words once again echoed in my mind. I stared back at the intimidatingly large boulder, gulping at how massive it was.