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Rufus swung the staff horizontally, Jason swaying back so it passed in front of him. Rufus kept the momentum, bringing the staff up and over into a downward strike. Jason kept control of his balance, shifting to the side without disrupting the centre line of his body. Rufus kept pushing, not too swiftly, but relentlessly. Jason handled the pressure without tripping or stumbling, even as Rufus started ramping up the speed. Just as Jason thought it would be too much, Rufus stopped.

“Why am I happy?” Rufus asked, neither looking or sounding happy.

“Because you finally got me to learn a lesson the hard way?” Jason asked, turning Rufus’ gaze into a glare.

“What is the lesson?” he asked.

“All the exercises you put me through; the balancing, the handstands, the footwork. They were never about making me faster, or more agile. It’s about being in full control of my body.”

A slight smile forced itself onto Rufus’ lips.

“Good,” he said.

“Good?” Jason asked.

“Good,” Rufus said.

Jason’s eyes moved over to the huge book still waiting atop Farrah’s stone chest.

“Does that mean I get the book?” Jason asked.

“You’ve clearly been working hard in my absence,” Rufus said. “Unlike some people I could mention.”

“I think he means you,” Gary mumbled at Farrah from around a meat skewer.

Jason walked over and reached out for the massive book.

“Wait,” Rufus said.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Before you use that book,” Rufus said, “you have to understand what it is. By which, I mean, you have to understand what it isn’t.”

“Okay,” Jason said.

"The thing you need to understand about the skill book," Rufus said, "is that it isn't going to teach you how to fight."

“That sounds a bit dodgy,” Jason said. “Isn’t that exactly what the book is for?” Jason asked.

“No,” Rufus said. “It will teach you technique, not how to use it. It’s a shortcut that saves you years of repetitive exercise, but that isn’t fighting. Any martial system, at its core, is a method of effectively leveraging strength. That makes it a tool useful for fighting, but the one who does the fighting must still be you. Even the best hammer doesn’t push the nails in itself.”

“There isn’t a magic hammer that does that?” Jason asked.

Rufus gave him a disapproving look.

“Jason, there’s a time to be clever pedant, and a time to shut your mouth for once and learn something.”

“Sorry,” Jason said.

“So, martial arts are a tool,” Rufus continued. “Your physical attributes and essence abilities will impact how that tool is used, but only experience will teach you how to turn form into function. Only using it against actively resisting opponents will let you make it your own, instead of something a book gave you.”

Rufus walked over to where Jason was standing next to the book and placed a hand on it.

“The book will give you the techniques,” he said. “We will show you how, when and why to use them.”

“By beating it into me,” Jason said.

“That’s right,” Gary said from behind the cooker. “We’re going to beat you like a drum.”

“Suddenly I’m a lot less excited,” Jason said. “Couldn’t you just let me have my moment of happiness?”

“I just don’t want you to think learning martial arts from a book will magically make you good at fighting.”

“That’s a disappointment,” Jason said, “given its literal purpose is to magically make me good at fighting.”

“Like I said,” Rufus told him. “We’ll teach you to understand the difference.”

“With our fists,” Gary added. “And our knees, elbows, and such.”

“Can I just use the book, now, please?”

“Go ahead,” Rufus said.

Taking a deep breath, Jason reached out and placed a hand on the book.


Item: [Way of the Reaper: Five Forms I] (iron rank, legendary)

A magical book detailing the foundational techniques for all five forms of the Way of the Reaper (consumable, skill book).

  • Requirements: Ability to use skill books.
  • Effect: Imparts iron-rank techniques of the Way of the Reaper’s five forms.
  • You are able to use skill book [Way of the Reaper: Five Forms I]. Use Y/N?

Jason stood still, hand on the book, eyes closed. He took another deep breath.

“Something wrong?” Rufus asked.

“I’m just not rushing this,” Jason said. “It’s a big moment for me. I’ll probably go the full Keanu.”

“What does that mean?” Farrah asked.

“It means be quiet and let me have my magic kung fu moment.”

“Kung fu is what they call punching people where Jason comes from, right?” Gary asked.

“What’s happening?” Jory asked, wandering out from the clinic’s back door.

“Jason’s about to use a skill book,” Farrah said.

“Will everyone please shut up!” Jason barked, taking his hand off the book and glaring at the others.

“Just give him his quiet moment,” Rufus said. “He won’t take the book in as well if he’s agitated.”

“That’s true,” Farrah said. “Sorry, Jason. Try clearing your mind, like you’re going to meditate. It might help.”

“Thanks,” Jason said. He placed his hand back on the book, closing his eyes. He did as Farrah suggested, emptying his mind and calming his emotions.

“Do you think he’s going to take long?”

“Shut up, Gary,” Farrah said.

“I’m just wondering if I should grill some more meat.”

There was a sizzling sound, followed quickly by a yelp of pain.

“What did I say about lava in the yard?” Jory asked.

Jason let the sounds drift away, letting only the rhythm of his breathing occupy his mind. He felt his body drift away from the world, floating through nothingness. All sensation left him, except for the leather of the book under his hand.


  • You are able to use skill book [Way of the Reaper: Five Forms I]. Use Y/N?

He mentally assented and the huge book floated up off the chest to hover over Jason’s head. The ponderous cover flipped open and text started rising from the page, disembodied runes turning from black to glowing gold. There was a sizzling sound, like meat on a grill as the text transmuted. The first page of the book turned itself over as the last of its text floated off and the second page began disgorging its contents into the air. With each page, the process grew faster and faster, the glowing jumble of text in the air forming a thick cloud. Even with the increasing pace at which the pages were beginning to turn, it was taking a long time to make it through the massive tome.

“Do skill books normally take this long?” Jory whispered to Farrah.

“No they don’t,” Farrah said, “although I’ve never seen a skill book that big before.”

The cloud of text kept growing, spreading down until Jason was completely obscured. Finally, the sizzling stopped. They couldn’t see the heavy book any more, but they heard it hit the ground with a thud. The cloud of golden text started darting about like a swarm of angry bees. Inside, they could hear Jason grunting in pain.

“Hold on,” Rufus called out. “Try and last out the whole thing.”

“Is he alright?” Jory asked.

"Using a skill book is strenuous," Farrah explained. "The more it's trying to teach you, the greater the strain."

“People often pass out while using them,” Rufus said, “but the information isn’t passed on as well once they’re unconscious. It takes them longer to consolidate what they’ve learned afterwards.”

The cloud shrank over time until they could once again see Jason. He was staggering in place, arms out to keep balance. They watched the golden text diving into his body.

“You’re doing good!” Gary cheered him on.

“Hold on as best you can,” Rufus encouraged.

Finally the last of the text sank into Jason, leaving him standing unsteadily, but still upright. He took in a sharp breath.

“Whoa,” he croaked.

“Still standing,” Rufus said. “You’ve done well.”

“How do you feel?” Farrah asked.

Jason stood up straight, eyes gleaming in triumph.

“I know kung fueeeaaauuugh…”

Vomit spewed out of him and he fell to his knees, coughing up more before toppling onto his side, unconscious.

“Is he alright?” Jory asked.

“For Jason,” Gary said, “this is actually pretty good.”

***

In the fighting pits of the fortress, two women were squaring off inside a steel cage. The first was Sophie Wexler, the Nightingale. The other was called the Queen of Thorns, for the thorny whip manifested by her power. It had length enough that no part of the cage was safe, and being a power rather than a weapon, the Queen had devilish control over it. Sophie was cut and bloody from numerous wounds, but the weakness of the whip was its inability to deal critical damage. So long as it failed to ensnare an enemy, it couldn’t deal a finishing blow.

Sophie’s ability was speed. Not only was she fast, but she could run up walls or even over water. She was boxed in by the cage, but she pushed her reflexes to the limit to avoid being entangled. She had suffered lashes, but the whip had never managed to tie her down.

Sophie ran up the side of the cage as the whip lashed under her, flipping off and into a kick, but her opponent jumped back out of reach. Having missed the kick, Sophie landed off-balance. Seeing her chance, the Queen flung the whip quickly, wrapping it around Sophie’s forearm. Grinning triumph at Sophie, she only found resolution on her enemy’s face. Too late, she realised she’d been baited.

Sophie shifted her seemingly-unbalanced stance, bracing her weight and yanking on the whip with both arms. The Queen stumbled forward and Sophie ducked behind, looping the slack whip around the Queen’s neck to choke her with her own power. The Queen dismissed the whip and Sophie acted quickly before the Queen had a chance to conjure it up again.

Sophie swept the Queen’s unbalanced feet out from under her, grabbed her by the hair and smashed her face into the floor. The hard-earth floor of the Fortress was practically stone and Sophie smashed the Queen’s face into it a second time and a third, over and over until there was a sharp crack and the Queen’s body went limp.

Skin painted red, silver hair matted with sweat and blood, Sophie left the cage without looking back.

“Your winner, ladies and gentlemen… the Nightingale!”

***

Three viewing boxes, normally empty in the early afternoon, all had occupants watching Sophie’s match. In one was Cole Silva, the newest member of the Big Three crime lords of Old City. With his father’s passing, the old man’s protection could no longer keep Sophie from his grip. Just as he had been closing his fingers around her, she had run to Clarissa Ventress. Now Ventress had Sophie fighting ever more-dangerous opponents. There was every chance she would be ruined before he could snatch her back into his clutches. Watching her bloody form stride away from the cage, he slapped the fruit platter in front of him across the room.

In her own viewing box, Clarissa Ventress was happily imagining the look on Silva’s face. She was less happy with Sophie’s friend, Belinda.

“You can’t keep doing this!” Belinda said. “You’re going to get her killed.”

Clarissa sighed, her good mood deflated. She responded to Belinda without deigning to look at her.

“The arrangement,” Clarissa said, “was that dear Sophie would help me provoke Silva into the kind of rash action that his father always kept him from making.”

She turned her head toward Belinda.

“The form that provocation takes is for me to decide,” Clarissa continued. “How Sophie survives it is for her to figure out.”

“You filthy…”

Belinda cut herself off as Clarissa’s enormous bodyguard stirred. Darnell had the predatory features universal to leonids, and Belinda took a step back.

“That’s what I thought,” Clarissa said. “I don’t want to hear your pitiful whining again. Go tend to your injured friend.”

Belinda desperately wanted to tear a chunk out Clarissa’s throat, but she was not the match of Clarissa or her bodyguard, two of the criminal underworld’s rare bronze-rankers. She also knew Sophie would be awkwardly applying medicine right now and making a complete mess of it, so she turned and left.

The third box in which the match had been closely viewed belonged to Lucian Lamprey. Old City might be the territory of the Big Three, but as Director of the Magic Society, he might as well have been the sky above them. If nothing else, as a silver-ranker he could personally tear through Old City's strongest enforcers like they were mewling children.

Outside Lamprey’s viewing box, Cassowary Finn hesitated before knocking on the door. As the son of Lucian’s friend and deputy, Pochard, Cassowary had been installed as Lucian’s dogsbody and normally enjoyed the man’s favour. His lack of progress in finding information on the Nightingale had turned that favour on its head. Hoping that was about to be rectified, he knocked on the door.

“Enter!” Lucian’s voice barked from inside.

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Shirtaloon

  • Australia

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