11. Hone the Body
It felt a little strange, returning to the Lodge the next day as if nothing had happened. A man was dead. Maybe Maxim had deserved it, but Lace still balked at the thought of the whole affair.
Excelerate brought them both to the practice square in the morning. He stood opposite them, regarding them with a dull stare.
“If you weren’t already aware, you are both woefully unprepared for what you will face, both as apprentices and Heroes,” he said. “I won’t be putting you both in a pile of books to study ‘theory’ like many of the other Heroes will. That’s about as useful as a stable boy learning the theory behind shoveling manure. No, we’ll be diving straight into practice. I got a good look at your respective fighting styles and Powers while you fought the Beasts, and I have some suggestions for betterment.”
Kiren snorted. “I’m glad to know that critiquing our form was more important to you than, you know, saving us.”
“Kiren, you’ve been relying on pure brute force until now,” Excelerate continued. “You pummel your enemies while letting your Power soak up the damage. Well, as you noticed, that doesn’t always work.”
“It doesn’t work when all I have to fight with is a fucking glorified shovel,” Kiren muttered.
“It was the weapon’s fault, was it? I suppose you already know all I have to teach you, then?”
Kiren worked his jaw. “Go on, then.”
Excelerate nodded. “Raw strength has served you well until now, but you’ll need more than that. You will have to learn some finesse.”
“What would you suggest?” Kiren asked. “My Power is what it is. It just works, and that’s it. There’s not much I can do with it.”
“I think you might be wrong,” Excelerate said. “When your Power is overused, your wounds start mutating, correct?”
“Yeah,” Kiren said. “And the regeneration gets slower the more I have to heal. What about it?”
“It could be those mutations aren’t such a bad thing. Have you ever tried willing them to happen?”
“Uh, can’t say that I have, no. I mean, I can hold them back for a little while if I really concentrate, make my wounds heal more cleanly. I’ve never done it the other way around, though.”
“Then we’ll have you do that. I consulted Good Doctor while she was tending to your wounds. She said that some of the growths that appeared on your body were hard as bone, and required forceful excision. Used correctly, this might gain you a significant advantage in combat.
“Additionally, we’ll train you in conventional melee weaponry. You’ll be most useful in close-quarters combat.”
“Right,” Kiren said. He didn’t seem to have anything to complain about.
“And you, Lace, are the complete opposite. You’ve got decent skill in manipulating your Power, but your output is laughable. Sending a Villain staggering might be a useful trick, but it won’t win you any fights against real opponents. It’s absolutely crucial for you to develop a more effective arsenal if you want to be a Hero worth anything.”
“I understand,” Lace said. She lowered her head. “I’ve tried to get better at it, but…”
“No need to make excuses. That’s what this training is for.” Excelerate clapped his hands together. “So, let’s get started, shall we?”
Lace swallowed. I have a feeling he’s not going to start playing it soft with us.
“Kiren, your assignment will be easy.” He produced a knife with a blade about the length of an outstretched hand and gave it to Kiren. “Keep performing cuts on your arm, focusing on making the mutations appear. Once your Power starts slowing down, you can ask Counter to show you the ropes with a sword. We should know soon enough if you can actually control the mutations with your will.”
The Hero turned away from the black-haired man, facing Lace. “How much do you know of your father’s fighting style, Lace?”
“Not much,” Lace admitted. “I only saw him fight a few times. He always forbade me from watching him practice, and he didn’t talk much about his work.”
“Not surprising. Well, your father had a technique he called the ‘aero-shot’. It was his deadliest technique for single combat.” He held out his hands and put his forefingers and thumbs together in a diamond shape. “He performed it like this, compressing a massive amount of wind through his hands, then outwards in a focused blast. It was usually strong enough to knock his opponent off their feet and break some bones.”
“I didn’t know he was capable of something like that,” Lace said, looking down at her hands.
How come Excelerate knows more about my own dad than I do? Why didn’t he tell me any of this?
“Start practicing it.” He pointed at one of the archery targets, made of a thick, cloth canvas with a wooden back. “You’ve mastered the aero-shot when you can put a hole in one of those.”
“There’s something else,” Lace said. “Back there, I saw some sort of… ghostly hand. It helped me get Kiren out of that gorge, then disappeared. It appeared again to help me shoot the Beast. I don’t know how it happened, really.”
Excelerate frowned. “A hand? I suppose it might be a secondary effect of your Power. Your father never displayed such an ability, though. Probably a hallucination induced by shock and fear.”
“I don’t think that’s it. Kiren, didn’t you see it?”
“I was a little too busy almost dying to notice any ghost hands, sorry to say.”
Excelerate shook his head. “We’ll chalk it up to a bad case of exhaustion. If it happens again, inform me. Now, get going, the both of you.”
Excelerate started walking away, burying his face into his cloth mask.
“And what will you be doing?” Kiren asked.
Excelerate started walking towards the guild hall and glanced back briefly. “Taking a nap. Don’t wake me if you need anything. If you slack off, I’ll know.”
Kiren shook his head as he watched the Hero leave, but made no attempts to stop him.
Lace set to work. She didn’t have much to go on, so she guessed her way forward by trial and error. She put her hands together in the way Excelerate had shown, forefingers and thumbs together, and fired off a blast of wind at the archery target. It was no different than usual, and the target didn’t budge.
She tried again, this time forcing air into the square-shaped gap between her fingers and shooting it out towards the target. The pillar of air she created dissipated before it even reached the target. The act of trying to compress the air created a lot of fall-off, making her output even weaker than usual.
She gave it several more attempts. Each time, she was unable to compress enough air to produce any real force. After about a dozen attempts, her breathing was already growing labored.
Whenever she tried to increase the scale of her attack, the amount of air she had to gather made it spill out over her hands. When she tried to focus it, it lost all intensity. Balancing the two was simply beyond her ability, like writing with her feet.
Dad managed it, so I will too.
Between each blast, she took longer to catch her breath. Stars flashed before her vision. It was as if a pair of those spectral hands were pulling the breath right out of her throat.
I need a break. I need rest.
Lace looked over. Kiren was still working on his assignment, drawing another shallow cut up his arm. He pinched the weeping flesh, gritting his teeth as it slowly fused back up. The wounds had started to produce discolored growths all up his forearm.
I won’t let up before him.
The target had barely moved since she began. The temple bell rung out eleven solemn tolls. She readied herself for another go and took as deep a breath as her body allowed.
Kiren stepped out in front of the archery target. Lace swiveled at the last second and the blast of air flew wide, upsetting the leaves of a nearby apple tree.
“Are you crazy?” Lace asked. “Don’t just stand in the way like that! I could have hurt you!”
“Well, that’s kind of the point of today’s exercise,” Kiren said. “I need to get hurt, and you need to learn how to hurt someone else.” He shrugged. “I figured we could combine the two.”
“Oh,” Lace said. She assumed a neutral stance. “I guess that makes sense. Are you sure it would be okay, though? I don’t want to go too far…”
Kiren chuckled. “The way it’s looking right now, I don’t think you could knock the hat off an old lady. Just give me your best shot.” He patted his chest.
Lace put her hands back up. “Okay. H-here I go, I guess…”
She fired off a rush of air.
Kiren’s hair was tousled by the sudden wind, but he didn’t stumble. He looked at her dully, as if expecting something more.
“That’s it?” he asked. “It’s even weaker than normal.”
“I just need more time to get the hang of it. I haven’t even been working on it for a day.”
“Is that the excuse you’ll give Excelerate when he comes back?”
“It’s not an excuse, I’ll—”
“Then show me what you’ve really got.”
Kiren set off in a run, coming right at her.
“Wait, what are you doing?” Lace asked. She backed up a few steps. “I thought I was going to practice on you!”
“I’m making sure you take this seriously!”
Kiren closed the distance startlingly fast. He threw a running punch, and Lace dodged to the left, barely passing out of the path of his fist.
“We’re actually doing this right now?”
Kiren swiveled on his heel and lashed out with a low kick. Lace tried to jump out of the way, but his foot caught the back of her ankle and she fell hard on her back.
“Ah!” she gasped, the impact sending a sharp jolt of pain up her torso.
He’s really going for it. If I don’t fight back…
Kiren descended on her. Lace put her hands together and gathered air, compressing it into that small space. Kiren slapped her hands away, and the air dissipated. He put a hand on her neck, cutting off the airflow. She spluttered for breath, but it was completely blocked. Without breathing, she couldn’t properly control her Power.
Kiren took the hand off her throat and backed up a few steps.
“Try again,” he said. “Was that really all you had?”
Lace got back on her feet, rubbing her throat. She sucked in a few deep breaths until her lungs no longer ached.
The other apprentices had started to head inside for lunch, a few casting glances their way. Bits chuckled as he passed by them. He walked alongside Eagle-Eyes, who merely regarded them for a moment before moving on.
If I continue much longer like this, I’m going to end up like I did the other day.
“Well? Had enough already?” Kiren asked.
Lace cracked a smile. She made a square with her hands. “Let’s go.”