Leoth had been building up this moment in his mind for weeks. He had idly considered this course of action several times over the last few years, but it was only in recent times that he had finally made up his mind. The notion that he might stay here forever had become unbearable. It was not a bad place, not compared to others. It was just not the place for him.
“You should not leave.” Master Fon towered above Leoth. At twice Leoth’s height, this was an easy feat.
“It’s not up to you,” Leoth said. He drew himself up to his full height, crossing his arms and squaring his shoulders. He turned his gaze to the courtyard so that he would not have to crane his neck only to be rewarded by a view of Master Fon’s nostrils.
“You’re right, in a way,” Master Fon replied. He had barely spared Leoth a glance since the conversation began. Ostensibly, he was watching Leoth’s fellow students. Leoth suspected the master’s true goal was to avoid eye contact. “I can’t decide your path for you.”
“I know.” Leoth watched the other students move through their exercises. He unconsciously kept track of their flaws and errors. Misplaced feet, wrists bent at the wrong angle, center of gravity out of alignment — their problems stood out to him like splatters of red paint on a white surface. One of the other masters moved among the students, correcting them, but he missed some. Leoth didn’t say anything. He had long since learned his lesson about correcting the masters in front of other students.
“You know a great deal,” Master Fon said. “You are young. When you are young, it is easy to know.”
Leoth bit back his instinctive response. Aggression would not help Leoth’s cause, not here. “I do not belong here.”
“Nonsense.” Master Fon gestured broadly. “There is no better place for you. The rate at which you have learned our practices is remarkable.” Out of the corner of his eye, Leoth saw Master Fon’s head tilt downward. “You are already aware of this, or I would not inflate your ego further by telling you. Lightsower himself must have guided you to us.”
“Perhaps it is Lightsower’s touch I feel urging me to leave,” Leoth said. He snapped his head downward. The breeze from Master Fon’s blow brushed the shaved skin of Leoth’s head.
“Do not presume to know the will of Lightsower,” Master Fon said. Typical, and hypocritical.
“You just did the same, Master, in claiming he’d brought me here,” Leoth said. He stepped away, creating distance between himself and the Master. In a fight he would have moved in closer, for the Master’s reach was much greater than his own. This was not a fight, and would not become one, but the Master wouldn’t be attempting punitive slaps at their current range.
Master Fon frowned, but as Leoth had expected, he didn’t take the bait. “You too frequently take the route surest to lead to conflict, Leoth.” He pointed to the space Leoth had created between them. “All too often, you expect that conflict to be physical. This is a problem.”
“It’s a problem you won’t have to deal with anymore, once I leave,” Leoth said. “I will never understand your unwillingness to fight.”
“We are not unwilling,” Master Fon said. “You are misinterpreting. Fighting is against Lightsower’s will, not ours. It is our responsibility to follow his will over our own.”
“That makes no sense,” Leoth said. “Look around you. Look at the students you’re training. Look at the monastery, and at the masters. What are you training them to do, if not to fight? We spar with each other every day!”
“You have heard our explanations time and again,” Master Fon said. “We train our bodies out of respect for ourselves. We train our spirits in order to seek perfection. We do not seek to do harm to others.”
“Yet every skill we learn is intended for that very purpose,” Leoth said, exasperated. Master Fon spoke the truth when he said Leoth had heard their arguments before. The monks were dogmatic. No matter how Leoth approached the subject, their replies were the same. “If you put yourself to the task, you could end crime in Vanadram within the week.”
Master Fon shook his head. “Again, I must point out how easy it is to know when you are young. You’re only revealing your immaturity by making statements like that. You do not understand the workings of crime, or indeed, of this city, if you truly believe what you have just said.”
“I’ve seen more of this city than you have,” Leoth said, perhaps a bit too loudly. The students in the courtyard did not react, but Leoth was sure they had heard him.
Master Fon turned away, then. With a sharp gesture, he indicated that Leoth should follow him. “You have seen Vanadram in a way I likely never will. That much is true.” Master Fon led Leoth into one of the small rooms off of the courtyard. He slid the door shut behind him and sat upon the wooden bench set into the wall. “Are you so eager to return to those days? We feed you here, and cloth you. You have a place to sleep.”
“I am older now,” Leoth said. Much older. His memory of his life before the monastery was clouded by the passage of time and by the years of pushing it away and folding it down into the darkest parts of himself. He remembered being hungry, and cold, and desperate. In fact, most of memories were of feelings, more than anything concrete. Had the monks not taken him in, he may not have survived. That thought was a distant truth, though. It hardly felt real anymore. It hardly felt like he was the same person who had done the things his memories held.
“I am older, as well,” Master Fon said. “I do not labor under the illusion that greater age makes me any more capable.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Leoth said. Talking with any of the masters could be frustrating. Despite that, Leoth liked Master Fon the best. Fon had always felt the most relatable. Fon was a human, of course, like all of the masters, but that didn’t matter. Leoth was the only halfling in the monastery who was there to become something other than a servant. Master Fon didn’t let that fact influence their interactions, unlike some of the monks and a great number of Leoth’s fellow students. That didn’t make it any less difficult to hold a conversation with him.
“I know what you meant,” Master Fon said. “My point still stands. You have no experience outside of these walls. You have no money, and no idea how to make money.”
“You’re wrong,” Leoth said. “I have no money, but I certainly know how to make some.”
Master Fon’s hand snapped out, faster — for once — than Leoth could react. He grabbed the halfling’s wrist. “You will not go back to what you were doing before we took you in.”
Leoth flushed. “No. That’s not what I meant. You have taught me better skills.”
Master Fon’s grip tightened. His eyes narrowed. “You speak of mercenary work? You would use our monastery’s teachings for such a lowly calling?” He pushed Leoth’s hand away hard enough that Leoth had to take a step to retain his balance.
“No!” Leoth said. “Master Fon, I would never think of doing such a thing.” That was a lie, of course. He had thought about it quite extensively, and then determined that it would be in his best interest to avoid such activities until he became truly desperate. “You’ve taught me far more than how to fight. I’ve learned how to cook, and clean. And how to care for a garden.”
Master Fon stared at Leoth for several uncomfortable moments. “This is your calling, Leoth. You are a natural at our craft. You would leave that behind to be someone’s maid? To become a slave, like the rest of your people?”
“Halflings are not slaves,” Leoth said. Master Fon’s words shocked him.
“They are servants. They are the working class. Is that what you wish to tell me?” Master Fon shook his head. “How can you have fallen prey to that elvish rhetoric, when you’ve been in contact with so few elves?”
“I have been in contact with quite a few elves,” Leoth said bitterly.
Master Fon froze. Leoth might have missed it, had he not been watching the man so closely, but the master was certainly aware he had touched a raw nerve. “You should not leave, Leoth. To leave would be to disrespect yourself.”
“And through that, I would disrespect Lightsower.” Leoth folded his arms. “I apologize, Master, but you will not convince me. I am leaving.”
“Are you?” Master Fon said. “If so, why are you still here? Why have you not yet left? You have made no motion toward the door.” Master Fon leaned back against the stone wall. “Most runaways don’t bother telling a master before they leave us. They simply go. Why are you even taking the time to argue with me about it?” Master Fon stood. “You’re not leaving. You simply want someone to know you’re not content.” He placed his hand on Leoth’s shoulder. “I hear you, Leoth. I understand your difficulties in accepting our philosophies. In a way, your struggle is good. It means that you question, rather than blindly accept what you are told. Only through questioning can we reach true understanding.”
“The answers I have found are different than your own,” Leoth said, though his heart was not behind his words. He felt shaken by the master’s comment. Fon raised a good point. If Leoth truly wanted to leave, he should have just done it by now.
Master Fon stood. “Perhaps they are different, for now. Perhaps they always will be. Nobody hears a question the same way as the person next to him.” The master opened the door. “If you need to speak again, feel free to approach me. In the meantime, stay here. Meditate on what you really wish to do. You are excused from your duties until dinner.” Master Fon hesitated. “Please, Leoth. You should not leave. It would be a loss on both sides.”
For once, Leoth did exactly as the master asked. He sat in that room, in quiet contemplation, until the dinner bells rang. He sat alone in the dining hall, though there were students on either side of him. He did not engage them, and they ignored him. He did not have many friends among the other students. His talent put him above them in a way that made friendship difficult, but it wasn’t just that. His race made it difficult for the students, who were primarily human, to respect him, but that wasn’t the main issue, either.
The other students knew he disagreed with the masters. He asked too many questions in class. He had served punishments for questioning the masters, sometimes public, sometimes not. It didn’t matter. The population of the monastery was small enough that everyone knew his business. The same couldn’t be said of the other students, but Leoth stood out.
After dinner he was supposed to attend a lesson on mathematics. He instead returned to that same room where Master Fon had left him and spent the time in silent contemplation. After half an hour, Master Fon slid open the door and peeked inside without saying a word. Leoth was not bothered the rest of the night.
Leoth sat on the bench, his legs crossed beneath him so that they wouldn’t dangle. His hands lay flat in his lap, one atop the other. In his palm he held a glowing white sphere. It was just bright enough to illuminate the small room. He watched it intently.
He had a long way to go, to learn all that the masters had to teach, even though he learned quickly. What came easily to him took other students months or years to master, if they ever came to understand it at all. The sphere of light shifted, becoming a cylinder. The act was simple for Leoth, as easy as moving his arm, yet he had watched others struggle for hours and fail to do it.
He had more to learn about manipulating his spiritual energy. Even as fast as he picked it up, he had years of study ahead of him. He knew, because he had seen the monks demonstrate capabilities beyond what he had yet been taught. He had more to learn about the martial arts, as well, though he felt there was less depth there. Older monks claimed to be holding back on the occasions he had found to spar with them, but he doubted it was true. He suspected they were trying to save face.
Leoth separated his hands, moving them to his knees. The cylinder split with them. He reformed the two cylinders into spheres once again, then poured more energy into each, so that they were of equal size and density. He still felt no challenge. He did not feel lightheaded or faint, as other students often did when crafting multiple shapes or when holding them for prolonged periods.
He had more to learn, but was it worth staying here? The monks held great knowledge and skill, yet they refused to use it for anything worthwhile. They trained their own bodies and minds, and passed those teachings on to others, believing that they were doing good, that they were doing the work of Lightsower. They taught themselves to fight, and yet they saw violence as anathema to the worship of Lightsower. Their entire faith made no sense to Leoth, no matter how many masters explained it to him, and no matter how much he meditated on it.
His hands curled into fists. The light of his spirit fled through his fingers. It formed into two knife blades, extending from his knuckles. It was one of the forms the monks taught. The students went through it during their morning exercises. It was forbidden everywhere else, especially during sparring.
Leoth knew what he wanted to do, but he also recognized that Master Fon was right. Leoth had approached the master hoping he would give Leoth a reason to stay. Leoth did not foresee himself becoming a true part of their faith. He struggled sometimes to believe that Lightsower was even real, and that was an issue completely outside of the monk’s pacifism. The only reason he wished to stay was because the thought of giving up their training pained him.
Master Fon was right about that, too. It felt like Leoth was meant to learn the skills of the monks. They came to him so naturally. It truly did seem disrespectful to ignore that fact. At the same time, it felt wasteful to put them to no real use. If he stayed here, in the monastery, and continued to learn from the monks, he would never do anything real with his skills. He would learn them only to teach them to a new generation, who would then pass them on. The process would continue into eternity, with those skills never being put to a real use, and therefore never developed further.
That thought made his heart ache. He withdrew his spirit energy into his body, unfolded his legs, and hopped down from the bench. Master Fon’s advice had led him to make a decision, though Leoth knew it wasn’t the one the master had intended.
Leoth awoke in the middle of the night. His heart fluttered in his chest. He had slept lightly, full of the fear that he would wake in the morning having missed his chance. He had learned how to enter deep and true sleep from the monks, and how to rise from slumber at an appointed time, but he wasn’t nearly as adept as he was with the more physical skills. Leoth looked over at his roommate, a human several years Leoth’s junior, to ensure that he was asleep.
Leoth slipped out of bed, moving a silently as he could. Silence was born of grace, and Leoth had plenty of grace. His bare feet made only the faintest sounds as he crossed the stone floor. He grabbed his only pair of shoes, simple foot coverings made of cloth and leather. He climbed up onto the window sill. He had complained of the temperature in the room before his roommate had fallen asleep in order to give himself a good excuse to leave the window open.
The window looked out onto the street. Leoth crouched on the wide sill, contemplating the decision that lay before him one final time. The moon sat high and full in the sky, illuminating the roofs and walls of the buildings around the monastery, but casting the street into shadow. A cool breeze wafted into the room. Leoth inhaled deeply.
He couldn’t bring any spare clothing. He had no way to carry it. He didn’t have any food, or money. He couldn’t bear the thought of stealing from the monastery. He disagreed with their beliefs, but he respected all that the monks had done for him. He would have to make due without.
He slipped over the edge of the window sill and into the night. Hooks of spirit energy dug into the crevices of the stone, improving Leoth’s grip as he descended to the roof below. More hooks, protruding from the sides of his feet, kept him from slipping on the slate tiles of the roof as he made he way toward the edge. Once there, he found a support column and climbed down it. He hopped off before making it to the bottom, nervousness and impatience inspiring him to rush. Cushions of spirit energy blossomed beneath his feet, helping to break his fall.
The street looked different from eye level. The darkness was more threatening. The moon seemed farther away. Leoth moved quickly away from the monastery, into the even deeper shadow of an alley. He turned to look back once more. Its imposing presence took up an entire block. The silver light of the moon gave it an ethereal cast. He knew that he could scale the wall again and be back into his room before anyone took notice. He could stay, and learn more of the spiritual arts. The more he learned, the more good he could do when he finally did leave.
But no. The longer he stayed, the harder it would be to pull himself away. Leoth turned his back on the monastery and moved swiftly into the night.