Chapter 6: Roko’s first Acolytes
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After Roko had left the canteen, it immediately became filled with conversation. The cadets, now with time to socialize after their first aura training experience, couldn't help but speak excitedly with each other. 


The excitement only rose as the first few tried the rejuvenation pills, and experienced firsthand how quickly they restored their aura, and how that directly translated to a physical feeling like that of waking up after a good night's sleep at the perfect time.


The three students who lasted the longest ended up at one table together, and it seemed like the rest of the cadets were avoiding them, but they didn't mind.


"Cadet Krana, " Rego began, looking towards Krana as he picked at his food, "how were you able to last so long?"


"Yeah what the hell Krana, I could barely make it past four hours and even then it felt like i'd run a triathlon!" added Eko incredulously.


"I'm not sure exactly," Krana responded, picking through her own food, "I just did what he said. Pushed as far as I could."


"C'mon, there's gotta be something! Anything!"


"Eko, you should know me well enough to know I suck at lying. I didn't do anything special, as far as I know. We've been training for less than one day, anyway, why are you so intent on getting a lead?"


"I don't think you fully grasp the situation, Krana. Magic! We are learning magic! Why would I not want the secrets to success?"


"I agree with Cadet Eko," said Rego, "if you figure anything out, please share. Given Roko described this training as, what was it, ‘worse than hell’? I think it would be wise to share any insights into this 'aura' we find."


"That's true, I guess." responded Krana.


The rest of lunch was uneventful, mostly consisting of people sharing how they felt while circulating their aura, or sharing stories they’d heard about Roko from friends or family in the force.


The cadets were getting along well, and so all stayed in the canteen to converse until it came time to return to the yard for more training.


When they returned to the yard, Roko was waiting on a small raised platform surrounded by twenty marked circles in the ground. Each one has a strange black metal pillar in the center.


“Welcome back, cadets. I hope you’re ready, because this will not be fun. Each of you pick a circle and stand inside, on the red dot.”


The cadets moved, now noticing small red dots placed a meter or so in front of the pillars.


“This training block is for infusion drills. You will be learning the ins and outs of controlling aura flow during combat. These drills are designed to allow aura control to become second nature. You can’t afford the time it takes to think about controlling your aura during real combat, especially given the new variants we’ve been seeing from recent Breaks.”


The cadet’s expressions darkened. Many of them had friends or family in the force who’d already begun speaking about how bad the recent Gate Breaks had been. Several new and terrifying variant monster types had emerged in the past few months alone, an unheard of rate for decades. Even the ones who didn’t have people on the inside had been hearing rumors, despite how hard the government tried to clamp down on information related to gates.


“We will begin with simple unarmed drills. Again, I will ask you to repeat them until you drop. You will be given a special pill developed similar to the rejuvenation pill you got earlier when this happens, called a restoration pill. It will allow you to keep going safely. All of you will be repeating these drills until 7, when we break for dinner. Now watch closely.”


Roko shifted his body, lowering his torso by bending his knees, bringing his arms up, bent at the elbows, hands in fists.


“Begin in this neutral stance. Start by feeling the aura in your nexus again, just like this morning. Allow it to flow, just like before. Up through your chest, to your head, but then concentrate it on just your punching arm, and punch while flowing the energy into your fists.”


As Roko spoke, he punched the pillar, slowly and deliberately, though the sound it made when his fist hit revealed how much force was contained in what looked like a weak example punch. After the impact, a holographic “100” appeared above the pillar.


“Timing is important. You want to move with the flow of aura, not in front of or behind it. The aura should reach your fist as you impact the target. The number above the pillar is how it rated the hit, based on when it sensed physical impact and when your aura hit it. Your goal is to be able to perform the drills for all 6 hours, no pill breaks, all 100s. Let me show you the rest of the motions.”


Roko returned to his stance, and repeated the first punch. He then slowly outlined every subsequent move, including more punches, kicks, and foot movements, with their accompanying energy flows. Each motion made was rated by either the pillar in the middle or sensors on the ground.


The whole drill took roughly 5 minutes to complete at example speed.


“Before you begin, a few things. First, you should start at the speed I was showing. What is important in these drills is precision. We train your power up with circulation - the drills are for control. It doesn’t matter how much aura you have if you can’t utilize it properly and efficiently. Second, while you work I’ll be walking around, providing feedback and helping. I can see the flow of aura in all of you, so I’ll be able to point out very specific flaws. Third, this is only the most simple drill. Once you’ve reached the goal and have become an Acolyte, you’ll be given a weapon and I’ll introduce drills specific to that weapon, with more complex movements and energy flows. Now get started!”


The next six hours were filled with the mostly quiet sounds of cadets practicing what they’d seen, broken occasionally by Roko offering tips or corrections. At least until the last few hours. The pills may have helped with physical fatigue, but mental fatigue was another thing entirely, so most of the cadets opted to perform power yells as they pushed themselves to do one more drill before dropping and needing another pill.


When Roko announced that it was time to break for dinner, most of the cadets immediately dropped to the ground, catching their breath. Even the top three were exhausted, on account of aura control being much more reliant on the body than circulation is.


After a quick dinner, including restoration pills for any cadets that needed them, the group was back in the yard for 7:30.


When they returned to the yard, the field of drill circles had been replaced with a raised fighting ring.


“The final training of every day will be sparring. While I would like to have you spar against each other, that only really works when both participants already know how to fight with aura. So you’ll be fighting me.”


The cadets’ eyes widened.


“Don’t worry, we’ll be fighting unarmed, and I know how to control my strength. I’ll be giving you pointers, so just come at me with whatever unarmed combat techniques you want. Could be from the cadet academy, personal study, even the simple moves from the drills. Just try to infuse aura while fighting. I will not attack, only retaliate. The goal here is to get you used to attacking with aura so that one you are Acolytes you can begin sparring with each other. You each have three minutes per spar, and we’ve got two hours till the day’s over, so each of you will get two attempts. Who wants to go first?”


The cadets looked around at each other. It seemed nobody wanted to be the first one - until Krana began to walk towards the ring, and hopped up into it.


“Cadet Krana. Your three minutes start now.” Roko said, putting on a smile but otherwise standing still, not even assuming a defensive pose.


Krana walked up to him, and took a stance just a bit in front of him, before punching forward, just like the drills.


Roko didn’t flinch, swiftly guiding the punch to his side with his hand while twisting to the left.


“Good speed, and the aura control was passable —for your first day at least— but too straightforward. The monsters are not stupid. Being straightforward like that is a good way to get killed.”


Krana frowned, before regaining composure. She had thought to use the forms from the drill, given they were the only moves she’d practiced aura infusion with, but it seemed they were only good as exercises.


So she changed strategies. She shifted into a stance learned at cadet academy, and fell back into her old rhythm. Remembering her spars from back then, she started this time with movement. Keep the opponent guessing, move around them. Feint one direction, strike from another. Mix punches and kicks, never be predictable.


Roko expertly dodged the following assault, never moving more than a foot from his starting position or using more than one hand to redirect a strike. But even so, he smiled.


“This is better, that’s how you fight. Your aura control has dropped though, focus on it. Apply what you did in the drills to these moves and you’re well on your way to becoming an Acolyte.”


Krana smiled at the compliments, but quickly focused on the task at hand. She continued to try more moves, working on how she applied aura, but nothing seemed to hit him. It was like he wasn’t even there. By the time the three minutes were up, despite more tips from Roko on her form and aura control, she had yet to even force him to block or move from his starting position, let alone land a solid hit.


Leaving the ring to rest, the other cadets were much more eager to get in the ring after watching Krana’s fight.


As Krana observed the fights following hers, they all played out roughly the same. Roko never had to block or move from where he was standing. Trying to hit him was like trying to grab a fish covered in oil.


Krana’s second fight went much the same as the first, though Roko commented that her aura control was already improving.


“Good job today, cadets! This will be your schedule from now on, albeit with less lecturing from me. This will continue to be your schedule until you reach the first breakthrough and become acolytes. Then the training will become harder. We’ve only got two years to train you guys up into a real Strike Team, and I’d like you all to have reached at least the second breakthrough long before then so you can develop your abilities. Now get to sleep, you’ll need the rest for tomorrow.”


The following weeks were a bit of a blur for the cadets. The training was hard and relentless - no days off were given, on account of the training and pills being designed for maximum efficiency without overtaxing the body or aura. 


The training became routine, and many of the cadets began to forget what Roko had said when they joined, about how difficult this training was going to be. To them, it wasn’t too much of a step up from cadet academy training, albeit with less breaks and more magic.


Roko was a wonderful mentor, as well. His immense talent, battle experience, and sharp auric sight for determining energy flow meant he always noticed each minute flaw in technique, and he had the brains to comment on it in an actually helpful way.


As the cadets became more familiar with aura, their sense for it increased as well. After the first week, each one of them had a rough sense of their own capacity, and could feel it improving every day as they trained. Their infusion was improving steadily as well, with several cadets making it the full 6 hours, albeit without all 100s.


By the end of the third week, a few cadets raised concerns with Roko that they felt their circulation progress had stagnated, even with the new techniques he taught to those who made it 6 hours with the basic technique.


“And all five of you feel this way? When did you think progress started to slow?” he asked the group of cadets standing in front of him. Three of them were the top three of the class - cadets Krana, Eko, and Rego, plus two who had managed to catch up to them, a human cadet named Suri and an elkin cadet named Diin.


They all gave affirmative answers of between one and three days prior, they had experienced a clear slowdown in growth through circulation, which progressed to almost a complete stop by the present.


Roko smiled, sparking a few confused faces from the cadets in front of him. “This is great. Follow me.”


Even more confused, they decided to trust Roko and follow him silently through the base, leaving their lunch behind.


He led them into the basement, and up to a door with a worrying amount of hazard markings on it.


“I’ve got five apprentices ready for promotion here! I’d like a rav-core for each, and maybe throw in some veneus cores if they’re ready.“ he said into a microphone I’m the wall, pressing a button in a panel to the right of the door.


“Coming right up!” Spoke a voice through a speaker.


About thirty seconds later the wall panel opened up with a puff of vapor and two small boxes were inside. Picking them up, Roko asked the group to follow him again.


After hearing the mention of “promotion”, none of the group hesitated in following.


Reaching the yard, the group was led over to a side area and instructed to grab some mats off a shelf and prepare like they would for standard circulation. Sitting in front of the group, Roko opened one of the boxes he’d retrieved from the basement and inside were spheres similar to the restoration and rejuvenation pills, but slightly larger, and with a deep crimson color.


“You all experienced a stagnation in progress because you reached your natural aura limit. If you remember from when I introduced aura, this limit can be raised, which we call experiencing a breakthrough.”


Roko began handing the pills out, one per cadet.


“These are rav-cores. They’re made of concentrated and solidified aura extracted from the corpses of ravagers. In order to experience this breakthrough, I’ll have you take this like a pill, and then circulate the additional aura. Normally shoving this much extra aura into your system already full would just kill you in a violent aura explosion, but when you’re at the current limit of your potential like you are now, you will actually survive, because the first thing that happens when absorbing this much aura is a small expansion of your nexus. This forces you ‘over the edge’ so to speak, and the breakthrough takes the rest of the energy to improve your body, nexus, and aura loop, leaving you safe and not exploded.”


The cadets seemed worried, and some had reservations about taking energy from the monstrosities from another dimension but Roko assured them it had been tested before and proven to be perfectly safe. Plus, he would be right there with them if anything happened.


“Alright, so just swallow the pill, and start trying to circulate your aura. It might be a little painful.”


That didn’t give them any more confidence, but without much choice, the cadets did as they were told, and took the pills.


The effect was immediately apparent, as the cadets’ facial expressions betrayed the pain they were feeling, and Roko’s auric sight could see what was happening in their aura loops.


A significant amount of energy was being forced around their loops, much more than is normally safe, and at this point would normally start cracking the loop and heating up their surroundings before an aura explosion occurred, but instead the cadets near simultaneously let out a breath as the heat and pressure subsided.


The excess aura had forced their nexus’ over the edge, and the breakthrough occurred, using up the rest of the energy.


“Great job! You’re almost there, keep circulating!”


Roko watched as the cadets got used to their newly expanded nexus’ and aura loops, and the cadets experienced the truly weird feeling of their body’s health improving at a visible rate.


In fact, each of them was sweating brown liquid at this point which smelled terrible and contained impurities, dormant diseases, and toxins forced out of their body by their now more powerful aura.


When they opened their eyes and shakily stood up, Roko couldn’t help but smile.


“Congratulations, all of you. Today you are no longer cadets, but Acolytes. Now let’s get you set up with your new equipment and schedule!”