Chapter 15: Broken Bonds
Ullen’s dojo looked like one of a hundred other academies for the martial arts. Wooden floors, generic Asian décor, standing bags, all the expected stuff. All of it completely meaningless, a flimsy cover to disguise the school’s true purpose from prying eyes.
Because the two dozen students who stood in neat rows in front of Ullen were not here to learn martial arts. They were here to become Elementalists.
“Do not lose your focus,” Ullen instructed as he paced the lines of students. “In combat, one slip of concentration could cost you your life.”
The students ran the gambit from eleven to sixteen, came from all walks of life, and represented every Element of the Storm and of the Earth. The room glowed in a multi-colored display as the students channeled their elements in a tight circle around themselves. Loud music and discordant beeping tones blasted at the students from the speakers that circled them, testing their ability to handle distractions.
Most were performing well. Lindis, an English boy of thirteen, was surrounded by bright sparks, his sandy hair frizzing up. Gloria, a blond girl from Germany, was almost completely covered in conjured stone. A bubble of clear blue water surrounded Zane, a massive sixteen year old from South Africa.
Unfortunately, one student was still struggling just to grasp her element. Ilma, a flyspeck of a girl with boyish features accentuated by short, reddish-brown hair, stood at the front of the center row, as she always did, a look of deep concentration on her face. The girl was a hard worker, always giving it her best, never quitting, never giving up.
The thing was, she just had no talent. Either her connection to her element was particularly weak, or her mind didn’t work in a way that was conducive to channeling. It was a shame. She was a sweet girl, and the only one of his students who was a Wind Element. Not to mention …
“She’s not channeling again,” said a voice that always set Ullen’s hackles rising.
Katja Evi, Ilma’s mother and giant pain-in-the-ass, supervised the training from her seat in the corner, though she was only really focusing on her daughter. She was a tall and slender woman, with long auburn hair that ran down her back; she would have been attractive if not for the permanent scowl that was plastered on her face, one that grew more intense as she watched her daughter struggle.
“She didn’t do too poorly yesterday,” Ullen replied, keeping his voice low so that the students wouldn’t overhear. “She had gotten a grasp on the Wind’s flow for almost a minute -”
“And yet she still couldn’t channel it,” Katji barked. “Sometimes I wonder if we I am wasting my time here. Perhaps I am better off sending her to a boarding school somewhere while I find a more productive use of my time. Of course, without me here, things do not bode well for your school.” She adjusted the way she sat so that the ‘ECT’ badge on her uniform was better displayed to make her point.
Ullen was no fan of the ECT. They were a big part of the problem. It was because of them that there were so few Elementalists, and the few there were where mostly scattered loners. The Dark God was coming, whether they believed it or not. Maybe not in his lifetime, but the signs were there, and one day soon more Elementalists would be needed to fight him. If the legends he had read were correct, it had taken more thousands of Elementalists to defeat Adaghast the first time. How many would there be to respond to the call if he returned today? A few dozen? A hundred at most?
That was the true reason behind Ullen’s school. He needed to bolster the number of Elementalists in the world. Unfortunately, that went directly against the ECT’s rules. Taking any more than a single apprentice was a good way to get a visit from one of their enforcers. It was something of a miracle that he had been able to negotiate a deal with them at all: he got his school, but an ECT representative would be oversee it, ensuring the curriculum stressed the importance of keeping their powers secret, and they’d also get first pick of any students to recruit into their ranks. It had been Katja who had brokered the deal, agreeing to act as the ECT’s representative in exchange for her daughter being taken as a student.
Which put Ullen in the unenviable position of trying to keep her happy. If she ever decided to leave her post here, her superiors would probably shut his school down.
“Give her a little more time,” Ullen whispered. “Her connection to her Element may be a little weak, but -”
“It is not!” Katja argued far too loudly. “A connection to the Wind runs in our family’s blood. Every Evi woman for hundreds of years has been born with a strong connection. She’s just not trying hard enough. It’s because you spoil her.”
Ullen took a lot of abuse from Katja in the name of appeasing her, but he wouldn’t take an insult to his teaching methods laying down. “I most certainly do not. I push her just as hard as everyone else.”
Katja raised a disbelieving eyebrow at him. “Do you, now?” She rose quickly to her feet and immediately Ullen knew this was not going to be good. “Alright, everyone, that’s enough focus practice. It’s time for practical sparring. Pair up.” She turned her critical eye towards her daughter. “Ilma, you’re with Zane.”
Ilma’s face filled with understandable fear. Zane was a giant physically, and one of the best channelers among the students. She wouldn’t even be able to defend herself.
“Wait a second, Katja!” Ullen demanded. “You can’t expect Ilma to -”
“Is there any other student you would argue against pairing with Zane?” Katja asked. “Or is this a special exception for Ilma?” She watched him with a smug smirk, waiting for him to admit to what she considered ‘special treatment.’ And if he admitted that, she’d have an excuse to leave.
He nodded at Zane, who had been patiently waiting for Ullen to confirm Katja’s insane pairing. Zane rolled his eyes but did as he was instructed.
All Ullen could do was apologize under to his breath to poor Ilma.
Later, a beaten and bruised Ilma walked back to her room alone. Her ‘sparring’ session hadn’t been much more than her being used as a punching bag for Zane’s abilities. All the while her mother had been giving her that disgusted look. She wanted to channel so desperately, if only to never have to see that look again. But she was losing faith that she could.
You can, a voice seemed to whisper to her, so faint she couldn’t be sure if she had just imagined it. It was a strange voice, one that seemed to tickle her tantalizing promises of power. She thought that maybe if she listened more carefully, she might be able to hear it again ….
“Ilma!” Her master’s voice broke her attention away from the strange voice and it was quickly forgotten.
Ullen looked down at the bruises on her face and winced. “Jeez. That kid could have at least gone easy. Come on, let’s get some ointment on that.”
Ilma looked down at the ground. “You don’t have to. I can take care of it myself.”
“It’s my job.” His face was wracked with guilt. “I’m sorry, I should have never let happen.”
She shook her head. “It’s not your fault. It’s because I’m weak and useless. Like mom always says.”
“It’s not true!” Ullen spoke with such ferocity that it actually startled her. “Just because it is harder for you to connect with your element doesn’t make you weak, and it certainly doesn’t make you useless.”
“But mom says -”
“Mothers aren’t always right.” He sighed. “Don’t tell her I said that, though. Can you keep a secret, Ilma?”
“I also struggle. Even today, with years of practice, I’m not what you would consider ‘powerful.’ I can only channel small amounts of my Light at a time. In fact, many of my peers would call me ‘weak’ in a contest of pure power.”
Ilma gave him a doubtful look. Ullen was supposed to be a very powerful Light Element. She had overheard her mother talking with the people she worked with about how difficult Ullen would be to bring in by force if they had to.
Ullen smiled. “It’s true.” He lifted one of his hands and a small ball of light drifted out from underneath his sleeve. “That’s why I had to train in control twice as hard, why I had to get more clever with what I did with what I could muster. My motes require only the smallest amount of Light to produce, but with them I have defeated enemies hundreds of times more powerful than myself. It is because I have an absolute mastery of each one, unbreakable connection and focus; I beat my opponents in a contest of control instead of power.”
She watched the ball of light drift around her, mesmerized by its playful pattern through the air. “Do you think I can do something like that?”
“Of course. We only need to get you channeling the smallest sliver of your Wind. Once you have that, we will make you a master of it, able to do things with it that will leave so called ‘powerful’ Elementalists in awe.”
Ilma looked at him, wide-eyed, and then she smiled. Ullen was her master, he wouldn’t lie to her. If he thought she could do it, then she believed it, too.
Over the next week, Ilma tackled her training with renewed vigor. She had a new goalpost, one that seemed much closer and more obtainable. All she needed was to channel a little power, then Ullen would help her learn how to use it. She was getting closer every day, she can feel it. Only a little more.
She didn’t even mind the snickering from the other students anymore. They’re teasing was getting meaner; it seemed the harder she worked the worse their bullying. But she ignored it, trusting in Ullen’s promise.
Until the day they decided to corner her. It was her turn to clean the dojo, and she was left alone to sweep and mop the floors. She knew she was in for some bullying when Lindis and Gloria, two of the worst, sneaked back inside when everyone else had gone.
“Look, Gloria. Itty-Bitty Ilma is finally making herself useful.” Lindis put his foot on the mop bucket, halting Ilma’s progress. “Did you finally decide you’re better off as a janitor?”
Ilma ignored the jibe and tried to mop around him.
Gloria got in her face. “Why don’t you give it up? Every moment Master Ullen wastes coddling you is time he could spend training a real student. If it wasn’t for your mommy he would have never taken you in the first place.”
Ilma didn’t listen. Instead she walked over to the other side of the dojo to clean there.
Or she tried to. She only make it a few steps before Gloria grabbed her from behind and put her in a hold. Ilma cried out and tried to squirm free, but Gloria’s grip was like a vice. She was channeling Stone; Ilma’s hand no chance against her enhanced strength.
“I don’t like being ignored, Itty-Bitty Ilma!” Gloria declared. “We’ll make you listen to us. What do you think we should do to her this time? Take her to the toilets?”
“Nah. She never learns her lesson when we do that.” He paced in front of Ilma in a fair impersonation on how Ullen observed his students. “Hey, didn’t Master Ullen say he was going to be gone all weekend?” He beamed with a sick smile. “She likes the dojo so much, how about we help her spend the weekend here? The mat-closet has a lock on it.”
When Ilma realized what they were planning to do, she started kicking and screaming. Tears streamed down her cheek, and despite herself she couldn’t help but beg her tormentors to let her go. She knew that would only encourage them more, but the thought of spending all weekend trapped in a closet made her panic.
The door to the dojo opened just as the two were shoving her into the closet. She felt a moment of help when she saw her mother approach.
“Mom, please, help me!” she cried. “They’re trying to lock me in the closet all weekend!”
Both of the students froze in their tracks, caught red-handed. They exchanged meaningful glances, trying to silently put their story together.
“So what?” her mother asked, surprising everyone in the room. “You’re an Elementalist. Break free. Knock down the door. It should be easy for you by now. If you can’t even do that, you are truly worthless.”
“I’m not!” Ilma cried, biting back her tears. “Master Ullen told me! He told me I can still be useful, even if I can only use a little bit of Wind! I can control it and be strong!”
Her mother scoffed. “Ullen pities you.” She shook her head. “My daughter, an Evi, pitied by a man like Ullen. Disgraceful.”
Ilma’s tears dried as she tried to process what her mother was saying. “No, no! You’re lying. Master Ullen …”
“Master Ullen fills your head with lies,” her mother concluded. “So you keep trying, so I have to stay here, so he can keep his school. He doesn’t care about you. He just pities you.” She turned and began walking away. “If you can’t get out of that closet on your own, then I will give up on you, too.”
With permission to keep going, Gloria and Lindis shoved Ilma into the closet and locked the door. Ilma banged on the door, begging with them to let her out, begging her mother to come back. After a while her pleads turned to sobs, and her sobs turned into weeping. Eventually she ran out of tears, and she was left sniffling, empty, alone.
Ullen pitied her. Ullen lied to her. Hearing that somehow hurt worse than being locked in the closet, worse than being abandoned by her mother. She thought, at the very least, Ullen believed in her, and it had made her believe in herself. Now she didn’t even have that. Her mother was right – she was truly useless.
No, came a whispering voice, familiar, yet she could have sworn that she had never heard it before. You are potential.
She held her breath and listened close for the voice to return.
It did, a tickle on her ears, like a gentle breeze. You can be strong. Stronger than them, stronger than your mother, stronger than Ullen. You need just to listen to me.
The promises sounded so believable. There was no doubt in Ilma’s mind that whoever this voice belonged to could fulfill it. Yet, there was also something dangerous about it. Something … wrong.
Listen. Accept the power. Become the wind.
She felt something. Something new yet oddly known. It was the flow of her element, the Wind, not sitting at the very edge of her grasp, but right beside her, almost touching her. She could extend one finger and take it.
There was more to it. The voice was doing this, handing the reigns of the flow to her. She knew that taking it now would make her subservient to this voice. It made her hesitate.
This will only be offered once. Take it, fulfill your potential. Or don’t, remain as you are. Choose.
The voice sounded a little fainter now, and Ilma could feel the flow of Wind slowly begin to slip away from her. Slowly, tentatively, she reached out and touched it.
Power flowed through her, power like she could never have imagined before. She was not just grasping the Wind, now, she was dominating it. The Wind was hers to command, and it got do anything. She could do anything. And what she wanted more than anything else was satiate her burning hate.
She broke free from the closet with no effort and set about proving her strength to those that doubted her.
When Ullen returned, he was greeted with the greatest horror he would ever know: his students, strewn about the dojo, covered in blood, their bodies twisted into unnatural contortions. Katja, her uniform stripped, her body laid bare, hanging from the ceiling. And standing in the middle of all the wreckage was little Ilma.
She was covered in blood; none of it seemed to be hers. Her clothing was torn, her hair was a mess, her teeth were bared like a wild animal.
But the worse was her eyes. They were no longer the eyes of the Ilma he knew. The were cold. Vicious. Merciless.
It was apparent what had happened here, yet despite the preponderance of evidence Ullen couldn’t bring himself to believe Ilma could have done this. He hesitated.
In his moment of hesitation, he was blasted by a howling gust of wind. He was knocked through the school’s wall and into the courtyard. The last thing he saw before blacking out was young Ilma taking to the sky.
“Ilma,” Ullen muttered, dumbfounded. She had grown up, looking a lot like her mother had at that age, but it was undoubtedly her.
“I am not that girl anymore,” she rasped. “My name is Aer. I am the master of the winds, and I am more powerful than you.” She broke into a coughing fit.
“You serve the Dark God,” Ullen stated. He had know. Since that day at the school he had known. But he needed to hear it out loud.
She smiled, her lips cracking. “He is a greater master than you ever were. He filled me with power, where you just filled me with false promises.” She coughed again. “And I see you now serve the ECT. Will life’s ironies never end?”
Ullen was vaguely aware of the others speaking, trying to get his attention. The world seemed still of everything but him and his former student.
“We should finish her off,”Ai said, bringing Ullen crashing back to reality.
“Don’t you touch her!” he demanded, more fiercely than he had intended.
Ai folded her arms, looking unimpressed. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but if you think just because you’re ECT you can order us around …”
Arthur put up his hands in a calming motion. “Ullen’s cool, Ai. He’s friends with Ryu. Just give him a minute.”
She eyed Ullen with suspicion but backed down. Ullen would need to remember he owed Arthur one.
He knelt down next to his fallen student. She was in bad shape. If she didn’t get medical attention soon, she would die anyway. And despite everything she had done, he just couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m going to take you back to headquarters,” he declared. “We’ll get there quickly through the void. Their doctors will help you.”
“Is that right?” Ilma’s smile had faded, replaced with a fierce scowl. “Is that what you think? You think I need your help? You think I’m a little girl that needs saving?”
To Ullen’s horror, the wind began to pick up.
“Ullen …” Ai warned.
“Everyone stay back!” Ullen demanded. “I will handle it! Just stay back!”
Ilma’s body began to raise from the ground, lifted by the winds, until she was dangling in the air like a puppet with invisible strings.
“Ilma, please!” Ullen pleaded. “Your body can’t take this right now! If you push yourself in this state, you will kill yourself!”
“My – name – is – Aer!” she declared as the wind howled forward.
Motes of Light shot out from underneath Ullen’s sleeves and filled the area between him and his former student. The wind buffeted the motes and immediately died, with not so much as a breeze getting past. The wind continued to pick up in power growing fiercer and louder, but it could not break through calm area created by the motes.
“You can’t keep this up!” Ullen shouted, hoping he could be heard over the wind. “Please! Let me help you!”
“I don’t need your help, and I don’t need your pity!” Ilma cried. “Always looking down on me! But I know your secret, Master! You are weak! But I’m not! Not anymore! I am the master of the wind!”
The creaking of wood joined the cacophony as a tree was ripped off its roots by the wind and tossed. The motes shot out to surround it, taking the wind out from under before it came even near the wall Ullen was maintaining. It crashed on the ground next Ilma.
She fell a moment later.
Ullen rushed forward and caught her. His heart sunk when he looked at her almost still form in his arms. She was pale and clammy, blood filled her mouth and nose, her eyes were unfocused. There was no way she would survive a trip through the void now. She was going to die.
He gently laid her on the ground, his mind racing for some final words of comfort for his wayward student but coming up blank.
“It’s gone,” she whispered, spitting up blood with every word.
“What is?” Ullen asked gently.
“Him. His presence. His voice. It’s gone.” Her eyes began to swell with tears. “I … I thought I could control it. I thought … I thought I could let just a little of the power in and not be affected. But it was … was like I opened the floodgates. Just a tiny crack, and it all came pouring in. Hate. Anger. Wrath. And with it, power. I … was consumed. And now it’s gone. I can think clearly again.” She coughed, and Ullen gently wiped the blood from her face. “And I miss it. How messed up is that? Guess even the Dark God decided there was no use for me, after all. I was worthless … to the very end.”
“You can still help.” Ullen put a hand on her cheek. “You’ve been a follower of Adaghast for a while. Tell us something that will help us beat him. Tell us about his other followers. Give us anything and your death will have meant something.”
A silence. Ullen worried that she may have passed already.
“I … I’m sorry,” she finally managed. “The meeting … it was all very secretive. I wasn’t even allowed back there, after I failed to bring back Sam the first time. I had too track him down myself … I followed his mother until she got the address from him … I don’t think anyone else knows. I … There were six others. Including the leader, a man who … covered our faces with shadows … I’m sorry, that’s all I …”
That rang an alarm bell in Ullen’s head. “That’s enough. You’ve actually given me a big lead.”
She tried to crane her head to get a better look at him. “I can never tell … when you mean what you say … and when you are just pitying me.”
“I never pitied you, Ilma. I always believed in you.”
Those were the last words she heard.