The sun shone bright above her, bearing down with a strength that should have brought about an unbearable heat, given the season and the clarity of the sky, in which, through the small window afforded by the walls of the courtyard, not a cloud could be seen. It was nearly midday. They would break from their training soon for their meal.
The warmth of the sun on her dark skin felt good, because Selene and Alana were nearby, practicing, like her, drawing on the power of their companions. Alana had been provided with buckets of water, which she drew in shimmering ribbons up into the air, in defiance of gravity. She then held them there as Selene banished the heat from them, turning them into frozen, crystalline displays.
Selene was not yet exacting with her power. None of them were. The cold drifted through their corner of the courtyard, cooling Chelle enough that the sun was a relief rather than a discomfort. Alana’s work filled the air with cold mist, as well, as she worked a bit too hard on the water she controlled, turning it to vapor rather than fine rivulets.
Chelle had to be very, very careful with how she exercised the power her companionship with Jhor brought to her. Alana had described her connection to Kelal’s powers as working best when she pictured herself as moving with the energy. She said it felt best to feel she was part of the energy, rather than the one controlling it. Selene, working with Ostra’s freezing powers, said her power felt most like — how had she said it? Like a firm release. She had said to imagine grasping your hand into a fist on something, only in reverse.
It made little sense to Chelle, but it didn’t matter, because all of their powers felt different. At the start of their training, the Guardians had discussed their discoveries intently. Amèlia had been the one to ask the most questions, but they had all participated, wanting to know how those who had grown closer to their companions more quickly had done so.
The conversation had helped, but only so far. Chelle remembered very clearly a conversation with Khari, in which Chelle had tried to describe how firmly she had to grasp Jhor’s power to make it work. It was like turning a stubborn key in a lock, or pushing a heavy block. The advice had not worked for Khari at all, who, it turned out, had to let the fire within her rage: she controlled it by releasing her control, not by tightening her grasp.
At this point, Chelle didn’t know where she stood among the other Guardians, at least in terms of how far along they were with understanding their companions. Each of them had made the connection. Each could clearly perceive their companions and even manifest them firmly enough to interact with the world. Some, like Amèlia, were faster at learning than the others, but none of that mattered to Chelle.
Khari, in particular, didn’t understand Chelle’s viewpoint, but Chelle didn’t care who among the other Guardians was better than her. She didn’t care whether she “won” or “lost,” during their sparring and martial training, because either way, she had learned something that could make her better. As long as she was performing her best and advancing, that was all that mattered to Chelle.
Chelle held one hand out before her, palm up, muscles tense as though she was attempting to push something toward the sky. She was. More than any of the others, it helped her to make physical motions to guide Jhor’s power. It helped her exercise the proper amount of strength. She had to be careful, practicing here, because if she slipped up and pushed too hard, it was possible she might shift the foundations of the wall, pulling it down.
Queen Lora had assured Chelle she wouldn’t do that. Chelle trusted the Queen, of course. The Holy One had granted her knowledge of the story of the world. The Queen would know whether or not Chelle would accidentally destroy a castle wall. Yet that knowledge didn’t stop Chelle from actively working to prevent that destruction, because in her mind, it was her efforts that kept the Queen’s knowledge true.
Chelle set her feet and lifted. A rock, which had been resting calmly on the ground, rose into the air. Chelle was glad to have the rock to work with, because it meant she could avoid working with the ground itself, and thus avoid dealing with the walls at all. The rock was larger than Chelle’s head, so perhaps “boulder” would be a better term. She couldn’t have lifted it through physical strength alone.
The packed dirt beneath her feet quivered. Chelle immediately let the boulder fall to the ground. It hit the earth with a muted thud. She looked down at the ground, at Jhor, who lay by her feet, his head resting on his paws. Drawing on his power didn’t seem to take much effort from him, at least at the level at which Chelle was currently capable. She wondered how much untapped potential he held within him.
She could look at Jhor clearly now, if she kept the intent to do so clear in her mind. When she didn’t, she could always sense him there, always just out of sight at the corner of her vision. He resembled, most closely, a fox with exaggerated musculature, with armor of gray stone covering his body. When he walked, he did so on two legs, but when he reclined he could almost have passed for an animal. He was already looking up at her when she looked down, with his diamond eyes that resembled those of a masterful statue: flat and inorganic, yet somehow full of life.
“You dropped it,” he said simply. Jhor had a deep, resonant voice with a faint static to it, like sand running downhill. He spoke with a slow, deliberate cadence, giving each word its own importance.
“The ground moved,” Chelle replied.
“Yes,” Jhor said. “But why did you drop the stone?”
“I didn’t want the ground to move,” Chelle said, by way of explanation.
“Hmm,” Jhor rumbled. “You dropped the stone.”
“Jhor, I dropped the stone because the ground moved,” Chelle said.
“I see,” Jhor said. Chelle had yet to figure out if he was truly slow to make such connections, or whether he had his own personal, impenetrable brand of humor. “Next time, don’t move the ground.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to move it,” Chelle said. “It just happened while I was focused on the stone.”
“You were also focused on your feet,” Jhor said. He raised his head from his paws and extended one of them, a single diamond claw pointing outward, much like a human pointing a finger. He tapped her foot with it. She felt it, though she hadn’t consciously manifested him. “And your feet were focused on the earth beneath you.”
“My feet were focused?”
“Jhor, my feet can’t focus on anything,” Chelle said. “I don’t know what you meant.”
“Sure they can,” Jhor said. “They think all day on their own about keeping you upright.”
“No, that’s my mind,” Chelle said. “My mind does the thinking.”
“Well then your mind was thinking too much about your feet while you lifted that stone, and your feet starting thinking about the ground, and so that moved, too.”
“My feet can’t… It doesn’t matter.”
“Your feet were pushing on the ground,” Jhor said. “Your mind thought too much about the weight of the stone. It’s too heavy for your weak human body to lift. So you pushed down against the earth with your feet, too, because that’s what you do when you lift things with your body. The earth responded.”
“Oh,” Chelle said. She looked at her feet, which, at Jhor’s suggestion, were bare. She wiggled her toes in the loose earth. “You know, that actually makes some sense.”
“I know,” Jhor said. He returned his head to his paws. “Keep working.”
Chelle held her hand out once again, palm up, and pushed upward on the rock once again. This time she kept her feet loose. She pulled her focus away from them, trusting them to — as Jhor might put it — think for themselves. The stone lifted into the air. Chelle knew its weight as she might know something she was lifting physically. She couldn’t say she felt it, not quite, but it was there, pressing upon her. She brought out a second hand in response. Her feet shifted on the ground.
The ground, in apparent response, shifted as well. In a circle around her it dipped down, rippling up at the edges of the imprint. Chelle dropped the stone once more.
“I did it again,” she said.
“You did,” Jhor said. “Keep trying.”
“I will,” Chelle said. “I’ll get it. I just need time.”
But at that moment, a bell chimed, signalling the end to their session and a beginning to their meal time. Chelle left the rock upon the ground for now. She would return to it later. She would get it then. She just needed more time.