Note: Sora et al are from the WIP Sand and Glass.
Sora. Age 15. The cut.
Sora sat quietly with the rest of the students. The outpost leaders had shown up for this cut. Of the original fifty boys and girls of Sora’s year chosen to be educated as potential guardians, only sixteen were left. And in less than an hour, only four would remain.
A rock the size of a tomato settled deep in Sora’s stomach. His heart thudded in his chest and he couldn’t seem to take a big enough breath.
This was it. The last big hurdle—well not counting if a traveler showed up in four years.
The outpost leaders seated themselves at the head table. They remained silent and watchful of the students as the headmistress addressed the students.
“Happy New Year, students.”
“Happy New Year,” they parroted back. Sora couldn’t speak, his mouth felt full of sand.
“On the advent of your sixteenth year, we announce the four students who will complete the guardian training. The four students were chosen based on their intelligence, strength, cunning, and most importantly, character.”
Sora swallowed around the painful lump in his throat. He wasn’t anywhere near the smartest. He was not particularly strong. Cunning, maybe. But what did they mean by character? He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to hear them name four others. He was supposed to be chosen. Him.
“If anyone is sure they have been chosen, stand and face us.”
Had they chosen him? Sora had no idea. But he was called by the stars! This was his fate. Body shaking, he stood and faced the outpost leaders. The other students snickered and exchanged hushed words. They didn’t matter, anyway.
The headmistress smiled fondly. “Sora, you think yourself best among your peers?”
He thought. He wasn’t the smartest, or the strongest. Probably not the most cunning. “No ma’am.” More sniggering from the other students.
“Then why have you stood?”
“I’m going to be a guardian, ma’am. I will guard a traveler one day. So I must be one of the four.”
“I see. You may sit.”
Sora sat down and tried not to let them dark tide of disappointment wash over him. She didn’t say he wasn’t picked… but wouldn’t she have said he was?
All his life he’d prepared for this. They had to pick him.
“The four students who will complete the guardian training are Shuu.” Of course.
“Sachiko.” As expected.
He held his breath, concentrating on a small speck in the wooden floorboards. Pick me. Say my name.
“And of course, Sora.” He let out the breath he held and slowly the tension seeped from his limbs. They picked me! She said my name!
An arm wound around his shoulders and squeezed him tightly. “Congrats, Sora. I’m so happy for you.” He looked up at grinned a Sachiko.
“You too, Sa’chan.”
The other twelve students left in a buzz of disappointed and outraged murmurs. The room became quiet and only the headmistress and the four of them remained.
“Old Man Prasad—that is what he insists on being called—will take over your training. For the next four years, you four will be each other’s greatest allies and greatest competitors. Good luck.”
Old Man Prasad hobbled in, relying mostly on a gnarled walking stick for support. He stopped and glared at them each in turn. “Those of you strong enough will survive. Those not will inevitably find a way to get killed.”
They all looked at each other nervously.
“Do try not to take anyone else with you. Now,” he banged his stick on the floor, “water buckets!”
Sora. Age 16. Holding buckets.
Long ago, the sun would have burnt Sora’s shoulder red and blistery. But as he stood outside, shirtless and sweating, holding a bucket of water in each hand high off the ground, the sun simply warmed him and provided a pleasant counterpoint to the agony coursing through his arms and shoulders.
The outpost’s glass shell had been made to filter out the harsh and deadly UV rays from the sun burning large in the sky. To distract himself, he ran over the procedures for sun protection outside of outposts in his head. Deep in his heart, he knew the pain and effort he exerted right now would be worth it.
His class had recently been cut down to four student—he had made the cut! Their teacher, Old Man Prasad, sat off in the distance under the canapy of a cherry tree in full, riotous bloom. Another drop of sweat fell into Sora’s eye and he lifted his face upward, blinking furiously.
“Forty more minutes,” the old man called. One of the others, Sachiko probably, groaned.
“How an you expect to protect a traveler if you can’t even protect two small buckets of water?” Small? If these buckets are small then Sora was a frog. Frogs had been extinct for hundreds of years. Their teacher asked these sorts of questions all the time. Sometimes the questions seemed inane, and the “answers” even more so.
But to have a traveler to guard! In four more years—if he survived the training (not all did)—he would have the chance, for a year, of maybe, just maybe, being chosen.
He shifted his arms slightly, trying to relieve the stiff aches setting in.
There were only six travelers in the world. The chances of one needed a guardian was slim—especially now. They were all relatively young. In good health. And well-guarded.
But to be chosen. Sora had felt the calling before he even knew there was something to be called to. Somewhere out there was a future traveler. His traveler. And if holding up buckets of water made him worthy and ready, then by the stars he would hold them forever.
Or until he passed out.
Sora. Age 18. Holding buckets. Again.
Sora jumped, started, and focused on Old Man Prasad. “Yes sir?”
They were being punished. It was a pleasant fall day, the trees had turned fiery crimson and golden yellow. Unimpressed by the beauty and joy around him, Old Man Prasad told them to climb the crafter face.
They failed. Again. Now they were holding buckets. Again.
If he never saw another bucket again, it would be too soon.
“You were not present.” The teacher thumped his walking stick on the ground. “You do not get lost in thoughts during punishment. You must feel the strain. Feel the pain.”
“Sorry, sir. I was thinking of my traveler.”
Shuu snickered to Sora’s left.
“Do you have something to say, Shuu?”
“Uh, yes sir. It’s just that the chances of any of us even meeting a traveler is less than 5%.” Sora rolled his eyes. Shuu ordered his world in numbers and probability. Sora believed in fate.
“And, sir, even if we did meet a traveler, the probability of being chosen is only 25%.”
Shuu heaved a sigh. “And it’s stupid to think he’ll—or any of us—will get to be real guardian when the odds are zero point eight percent.”
Sora sighed. Shuu was correct, of course.
“I am disappointed in you, boy. Fate does not bend its will to numbers of probability.” Old Man Prasad walked into Sora’s field of vision, then stopped in front of him.
“It is true, Sora, that not many become guardians. But people do. If fate chooses you, you must be ready. And only the conviction that you are a guardian deep in your soul will make you ready. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” Sora whispered.
“What do you understand?”
“Be ready sir. Expect to be chosen.”
“Good boy,” his teacher smiled and patted his cheek affectionately. “Shuu, two more hours. The rest of you are done.”
Shuu groaned, “But that’s so unfair!”
“Please use the water on the watermelon.”
Sora slowly lowered his arms and set off towards the watermelons. Mai skipped up to walk beside him.
“Ugh,” she said. “How are we going to survive two more years of this?”
They stopped at the long vines and poured water over where they emerged from the ground.
“I just imagine what my traveler is like.”
Mai turned and smiled at him. “Oh Sora, you’re such a romantic.” They turned and started back to the house. “What will you do if you’re not chosen?”
“I will be.”
Sora. Age 20. Rock climbing.
Sora hung off the crater face, his wrist cradled within a crack in the rocks.
“We should get going,” Shuu said.
“Yeah,” said Mai. “I never intend to see another buck of water in my life… which means kicking this rock’s butt!”
“That’s stupid,” Sachiko chimed in. “You see water buckets all over the place.”
Sora rolled his eyes. “Ok, everyone’s suit still working?” Sora checked his own suit carefully, checking all of the pressure gauges and seals.
“All good here,” the girls agreed.
“Good, me too. Shuu?”
“Good, here too. Let’s go. I’ve identified the path with the greatest probability of success.”
“So you think,” said Mai.
“So I think.”
Sora swung himself back towards the rock and planted his feet and left hand back on the rock. How would it feel to be able to touch the rock? In full sun, it would probably burn the flesh off his bone. But he’d never know for sure. The suits they wore to protect them from the atmosphere and sun blocked all sensation of the outer world. The gloves were specially made for rock climbing. They were thick and stiff, but made of a material the seemed to grip the rocks. The banter they exchanged through radios—their faces hidden behind heavily tinted plastic that protected their faces and eyes from the sun.
They climbed on in companionable silence, making steady progress upwards. They were going to make it this time. No water buckets today.
“Hey, what’s that?”
Sora looked up at Sachiko and followed her arm pointing to the far side of the crater. A hover craft slowly ambled its way down the rock face. Sora looked quickly down at the outpost, then back at the hovercraft. “It’s a traveler,” he breathed.
“What? How can you be sure?”
A wave of giddiness swept over Sora. “It must be! It’s following standard docking procedures, which means the outpost provided them. They only provide guidance to select people.” He looked up to the sky. “The drones aren’t buzzing, and, “ he pointed to the outpost, “the fighter gliders haven’t launched.” It had to be a traveler. There was no other explanation.
“Gods… I bet you’re right.” Mai’s voice held awe in it.
The radio buzzed as another line tuned in. “Guardians will return to the outpost immediately. Hold position, a craft has been sent to fetch you.”
They all faced each other—humanoid suits of sand-colored fabric with black helmets hanging off the crater side.
This was it. Fate had brought them a traveler. Now the traveler just had to choose. Sora prayed to the stars, “Please, let it be a man. Let him choose me.”