Despite the increased number of scavengers and predators in the water, I slept better on my little fishing boat down on the bottom than I had in a long time.
I was up in the early hours of pre-dawn light, and before I met with Renshaw I stopped by a bathhouse. It was only a few hours before I’d be back in the sea, but I wanted to get cleaned up the normal way this morning. For a few extra coppers I got scented oils to add to the bathwater, though when I made the attendant tell the truth she said my ocean-aura was still definitive. Oh well.
I also doled out the coin to have my beard trimmed. I was still looking to grow it into something worthy of a veteran captain, but that would take time and there was no reason not to maintain it properly in these early stages.
I felt almost like a new man when I knocked on Renshaw’s door. After knocking a bit louder I heard him call, “I’m out back!”
He looked up from his meditative pose as I approached. “Someone’s chipper this morning.”
“Any reason not to be?”
“Not really, it just makes me curious.” He sniffed. “Is that roses I smell?”
“I may have stopped by the bathhouse.”
“Ohhh, someone’s found a girl!”
It took me a moment to catch his meaning, then I gave a half-laugh. “I thought my day yesterday was good enough, I didn’t think I could have improved it by finding true love to boot!”
Renshaw dropped his teasing. “I thought we’d have our conversation today in Tadra. It will be good practice for you, and it has the added bonus of being completely private.”
“We aren’t worried about people coming by when our minds are elsewhere?”
“I’ll set wards to alert and protect us while you start your meditation.” Renshaw said.
Nodding, I sat and went through the procedure to start meditating. I had the mindset down – it really wasn’t different from what I’d always done – it was taking the proper posture that took focus. Renshaw coached me through things I was forgetting after he’d established his magical perimeter. I was about to tell him I was ready when he saw that for himself and snatched my mind. After a moment of dizziness and the same odd feeling of reconnecting to my body, I opened my eyes and found myself on my cursed ship again.
Renshaw was taking a closer look at the details of the place. “Is this an accurate representation of a ship? All these lines, the sails, is everything as it should be?”
I looked over everything. “Yes. I couldn’t sail her by myself, but she’s certainly capable.”
Renshaw grunted. “We’ll unpack your assumptions in a minute. I’ll admit I’m incredibly impressed. I know the environment is a result of your curse, but still! It takes most people years to have a mindscape this articulate!”
“Thanks … I guess.”
“Would you mind working with me on an experiment?” Renshaw asked. “I’m going to try and assert control with my own mindscape. Don’t resist the changes that I make, okay?”
A moment later the crystal sea turned muddy brown, then solidified. Amber grass grew from it. The masts of my ship sprouted bark and grew like the trees they’d once been, the deck sank until it was level with the earth and grass replaced the planking. I was suddenly in a different land; some inland place that didn’t fit in Andros. The soughing of the wind in the trees was peaceful, idyllic. This land was beautiful, and yet I felt incredibly wrong. I didn’t belong here, where was my ship? Where was the sea? Bring it back, BRING IT BACK!
Renshaw’s head snapped back like I’d sucker punched him, and a moment later I was back on the deck of my unnamed ship in the middle of the sea. Renshaw glared.
“What part of ‘don’t resist me’ didn’t you …”
He trailed off as he noticed my wide-eyed panting. I was still reeling back.
“I’m sorry!” I said. “I’ll give it another shot, I swear! I don’t know what that was …”
“Forget it, lad. You’ve got a powerfully established mindscape here, powerful enough to rip my own established mindscape apart. We’ll explore your boundaries gradually. It may be that the tradeoff of having such a sphere as this is you’re unable to leave it. But there’s things to do here.”
Renshaw walked to the side and jumped overboard. When I didn’t hear a splash I rushed to the side and looked over. He was standing on the surface of the water, grinning up at me!
“This isn’t a physical place. It’s a place of the mind! There’s no magic here beyond the deeper magic of thought, but it’s a powerful place for those with imagination and willpower!” He beckoned for me to join him, and so I did … right through the surface into the water below.
Renshaw floated down, suspended in a floating bubble. “They say madmen are the most powerful here, because the thoughts of a madman are absolute. Tadra responds to a person’s convictions, desires, and their willpower. A higher wisdom attribute helps, but it’s useless if you get caught up thinking this is reality. It’s not. Make it your own!”
“How do I do that?”
“See! Just there! You spoke underwater!”
“I can do that in the real world, too.”
Renshaw paused. “Really? Oh my, the books I could write on you … anyway, try thinking of a memory and adjust the world to fit it.”
I thought of my claimed fishing boat sitting on the bottom of the harbor. It appeared below me, along with the murk and mire the filled the harbor. Surprised, I let go of the image, watching as the murk dissipated into the surrounding clear water before disappearing entirely. My boat was gone, too, my memory released.
“The rules of reality need not apply, so two separate biomes can coexist if you hold them in place.” Renshaw pointed to the sea floor, and a campfire sprouted up! Smoke drifted and bloomed through the water as if water was air. With a thought, I sent a column of water to douse the fire, then tried to remake it. I did it! Kind of …
Swimming to the surface, I tried to pull myself up onto it like I was climbing onto a dock. No dice. I was too used to the water being around me, too used to the surface behaving like it always did.
But I’d discovered magic, hadn’t I? I knew there were things I could do now that defied my past experiences. I tried to cast a water push spell, and it did nothing. Right, Renshaw said mental magic was the only thing that applied here. But if I willed it to happen …
The water moved away from me. I hadn’t cast magic, it had just responded to me! Happy with my success, I tried doing the larger equivalent of my spell. But why stop there? I could make a wave as big as I wanted, couldn’t I?
With a grin, I pushed a wave that topped fifteen feet! I laughed.
“The limitless playground of the imagination at your fingertips, and you choose to make bigger splashes.” Renshaw shook his head. “Come on, there’s another thing I want to work on,” he said, leaping from the surface straight to the deck of the ship.
I didn’t want to try and jump the same way he had. Instead, I dove and swam down, arcing in a circle to point back the direction I’d come. I gained speed, but that was normal-world thinking, wasn’t it? This world obeyed me.
I didn’t shoot from the water, a geyser of water carried me to the deck of the ship, extended like a long finger to deposit me by the helm before retreating. Renshaw nodded his approval.
“Earlier you said you couldn’t sail this ship by yourself. I know you couldn’t sail a real ship this size, but that’s not a limitation here. Make it real, and it will happen.”
I imagined the lines pulling themselves, the sails adjusting to catch the breeze. I took the helm because I wanted to – I could imagine it moving on its own as well. The sails snapped, and the ship was moving!
Oh, this was such fun! I wished I could do this in the real world, too! I wouldn’t have to abandon the wrecks that I’d found, I could sail them wherever I pleased, pick up crew wherever they were willing. If I was found by someone wanting to capture me, I’d sink beneath the waves and not surface again for a hundred miles. It was a nice dream.
A wind picked up from the wrong direction, and my sails went slack. Annoyed, I adjusted my course and sails. Immediately the wind became stronger.
“Why accept the wind?” Renshaw asked. “Accepting it in your mindscape gives it power. This is your domain. Exert your own will over it.”
I imagined the wind going in the direction I wanted. It wasn’t working, my desire wasn’t enough. I imagined my wind filling my sails, sliding past ratlines and rigging, creating chop on the water. My desire pressed against the other wind, and suddenly my wind won!
Renshaw grunted and took a step back. “Not bad. Adding realism helps you assert your control.”
“Were you creating that other wind?” I asked, a bit peeved.
Renshaw only smiled. “My dear boy, this world existed as a playground for only a few minutes before people started using it for more nefarious purposes.”
Renshaw disappeared, and in his place was a small goblin. It waved its arms and shrieked, then leaped at me. I tried to push it away, but its arms grabbed me and clambered all over me. Then it poofed out of existence. I spun around, looking for it or Renshaw. Had Renshaw turned himself into that thing?
“This place quickly became a realm of mental combat,” Renshaw called from the forecastle. “Normally this phase of your training would wait until you’d explored Tadra and established your mindscape, but this is a unique situation. Contest reality, pick your battles, and isolate the other mind you’re competing with!”
Another goblin popped into existence around me. This time I conjured a harpoon in my hand and sent it through the goblin’s chest. It poofed out of existence, replaced instead by a large human warrior.
I understood the lesson Renshaw was trying to teach. The size of the warrior didn’t matter, because they were Renshaw’s constructs. My harpoon killed this one just as easily, because I said so. HP meant nothing.
I tried to turn the tables on Renshaw, summoning a crew on the main deck. They were faces from my past: Coe, Fink, Marsh, Po, Harmon, Virgam, and many others. They turned to Renshaw and shared my grin.
Then just as many warriors popped up to counter them. I growled and tried to imagine my crew cutting down the opposing warriors …
“You’re forgetting the big picture.” Renshaw said quietly from behind me, causing me to spin and jump. “You’re accepting my warriors as being a challenge, and trying to extend your consciousness to each of your projections. You’re not that good. You’d have to be a master to be that good! Use your advantage: this is your mindscape! You should be the most powerful person here. Again!”
Renshaw vanished, appearing in the crows nest this time. A horde of something that was part primate, part reptile appeared in the rigging, focused on me.
“Ignore it, ignore it, ignore it,” I said to myself. Wait, don’t just ignore it. Make it so they don’t exist! I knew what my deck should look like, and these weird creatures didn’t belong here. Before they made it to the quarterdeck, they ceased to exist.
“Good!” Renshaw called. “Now catch me!” In an instant, he teleported back to the forecastle.
I understood the wrong thinking for this test. Renshaw could teleport or blink step. Running around chasing him would be pointless. I had to be faster. Theoretically, I could do everything he could do here, right?
I closed my eyes and imagined myself on the forecastle next to Renshaw. Still here on the quarterdeck, still here on the quarterdeck …
“Ha!” Renshaw said from beside me.
I jumped. I was on the forecastle! And Renshaw had just jumped up to the crow’s nest. I closed my eyes again and reimagined the world around me from the perspective of the crow’s nest.
“Too slow!” Renshaw said as I appeared, a huge push sending me out into the air.
I looked down and saw the sea below, rushing to meet me. This was going to hurt.
A waterspout rose from the sea, grabbing me and raising me back to the level of the crow’s nest. Renshaw slow clapped, focused behind me, then disappeared. He’d made another ship a hundred yards away and was waiting for me.
Rather than try and copy Renshaw’s teleport, I had the whirling waterspout spit me out. I gathered air around me, then rocketed towards the deck of Renshaw’s ship. I was there in a blink, the deck cracking under the force of my landing. Stars, that was exhilarating!
Renshaw blink-stepped to a new ship and I leaped straight towards that one, the air carrying me once again.
“Remember,” Renshaw called, “Think big picture …”
I smashed straight through the deck of the ship and brought both halves down with me, like a human-shaped kraken.
I looked up to see Renshaw above the surface. I couldn’t see his expression. I hoped he was impressed, but expected he had his eyebrow arched in that way that said, “really?” I popped to the surface to see him looking down at me, just floating in the air.
“If you can’t catch me, then confront the things that I will into being. You might lose a contest of wills that way and take a hit, but you’re not fast enough to catch someone as flighty as me. You ready to keep trying?”
“Yep,” I said, and I turned the world upside down.
I’d wondered at the extent my imagination controlled this world. Renshaw had said limitless, hadn’t he? I gave it a go, inverting the sea and sky. I found myself falling into the sea towards Renshaw, who was stunned. I gathered that he’d tried to refute the massive change rather than teleport away from it. I grabbed his shirt – finally catching him – but had no idea what to do now.
Renshaw came to and tapped my shoulder, a sign I recognized as ‘I’m done”. I pulled him to the surface, then pulled my ship up under our feet. I’d raised enough ships that it was easy to imagine now. Renshaw took a deep breath and suddenly his clothes were dry. I left mine wet.
“I can honestly say I was not expecting that,” Renshaw said. “I’ve engaged in many mental battles and even more hours of practice, and no one has ever done that to me. I thought you’d reversed us – imagined me below the surface of the water. If you’d tried to imagine moving me, you’d find that I’d easily rebuff it. Even though this is your mindscape, I am still my own.
“However, you’d dropped the entire ocean on my head! Normally an undertaking such as that would also be rebuffed, but with your link to the sea …” Renshaw shrugged. “I’d advise you not to engage someone on land. Rip the land apart to make room for the sea if you have to, but keep your power base always in mind.
“You’re connected to the air as well, you know. I know we haven’t practiced the magic for it, but your affinity is strong there, too. Playing in this world should help you progress your magic, if only to see what is possible. Flight is well beyond your skill in the real world, but not here.”
“But we can’t practice magic here, can we?”
“No, but we can go over the motions. By seeing how things should be, you can better control your mana in real practice.”
Renshaw gave me the basics for ‘air push’, ‘air pull’, and ‘air blade’ – a spell that used a compressed, high-speed blade of air to cause damage. Because he could control the environment, Renshaw could show me how things looked step-by-step, he used colored smoke to show air flow and the mana manipulation to get it started.
He also showed me ‘water whip’ and ‘swift swim’. Water whip was a nifty offensive spell, like air blade. Swift swim got me really excited, though. I already had plenty of movement buffs underwater from my swimming skill and Lifesaving achievement. If I could use magic to make myself even faster, someday I might be able to outpace half the animals in the ocean!
When Renshaw understood the reason for my enthusiasm, he explained that air and water were both full of active movement spells. There were more in both fields that he could teach me, but I’d have to wait until I’d achieved the ones he’d already given me.
“Now, I’m afraid our time is drawing to a close, as you are on a timer.”
While I didn’t see my active timer counting down here in Tadra, I was aware that my body wasn’t in a safe place and it was becoming increasingly dangerous. “Thank you, Renshaw. I appreciate you still teaching me.”
Renshaw waved away my thanks. “Let’s see you drop out of Tadra on your own.”
He seemed to think it would take some effort, but I easily slipped back into my body. My body was my way back to the sea, after all. A moment later, Renshaw opened his eyes and smiled.
“I expect we’ll find you’re severely limited in some parts of Tadra, but you’re a master of your own sphere.”
“I hope this will make the chance encounter with underwater monsters easier to handle,” I said.
“Don’t engage in mental combat with animals!” Renshaw warned. “It may seem like a natural thing, to use superior intellect to dominate the mental capacities of a monster. It is not. They are wild things, and so is their consciousness. Pull even a songbird into your mindscape, and it could cause havoc on you.
“Even worse than the unpredictability of wild animals are the creatures with a measure of intelligence. Their intellect is foreign, and usually very powerful. They will attack and overpower you in ways impossible for you to predict or rebuff. Heed my warning: don’t you bloody dare try!”
I swallowed, ideas of dominating massive creatures for easy XP evaporating. “Point taken.”
I grabbed lunch at the market before heading back to the sea. I wanted to develop my trade skill, but my heart wasn’t in my haggling. The coppers the street vendor was charging weren’t outrageous, and the wrapped, deep-fried balls of ground beans smelled delicious. Besides, I’d gone a whole lifetime of haggling with street vendors and never achieved the trade skill, I doubted a few coppers this afternoon were going to help my rapid promotion.
After ‘recharging’ in the harbor I spent the afternoon with Kane. He was ready for me, and after taking my coin proceeded to run me through his regimen. We would spend the first hour with swords (despite his dislike of them) because I already had the basics down. He expected I’d level swordsmanship quickly with only a bit of routine practice. At least, I’d level quickly initially. Advancing it would become exponentially harder, and there was a plateau where I wouldn’t make any more gains from training practice. If I reached that point in the time I had here, I’d be one happy student.
After swordsmanship was practice with spears. Spears and shields complemented each other, but because the environment I was going to be in didn’t usually include shield walls Kane allowed me to forgo the shield for now. With two hands on the spear, he set to teaching me the basics.
Despite having 2 levels in the skill, I had no idea how to use spears in combat. Kane showed me how to grab the weapon and use reference points on my own body to perform the maneuvers.
“Widen your stance; right hand at the butt, arm at a ninety degree angle; left ahead grasping in naturally; rotate the right arm up by your ear; now quickly swing your right hand back down. Congratulations, you just performed a basic trap! Now let’s work on the details …”
After showing me the basic trap and punch, Kane had me practice overhead strikes. Because I was taller than average, I was using a longer spear. The amount of force I could get with a simple strike was staggering – just as I was staggering when trying to block Kane’s demonstrations.
Those techniques were all Kane had me practice, over and over. Rather than be annoyed at the repetition, I was glad for the muscle memory and the synchronizing of my technique and my skill levels.
Apparently there were names for every type of strike and maneuver; creative things like ‘the heron strike’ or simpler things like ‘two-handed block’. Kane had heard everything and being a master of a dozen disciplines with overlapping titles, he saw no reason to make me learn any of those names, so long as I could quickly explain what I was doing. If I was an apprentice or mentee of some sort that would probably be part of my education, but I was a simple customer paying his fee to get some basic skills quickly.
After practicing spear fighting techniques we practiced spear throwing. Kane required that I practice some with spears and javelins but allowed me to practice with my own harpoons as well. After some pointers on technique, the practice of switching between weapons helped me a lot! I better understood the variation between each weapon and how it affected a throw. I expected that practicing this way would make it an easy matter to adjust to throwing underwater.
All we had time for after that was a bit of small blades work. Kane didn’t try to teach me dueling, he worked with me on assassin strikes to quickly inflict maximum HP damage or crippling blows. The mentality was that I could use my knives to start a fight and take someone out, then switch to a weapon better suited for reach. Knives could be incredibly damaging, but wielding them usually meant that you would bleed too. That was bad for any fight, but if you were in an engagement that you couldn’t run from and lasted more than two minutes, it was a major problem.
I practiced those strikes on dummies. Kane promised that when we had more time, he’d have me practice using stealth to close in on the dummies without him noticing and striking from there.
With the last half-hour I had before the one-hour mark I’d given myself to return to the sea, we practiced disengaging with throwing knives. He’d have me sparring with my sword and suddenly disarm me, which was supposed to be my cue to flick one of my knives at him.
“Don’t ya bloody dare focus on me! Throw yer blade at the target!”
Whoops. It was easy to get caught up in the fight, and I had to remind myself that I wasn’t trying to put a blade in my tutor. After he disarmed me, I turned slightly and threw my knife at the ranged targets. Could I throw two blades in rapid succession? Yes? Do it. Well, that certainly needs more practice!
Swords, spears, and knives. After hours of working with the weapons, I was exhausted both physically and mentally. It took work to get the muscle memory down. Kane seemed satisfied with my presence of mind during our sparring – a talent that went with my Adaptable perk and observe skill. A lot of people got caught up in a fight and reacted without thinking. When you were trained your muscle memory could help you out, but it was a fugue state of mind that trainers like Kane actively sought to break.
Finally, I was done with training for the day. I went straight to the docks and had a quick meal from my bag before diving in. The sea welcomed me back.
I practiced magic in the evening, trying to learn the new spells Renshaw had shown me. The mana manipulation to practice was different than the push and pull I’d first practiced with, and I was glad I’d been able to thoroughly see Renshaw’s examples in Tadra. I realized that practicing air magic at the bottom of the harbor wasn’t feasible, so I swam up and floated on my back under the starry sky. Most people would probably find practicing like that difficult, but it worked well for me.
Right up until a trio of drowners had a go at me.
I should have taken more precautions; I’d noticed the increased number of dangerous creatures scavenging in the harbor. If I was a normal person, unable to breathe in the murk, those drowners would have killed me. Instead I anchored myself and dropped to the sea floor.
One held on to me for the whole ride, its bruising grip had ahold of my already bruised forearm. I pulled one of my blades with my off hand and tried to sink the blade in the creatures flesh as many times as possible.
Damaging hits to critical areas could cause a huge loss of HP – like the artery strike I’d made on the man in the skirmish. The knife I’d used was only rated for 9-12 damage, yet it had killed him. The trident in the mouth of the squid had done something similar, causing severe damage in a vulnerable area and crippling it.
This method of attack on the drowner was going for the opposite effect – if you couldn’t hit a critical area, layer as many instances of the rated weapon damage as fast as possible. I might inflict less damage and my opponent’s resistances might reduce it even further, but if you did it fast enough it didn’t matter.
The drowner I was attacking was a low level, and had no resistances to my attack. I got six strikes in for just over 60 damage before it realized I was dangerous and let me go. I grabbed onto it and held it down while I finished it off.
The other two drowners had arrived now. I didn’t want to risk loosing one of my harpoons on these guys, so I retrieved my trident. They weren’t intelligent enough to realize I was armed and dangerous, standing over the corpse of their ally.
My first strike with the trident was both a success and a critical failure. All three tines speared the drowner, causing a huge drop in HP and crippling it. However, I now had it stuck. When I’d used the trident on the isopods, they’d been armored enough that the barbs didn’t penetrate their shell far enough to catch. When I’d hit their unarmored underbellies, I’d just ripped chunks of their body away from their heavier mass.
The drowner wasn’t as heavy, and I couldn’t just rip my weapon out. Like the squid, my trident was embedded until I had time to remove it. Unlike my fight with the squid, I had another opponent to deal with here.
I stood there a moment trying to shake the drowner off when the other one rammed my back – trying to knock the air from my lungs – and grabbed at my throat. I dropped the trident and grabbed my knife again. Wrangling the creature around to where I could hold and kill it earned me a hearty slap on the head with its tail, but it was just as doomed as its companions.
After taking care of it, I swam over to where the impaled one was trying to escape, dragging my trident with it. I finished it off before its wounds had the chance, then laboriously cut my trident free.
I’d netted 40 XP for the drowners. Not 40 each; 40 total. Just like I got a whole lot more XP for killing enemies several times my level, I got a whole lot less for killing enemies below it. These creatures could have been deadly, but that didn’t reflect in my experience gain. The trick was to find enemies that weren’t going to kill you but gave good XP. There weren’t many easy opportunities like that.
I finished emptying my mana pool with water magic and buttoned myself up in the small cabin of my fishing vessel. Tomorrow, I’d do more training.