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Chapter Seven - Vanishing Act

The hallway was empty and quiet save for Matren’s constant grouching. He had been waddling with great effort after Alkir for some time now. And so far he was lucky to not have met with any stairs. Mat imagined that if he had come to some he would just throw himself down them and provided he didn’t break anything, he’d pull himself back upright. That’d only take about an hour or two he imagined, which was a right sight faster than if he had attempted to descend the stairs by any analogue of walking.

After some time had passed, Mat began to wonder if Alkir was leading them around in a circle. The waddling wasn’t growing any easier and the material wasn’t loosening or stretching out either. He was panting by the time Alkir had stopped in front of a door that Mat was positive they had passed three times by now. He waited for Mat to catch up before he opened the door to a narrow room with sterile white tables a couple of iceboxes and one wall that was completely glass. On the other side of the glass was a blue liquid in an expansive room filled with a variety of obstacles. It was very clearly a course of some sort with bars to swing from, wires to crawl beneath, swinging poles, dummies and weapons of various sorts hung up on a rack. The room inside the blue liquid was fairly massive, larger by far than the village square in which he grew up. But not quite as large as Celan’s had been.

At the far end of the observation room was a ladder that went below and above. Mat guessed he’d have to go up and be lowered into the room on the right. Then Alkir would monitor and watch him from the room they were in now. Despite his dedication to improvement, Mat couldn’t help but feel a sense of overwhelming apprehension. Alkir urged him forward and shut the door behind them, locking it with a sturdy latch as well.

“You’ll need to go up that ladder so you can enter the tank on the other side of this glass, Mat. As your training progresses you’ll move further and further down. For now, try to climb the ladder while I prepare your respirator,” said Alkir.

While Mat waddled through the room wondering just how he’ll be able to climb the ladder, Alkir was busying himself in the icebox. He pulled out some thinly sliced meats, a few slices of thick hearty bread, some creamy orange spread and a few blocks of cheese. Mat stared as he waddled and struggled onward. His Sosen was making himself a sandwich while Mat was struggling to walk the fifty paces to the black metal ladder. He turned to focus on the task at hand, left foot out, lean, right foot out, lean, repeat. He continued to waddle forward. The only sound was his bare feet on the stone floor and that of Alkir layering his decadent sandwich with meat, cheese, and sauces of various type and make.

Mat had finally made it to the ladder, with all his might he lifted his arms to grasp onto the ladder and hazarded a look back. Alkir had time to indolently make his sandwich, put everything away and then sit and begin eating. Meanwhile Mat still hadn’t gone far on the ladder. He had saved up his energy for something as horrible as this. Every inch was the equivalent of ten leagues to him. He strained and groaned with all his might to lift each knee up just high enough that he could place his foot on the next rung. Thankfully the rungs were wide, thick and flat with a diamond pattern that helped his shoes grip. It had taken him almost half an hour just to get to the next floor, a half hour consisting of constant struggle, wheezing and near exhaustion from the effort to climb a meager twelve rungs.

The next level was a similar room but with medical supplies out on a few tables, a couple of cots and a few cabinets with a medical cross on them. There was only a single down in the room, and it opened into the side where the tank of cerelune was. Alkir quickly scaled the ladder with such ease that it sent a flush of anger to Mat’s cheeks. He held out a large white mask towards Mat.

“Stay still, I’m going to put it on,” Alkir said.

He placed the mask onto Mat’s face, pressing it hard against his nose, cheekbones and around his jawline. The thing covered half of Mat’s face, from the bridge of his nose it sloped downwards to his jawline and then adhered to the underside of his jaw all the way to his chin. Mat hardly felt the mask on him. It was rigid but hardly weighed more than cloth. It let him breathe without feeling he was slowly suffocating like when Alkir had him press the wet cloth to his nose and mouth back in the mines. The air however had a somewhat stale smell and metallic tang to it that Mat couldn’t quite place.

“This will let me breathe normally inside?” Mat asked skeptically.

“Yes, it will. You’ll be fine Mat. Trust me. Now go through the door,” said Alkir.

Mat nodded and waddled obliquely towards the door which Alkir had opened for him. He passed through. It was a small room with a set of stairs going down into the deep blue liquid that was as still and smooth as glass. The door slid shut behind Mat abruptly. He swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and began to make his way down the steps. The clothing resisted every movement and just as he had feared, stairs were among the hardest things that there could have been. He took one step forward, and knew what was going to happen before it did. He sucked in as much air as possible, afraid he wouldn’t be able to breathe and braced for the worst.

His leg had swung out slightly too much, shifting his body weight forward. Unable to bend his other leg he overshot the stair below and tumbled forward into the cerulean blue liquid. He shut his eyes tight as he careened headfirst into the liquid. He sunk fast and hard as if something was pulling him down. He smacked into the stairs hard and slid down them unceremoniously until he arrived at the base of the tank. He laid there for a while, unable or unwilling to get up. Every beat of his heart, every breath he took was difficult and pained. The cerelune burned his skin like fire and his body was crushed beneath the liquid all around him, his clothing only added insult to injury.

He could feel the cerelune burn its way into his skin, seeping into his veins where it spread throughout his entire body. He went rigid with the pain and he gritted his teeth so hard he thought they might crack. His eyes stayed shut but the pain that racked his body forced them open. The cerelune burned his eyes and though he fought to squeeze his eyes shut again, the damage had been done. Every nerve in his body was set alight with pain, it became so intense that his entire body seized up and shook with pain. His mind was on fire and he could do nothing to ease the pain. He curled up in a ball. The very act was made exponentially more difficult because of his clothing that pulled on him to straighten out.

He laid there curled up, his muscles aching with fatigue, burning with acid and being crushed by the weight of the cerelune around him. He screamed through clamped teeth and shook with more pain than he had ever known. Every ounce of his will was bent towards staying conscious. He could feel himself slipping, he didn’t know what would happen but moreover he did not want to fail so early into his training. It was payment for the debts he incurred by using a power he had no control over. He would pay in full and get past this, he told himself. He would not give in.

Anger bubbled up from deep within. He was always so weak, so small and so needy. If he hadn’t needed his mother so much, if he hadn’t used all their food and money maybe she would have been better. Maybe she would not have gotten sick and died. If he could have just been stronger he could have taken care of her, instead of the other way around. He could feel the chilled metal pendant pressed against his skin beneath his training clothes. He screamed out again, but this time it was not entirely out of pain. He let his self-loathing and his anger stoke a fire deep within. He used it to push himself up with a strength that he had never known. The angrier he got the easier it became to weather the pain and the easier he could move.

He opened his eyes again and he could see his tears leave his eyes and join the cerelune. They shimmered like diamonds and then shattered as they dissolved in the liquid. Mat yelled and raged as he poured his very soul into the simple act of rising to his feet. He couldn’t see Alkir or anybody else watching him. Even if he could have, they would have been far from his mind. He compelled his body to obey. Slowly and with astronomical amounts of pain he rose to his feet. He walked about, one foot firmly planted in front of the other. The effort was beyond measure, his shoulders sank and his hair was plastered tight against his head from the pressure. Mat’s very bones felt on the verge of splintering like kindling. But he pressed on. He refused to give in, to rest or do anything less.

Mat had lost track of time, there were artificial lights attached to the walls and along the flooring giving enough illumination to see everything. He hadn’t known how long he was walking down there and had no way of knowing. He walked along the obstacles that he would need to one day jump, leap or dive through. Under so much pressure and with his training clothing on, he wondered how he was even walking about normally. The pain hadn’t subsided and Mat was beginning to feel burned out and hollow from his anger. He had used everything at his disposal and then more to keep that fire going. But now he was beginning to feel fatigued and the anger was nothing more than a faint flickering flame. The pain had pounced on his weakness and invaded in force. He could hardly think but for the pain.

Mat’s sense of time had completely unraveled by the time the pain had become an old enemy. He welcomed its familiarity while hating it with an unbridled passion. His anger has burned away every last shred of what Mat had been, his failures and his losses. All that was left was a smoldering pile, pain and what little was left in his life that he had to live for. The anger and self-loathing transformed into something greater. A righteous indignation along with a burgeoning sense of duty and responsibility filled the vacuum of hatred that once nestled in his very core. He felt lighter for it, stronger and more resilient. The pain melted away and in that one moment his body ceased fighting him and instead worked with him. He had fought against everything for so long he didn’t know how to come to terms with an ally, even if that was his very own body. It took him longer than he could ever know to accept it as truth and take advantage of it.

Before Mat had realized it, he heard Alkir’s voice distorted and muddy but he could hear it. “Matren, can you hear me?” he asked.

Mat nodded.

“Good, if you understand me raise your right arm above your head, if you don’t then do nothing. Do you understand?”

Mat strained and raised his right arm high above his head.

“Excellent. Mat, do you see the door? Good, I want you to walk to it and up the steps, can you do that for me?” asked Alkir cautiously.

Mat didn’t understand why he was taking him out so soon, but he held his arm aloft easier than last time. Letting it make a controlled fall, he began making the long way back to the stairway. It took him far less than he had imagined it would. He stood at the foot of the stairs, shocked at how far his legs had carried him. The stone walls rose up tight around the stairs. Metal handles were attached to them, something he had missed before on his entrance. Mat leaned forward and gripped one, then the other. Using them in conjunction with his legs he coordinated himself to shift his weight and pull while pushing up with his leg. In this manner he climbed the steps easier than he could have hoped but didn’t dare attempt to pull himself up without the aid of the railing.

As he broke the surface of the cerelune he could feel the heavy droplets beading down his body, eagerly joining the pool below. It was so heavy it didn’t soak his hair or shoes but rather fled as if it were forced out. In just a few moments he was mostly, if not completely dry. Without the added pressure and weight of the cerelune he found movement to be springy and light. When the door opened up he walked through without any complication. Not only that, but he had come to use the springy, resistant nature of his clothing to accelerate and ease his walking and movements. He could count on the material to snap his knee back to a straight position and using that he could practically bounce from one foot to the other. He only needed to bend his knee and shift his weight and then repeat. While bending his knee before had been practically impossible, it was now a simple and near effortless affair.

Alkir stood to the side of the doorway, watching him. It slid shut behind him and Alkir reached out to remove Mat’s mask. He set it down on a nearby table and motioned Mat to sit on a cot. “How are you feeling Mat? Any lightheadedness?” he asked while checking him with his hands and a stethoscope, “What about shortness of breath? Excessive pain or a burning sensation? Sharp paranoia? Crushing presence of dread? The feeling that you aren’t alive? How about hallucinations or voices? No, that was my voice you heard, not a hallucination. Mhm. Well it looks like you’re in better shape than you were when you went in. By far I’d say. Quite an improvement Matren, well done!” he congratulated, clapping him on the back.

Matren had gotten used to the sterile, metallic tang of the mask and the room’s scents overwhelmed his senses. He had practically forgotten what it was like to smell, both the good and bad of it. The cloying smell of Alkir’s sandwich meats hung heavy in the air. Mat wasn’t sure how long they had been left out but it was anything but a pleasant smell. Mingled among the smells that fought for attention was the soft, pleasant aroma of freshly cut citrus. It helped to soften the blow to his nose that every other scent seemed determined to tackle. Mat scrunched up his nose in disgust. He tried to cover up his nose to prevent the virulent odors from getting in but that just meant he had to breathe through his mouth. Which gave him both a taste and a smell, both were weaker than his sense of smell but there was something particularly putrid and wrong about tasting bad odors. Against his better judgment he forced himself to breathe through his nose.

He looked around curiously and moved his limbs one by one while sitting to make sure nothing else was severely off. Alkir stepped back and watched him patiently. He was wearing different clothes now. He had dropped his robe for a black shirt with a high neck that came up to the back of his jaw and nearly covered up his mouth. It had the same dark sapphire coloring as his eyes and it was short sleeved. His arms weren’t bandaged but bare. They had a wiry looking strength to them like taught piano wire instead of a burly bulge like Alstyr had. His pants were black as night and were snug without showing definition. His boots had been replaced by more comfortable looking black shoes that gleamed with polish. Alkir had a silver pocket watch that was attached to a chain on his left pocket, which he left to hang out and rattle every step he took. He checked the time and then snapped the silver lid shut, replacing it into his pocket.

“Just a bit over two weeks inside Mat. Do you feel any stronger? I noted you could easily walk with that suit on, when it had taken you a long while just to waddle your way down here,” he teased.

Mat frowned, his brows drawing together. “Two weeks? That can’t be right. I was only down there a few hours, at most. This is absolutely ridiculous. Are positive I was in there for that long?” Mat’s voice strained and cracked like brittle glass.

“Calm down Mat, losing a sense of time is common with cerelune exposure of this degree. I am positive you were in there for a while. I was going to guide you through it but I know what it’s like. It eats at you and it’s not something that you can be talked through, or helped through. So I watched to make sure you were okay. I could tell you were going through your own things. That’s not too uncommon. Cerelune immersion is only for select people, it would break more than half the Sweepers here. It takes a powerful will to push through it, trust me I know. It’s no doubt harder on you because of your age and the lateness at which you began. But you did exceptionally well Mat. Most people can’t even stand the first week, but you were up and walking about. That’s a major feat in and of itself. Something the Elder’s saw with their own eyes. That’ll go a long way in helping to prove you are dedicating yourself to becoming a Sweeper,” said Alkir, practically glowing with pride.

Mat tried to reconcile what Alkir was saying with his own perception of events. It was true that he had a hard time understanding how much time had passed, but he was certain it hadn’t been any more than a single day at most. But search as he might, he could find no reason that Alkir would lie to him. The more he tried to ascribe periods of time to memories that ran together and became one constant stream of thoughts, the more his head pounded. Alkir placed a hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

“Mat, let it go. I’m not lying to you and besides you know I would have no reason to give you good news if it wasn’t true. ‘You earned yourself a break,’ is what I would normally say. Except you know what’s next. Your training would normally be very light while you recuperate over the next week, before you go in again. I’ll show you some forms and help work on your balance and dexterity with a few tricks I know. But your strength has greatly improved, I’m surprised by your improvements,” he said sincerely.

Mat shrugged. “What kind of forms? Do you think you could teach me some of those moves you used on Alstyr? Or maybe that one move you used at the end, As the Bough Breaks?” inquired Mat enthusiastically.

Alkir narrowed his gaze at Mat a hair and looked him up and down. “Where did you learn that name?” he asked guardedly.

“Letro told me. He made it sound like it was a signature move of yours or something. It really sealed the fight in your favor. I can’t wait to start learning stuff like that!” howled Mat with excitement.

Alkir shook his head and looked away, placing his hands sternly on his hips. It was all he could do to hide the smile that was spreading across his face. “Now listen here Mat. Learning martial forms is nothing to take lightly. It’s very important that you understand that. Executed poorly and you can wind up hurting yourself instead of them. Even worse, if you execute or telegraph your attacks, you’ll open yourself up to being hurt by your opponent. As the Bough Breaks is not something I’ll be teaching you anytime soon. It’s not a move I wanted to use Mat. I tried to get Alstyr to back down, to end the match. I think I had wounded his pride and he didn’t even hear me out. I warned him but he took it as a bluff. He’s still recovering by the way.”

“I didn’t mean that I’d go around attacking children and small animals or anything really. Just that, it’s so interesting to be able to do things like that. The ability to defend yourself is – it’s something I’ve always wanted but never could learn. Everything I knew was from trial and error over the past few years. I earned every scrap of knowledge I gained with blood and sweat. But it was never enough. I could never be fast or strong enough when I needed to be. So I avoided confrontation altogether. I became a coward because it was the only way to keep myself safe. I don’t want to live in fear like that. I want to be able to take on a bully head-on without worrying that I don’t know what it is I’m doing. I want to be strong like you Alkir,” said Mat with tears welling up in his eyes.

Alkir rubbed his shoulder gently and then his damp hair. “It’s okay Mat. I understand, I just wanted to you know that it’s not all fun and games when you learn how to fight. So long as you give the same dedication and fervor you’ve shown so far, there’s no reason to doubt you’ll become one of the best Sweepers ever Mat. But you have a long ways to go, always remember that you have more to learn. You never stop learning, when you do is the day you die,” warned Alkir.

Mat nodded and forced himself to stand. He felt good, strong and able but with a fatigue that lingered in the back of his mind. It was a mental fatigue, his body felt fine but his mind was growing weary. Whatever the cerelune did, it could not fully replace sleep and peaceful rest. But Mat knew he couldn’t afford to sleep. Not when he’d already wasted so much time already and had additionally blown more time by Displacing himself clear across the other side of the mountain. On that note, Mat had remembered what they discussed about his mother’s pendant.

“Alkir, is there somewhere that we can train privately that’s large enough to allow for errors?” asked Mat, fingering his mother’s smooth silver pendant.

Alkir gave him a concerning look. “There are some large training rooms in cellars, I was thinking of using one of those. Hopefully if you plan for short jumps you won’t Displace too far and end up in foundation,” he teased.

Mat laughed sarcastically at Alkir. “I’m not sure if I can though – Displace into solid mass that is. I think that might be a good thing to test. But first I’d like to see if my mother’s pendant really is having some effect on me and my magic. I’d like you to take me to the cellar and then take it for safe keeping. If proximity still seems to be a key factor, then I’ll have to stash it in my room I guess.”

“Alright, let’s go then if you’re sure you’re feeling up to it. Most people need to rest soon after, all the fatigue catches up to them and a good night’s sleep sorts most of it out.”

“No, no. I’m fine Alkir. Better than fine really, so I think I can stand to push myself a bit more. Besides, if I don’t get used to pushing my limits, I’ll never feel good enough or be able to train my magic.”

Alkir took his hand off Mat and strode over to the ladder, placing his feet on the outside of the rungs and sliding down it quickly. Mat watched, but in his condition considered it foolish to attempt the same, so he went down the slow and steady way. In his training clothes this simple act was made monumentally more difficult, but it only took him less than a minute to descend. A far cry better than the half hour it had taken for him to climb up from the level below. He began to grow curious how fast and strong he’d be if he took the clothing off. If he can move around almost normally with it on, then he must be several times stronger and faster than he was before putting it on. It had been like a straightjacket before and now it felt like he had gotten clothes one size too small. They were restrictive and slightly cumbersome but they only got in the way of his normal movements. They didn’t prevent him from being able to do anything he could normally do.

He followed Alkir through the room and out into the halls. It was midday now and the normally quiet halls were busy with other Sweepers coming or going. Mat and Alkir stuck to the right walls to stay out of way of the bustling traffic of cloaked people. Alkir found a small alcove that led to a side stairwell. They descended down the stony steps until the air grew cold and damp. Mat noted with surprise how easily he was able to go down the steps. He clearly remembered that he thought he would have to toss himself down the steps to be able to have even a remote chance of going down them. He chuckled to himself aloud as he bounced down the steps with a childish enthusiasm.

Alkir looked over his shoulder at him and asked, “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing really. I just remembered thinking that if you were going to take me down to a lower floor for my cerelune immersion that I’d have to throw myself down the stairs. I physically could not bend my knees more than half an inch. But now I can go down them with relative ease,” replied Mat.

Alkir chuckled darkly. “Yeah I could see you bouncing down each flight of stairs, rolling yourself over to the next and then down those as well. I didn’t think you’d be able to get up off the floor back in your room, I was almost about to bend down and help you up,” he admitted.

Mat paled and a wave of chagrin rolled over him. He had thought Alkir wouldn’t help him and didn’t really care. He felt a little guilty for thinking that. It wasn’t that it was truly a negative thing, but he hadn’t assumed Alkir was worried for him. He thought he had confidence he would get it right finally and if he didn’t then he wouldn’t help him. Not helping would force Mat to rely entirely upon himself. And in doing so, he would always try the hardest because he knew Alkir wasn’t going to come and swoop down to help him. He should have known that wasn’t completely true, but it caused a twinge of guilt nonetheless.

Once they had descended two more flights they exited from the pale gray stairwell. The cellars were dank and smelled like stale water intermingled with cold, fresh air. The flames flickered in the constant gusting wind that flowed through the square tunnels. Alkir took a torch from its holder and held it aloft. The tunnel was moderately dark and the ceiling was vaulted with smooth lines carved into it. The decorum of the castle was missing here. The cellar appeared completely utilitarian save for the ceiling. It was also, Mat would come to learn, a labyrinth of tunnels of identical shape and size crisscrossing throughout the foundation of the grounds above.

Alkir thankfully knew where he was going, passing down one tunnel then the next with barely a second look. This was a path he had walked many times before. The surety of his steps was unmistakable. It was like the night Alkir had found Mat after the ceremony, when Alkir had walked in the darkness without needing the light to see. Mat was beginning to lag behind as Alkir quickened his pace. Mat still struggled with the clothing but it was downgraded from horrible contraption to meager nuisance. But even had he not been wearing the clothing, he doubted he could easily match Alkir’s pace anyways. By the time Alkir was almost a full hallway ahead of him he had found the door.

That isn’t to say he hadn’t found doors before. There were literally hundreds of wooden plank doors with iron banding like the one Alkir now stood in front of. Every door was an exact replica of the others. Right down to the minor imperfections, scratches and nicks. Alkir placed the torch in the empty holder above the doorway and opened the egg-shaped knob. The door protested with a loud squeal as Alkir pushed the door inward. The room inside was lit with braziers stationed all around the room. A line of fire flickered at the far end and the rest of the braziers were lit, leaving Alkir and Mat in the well lit room alone.

There were low tables with accompanying benches and racks of armor, weapons and training props littering the walls. The room was incredibly large, longer than wide but generous in both directions. Mat hadn’t been in a room so large in all his life. The whole of the King’s Valley square could have fit a few times over inside of the room. The ceiling was at least three stories and so tall that the ceiling was almost completely shrouded in darkness. A very long and elaborate red and gold rug ran from the doorway to the opposite wall and halfway in each other direction. The rug dominated the room with impressive scenes of battle and war. Mat could not begin to imagine how long it must have taken to weave it. It must have weighed an incredible amount as well since it stayed in place when Mat tried to flip over an edge.

“The carpet is unique. It helps soften the blows of falling. I figured you’d need that considering how you described Displacement. Consequently, this’ll be the first time I ever get to see you do anything but vanish. Provided you stay in the room. Do you think you can try that Mat? Just Displacing a few feet or at least within the confines of the room?” asked Alkir.

Mat nodded and bent his head down to take off the heavy metal pendant on a thin silver chain. He had always seen his mom wear it when he was little and then suddenly she gave it to him. It was the first prized possession he ever had. A year later she had died. He handed it gingerly to Alkir, and when Alkir closed his hand carefully around it, Mat did not let go. It took him several more minutes to work up the courage to part with it, even for a short while. He hadn’t been able to wear it since her death. He had felt that at least in some small way it was responsible for it, and by extension his possession of it was an indirect cause of her death. But recently he couldn’t find a way to part with it. It was the last thing he had to remember his mother by.

“I’ll keep it safe Mat. I would never risk any harm to it,” he said reassuringly.

Alkir placed it into a small wooden lockbox with a plush, royal purple velvet interior and then locked it again with a tiny brass key. Its teeth like a root system, spreading out in all directions haphazardly. He placed the box into a satchel he wore on his hip. Making sure to do so deliberately so Mat knew where it would be at all times. He smiled comfortingly and stepped back to give him space.

“Whenever you’re ready Mat,” he said.

Mat tried not to focus on the naked feeling he had. The pendant had a familiar weight to it, more than any metal he knew of would have at that size. It was always colder than it should have been too. But not without it, he felt a void. He felt naked and defenseless.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and focused on what he was trying to do. He wanted to Displace, to move from this point to one twenty paces away on the carpet. Mat shut his eyes and visualized it, like he had when he thought of his mother before and how safe and peaceful he felt in her presence. He held that feeling close to his heart and with all his might willed himself forward.

Darkness lashed about Matren and consumed his vision, casting everything into shadow for the span of a single blink. When light returned and he could see again he was rapidly careening towards a wall. He barely had enough time to throw up his arms to protect himself as he crunched into the wall. His body lit up with bright blooms of pain and he bounced off the wall, landing hard on his back, upon the floor. He laid there for a while, unable to breathe and stunned from the suddenness of it all. Alkir was there in a flash, which meant he didn’t leave the room. He just drastically overshot his goal. Alkir checked him over, and quickly calmed down.

“I’m beginning to wonder if it doesn’t just dramatically speed you up to the point that normal vision can’t see you. The speed you hit that wall was faster than any person or animal I’d ever seen. It was like you were shot out of a cannon,” he said.

Mat coughed and wheezed, rolling over onto his side. His wheezing progressed into a coughing fit he couldn’t get a handle on. Alkir patted his back to help him clear his lungs and Mat’s face turned red as a tomato. He finally calmed down when Alkir gave him a few strands of knotted grass to chew on. The juice from it was bitter with a citrus flavor he couldn’t quite name. But it did stop him from coughing and soothed him. He rolled himself over onto his elbows and began to push himself up when Alkir offered his hand. With a quick and powerful yank he brought Matren to his feet and steadied him.

Mat looked at him curiously, then himself and finally back to where he originally was. “Did I travel all that way?” he asked incredulously.

“You did, shadow seemed to consume you and left nothing behind, and then you just appeared out of a gathered shadow at the far end of the room. And you were practically sailing through the air. Your feet weren’t even on the ground. It was like somebody had launched you out of a catapult.”

Mat looked at his hands, noticing the Mark had been glowing just then, and it had only stopped a moment ago. The Mark was completely black again. It had become easier to will his powers into fruition and being the third Displacement he had done, he was more or less spot-on. He had wanted to stay in the room and so he did. He wanted to not go very far, and he didn’t, at least when compared to his previous lengths. Now he had to figure out a way to reign in more control than he was currently capable so that he could Displace accurately and without crashing into everything.

“That is a problem that I’ve noticed. When I reappear, I’m suddenly moving at a very high velocity. I’ll crash to the ground usually, and I’ve never actually appeared on my feet. I’m always up in the air and then I collide with the ground. It’s never been a pleasant experience. I almost think that I’m going to some sort of other dimension and then reappearing but something gets lost in the transfer and I gain an unholy amount of speed. I’m not aware of where I go, only that it’s covered in shadow and there’s nothing that I can see. It’s all completely black. Yet somehow darker than the blackest night with no stars, moon or any other source of light,” said Mat.

Alkir inclined his head thoughtfully. “It does certainly appear that you’re leaving behind wherever it is you are. The possibilities are as endless as they are fantastical. So, unless you think the pursuit of such knowledge is going to help you get control over your powers I suggest we focus on making sure your Displacement is functional in the field. Even if you can control the locations perfectly it won’t be much good if your landing is noisy and risks grievous bodily harm.”

Mat sighed. He knew Alkir was right but didn’t have the faintest idea how he could go about achieving such a lofty goal. Mat considered his accuracy and landing to be of highest importance. Without the necklace on it seemed easy for him to conjure the will to execute a Displacement. All that seemed to remain was finding a way in which he could control the use of it. Unfortunately for Mat, that meant repeatedly practicing and working at it just like any other talent. He heaved another sigh and shut his eyes again. He would focus on keeping his target within the room, but try to soften his landing somehow. He thought of envisioning himself reappearing and softly touching his feet to the ground. Mat concentrated and focused on the image, bringing about the peace and tranquility he felt when he was with his mom. That quieted his mind and allowed him to completely focus on Displacing.

The familiar chill and darkness of the shadows as they clung to him, wrapping him up in less time than a single heartbeat, came and went again much faster than before. When Mat felt the shadows release him he landed sharply on his feet and tumbled to the ground. The carpet absorbed a surprising amount of the impact, leaving Mat free to push himself upright again. He looked around and saw Alkir no more than thirty paces away. He had done a relatively short Displacement and his landing wasn’t quite as abrupt. Mat grumbled to himself, he didn’t seem to make any difference. And he wasn’t sure how he could make himself stop softly or silently if he had no idea what he was doing. It was like being blind and trying to write a sentence in ink.

“That was better Mat. What did you do differently?” Alkir asked.

“Nothing! I didn’t do anything differently! I focused on landing softly and instead I barely move and I’m still thrown to the ground!” growled Mat in frustration.

Alkir gave a weary nod of understanding. “I can’t begin to assume I understand exactly what you’re going through Mat. But I do understand frustration and a feeling of stalling in your training. There are only two options. Option A, you continue trying and eventually with enough experience and trial and error you’ll figure out what you can and cannot control if not completely understand what you need to do to Displace exactly as you want. Option B, you give up momentarily and take a break. Get a nap, go have something to eat, take a bath. Do something to get your mind off of what you’re doing so that your frustrations can cool off. And when you are ready to pick it back up again, you’ll be refreshed and be able to see your problems from a different perspective. Often times that’s all you need, a slight shift of perspective.”

Taking a break did sound like an awfully enticing option and if Alkir was right, it would have the possibility to help him with his problems. On the other hand, he’d be resting, which would go against his desire to rest only as much as necessary. He considered all the time he lost as time he had to regain in some way, shape, or fashion. Abstaining from sleep until it was completely necessary would be one of those ways. Mat didn’t remotely consider his cerelune immersion to count, despite having stayed awake completely for two complete weeks. His perception of events did not total in the weeks and so he would not consider it payment. The other option didn’t sound too enjoyable either, but if he couldn’t condone resting, he had no other foreseeable solution.

Mat dusted himself off and focused again. He was quickly becoming proficient at conjuring and sustaining Displacement. But the end results were almost always the same. He’d come out the other end too fast, or too hard and slam into the ground painfully. His accuracy however was getting better and he was mostly capable of staying atop the carpet where the sharp falls wouldn’t cause as much pain or injury. He was beginning, slowly, to understand how Displacement worked. He had to ‘aim’ himself, like an arrow from a bow and the more focus he put on his position the further back he drew the proverbial drawstring. Displacing appeared to launch him in the relative direction he was facing the vast majority of the time and for reasons he couldn’t yet fathom, he was always off the ground by roughly a foot. This constant issue meant that more than anything that he would have to learn and practice how to land properly, because nothing he did seemed to change how high off the ground he was.

Time and time again Mat thrust himself through shadowy depths and emerged only to nearly twist an ankle, tumble to the ground in a heap or hit the ground at an awkward run. Up until Alkir offered his advice, Mat was testing various outcomes by dramatically – or at least attempting to – altering some facet of the process. From turning at the last moment to leaping and crouching, to even changing the speed at which he Displaced. All of them had massive and catastrophic results that Mat couldn’t anticipate, much less cope with. And so each event resulted in a completely different, spectacular failure.

On Alkir’s advice, Mat began to issue small adjustments. Each humble alteration was easier to deal with. Twisting only made him spin like a top upon his exist, making him dizzy and nearly breaking his ankle the first time he tried it. But as he made minor tweaks, he began to understand the process and if not how it works, at least how his inputs modified the outcome. A small subtle twist meant he would be amplified on his exit and would allow him to angle himself, though the trajectory and velocity of his body would continue in the same direction he had been facing. This meant if he twisted to the left, upon Displacing, he would be turned to the left, relative to his previous position and he would be catapulted on his right, instead of the direction he was facing.

He thought of the ways he could use this information. It would mean that while difficult, he could quickly and promptly change course by changing the direction he faced upon exiting. He could also use it as a means of shoulder ramming into something or someone. But he imagined that would hurt more than anything. Mat was fatigued but the thoughts simply would not yield. So he resigned himself to bed for the night, bid Alkir good night and approached a small cot along the corner of the wall. He figured if he slept down here, that would remove several trips back and forth to sleep or eat and Alkir had mentioned there were some facilities down the hall. Mat could sleep in the training room, eat in there and deal with his morning ablations down the hall. Leaving all the more time for his training, of which he needed all the time he could manage.

Mat climbed into the stiff cot and pulled a small blanket over himself. The cellars were a lot colder than the rooms above. That was comforting during training but afterwards the cold was significantly noticeable anywhere that Mat had exposed skin. The clothing Alkir had given him breathed when he was hot and yet kept in his body’s warmth when he grew cold at night. He shut his eyes while his mind ran full tilt trying to find patterns and clues in his Displacing. When he slept, he dreamt of Displacing right into the study of the Elders and the horror and embarrassment of it. Not to mention the fear of their punishment. He dreamt of Displacing throughout his dreams. In them he performed various things he desperately wanted to be able to, but could not. He could Displace quietly and soundlessly, he could reorient himself and Displace at a right angle and anything in between. And he could Displace during training to avoid what would otherwise be an unavoidable assault.

Mat was abruptly woken when Alkir shook him harshly. “Mat, wake up. It’s time to start.”

Mat blinked unevenly, staring at Alkir through tired, bleary eyes, and his mouth still half open in a puddle of saliva. It took him a few minutes to comprehend what Alkir had said and what he meant by it. He wasn’t as tired as this normally, something must have been wrong. But as if Alkir could read his mind he looked at him and said, “It’s normal to sleep like that after your cerelune immersion. It fatigues the mind and body in ways we quite honestly still don’t understand. You’ll be groggy and tired for a few days after sleeping yet. Once you get something to eat you’ll feel a whole lot better. Unless – are you hungry Mat? It is okay if you aren’t, the cerelune is probably still in your system. If it is and you force yourself to eat you’ll get sick. So make sure you know if you’re actually hungry or not before you start stuffing your face.”

Mat made a string of incomprehensible sounds and rose up. His hair was astray and plastered flat on one side. The left side of his face was red with the imprints of the canvas like fabric that stretched over the cot. He still hadn’t mastered blinking yet either and his eyes remained bloodshot and unfocused. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, his heels hitting the ground with a jolt. He had slept in his clothes, which luckily didn’t appear rumbled or distressed in any perceivable way. Mat tiredly rubbed his eyes and face in an effort to wake himself from his stupor. Alkir looked the picture of a morning person. He was bright and energetic and was bustling about a small table where he had several plates of food already laid out. Mat smelled a delicious aroma that practically lifted him off his feet and floated him to the table.

At least, that’s what Mat would have wanted. Instead he sat up in bed, his legs dangling over the edge because he hadn’t the energy yet to force his knees to bend in the rubbery training outfit he had on. He thought about waddling over, crawling even, but gave them up. He knew he would just go back to sleep if he lay down, no matter where it was. Instead he looked at Alkir from across the room. For a while he just stared at him, his head swaying side to side, too tired to keep it up. He nodded off a few times before he managed to wake up enough to clear his vision.

“Do you have, anything, anything at all, to help me wake up that won’t hurt me?” Mat asked pathetically, slurring his words like he was drunk.

Alkir gave him an appraising look. “I do, it’s a potent little drink. Incredibly popular worldwide in fact. It is bitter though, I can add some cream and sugar to it to make it more palatable. Some people can’t even drink it straight it’s so bitter and tannic,” said Alkir, accommodatingly.

Mat stared and was silent for a few minutes while his useless brain translated the array of sounds Alkir had just made into ideas and concepts that made sense. Mat nodded dumbly, his head wobbling back and forth. “Yes, with cream and sugar.”

Alkir busily poured a small black mug with a similarly black liquid. He stirred in a few cubes of sugar and then poured in a miniscule pitcher of cream. As he carried it over to Mat he continued to stir it soundlessly. He bent down to Mat and handed him the mug.

“Careful now, it’s hot,” he warned.

Mat made another unintelligible remark back and sipped. It was bitter but had a creamy sweetness to it, which Mat would have noted as obvious if he wasn’t two blinks from sleep. The liquid was quite hot and burned his lips, tongue and the roof of his mouth. But he was so tired the pain didn’t register quite right and he continued to drink. There was a nutty flavor to it and an aroma and taste of slight scorching with a hint of spiciness. All in all, Mat quite liked the drink and if it could wake him up, he would like it all the more. He had drained the cup and still felt nothing though. So he lingered on the edge between sleep and bleary-eyed wakefulness.

Slowly but surely the fog of his mind rolled away. Like the lingering morning mist blown away by a stiff sea breeze his mind cleared. His thoughts lashed together to form coherent ideas and concepts and his limbs were regaining their strength. Mat sprung up from the bed, waivered on his feet for a minute or two before staggering to the side and finally finding his footing. Alkir watched while he buttered a croissant and ate it. Mat shuffled forward onto the carpet and set his stance wide, balling his fists up and then relaxing them. Mat went through a complicated stretching ritual Alkir had taught him when he first arrived. It helped to limber up his joints and warm up his muscles so that they wouldn’t be pulled or strained from sudden use.

Without another word, Mat began Displacing again. By now it was a simple affair. It took a mixture of a tranquil thought of his mother and an iron will to conjure the power to Displace. It was not too unlike commanding a phantom limb to do simple tasks. Mat was becoming aware there were more things he could ask of it. However he didn’t want to split up his attention or work between two different powers. He wanted to master Displacement, or at the very least become skilled enough that he could direct his own passage as he saw fit.

He picked up where he left off the day before, trying subtle shifts in his form to evoke major responses in his Displacement. Like the day before he worked on twisting himself, but unlike the day before he did not focus on the input, but rather the fraction of a second before he reappeared. It was hard at first. He fell and crashed to the ground, a mass of limbs tumbling over and over. But he persevered and when his weak optimism failed, he soldiered on out of simple spite. Pinning down the exact moment when he could influence his landing was practically impossible. He was groping around in the dark and had no way of knowing when the right time would present itself. His training and practice wore on and still he was only the smallest bit closer to his goal.

Over the course of four additional days he had narrowed the span in which he could alter his landing and subsequently directly affect his reentry during Displacing. Because he had nothing to go on and there was no specific feeling or sensation until the shadows peeled away, which by that point was too late, it was frustratingly hard to accurately reproduce. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, he realized that the time he was Displaced was directly proportional to the distance he traveled. Alkir as it turned out, was incredibly good with numbers. As Mat explained what he had discovered, Alkir had scribbled in a small notepad. It wasn’t until the fifth day of training, two days before Mat was to go back into the cerelune immersion, that Alkir spoke up for the first time in two days.

“I think I’ve figured it out. Based on what you told me there appears to be a window of influence that’s a tenth of a second long at your average Displacements of thirty paces,” he said excitedly, showing Mat the long scribbles of calculations. Mat didn’t understand any of it, but the page was filled with scribbled numbers, multiple cross outs and several annotations.

“So that means I have to find a proverbial needle in a haystack. I have to find that tenth of a second within several seconds, without anything to guide me. No way of knowing if I did it properly until it’s too late. I don’t understand how that’s useful at all, that means I can’t control short Displacements or if I do it’ll be so rare that it might as well be completely unreliable,” said Mat in a huff.

Alkir shook his head at him and flipped to another page of calculations and numbers. “You’re right that short jumps, blinks, displacements whatever you want to call them, are effectively impossible to control. But that means if you want to practice, you need to increase your distance. The room is one hundred, seventy-five paces long. You can increase your distance fivefold and still be within your margin of error. What that means is your window of influence should proportionally increase fivefold. Now instead of a tenth of a second, you’ll have a half second, give or take, to alter your out coming trajectory.”

Mat sighed wearily. “That still isn’t helpful. Can’t you tell me how long into the Displacement I should do it? No? I guess I didn’t expect it’d be that easy. Well, I suppose I can try it. But that means on average my minimum Displacements have to be outside a hundred fifty paces.”

Mat looked down the stretch of space between his end and the opposite wall still stained with a dark smear of his blood from a particularly hard Displacement. That Displacement was far more severe than his first. Mat had jumped forward and Displaced, the additional velocity catapulted him several times harder out of his Displacement and he slammed into the wall face first. He had broken his nose on impact. Alkir had said he blacked out for a moment too, but Mat didn’t remember that. However he also didn’t remember Alkir setting his nose so it wouldn’t be drastically skewed. Mat had been, on Alkir’s orders, chewing bitter violet flower petals and then stuffing them into each nostril. He had been skeptical at first, but they completely eliminated the pain and throbbing. In a day the swelling had vanished and he felt better. Though Alkir still urged him to continue, Mat was firm in his belief that the bone had already completely healed.

Mat set his stance wide and shut his eyes in concentration, he envisioned himself moving to the opposite side of the room, some hundred fifty paces away. The shadows were still alarming and felt alien to him. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to their presence and their sudden tug that pulled him out of reality to wherever he visited in the heartbeats between his appearance and disappearance. He waited and then tried, with all his might to set his feet down and slide one foot in front of the other and he thrust his arms straight out. He felt himself move in awkward slow motion, like he was trying to move under an ocean of cerelune. The shadows burned away into nothing and Mat’s feet skidded across the ground, he had dropped hardly an inch. Though he was still exiting at a high velocity, his arms were up and his palms pressed flat against the wall. The difference was astounding.

Not only had Mat managed a complete Displacement without any loss of control or form of injury, but he also managed to control his exit. Alkir was just as stunned as Mat, staring with his mouth agape. He took no time at all to cross to Mat and check on him. Mat pulled his arms back from the wall and checked his palms. They were slightly scuffed from the force but they didn’t even hurt. Mat turned and tried again. He widened his stance as the shadows snapped across him. They tugged him out of existence and he waited the span of a half breath before setting his heels down hard and his arms out. He forced himself hard and fast into position, unlike last time. The doorway pulled into his view and his feet slid a few inches on the ground, until he came to a halt. His arms grasped nothing but air.

Mat leapt up and down and shouted in excitement. He had found the key. Before Alkir could reach halfway across the room Mat spun on his heels again to face him. He widened his stance and the shadows vanished him from the world. He snapped into position and felt a sharp tug in his gut. The wall appeared in front of him, but didn’t bear down upon him. His feet found firm ground and barely slid an inch. He smiled broadly to himself, his heart was racing and he was out of breath but he was more excited than he had been about his progress. Mat turned slowly, his energy sapped from the cold and from Displacing back to back to back as he had done.

“I did it Alkir,” he said, knees turning to jelly beneath him.

Alkir was at his side in an instant. He wrapped an arm beneath him and held him up. He slowly walked Mat over to a chair and set him into it. He checked his vitals again, as he would have after each Displacement as he had been, if Mat would have let him. He had a look of vague annoyance to his eyebrows. It was slight, but it was something Mat picked up on early. Alkir had a way of gently drawing his eyebrows together, so little that it was practically imperceptible. His common facial expressions were highly reserved. Years of Sweeper training he imagined, so that his mood or emotions would give little to no outward signal. But after a little while Mat could pick out his expressions, no matter how minor or inconsequential they were. Sometimes when Mat was alone, he’d grab a mirror and practice making the very same slight, hidden expressions that Alkir did. He was never very good at hiding his emotions from his face or body language. Compared to Alkir’s soft-spoken grace, Mat’s emotional state and by extension his body language was akin to a howling monkey standing atop his head throwing rocks at anybody with a single eye. He had wanted to work on that, but there was always something more important to do.

Alkir slid Mat a drink of water. “Drink,” he ordered.

Mat took a few long sips and leaned back in the chair. The water quickly washed away his fatigue and weariness. Just resting, he was beginning to feel better, but the water exponentially sped up the process. Mat still couldn’t completely understand that, but since water wasn’t hard to come by, he thought little of it for the time being. A problem for another time.

Alkir smiled at him in his reserved way. “How did you manage that? Just a day ago you were banging around this room like a coin in a tin can. Did what I say have any positive effect?” Alkir asked incessantly.

Mat lifted a hand lazily, though he knew it would look like he was too weak to talk. Alkir snapped his mouth shut and waited patiently for Mat to speak. And after a few more drinks he did. “I need longer blinks. I just can’t react fast enough over shorter distances, but the longer the distance the more I can focus and react appropriately. Do you remember when I was testing how my movements affected by reappearance? Yeah, well it’s the exact opposite for controlling my exits as it was for my entries. While small changes going in appeared exponentially amplified, anything I tried to do just before was exactly the opposite. I had to pour every ounce of my energy into moving, it was like I had a whole ocean of cerelune pressing down on me. No, wait that’s not quite right. It was like when you’re dreaming and you try to throw a punch or move fast and it’s like you’re suddenly moving in slow motion. And no amount of force or effort can speed you up, everything feels half numb and heavier than it should be. That’s how it was. I have to do it as fast as I can and get it right the first time.

“I don’t seem to have the energy or the ability to adjust afterwards or to slide into position as I would normally when I’m trying to come to a fast stop. But when I do, and try as hard as I can the effect is clear when I exit. This last time is probably the best I can do, but it’s draining. I feel I can Displace multiple times with little control and still feel fine, but the more command I exert upon it, the harder it is. I feel weak and cold and tired. My arms and legs turn to jelly and I get lightheaded. It is an altogether horrible sensation. But it goes away relatively quickly,” Mat said assuredly.

Alkir looked him over with those piercing dark sapphire blue eyes. “The only other alternative is you crashing headlong into a wall and breaking something more vital than a nose. Even if it drains you, don’t you think exercising more control and caution would be best? Careless Sweepers don’t exist Mat,” he warned.

“What do you mean, ‘they don’t exist’? Do you magically screen people from recruitment if they have tendencies towards carelessness or something?”

“No, Mat. I mean they don’t exist, because they’re dead. A careless Sweeper is a walking corpse. We go into dangerous places filled with deadly traps and deadlier people. One wrong move, one simple careless mistake and we die. That is why there are no careless Sweepers, if there ever was one they died and were never heard from again. Now do you understand?” Alkir asked gently.

Mat nodded. “I think so. It still sounds misleading, what you said,” Mat stood and stretched under the careful eye of Alkir, “anyways, I should get back to it. Now that I know the rough spot that I can alter my departure, I can try some different ideas I had. Perhaps when I get stronger I can combine something before and after so that I can Displace in an entirely different way. For now I’m going to try shortening it until I can’t control it anymore, and then focus on that range until I can. Gradually shortening until I reach my limit, does that sound okay Alkir?” asked Mat sincerely.

“Sure, sure. That sounds great kiddo. One thing though. After you find your shortest range – and remember you need to reliably land, not just sometimes, at least ninety percent – you should try lengthening your range. Slowly pushing it outwards. We can open the door to the hall, or better yet we can close the door and you can practice Displacing where you can’t see. Eventually moving up to something more complicated, like an obstacle course for Displacement. I can rig something up after your next cerelune immersion,” said Alkir enthusiastically.

Mat looked around the room, at all the various training equipment and realized he was slacking on his Sweeper Training. “Alkir? Would you say I’m coming along well, as a Sweeper?” asked mat, worry creeping into his voice.

“What would ever give you the impression that you weren’t? I said it before, your progress was tremendous. Why, what’s got you bothered?”

“Oh, nothing really. It’s just, I’ve spent this whole week just about trying to get a hold on Displacement. I haven’t even touched on any of the Sweeper skills or anything you might have wanted to train me. I don’t want you to get into trouble for doing this and you said it yourself the Elders are going to want to continually review my progress to make sure I’m on track.”

Alkir sat in Mat’s empty seat and leaned back, crossing one ankle over the other. “I wouldn’t worry about it Mat. You’re at least a month ahead of where I thought you’d be, and the Elder’s don’t have nearly as high an opinion as I do. We can take this week to work on your powers, and then next downtime we’ll work on some forms. That way when they, or if they come into see your progress we can still show that you’re a great deal ahead of even my most generous timetable. So, like I said. Don’t worry Mat, everything will be okay. As long as you don’t go missing for several days I think we’ll have more than enough time to get your training in, keep you not only caught up but ahead of the projected belief among the Elders but also with just enough time to eat, sleep and work on your magicks.”

Mat relaxed, his shoulders slacking some. In truth he was mollified by what Alkir said, he trusted that he knew exactly where he stood and how important keeping up both aspects of his training were. He crossed the room until his back was to the door. Without another word he called forth the shadows that would blink him out of reality and back in just a moment later. To Mat, that was the best way to describe what he was doing, blinking. He would blink out and in roughly the same time frame he’d blink back in. Alkir had said it happened so fast that he found it hard to see both his disappearance and reappearance for any particular Displacement. He focused on stopping, snapping into his stance at the last moment.

His feet found purchase and refused to give even an inch to his momentum, which had been greatly slowed. Mat stared at his feet. His stomach did a few flips, the sudden halting he forced himself through was nauseating. He looked to Alkir. “Do we have any chalk?”

Alkir went to a small chest and rooted around in its contents until pulling out a thin white piece of chalk. “Here we go. What’d you want it for?” asked Alkir.

Alkir tossed the piece to Mat. Mat fumbled and the piece fell to the ground with a soundless bounce on the carpet at Mat’s feet. He grumbled about the lack of warning and his poor coordination as he bent down to pick it up. Chalk in hand he slashed a line of white into the carpet at the tips of his shoes. To the side of the line he scribbled a two. “I’m going to rate myself, I’ll walk back to the same position each time, and then mark where I Displaced, rating on a scale of one to ten how difficult it was. One being easy and ten being the limit of my ability to reproduce a controlled landing.”

Alkir nodded. “That makes sense, but what will you do when you find your limit?” he asked.

“Then I’ll know how far I can reliably Displace without risking injury or detection. Until I get better at least, then I’ll revisit it. Once every two or three months maybe. Enough time for my reactions to get stronger. From there, I’m not too sure. There’s a definite limit to what I can do in a progressively shorter span of time. Eventually I’ll be incapable of fully stopping myself because of how long it takes my body to move into position,” said Mat.

He had begun walking back to the door, chalk in hand. He stepped onto the same spot he had used again and again. This time to be perfectly sure he slashed another white stripe, this time into the stone flooring just in front of the doorway. He clenched his fist around the chalk and Displaced. He appeared ten paces behind his previous mark, his torso shifted forward like he had just managed to stop himself from a gentle jog. Mat crouched down and marked, placing a four next to the line.

Again and again he Displaced, marked and walked back to his starting point. By the end of the day the rug looked like a ruler. Mat had made it all the way up to a difficult of what he considered to be about eight. He had nearly lost his dinner after that one. Alkir had forced him to sit down and rest. Mat had effectively halved his Displacement distance from a hundred fifty paces down to about seventy. Based on his progress, Alkir estimated his outer limit would be fifty paces. Mat was beginning to think it was more than that. Assigning an eight to seventy paces was pure hubris. Mat didn’t want to admit it, but he knew it in his heart of hearts. Seventy paces could have easily been his limit, but he didn’t want it to be, he didn’t want to face his limitations.

So he slept, more worried and fitful than he had since before he had started living in the judge’s house back in King’s Valley. Always worried and afraid somebody would find him while he slept. When he woke in the morning he didn’t feel very well rested. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and forced himself upright. He swung his legs over the edge of the cot and placed his elbows on his knees, bending to look the floor. He had barely had any more time to work on Displacement. A large part of him did not want to find his limitation. He wanted to ignore it and pretend that later, after his cerelune immersion he’d be able to push himself further. But he did still have time, and he couldn’t admit to Alkir that he wanted to stop. Alkir was proud of him, and he couldn’t, or wouldn’t let him down.

Mat pulled his shoes from under the cot and slipped them on, lacing them up tight. I should probably get some boots for ankle support. I might be able to improve my balance by giving some stiff support to my ankles. He stared at his shoes for a few moments before rising and stretching out all his major muscle groups. The importance of proper stretching was something he didn’t question or fight with Alkir about when he had first taught him. Stretching felt good to Mat and as a result he didn’t bother to complicate things. He knew how to stretch appropriately and it didn’t hurt, nor was it hard. It was as simple as that to him. It was one of the few things that he could actually count on to be simple in his life.

Alkir was already up of course. He always was. In fact, Mat had never seen the man sleep. Mat went to sleep first and awoke last. Alkir was a single constant, always awake and always watching over him. He wondered if he purposefully got up just a few minutes before Mat, and put on an act like he had been awake for a long while. When Mat had asked him about it before, he dodged the question with, “I get enough,” and then remained evasive about additional questioning. Sometimes Alkir would do that to toy with Mat, other times he would do it for reasons Mat couldn’t comprehend. Either way, there he was eating a slice of apple and watching Mat.

“Your form is getting better,” he said.

Mat looked over at him and gave him a small smile. He liked getting complimented from Alkir. It never felt fake or flowery when he did it. It was always succinct and honest. If Alkir thought Mat was doing something bad, he would out rightly tell him. He wasn’t interested in sparing Mat his feelings at the cost of his performance. Because of that Mat valued his opinions greatly, because without them he wouldn’t be able to correct all the various mistakes he made.

“Are you still not hungry?” Alkir asked, offering a skewered slice of golden apple.

“Not really, no. I don’t think I’ll need to eat again for some time. Is that normal? It feels a bit excessive in this case I think,” he replied.

“I’ve heard of cases where it took over a month. You’re still young, so the cerelune might have a greater impact on you since you’re still growing. In fact you’re the youngest who has ever undergone cerelune immersion training. The youngest before you was seventeen I think,” he said airily.

Mat bent down by his bedside and picked up the piece of chalk, returning to his starting point by the door. “What’s the average age of a Sweeper recruit?” he asked.

“Eighteen to twenty is pretty average. We rarely get anybody younger. And never anybody as young as you. You’re a bit of a gamble I’d wager. The Elders are going to be looking to you for answers. I think they want to see what you become. You’ll be the product of intense training at an incredibly tumultuous period of your life. But it’s also one of the most influential times as well. Your growth isn’t quite done, you haven’t been fully formed by the world and so you’re more malleable to both ideas, discipline and the training on both body and mind. I don’t think they’ve made any preformed opinions of you or your progress yet. Right now they’re just matching you to some of the best timetables of other Sweepers. And even with the duality of your training, you’re still blowing them away,” answered Alkir.

Mat furrowed his brows and pressed his lips together in thought. He didn’t particularly like being the center of attention. Especially not if the work he was doing was going to somehow affect the lives of so many others. As if I don’t already have enough pressure to perform.

“How old were you?” he asked.

Alkir’s eyes widened slightly at that, he hadn’t expected that question. “I was sixteen. Until you came I was the youngest Sweeper to ever be recruited” he replied.

Mat grinned at that. “So I beat you at something,” he taunted.

Alkir looked flatly at Mat, the slightest twitch of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “Nobody likes a braggart Matren,” Alkir chastised.

Mat rolled his eyes and focused. I can beat seventy paces. I can beat sixty, even fifty. My limits are my own to choose. He Displaced and felt the stomach churning force of his stop just before he reappeared. Only his lower half had actually stopped. His upper body seemed to miss the meeting and he nearly doubled over enough to touch his toes. He tried to play it off by swiping the chalk to form another line. He was glad for once that he didn’t have to eat. He was so nauseated that he had to focus on the floor in order to stop from emptying the lack of contents in his stomach. His eyes unfocused as he bent all his mind towards calming his stomach and preventing a bout of dry heaving. So it wasn’t until quite a while after he had written it that he noticed the number. Ten. He hazarded a look in Alkir’s direction. He had seen it already. I can’t erase it now. He cursed in his head, every oath he had ever heard. He hadn’t intended on this, he didn’t want this. But there was truth to it. He knew he could barely keep himself upright after that.

“That’s it, huh?” asked Alkir, he was leaning down, hands on his thighs as he stared at the numbers, “Looks like both of us were wrong.”

Mat looked at him. “I can do better,” he managed to choke out.

“Why do you sound so depressed? Do you even know how far this is?” he asked, staring Mat in the eyes.

Mat looked down at the numbers and then to the line before. Generally he was able to work in five to ten pace steps. But this was farther than that, it was by far the largest step he had made in his testing. By Mat’s estimation he was about twenty to twenty-five paces from his last measurement, which was seventy paces. He stared, dumbfounded at it. “That’s, this is under fifty paces?” Mat asked thickly.

“Forty-four from the door actually. It’s an amazing feat, even if it is your limit. You should be more than proud!”

Mat couldn’t help but frown and stare at the line. It was a physical, material representation of his failings. All his strength and willpower ceased right there. It was a painful and shaming reminder of where his limits were. Nothing he could do would change that line, it was the outer limits of his abilities. He cursed the line in his head. He was done. Mat turned on his heels and began to stride out of the room, but Alkir caught his shoulder.

“Mat, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing, I don’t want to do anything more with Displacement. Can I just go do the cerelune immersion a day early?” Mat practically pleaded.

Alkir looked at the multitude of white lines. He thought Mat was making amazing progress. He was able to Displace less than a third of where he was just days ago. The difference was monumental and yet Mat was clearly distressed. Alkir shrugged and shook his head at him.

“No, I’m afraid not. We need to wait until long enough or you’ll start showing signs of poison. If you’re feeling up to it, I can show you some forms. If you’re sure you don’t want to work on Displacement more. You still have distance testing to do, as well as blind trials you wanted to run. The choice is yours, but I would suggest staying the course, at least until after your cerelune immersion,” said Alkir.

Mat crossed his arms and turned around. Alkir made sense, he usually did but that didn’t make it any easier for Mat to make a decision. He didn’t want to be reminded of his limitations, but at the same time if he learned something new it would obviously showcase his limitations there as well. So with a resigned sigh he dropped his arms and sagged his shoulders.

“Fine. I’ll keep up with Displacement. I don’t know how much further I’ll be able to get though,” Mat warned.

“By all that is righteous and pure, if you don’t make inhumanly large jumps in skill and aptitude you must be an utter disappointment my dear boy!” Alkir replied, his words dripping with satire.

Mat rolled his eyes at Alkir. “Pick a room, somewhere that I can try and go,” he prompted.

“Try going just outside the door and down the hall. Something simple, before you make everything theatrical,” said Alkir.

Mat looked back at the shut door and thought of what was beyond, of the hall and the layout there. He had a rough estimation of how many steps it was, and he chose a point fifty paces out. Enough that he would have moderate difficulty perfecting his landing, but not so far that it made it easy, and not too short as to make it nearly impossible. He focused on the memory and feeling of his mother, the same that he had been using the entire time. He held it close and set his sights on Displacing. He knew the steps now, the dance of effort, focus, clarity and force was growing familiar. The shadows whipped across him, blinking him from the room and he appeared soundlessly on the other side of the door, some forty paces down the hallway. Mat’s breathing had quickened, almost like he had run the distance himself. His blood was pumping and he was more fatigued than normal.

Without turning around he focused on doing a Displacement backwards. He had never tried it before and was not the least bit sure it would work. It felt awkward, about as strange as it felt when running backwards without turning to look where he was going. Everything about it felt wrong, but he was able to carry it out. He felt like a small boat in the middle of the ocean with a gentle current slowly turning him. When he appeared back in the room, he was angled to his right, like he had slightly shifted his feet but he knew he did no such thing. Mat stared at his feet and the room curiously. He wasn’t quite sure how that happened.

For the rest of the time that remained Mat focused on multi-directional Displacements. He found that he could in fact change his orientation and not only face a different direction but proceed in that direction as well. The only limitation he found was that he had to move in a straight line from one point to the next. There was no way he could curve or circle around without making a circle out of a series of several Displacements. The quicker he performed a Displacement without a period of resting the more drained and sickly he became. If he instead gave himself a brief period of recovery he could suffer several more Displacements.

Regardless of how much he rested in between, he had a finite number before he couldn’t Displace properly anymore. It was like a runner’s stamina, eventually there existed no more energy for Mat’s muscles to properly work and they begin to fail in different ways. Magic appeared to have a similar system in play. Different degrees of stamina were consumed based on how difficult or long his Displacement was. The more control or different his Displacement was, the more it cost him. Displacement during combat was all but useless. He couldn’t concentrate enough while Alkir set up a mock attack on him despite how soft he was on him. At any rate Mat’s minimum was forty-four paces. Any fight Mat was going to get into the middle of would surely exist at a closer range than that. While he could use Displacement to get close quickly, it was of little use in actual combat. He would have to perfect Displacement to within five to ten paces to be effective in the sort of fighting he was likely to see.

Mat was able to Displace rather easily into his room from the training room. Something Mat deeply appreciated. It meant every night he wanted to sleep, he could sleep in a real bed. Alkir was admittedly jealous, he’d still have to walk to his rooms or stay and sleep on a cot and wait for Mat to come back in the morning. It was a good exercise anyways considering how far above and away Mat’s room was. Before the last night was over, Mat told Alkir that he would meet him in the cerelune observation room as soon as he was up. Mat Displaced to his room and after finding his balance, staggered over to his bed.

He removed his boots, he had talked to Alkir about them and chose a mid-length ankle support that would bend if he forced it to, but otherwise gave greater support to his ankles. They provided him with a much easier time of landing after each Displacement, the force of which was greatly absorbed by the new, earthy brown, soft leather boots. The laces went just about up to the ankle, giving him just enough support without hampering his natural range of motion with his ankles.

He slid his boots just under his bed at the halfway mark and slithered into bed. He rolled around until the sheets and thick blankets clung to him and wrapped him tight like swaddling cloth. He always had felt content and calm when he could feel like he was crammed somewhere small, some place nobody else could see or reach him. The thought of willful isolation was a peaceful and comforting one. With his blankets curled tight around him and his arms pressed against his chest he shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow he would be back in the cerelune chamber. He didn’t know if he’d be deeper this time or Alkir had something entirely else in mind, but he was eager to continue his training. It wasn’t until just before he drifted off to sleep that he had the idea to practice Displacement inside the cerelune. If there was anywhere that could help strengthen his Displacing at a fast pace, it would be there. What he didn’t think of however was how strenuous and difficult the cerelune makes anything and everything, much less an act as complicated and trying as Displacement.

The following day, Mat woke up bright and early. The sun was streaming in bright clear bands through his window, lighting up his room with brilliant colorless light. He swung his legs over the side of his bed and slipped his feet into his boots. Bending down to tie his shoes he ran through the location and mapped the general path from his bedroom to the cerelune observation room. He went over it again and again, making sure every detail was right, every step accounted for. And then, hands on his knees he concentrated. The boy of only thirteen disappeared from his room. The bright light did nothing to halt the shadows that blinked him out of existence.

Displacing over a long distance was difficult in an entirely different way than short distance was. Short distance Displacing was difficult due to the required speed in which Mat had to act to land properly. Long distance Displacement on the other hand was a completely different beast. The actual act of Displacement was hard and far more draining, while the upswing was that he had plenty of time to adjust himself, enough that he could always perfectly control the landing. Any Displacement over two hundred paces was easy for him to guide and navigate. The terms he used for orienting himself and appearing at a full and complete stop instead of maintaining the momentum that made short range Displacement so difficult and brutally painful. The longer distance Displacements made him weak, the nausea was more a product of short Displacements, while longer more complicated ones left him weak and cold. It was not uncommon for him to emerge from shadow with frost and ice clinging to his clothing and hair.

On this particular day, he emerged inside the observation room fully standing with frost rime thick in his hair and clinging to his clothing. He shook it out as the frost quickly surrendered to the heat, forming tiny beads of water. Alkir, of course, was already there waiting for him and snacking on what looked to be a full spread of bacon, eggs, sausage and pancakes smothered in butter and drowning in syrup. Mat looked at it disdainfully.

His eyes flicked up to Alkir, who had paused with a fork halfway to his mouth to stare back. “You eat a lot when I first see you in the mornings,” said Mat.

“That would be what we civilized folk call, ‘Breakfast’ it’s a good meal to start the day. If I recall you liked this Breakfast business quite a lot until you didn’t need to eat. And trust me, once you can eat again, you’ll barely be able to keep yourself sated. Some part of your body will remember how much food it’s missed and try desperately to compensate. Besides, whenever you first see me is usually not too long after I’ve decided that I’ve been up long enough, I should eat,” replied Alkir.

Mat crossed his arms at him. “Right. Is there anything different this time, do I go into a lower chamber or anything?” asked Mat.

“Oh, no, no no. Nothing like that! You’re going back to the same place, only this time you’re going to actually do the obstacle course. You’ll keep doing it, progressively aiming to beat your previous times and accuracies. I modified the obstacles so that you get the most out of it. Primarily balance and orientation, the very things you have a fundamental issue with. By the time you’re done your balance, coordination and flexibility should be orders of magnitude higher. I think it’ll really help you out with your Displacement, particularly your short stopping, I noticed that your rating of ten was particularly hard on you. This should help you to learn how to use your body and its center of gravity to your advantage, rather than letting it dictate your movements. But, I think I’ve talked long enough, you’ll see exactly what I mean when you go inside, so go ahead,” he said, shooing Mat with a waving hand.

Mat raised his hands in protest and stalked off towards the ladder. He quickly climbed up it, fairly proud of the massive difference between this session and last. He hadn’t ever expected such a massive improvement, and he thought that perhaps Alkir was right. Maybe Mat did expect too much of himself. But if he didn’t, then he might get complacent, and that was the last thing Mat ever wanted. He set his foot down on the stone floor of the room above and found his mask still lying on the table. He picked it up, it was remarkably light and yet rigid as steel. He handled it, turning it around in his hands. It didn’t seem particularly special, white with some slight cerelune blue staining, but he couldn’t make out how he was able to breathe with it on. There were some sections that looked similar to tightly woven mesh, but when he felt them and pressed against it, it was as hard as steel and wouldn’t give.

He flipped it around and placed it onto his face. It adhered tightly under his jawline and around his nose and cheekbones. Just to be sure he double and triple checked the seals and made sure to press hard on it to make sure it wouldn’t move. Without any prompting he went to the door, and then promptly realized he had no idea how it opened. He looked around until he found a small tiled piece of stone that was slightly askew. He twisted it so it was properly aligned, no more than a fraction of an inch, and the doorway slid open. He smiled to himself and walked in, descending down the stairs. The familiar pressure and weight of the cerelune was comforting. His ankles felt stiff and pressed in on from all sides. He made his way slowly, but not by choice. He couldn’t move quickly within the cerelune, it perfectly mimicked the conditions of Displacement. Whenever he attempted to correctly exit or land as he referred to it, his movements were sluggish and anemic. Before the cerelune immersion however he thought and felt it was impossible to do anything with Displacement. And he was certain even if he had found the window of influence he would not have been capable, or strong enough to do anything about it.

The cool cerelune washed up past his navel as he continued down the steps, making his breathing hard as it pressed tightly on all sides. He had to breathe intently and deliberately through his stomach now. His diaphragm, some muscle that Alkir had explained was responsible for breathing, had grown a lot stronger since he had been immersed. Breathing was something he still needed to focus on, but it was not a deliberate struggle as it had once been. Before he had crawled and screamed in agony and anger at his abject failure. Now he walked beneath the glassy surface of the cerelune with his head held high and his back straight. It might have been a wholly different person in his place, the difference was so stark. He made it into the main chamber and opened his eyes wide to see what obstacles Alkir had laid out for him. The whole room had been transformed with high walls blocking his sight of other obstacles. The room was made up of labyrinthine passages made up of high white walls that would set him upon his path.

There was only one way to go from where he stood. He turned left and looked at the long hall made out of tall white walls bolted together. He walked over to one, idly curious and pressed upon it. It did not yield. He pressed harder and threw up his entire force against the wall but only came back with a bruised shoulder. Then he smiled to himself and shut his eyes. He could Displace at will by now and all he’d have to do is move a few paces to his right and pass through the wall. Then again, he had no idea what was on the other side and he might be walking into a trap or at the very least a painful landing. And then there was the ever present issue that such acts of ‘peeking’ may be misconstrued as cheating by his Sosen. A thing he most definitely did not want to be accused of. So he relaxed and let loose his hold on the shadows that were poised to whisk him away. He would do as Alkir wanted, and be proud of completing this course as Alkir had intended.

Mat cleared his mind and shut his eyes. The cerelune pressed in from all sides, always forcing his feet flat against the stone flooring. He was grateful for his boots, they provided better grip than his feet had but they also added to his weight and small as it may seem within the cerelune it was indeed significant. He thought about taking them off. The added weight might actually be better in the long run. And so he kept them on with the hope that the added weight might help with his ankle’s inherent weakness. He was still a rather small boy of thirteen. He had plenty of growing to do, or at least that’s what Alkir had told him. Mat wasn’t quite sure he believed him. He had always been small even among other children and so it was natural to him that he would remain small as he grew older. Even with those words, Alkir expressed that he wasn’t sure what the cerelune would do to his growing bones. Nobody as young as Mat – that was just going through puberty – had ever been through cerelune immersion, much less been inducted into the Sweepers. I’m basically a test subject in a lot of ways. Alkir, the Elders, nobody really knows how I’ll turn out. But I do. I know who I am. My name is Matren Kurnal, and there will be none who stand as my equal.

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