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Chapter Six - Dissonance

Alkir and Mat were met by several large groups of Sweepers gathered around fenced-in circular arenas where controlled sparring and demonstrations were happening. Other areas had stages of obstacle courses and traps that had to be discovered and disarmed. The grass was cut short but was hardy. All the foot traffic had barely worn away the grass. It was bouncy underfoot, giving a playful spring to Mat’s step. Alkir turned, angling his way through a crowd of Sweepers who were watching an instructor with great intent. The whole of the castle grounds were protected in part by the massive crenellated wall facing the mines. The rest of the grounds had only a much smaller, five pace wall that allowed a free look over the churning waters below. There was no need for a large wall except to prevent people from slipping to their deaths below. There was only one way in or out of the grounds. The only other option was to use a glider to leap off the cliff and sail into the great lake below. Only the side facing the mines had any path remotely accessible. All other directions were guarded by large expanses of air and the sheer drop below.

The grizzled man in the ring stood tall like a rearing bear. His eyes were pale chips of sky blue. His thick, well-groomed beard was crisscrossed with thin pale scars. He was shirtless, with a towering muscled form. His shoulders were thrice as wide as Mat’s and each of his arms were almost as big around as Mat’s waist. The steely bands of thick muscle were intermingled with wide scars a few shades darker than his tanned body. He looked every bit a beast masquerading as a man. He wore simple black pants that strained with the effort of containing his trunk-like legs. His black, scuffed turned-down boots rose halfway up his calves. Not in a thousand years would Mat wish to meet a man even half his equal on the battlefield, and he was looking right at Mat.

“Ho, there Alkir! Come to show off your skill to your young charge eh?” the man barked in a deep booming voice.

Alkir waved him off. “Not today Alstyr.”

The hulking monstrosity known as Alstyr didn’t seem deterred as he stalked towards the edge of the ring closest to them. Sweepers naturally moved aside to give him a clear view of Mat and Alkir. Mat was almost surprised that his steps didn’t shake the ground like thunder. “Come on Alkir, none of this pups have what it takes to spar with me! Do you really want to set an example of cowardice for your pupil? Tsk, tsk Alkir. You don’t want the boy learning bad habits at this stage. You know how impressionable they are. But if you don’t think you can take me,” Alstyr said, purposefully trailing off with a resigned shrug of his massive shoulders.

Mat saw the effect his words had on his Sosen. Alkir stiffened just enough for Mat to perceive just a pace from him. His pace slowed and then came to an abrupt stop. He turned sharply to the ring to stare at Alstyr. The vicious, threatening gaze would have the most seasoned soldier shaking with fright, but Alstyr just grinned, revealing his pearly white teeth with prominent canines. He looked half-feral, and given the choice between the two Mat would bet on Alstyr every time. He didn’t want to see Alkir hurt, he knew he had been out searching for Mat for a long while and probably hadn’t slept in a day or two. It didn’t seem particularly fair to be goaded into a fight. Mat reached out to Alkir, but Alkir held up a hand and Mat froze in his tracks.

He turned and smiled at Mat. “I know what I’m doing Mat. I appreciate your concern, but it’s not necessary.”

Alkir strode to the fence, placed a hand on the metal railing and hopped effortlessly over it, cloak fluttering at his ankles. He landed gingerly on the ground. He strode up to Alstyr and stared him in the eye. Alkir was at least half his girth and nearly a head shorter. Mat couldn’t understand how he could stand in front of such a beast without flinching or cowering in fear. As far as he was considered, anybody who would stand in front of Alstyr like that must have some sort of death wish. He followed through the closing gap of Sweepers, standing on the bottom rung of rails that made up the fence. He almost didn’t want to watch what would happen and idly wondered, if Alkir is brutally killed by this mountain of muscle would I get assigned a new Sosen?

With one smooth motion Alkir unzipped the front of his cloak, and tossed it in Mat’s direction. Mat scrambled to grab it and hold it close for his Sosen, quickly folding it down so he could see the two men. Alkir wore a simple high collared shirt beneath his cloak. His pants were simple and nondescript with short ankle-high boots that gleamed with fresh polish. Alkir’s forearms were wrapped in tight white bandages that showed off his lean muscle, his arms weren’t even a quarter the size of Alstyr’s. His hands were still covered by black gloves that shifted like shadow under the glaring sun. He stood tall like a man meeting his executioner face to face.

“What’re the stakes?” Alkir asked. There was a hint of amusement in his voice.

Alstyr grinned. “First one to the knock down the other,” he proclaimed. His booming voice carried far and wide, drawing in additional crowds of Sweepers until the entire ring was circled in black-clad Sweepers of all ages and callings.

A young man with silver-gray hair and a swaggering gait walked up beside Mat and propped his elbows on the top rail. “Oh, this is going to be good,” he said to Mat.

Mat looked over, the man had features that marked him different than most of the faces circled around the ring but similar to himself and Alkir. He wore robes similar to Alkir, though the markings on the cuff were laced with blood-red, like his eyes. Mat had never seen a person with red eyes before and he stared more than he had intended. “Um, sorry, what?” Mat choked out.

The man smiled and let out a soft chuckle. “Name’s Letro, and you’re the new inductee, Matren right? It’s a pleasure,” he said extending his hand and shaking Mat’s, “I was saying this is going to be a good show. I don’t think half the Sweepers here will see a good showing like this for a long while.”

“I don’t think it’s very fair for somebody so big to be making fun of somebody so much smaller. Alkir’s not even half as wide as that guy!” Mat objected.

Letro shook his head, his tousled hair waved side to side. “Just watch,” he said, giving Mat an admonishing elbow, “and have some faith in your Sosen!”

Mat grumbled to himself and set his eyes on the match again. Alkir hadn’t moved a muscle since he looked away. Alstyr backpedalled a few feet, until there was enough space between them that neither could throw the first punch and connect. Alstyr mockingly motioned Alkir to come at him with all he had. Both of their stances changed drastically in that moment. Alstyr lowered himself, his feet widened and his arms bent sharply at the elbows with his hands poised, fingers wriggling like he was expecting to wrestle a bear.

Alkir seemed as calm as ever but to Mat there were a multitude of tiny differences that made Alkir seem entirely different. His shoulders hung but there was a slight restraint in the way they swayed as he began to circle Alstyr. His normally straight gait was a rolling lope, like that of a cat stalking prey. His eyes were focused and sharp, all but murderous. Mat suddenly began to wonder if there was something more to Alkir than he had given him credit for.

As quick as lightning Alkir dove in, weaving between the hefty, thunderous strikes Alstyr was throwing. Not to be outdone Alstyr feinted with his right and when Alkir fell for it, jabbed at his temple with his left. Alkir hardly had time to throw up his fists to guard but that’s not all they did. As soon as Alstyr’s fist grazed the backs of Alkir’s, his hands flicked themselves out like a striking cobra and wrapped themselves with white-knuckled force around Alystyr’s wrist. With a ferocious twist he threw Alstyr over his shoulder like he was a ragdoll. Alstyr righted himself mid-air and landed hard on one knee, but he recovered quickly and took off sprinting towards Alkir.

Alkir and Alstyr weaved their attacks about one another, with only the barest of contacts. A graze here, a deflected strike there, but neither man could bring a direct hit to bear. Alkir bounced around on the balls of his feet, grinning like a madman. Mat was beginning to see the advantages of being light on one’s feet, but it was something more than that. Both men were smart and tactful in battle. Alstyr used feints and combinations of strikes to drive Alkir where he wanted. Only, every time Alstyr cornered Alkir, he slipped right through his fingers, sometimes almost literally. It was like watching a predator corner its prey, only to realize that the prey was the one luring the predator.

Letro clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Alkir’s not even trying, look at that flagrant showboating! You know that’s for you kid.”

Mat raised his brow at him. “Why would Alkir play with Alstyr? A single wrong move or mistake and Alstyr will connect one of those attacks and I don’t even think Alkir could take more than one of those hits and stay standing. He’s already taken a few grazes and looks worse for wear.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Alkir’s taken and thrown away no less than five prime knock-outs. Alstyr doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into, but I think he’s beginning to understand just what he’s gotten himself into,” answered Letro.

As Letro inappropriately whistled and clapped Alkir rolled off what should have been a knock-out cross from Alstyr. Alkir twisted under Alstyr’s reach and deftly ducked a desperate swing from the left, while placing his own elbow deep into Alstyr’s rippled gut. Mat was shocked by how deep it went, as if the steely bands of muscle were little more than fluff. Alkir leapt and placed a hard boot into Alstyr’s doubled over head, the severe push launched the two men in opposite directions. Alkir flipped backwards over himself, landing with a spring on the balls of his feet. While Alstyr was cast to the ground with a hearty thud and tumbled backwards over himself. He managed, somehow, to right himself and end up on his knees. Not quite down, but definitely hurting. He bared his teeth at Alkir like a wounded animal, but didn’t get up as quickly as he had before.

“Do you see it now, Matren?” Letro asked, though he didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “Alkir’s dictating the terms of the fight. There’s many a way to win a fight, one of the hardest but most effective is to choreograph the fight to your preferences. It requires a lot of quick thinking and strategic analysis, and either previous knowledge of your opponent or risking real harm by getting close and dirty. Alkir chose to get close, take a few glancing blows to see what Alstyr was made of. He had a bit of fun with him too, letting him think he was leading Alkir into a trap and then wriggling out at the last moment.

“Regardless, both of them are formidable fighters. Alstyr won’t go down without a fight, especially not after this shaming. He’s built like a tank, that one. It’ll take a lot to bring him down.”

Mat watched the ongoing match while listening to Letro’s analysis. He could see that Alkir was waiting for Alstyr to make a move. Both Sweepers were well aware of the paradigm shift, and now both were deciding how they were going to continue. Alkir waited patiently for Alstyr to get back to his feet. He didn’t seem the least bit tempted by Alstyr’s weakened state. When Alstyr rose to his feet and moved his hands from his abdomen, a deep purpling bruise had blossomed over his midsection. Alstyr rushed like a stampeding bull at Alkir, but could only stand a brief exchange of blows before he leapt out of range to catch his breath. He took more than his fair share of hits from that exchange and his hand once again moved to clutch his stomach.

“Ah, I see now. The match is pretty much over already. That’s a bit of a shame,” pouted Letro.

“What? He was only hit twice and his head doesn’t even seem affected at all. How can you say that?” asked Mat.

“Look at how Alstyr is breathing, see how his chest is rising and falling?” he pointed out to Alstyr.

“I’m not blind. I can see he’s breathing, but what’s that matter?”

“Because he’s breathing from his chest, true breathing, deep full breaths come from the abdomen. If you can’t breathe in completely you won’t have enough air for your muscles to work properly. If your muscles don’t work properly, they’ll grow weary faster and you can’t maintain the same stamina and form. That’s why Alstyr didn’t put the pressure on Alkir. Not because he didn’t want to, but because he couldn’t. He can barely catch his breath. No, this fight is over. They both know it by now too, but I don’t see Alstyr letting it end.”

“Why doesn’t Alkir take his advantage and close in on Alstyr?” asked Mat.

“Alkir’s trying to give Alstyr the opening to surrender or call off the bout. All Alkir has to do is press Alstyr and keep on the offensive. After a few minutes of close-range combat Alstyr will either pass out from lack of oxygen or Alkir knock him out. If you can remove the basic necessities from your opponent in battle, you’ll win the fight more times than not. Range of motion, mobility, sight, hearing, circulation and respiration are all the key aspects of a fighter. Take any of those out and you can just about dictate the terms of their surrender.”

Letro made sense, but that was like asking Mat to touch the moon. The advice was sound, but the path to doing any of that seemed forever out of his reach. The battle had stalled out in the arena but not a single Sweeper in attendance dared peel their eyes away. Alkir, finally bereft of patience darted towards Alstyr. When he was barely within grasping range, Alstyr swiped at him in a pathetic attempt to swat Alkir away. Even by Mat’s standards it was a move of desperation. It wasn’t until Mat saw Alstyr’s body pivot on his right forward foot and his right arm swing out in like a hook that he understood what had happened. Apparently Alkir had been fooled as well and without any room to negotiate, Alstyr closed his right arm around Alkir’s midsection and crushed Alkir against his body. The brutal one-armed bear hug looked torturous. Alkir groaned in pain as Alstyr squeezed harder.

Caught unaware as he was, Alkir only managed to have one arm free when he was grabbed. But as close as he was most of his strikes were ineffective. For a moment the two locked eyes, and there was a terse exchange between them. When it was over Alkir shrugged and mouthed, “so be it.” Despite the bone-crushing vice that was tightening, he calmly flattened out his free hand. He gingerly placed the tip of fingers against Alstyr’s chest on his left side.

“Oh, Alstyr, you stubborn, stubborn fool,” Letro said piteously.

“What’s going on?” asked a riveted Mat, nearly leaning over the rails.

“Alkir is about to demonstrate an incredibly hard form called, ‘As The Bough Breaks.’ Keep watching and be quiet, you’ll understand soon enough.”

Mat was about to speak out when it happened. It was over in a flash. Alkir collapsed his fist into the point the edge of his flattened hand was resting upon. It was faster than a snap but the sound was similar. A sharp crunch like a stalk of celery being stepped on echoed across the arena, followed by the sharp gasps of the Sweepers encircling Alkir and Alstyr. For a moment Alstyr didn’t even react, his face had been contorted into a mix of smug satisfaction and pained exertion. His eyes were the first to react, popping wide open in pain. His right arm released Alkir and he staggered back in shock. Even before Alkir whipped about, crashing the back of his fist into the side of Alstyr’s face, blood dribbled from the side of his mouth, staining his grizzled beard a deep crimson.

Alstyr wobbled to the side, his eyes were unfocused and glazed. For a brief moment Alkir tensed as if to pounce, but something changed in his eyes and he relaxed considerably. He stood upright, pressed two fingers to Alstyr’s chest and pushed him over. The bear-like man fell backwards like a felled tree. He crashed to the ground and didn’t get up, much less move. Alkir walked away from him, his eyes were bloodshot and his normally placid features were livid with bright blooms of crimson across his face. He hopped over the railing just as effortlessly as before, snatching the cloak from Mat. He nodded a greeting to Letro before continuing through the crowd that split in half to give him a wide berth. Mat waved goodbye to Letro, hurrying to catch up to his mentor.

A thousand questions popped up into Mat’s mind. He could not have imagined Alkir would win by such a large margin. He wanted Alkir to teach him how to do that. He wanted to know how to perform, As The Bough Breaks. He wanted so many things, but most of all he wanted to be Alkir, right then and there. When he realized that being Alkir’s apprentice was the next best thing, he made a personal vow to be the hardest working pupil in the history of the Sweepers. If he was ever going to be as strong as Alkir was one day, he’d have to take his training seriously and neglect nothing. Mat stood a little taller and tried to walk at Alkir’s side, he zipped up his cloak like Alkir was doing so he looked every bit as proper as his Sosen.

The great walls of the castle and its many floors reared up ahead of them like a great stony beast. Its many glinting windows looked down upon them with judgmental stares. Mat stuck as close to Alkir as he could without looking like a child next to his mother. He felt comforted that Alkir would not only be a good teacher, but capable of protecting him come what may. Had Alkir been older, Mat may have come to think of him as a father.

No sooner had they made their way up the wide, steep steps and inside the iron-bound gates did two Sweepers descend upon Alkir like carrion birds. They spoke in terse, quiet tones and then stepped back expectantly. Alkir turned to Mat. “Reshvin here will take you back to your room Mat. Go ahead without me, I’ll be on my way shortly,” he said. His sparkling teeth dazzled but his eyes were filled with warning. Mat nodded without skipping a beat and smiled back. Mat had been right, something was wrong and Alkir was in trouble and he doubted it had anything to do with the spar outside.

Alkir strode onward, his brisk pace leaving the Sweeper at his side several steps behind forcing him to awkwardly jog to catch up. Mat turned to the other Sweeper, a man called Reshvin. He had his hood up but long strands of platinum blonde gathered by his high cheekbones. His eyes were the color of milkweed. His skin was pale and ivory like it had never known the sun. He was smaller than Alkir but still world’s larger than Mat. He motioned stiffly for Mat to follow behind him and stalked wordlessly up the stairs set into the wall on the left. Their large curving bannister was made of polished ebony and it shone like an oil slick. The entryway to the castle was plain, a scattering of deep and well-worn rugs with a tall cathedral ceiling and several stairways to differing floors. From here all points of the castle appeared to converge.

As Mat followed Revshin up the stairs he looked at the various paintings of nameless Sweepers in ebony frames. Revshin caught him looking and slowed to let Mat stare into the faces of men and women he would never know. “They are the fallen among us. They gave life so we can live,” he said in a thick northern accent, “We remember fallen brothers and sisters. We honor and we give thanks. They line halls to our home so we remember that it still stands with thanks to them.”

Mat looked at the paintings. Some were ancient and were cracked and peeling, while others were so recent the paint would have smeared if he touched it. As they ventured up onto the third floor Mat began to recognize where they were. The various busts and tapestries had an air of familiarity to them though Mat was certain he hadn’t walked this hall yet. When he turned a corner and went up to the fourth floor and came out a small stone alcove, Mat knew where he was. He had passed this very same alcove a few nights ago when he was out of his room and unable to sleep. That meant his room wasn’t too far, a two lefts and a right were all it would take to see him back to his apartment. The oiled bronze sconces flickered with a brighter light than usual.

Revshin set the pace just enough that Mat had trouble keeping up without jogging and his legs were tired enough from all the walking so far. He remembered the look Alkir had given him and stayed quiet however. He wouldn’t cause any trouble. Not until he found out what was going on, he didn’t want to make whatever punishment Alkir was undertaking any worse. It was Mat’s fault for Displacing so far away. He had never thought how it might worry the Elders, that Mat’s powers couldn’t be controlled. Mat made a mental note to talk to Alkir about it, perhaps only test his powers when the two were alone and any lack of control could be hidden.

Just as Mat had remembered, two lefts and a right brought him to his doorstep. It was hard to imagine he hadn’t seen his room, much less a bed of any kind for the past few days. Revshin opened the door for Mat and stood to the side stiffly. Mat looked at him curiously. He had opened then closed his mouth a few times with the intent to say something, but nothing came to him. The silence lingered and grew thick with dismissal. Mat lowered his head and passed over the threshold into his empty room. Before he could grasp the door handle and shut the door himself, it swung shut and latched. Mat stared at the door handle a moment, wondering what would happen if he tried to open it, would it be locked? Was he now a prisoner? No, that wouldn’t make sense. I’ve already demonstrated that I can Displace out of their reach, locks and doors would be useless. They must know that.

Mat lingered at the doorway for a few more minutes before forcing himself across the room, but he only managed a few steps before something struck him as odd. The carpet was the same color, same size and seemed absolutely no different than before. And yet Mat couldn’t help but think something was very off about it. He hadn’t particularly liked the rug to begin with, but now he wanted nothing to do with it. He realized it was an incredibly odd and perhaps even paranoid reaction to something completely innocuous. But no matter how he rationalized it, or understood it, he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He crossed the rest of the way to his bed, giving the carpet a wide berth as if it were a wild animal sitting in the middle of his room. He sat on the bed and stared at it. The entire room was wrong now and he knew that anywhere he’d sit would be simply wrong until either the carpet or himself was removed.

For longer than Mat would have ever admitted, he stared at the carpet, waiting for something to happen. He knew the carpet wasn’t alive, it wasn’t a monster or capable of movement, and yet he waited with full expectations. He was tired. More tired than he had been in several months, the last few days had cost Mat dearly in every way that a young boy could expose oneself to. The bed was enticing, just as comfortable and pillowy as a cloud, but he couldn’t let himself fall asleep. He had to watch the carpet, had to figure out just why he was so intent on it. What was it that he wasn’t seeing, but could feel? He wanted to act but was too afraid of what might happen. The ridiculously illogical nature of his thoughts made him start to question his own sanity. How could a rug possibly be dangerous? As he pondered over the many questions he had for himself and for the rug, there came a sharp rapping on the door.

Too engrossed in his obsessive thoughts, the knocking didn’t remotely register. Another repetitious beat, louder this time. Yet still Mat did not respond. A low murmuring, a sharp exchange between two heated voices and then Mat’s door swung open. Alkir swooped in, marching towards the bed a few steps before realizing Mat was awake. He twisted and flung the door shut. It latched tightly and rattled the doorframe. Alkir turned back to Mat, his face open and concerned. His mouth remained closed but Mat could see it twitch and work this way then that in an effort to speak. But nothing came out. He stared at Mat, then the rug Mat was so intently focused on. Concern flickered to light in Alkir’s eyes and he began to stride towards Mat, right in the path of the rug.

“Stop! Go around it!” Mat screamed with more panic and fear than he had hoped. His arms violently flailed like limp noodles caught in a storm.

Alkir froze mid-step, his black boot hovering just over the carpet’s edge. He looked down and pulled his foot back, taking two steps back and then circling around the room towards Mat. The look of concern only grew as he made his way to him. Mat’s eyes never peeled away from the rug. In an effort to never have the rug out of his sight at any one time, he began to blink out of sync so that one eye would remain watching while the other blinked. This gave him the very distinct image of appearing epileptic. Alkir waved his hand in front of Mat’s face, to which Mat responded with a very swift shove. He couldn’t, simply could not allow Alkir to aid the carpet.

Alkir bent down to one knee and looked at Mat, pressing his fingers to the side of his neck, the underside of his wrist and feeling his forehead with the back of his hand. Worry crept into his motions and expression. Had Mat been foolish enough to let the nefarious carpet out of his sight, he would have seen more clearly Alkir’s face. And in that moment he would have been shocked by the similarity between Alkir and his mother when she was convinced Matren was sick.

“Mat. Mat! Listen to me. You’re still suffering from some side-effects of the noxious fumes you inhaled. They can cause object specific paranoia. The carpet is just a carpet Mat. It’s not alive, it won’t hurt you and even if it magically was going to, I wouldn’t allow it. Can you please look at me? Fine, you think the carpet’s evil or wrong somehow?” Alkir marched over to the carpet, yanked it off the ground despite Mat’s frenzied panic attack and strode with it to the window.

He threw open the sash and shoved the carpet out. It caught onto a breeze and started to twist and glide along the mountainside below. The wind whipped it one way then the other as the carpet slowly drifted towards the churning ocean far below. Mat had contained himself enough to leap to the window sill and stare in disbelief. He shared a terrified glance with Alkir before remaining completely fixed on the carpet. It shifted and taunted Mat. Its freedom would be his downfall, of that Mat was absolutely sure of. He wanted to go out and burn it into ash, to tear it into a million pieces but it was gone now. Gone and released onto the world and it was all his fault.

“Oh no,” he whispered through tears, “what have I done?” Mat backed up until he was forced to sit on the bed. He pulled his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth while quietly muttering, “I have doomed us all.”

Alkir tried his best to keep a straight face while he comforted Mat. “Listen, just rest for now. I’ll be here when you get up. I’ll make sure you’re safe,” he said. Alkir pulled off Mat’s shoes and made him lie down. He quickly tucked him in and shut the window, latching it and pulling the thick wine-red curtains closed, casting the room into a ruddy twilight. He looked back at Mat, who was staring with wide-eyed fear at the ceiling. There was nothing of note, plain plaster white with no marks or distinguishing features of any kind. Alkir couldn’t seem to wrap his head about Matren’s paranoia.

“Sleep means shutting your eyes Mat. I’ll be right over here, where the carpet used to be,” said Alkir.

Mat didn’t quite believe him and briefly wondered if perhaps Alkir was the carpet in disguise. But he was exceedingly weary with fatigue and the bed was at the forefront of human comfort. Just a few minutes, I can afford that. He lied to himself. Mat shut his eyes and no sooner had darkness replaced his sight did he fall into a deep, recuperative slumber. He slept for almost a full day, which was beginning to become a worrying habit. When Mat awoke, it was nearly dusk but the sleep had been worth it. He felt clear and sound, and ready to begin his training, that of which he had put off for far too long.

Alkir was eating a ripe red apple and sitting cross-legged on the floor where Mat used to have a carpet. He looked at Alkir strangely. He was sure he used to have a carpet there. Yet, whenever he thought about the carpet his mind sharply wanted to change the subject. Mat shrugged and gave up on the issue. Missing a fairly plain looking rug was the least of his worries. By now he’d wasted nearly a handful of days either sleeping or going missing and fearing death. He wanted to begin his training in earnest even if that meant the boring work Alkir suggested, balance and strength.

He sat up and turned to face Alkir. “When can we start training?” he asked bluntly.

Alkir looked surprised by that. Surely he couldn’t have expected much else to come from Mat. “Uh, hm, I don’t know kiddo. How are you feeling today?” he asked. Alkir rose smoothly straight up until he was standing. He walked over to Mat and felt his cheeks, his forehead, neck and the insides of his wrists. “You seem better. Any irrational fears? Hatred or loathing towards rugs or scraps of cloth?”

Mat shook his head with a nonplussed expression. He had a hard time believing Alkir was actually asking such ludicrous questions. When Alkir wouldn’t stop staring at him, Mat finally spoke up, “No. Alkir, I do not have any irrational fears or disdain for rugs or anything of the cloth nature. Thank you so much for asking. Did you miss the head shaking or did you just want to listen to my dulcet tones?” Mat asked, voice rife with sarcasm.

Alkir’s eyes slid back to the empty spot on the floor he was sitting at. “How about I get you some breakfast, and then we’ll discuss your training? There’s a fair bit to discuss and, some things have changed. I’ll need to know your answers once I get back. The chamber however is ready to go at a moment’s notice, it’s been ready since the morning of your induction actually. Usually we do it the following day but, as you know, things were anything but normal with you. We’ll still want to do it as early as possible. However the side-effects you’ll have will be worse and the training itself will be harder,” said Alkir.

Mat furrowed his brow, he had no idea what he was talking about. “Did something happen last night? You’re acting completely different than usual and I understood even less of what you were talking about than normal.”

“I’ll explain when I get back with your food. Just sit tight for now Mat,” replied Alkir.

He quickly headed for the door and left the room in a hurry, shutting the door behind him quickly. Mat was left to stare into the empty silence that remained. His eyes slowly slid to the bare spot on the floor where the carpet had once been. His eyes darted away but he couldn’t help trying to steal a glance every now and again. Who would have taken his rug? Why would they for that matter? It just made no sense. Although he had no recollection of the last night, the emotions he felt were very real. And they did little to calm his nerves, waiting for answers and food as he was.

Alkir didn’t take long at all to return with a tray full of food. He shut the door behind himself with a gentle heel but instead of going to Matren, he went to the closet to pull out a small folding table. He set that up with a flick of his arm and set the tray on it with his other hand. Lifting off the polished dome of silver revealed a wide, lavish spread. Rashers of bacon, thick cuts of juicy steak strips with dipping sauce, crusty bread with bits of grain and oat baked in. He had sausage links and patties, biscuits and clotted cream, and a fat stack of fluffy golden brown pancakes with a pat of half melted butter atop. To his right he had a cup of that yellow-orange liquid that had slight foam around the inside of the glass. He had learned this was called orange juice and it was by far his favorite drink. Another glass had milk, creamy and rich, he didn’t like that very much, it made his throat feel thick after a while.

Mat unrolled the white napkin and placed it aside. An inlaid silver knife and fork gleamed in the golden light just before dusk. He looked at Alkir. Not too long ago he had tried to maim Alkir with a spoon and failed miserably. Now he had the proper tools but none of the misguided motivation. He looked back at the knife and fork then to his food. He had an entirely different victim in mind. He grinned villainously and savagely attacked his breakfast. Piling in as much food as his mouth would allow. He had to breathe through his nose lest he suffocate. Alkir looked equal parts amazed and disgusted as he watched his young ward practically inhale the massive spread of food that could have, at one point in his life not too long ago, fed Mat for a month or more.

“About your training Mat, there’re a few issues I need to make sure you’re aware of first. The first is that, normally your first round of training would begin the following morning of your induction. This couldn’t be done for several reasons with you however. It’s worth noting because the induction ceremony, the herbs and potions you ingested give you a warding effect. It opens you up to specific elements while conferring a potent, but temporary, protection from certain harms. Now normally, as I said it wouldn’t be a problem. But since they do wear off, and seeing how you’re already several days past from the ceremony, whatever protective effects they still provide you will be severely limited.

“While we could give you standardized training that most militaries use, such as years of physical training through drills and weights, we have a more radical regimen. As I mentioned before, this mountain, the Cliffs of Dyier sit upon a massive wellspring of cerelune. Cerelune is incredibly heavy for its size. And for special cases we utilize cerelune to aid in training recruits. We have a chamber where you dive into a tank of cerelune. It’s so heavy that diving isn’t really the right word, sinking might be more appropriate. The cerelune will weigh you down and the deeper you go the more powerful the effect becomes. You can think of it as a work out for your entire body, from simple breathing to arm strength and back strength. While you move around and do your obstacles and even sleep, you’ll grow stronger. Your body will adapt and the cerelune will also help to speed up that process.

“Of course we’ll monitor you the entire time. You’ll be hooked up to a small respirator that will allow you to breathe while inside. We’ll also hook you up to a lifeline that will be used to pull you out once your session is over. There will be a total of five sessions, one week in and one week out to give your body time to rest. The tank is designed like an obstacle course with false floors that can be removed to permit access to deeper sections of the tank. The deeper you go the more extreme the pressure becomes until just breathing is a chore. But because of your lack of protection I am not sure how the first session will go. After acclimatizing to the cerelune your body should adapt quickly over the course of the week. Do you have any questions Mat?” he asked.

“Cerelune, isn’t that the stuff that you said I was breathing in and I got severely loopy and almost died?”

“No, not precisely. The fumes are often noxious, you’ll not be breathing them in though,” said Alkir.

“But won’t I have it in contact with my skin? If the fumes can do that to me, can’t the liquid it comes from?”

Alkir shook his head at him. “No, it doesn’t cause the same symptoms. The potions you drank will help to negate many of the adverse effects. However you’ll get more of the negatives than if you hadn’t disappeared for a couple days between the ceremony and now. Once you come into contact with the cerelune you’ll build a resistance to it. The effects are quite fast and you’ll notice pretty soon after you begin to get them,” he said.

“It won’t burn me or leech into my skin?” asked Mat concernedly.

“Yes and no. It doesn’t burn you, but some does leech into your skin. We’ve found it has some rather agreeable properties if the side-effects can be well managed. Primarily your need to eat or drink will be eliminated for a span of time. It can’t indefinitely replace them but it does provide sustenance without the need to eat or drink. It also provides energy and a salubrious effect upon the body, mending minor wounds while restoring vigor. Often the need for sleep is completely erased or severely marginalized to the point that an hour of sleep every day or two is sufficient to feel well rested and at top form.”

“How long does that last, will I never need to eat or sleep again? Is that how you’re always up and waiting for me no matter what time I go to sleep or wake up?” inquired Mat.

“It varies per person. Typically the lack of sleep is remedied immediately upon cessation of contact. Anywhere between twelve and twenty hours past that point and most people pass out from exhaustion. The body recovers quickly though but that first night will be some of the deepest sleep of your life. As for the food, that’s more variable. Usually it only lasts two weeks from last contact,” answered Alkir.

“Sounds great,” Mat said skeptically, “but where’s the downside? I imagine if it was really as good as you make it seem without any major drawbacks everybody would have cerelune shakes in the morning instead of delicious food. So what’re the side effects Alkir?”

Alkir frowned sharply. “Yes, there are a few. Notably we screen potential recruits for the major points. Particularly of note with you would be an addiction. It can give feelings of euphoria, contentedness and absolute power. Addiction is usually only a concern for those who were born from a parent which was heavily exposed to cerelune in such a fashion that it had become part of them. Such as a high ranking Sweeper,” said Alkir.

“Like my mother…” Matren murmured.

“Yes,” Alkir answered solemnly, “That is by far your biggest worry. But it will also hurt, until your body stops rejecting it. Once it accepts it you’ll feel better and you will be able to see immediate responses to the training. Cerelune immersion takes what is normally done over a span of years and instead is done during a couple of months. Every so often you’ll be sent back, we have to do things a little differently with you. Mostly because of the state we found you in, of which you’re barely better from, and because of your age. There’s only so much we can do that nature will allow. If you were older your bones and muscles would be better developed and could be worked harder. As it stands there is a limit to how much we can do without damaging your development. So unlike many others, you’ll have to go through the immersion in stages as your body becomes capable of withstanding them.

“Most importantly is that you understand the risks involved. While we can monitor you, it’s ultimately your judgment that we’ll be forced to go by. We can’t know what’s going on inside of your head or how you’re feeling Mat. That’s up to you. Knowing what can go wrong and what to expect goes a long way towards managing whatever may come. Do you understand what I mean Mat?” asked Alkir, staring and waiting for a response.

“I do. I’m ready to do it Alkir. Even if I need to spread it out and wait a while between doing it so that my body is ready for it. I’ll trust your guidelines to get me to where I should be. Besides, without you I’d be dead already. That much I am certain of. I trust you’ll do what’s best Alkir and I will try my best to adhere to the training set forth,” said Mat.

Alkir was speechless and for a moment he just looked at Mat, mouth slightly agape. It didn’t take him long however to remember the other bit of news he had to discuss with Mat. As much as he wished he could hide it from Mat, he would need his help in that. What Alkir had planned would be impossible without the full and collaborative assistance of his pupil.

“I’m glad to hear that Mat. I wondered how dedicated you may or may not be to your training. I know you didn’t live the most disciplined lifestyle and have had a hard time just getting by, knowing that makes what you are prepared to do that much more valued. But there’s something else you must know and it’s not something I would prefer to tell you if there was any other choice. The Elders want you to stop using magic. They feel it detracts from your training and that it is uncontrollable, unpredictable and dangerous. They see the potential you have and they worry that magic will detract from what they know to be a proven strength of the Sweepers.

“They want you to be a Sweeper, not a Black Magic Sweeper who ends up being far more unique and different. Part of what they feel makes the Sweepers so powerful is their general anonymity. Our clothing and armor is highly identical and for the most part we all act in concerted effort, if one of us starts disappearing and doing incredible magic, but nobody else does, well that breaks the illusion. If you were to stand out you’d be a target and people would recognize you without ever knowing who you were. Or, at least that’s their thoughts on the matter,” Alkir said evasively.

“So, you won’t let me train my magic. The very thing that sets me apart and would make me an incredibly useful member is the one thing that I am forbidden to use? How is that in any way fair Alkir?” Mat was beginning to raise his voice as he grew more persistent in his questions.

Alkir raised his hands and waved at Mat to settle down while glancing towards the door. “Keep your voice down!” he said through clenched teeth, “This is something we need to discuss quietly, do you understand Mat? Good. I don’t agree with them, but they are persistent in this and I don’t believe they think that I’ll just roll over and forget about your powers. They want monthly updates on your progress and they will personally send somebody to review you. If it turns out that your progress isn’t coming along as it should we’ll both be in trouble. They’ll believe we’re spending time training your black magic instead of actually undergoing Sweeper training.

“That means if you are sure you want to train your magic, you’ll have to train it on top of a full training regimen for your Sweeper training. That’s the only way we’ll be able to do this and I’m sorry for that Mat. But if you’re able to and you put your mind to it we’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone. We’ll be able to train both your powers and help you learn to both control and understand them, while not neglecting your Sweeper training. Should anything ever happen to your powers, you won’t find yourself completely helpless. To facilitate this incorporation I’d like to first try getting a handle on your powers first, by themselves. This will come after your cerelune immersion training of course. Once you’ve shown you can demonstrate restraint and proper control over Displacement, we’ll work it into your actual training. Okay Mat?”

Mat stared blankly into the space between them for a few moments. He couldn’t believe the Elders didn’t want him to use his magic. It didn’t make any sense. He only had a few mishaps, why would they suddenly be against it? Then the realization hit him. They were always against it, it made him different and they wanted him to be a Sweeper, not a Sweeper with Magical Powers. If he earned notoriety or fame, they must have wanted him to do it through methods they could claim originated from the Sweepers. It made sense, they had an organization to run and Mat was an errant product to them. They never said he can’t use his powers. No doubt they were hoping that with them so underdeveloped he wouldn’t be capable of their use, at least not in any way that would benefit him so greatly as to pull him apart from the other Sweepers.

He looked down at his hands, flexing them into tightly balled up fists and opening them again. There was weight to Alkir’s words, specifically the trouble they would come into should it be known he was training his powers while neglecting his Sweeper training. Mat was fairly certain that it wouldn’t just be a stern talking to. He couldn’t easily imagine what without thinking of death, but he wasn’t the sort to positively speculate about much of anything, especially when it came to human reaction. The Sweeper training was necessary, he wanted it more than anything and he wondered if he could truly do both at once without neglecting either. If he failed to control his powers then they’d be useless and the less he used them the less they’d provide the slightest shred of power. No, there wasn’t another choice. He had to do both simultaneously or else he’d lose one of them. Mat would put his whole life into training, he would allow it to fill him up like an empty vessel and permeate into every facet of his soul. He made a pact with himself there and then that he would not fail to dedicate his very life to the duality of his training. Even if it meant going against the Elder’s wishes, he would do it. To show them that they were wrong about him and to prove to himself what he was truly capable of.

“I understand Alkir. I’ll do this without question or complaint,” he said confidently, then began to hedge, “I may complain a bit.”

Alkir laughed a deep booming laugh with a bright smile afterwards. “I’m not asking you to forego being human Mat. I just need you to know what it is you’ll be doing. Most Sweepers can hardly handle the training, you’ll have to do both and it will be incredibly strenuous. I just wanted to be honest about what was going on with you. We’ll be breaking a direct command from the Elders, which is something I do not want you to think is acceptable. This is a special circumstance and as your Sosen I take full responsibility for it. You on the other hand should not make it a habit to disobey your superiors,” he said sternly, there was a foreboding warning in his voice that made Mat reflexively shiver.

“I understand Alkir. I think I like it here a little too much to go throwing it away by being insubordinate and bratty. That wouldn’t be a very good way to show my thanks for all that the Order has given me. I want to be the best Sweeper I can, and I am certain that my powers will help me in that. If not, I don’t think I would want to put myself through what is to come,” Mat said gravely.

Alkir gave him a curt nod of understanding. “Good, now that that’s settled we can get you out of here and into the cerelune chamber. First you’ll need some different clothes, they’ll feel tighter, a bit restrictive at first but you’ll get used to it,” he said.

Mat watched as Alkir stalked over to the closet, opened it and rifled through a series of hanging clothes. He finally pulled out a small lilac shirt with long sleeves and no deep vee neckline with string to tie it closed like what he had been wearing. Alkir tossed it to him and began to rummage around for something else. It flew at Mat’s face and try as he might to grab it, the thing was a lot heavier than he had anticipated and it flopped all over his face and hands. He struggled with it for a few moments. It had a weight to it and was rubbery, and obviously not woven. Mat had never worn anything like it.

He pulled off his shirt, which despite going through the rough times it did was still better and cleaner than anything he had worn the past three years. He quietly shoved it under his pillow. He didn’t want them to take it away, he’d use it again. There was a lot more use to be had from it and he wasn’t about to let them waste good clothing. While Alkir wasn’t looking he did the same with his food, scraping every last crumb and morsel into a small satchel he had been given the first week of his arrival. It joined the various other leavings that he had hidden and kept safe. It was a habit by now and one that he wasn’t like to abandon. Food could always grow scarce again and if it did he’d have some still. People always assumed just because food is old, dirty or moldy that it was unhealthy or would make them sick. Mat knew firsthand what sorts of rot and mold would make him sick, but he could always eat around it or pick it off. The rest would be edible, it might not taste good and may even be hard to keep down, but the starving had no luxury of choice. Mat knew that well.

After he had ferreted away the small satchel he began the arduous task of pulling the shirt over his head. It clung and pulled at his skin as it stuck. The harder he pulled the more it hurt until it eventually pulled free and stuck to another section of him. He managed to pull the shirt down over his head, a feat of perseverance in and of itself. I wonder if this is part of the training too? His shirt felt less like a shirt and more like an invalid was trying – much in vain – to strangle him and squeeze the life out of his entire body. Movement of any kind was greatly hampered. The stretchiness of the shirt was constantly pulling on him. His arms took four to five times as much effort to move the slightest bit and he couldn’t bend his elbows all the way because of it.

Meanwhile, Alkir had found the matching pair of pants, a darker shade of purple that was almost black. He tossed them at Mat. “Get dressed, and then we’ll go once you can walk there on your own,” he said, turning around to face away from Mat.

Mat grumbled and slipped off his pants, and tried to put one leg into the dark, stretchy pair. He struggled more than before but it was somehow easier and though it was a greater amount of struggling he didn’t have to force himself as hard as with the shirt and there was no risk of suffocation. Mat imagined gravity had played a helping hand in getting the pants on and he idly wondered how he would ever take this clothing off. The pants were made of a stiffer material than the shirt, making each subtle shift of his hips a massive undertaking. That caused Mat to be off balance more than anything and made him realize just how often he performed subtle shifts of his weight to steady himself a particular way. In doing so he strained against the material of the pants that were always pulling, squeezing and tugging on his body to remain perfectly motionless and upright. It seemed to Mat, that if he could bend over and touch his toes, and then instantly relax all his muscles the force of the material would snap him back so fast that he’d perform a flip. That or he’d fall flat on his face after tumbling backwards head over heels.

“Are these necessary? I can hardly move Alkir!” protested Mat. His arms were straight against his sides and although he had a hard time doing anything but standing ramrod straight, he never gave up trying to move.

“I’m afraid so, they’ll help strengthen your muscles. It’ll be much harder to move than that once you’re submersed Mat. Every movement will be a great effort. This is going to strengthen every muscle you use in your body. Take deep breaths. Even though it’s hard and the material tries to squeeze the air out of you, you need to take deep controlled breaths and then let them out slowly. It will help,” he said, circling around Mat appraisingly, “good, you look just about ready. Why don’t you follow me to the door?” Alkir asked, crossing so effortlessly towards the door.

Mat was jealous of Alkir’s forgiving cloak and clothing. While they were fairly snug on him there was no way they were restrictive at all. It was then that Mat remembered Alkir’s fight with Alstyr and how swift and terrible he was. Mat wanted to be like that. He wanted to surpass that and make Alkir proud. And so he struggled, one foot out like a kickstand. He leaned his body forward, another colossal effort. He began to shift his weight and he fell forward onto that foot. But without the ability to fine tune his footfall and therefore balance, he continued to lean forward until he crashed face first into the wooden planks of the floor.

Alkir winced as he watched but stood by all the same, offering no help. It was clear this was something Mat would have to do alone. “Get up Mat. Keep in mind that getting up off the floor is going to be a lot harder than your usual walking. Which you found out through firsthand experience just how difficult that can be. Come on Mat. Get up. Nobody can do it but you,” said Alkir stoically.

Mat struggled to even crane his head to the side, his whole body ached and his nose was a bright bloom of pain. He sniffed and snorted, but didn’t smell or taste any blood. At least he hadn’t broken his nose. How pathetic that would have been. With a mighty effort he managed to bend his elbows at a right angle and used the shirt’s own pulling force to snap his elbows back straight therefore pushing him up off the ground. He struggled more with the next part, making tiny strained movements and then stopping when he realized that wouldn’t work. He had tried to move to the side but the muscles on his sides were far too weak and could hardly stretch more than half an inch left or right. So that was out. Then he tried to bring his hips up so he was pitched somewhat like a tent, that didn’t work either and he quickly gave up on that.

Feeling more frustrated than ever he grumbled under his breath and tried to bring his knees up to his chest. An effort he was well aware would require far more strength than he possessed. He only could bring his knee up to his hips. That was enough he thought, and he set his foot down. Awkwardly, he shuffled his hands flat on the ground as he pushed forward with that leg. He slowly and arduously repeated this intense and challenging sort of crawling until he made it to the door. He craned his head up to look at Alkir accusingly.

“Well. I’m here!” Mat shouted between panting.

Alkir raised a single eyebrow. “I said you had to walk. Crawling doesn’t count. I don’t care how you do it Mat, but you’ve got to get up onto your feet,” he said cruelly.

Mat was beginning to rethink this whole thing. Maybe Alkir wasn’t a nice guy after all. He could just help him up this once and that’d be it. Mat wouldn’t ask again, he wouldn’t ask now, though he was sorely tempted. Rather, he was sore all over at this point. But he wouldn’t ask for help, he didn’t want Alkir to see him as weak. He would find a way and he would show Alkir he had it in him. He crawled forward a little bit, enough that his hands were just in front of the gap beneath the door. He could feel cool air from the hall gently drifting under the door and into his room. Mat had expected the outfit to be hot and stuffy, but in reality he felt practically naked. If it wasn’t for the feeling of being wrapped in industrial strength rubber bands he might have forgotten he was wearing anything at all.

One after the other Mat placed his hands further and further up the door, using it to pin all his body weight to it. He kept his feet planted firmly and used his hands to right himself until he was finally straightened out. Only now he was at a severe angle to the door. Slowly but methodically he labored through the movements until he was able to bring his feet up beneath him and stand upright next to Alkir. He stared daggers at Alkir and cursed him under his breath for giving him this suit. He held himself up against the wall adjacent to the door and tried to walk. He made slow, shuffling steps but those didn’t get him very far and only made him out of breath with the exertion.

Instead he tried waddling, swaying side to side and a bit forward so the majority of the work was carried out by momentum, gravity and the suit. While it looked absolutely ridiculous, Mat was confident he could walk this way. He cared very little for how oddly he may have looked. He wasn’t in the Order for popularity or for appearances. He was there to train and to become the best Sweeper the Order had ever seen. So with an erratic twitch of his hand, he signaled Alkir to open the door.

Alkir stared at him and his twitching but did nothing. Mat tried to flail his arms in a huff but only managed to look like he was a blade of grass being blown around in the wind. This however produced a response, but it was only a chuckle.

Mat stared hard at him. “Open the door! I’ve been motioning you to go on for a couple minutes now! It’s hard to breath!” Mat rushed.

His breathing was indeed labored and speaking only made it worse. He had to control how he exhaled as he spoke or else the suit would push all the air it could from his lungs. And he became not only short of breath but completely incomprehensible. Alkir acquiesced and opened the door inward, right in Mat’s face, forcing him to either waddle around, or use what little strength he had left in his arm to pull the door completely open against the wall. He knew he’d need all the strength he could muster, so he waddled humorlessly around the door muttering angrily the entire time.

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