“Aaliyah, are you alright!” Sandra shouts from the top of the quarry.
“I’m fine!” I yell back, reassuring my friend, but honestly I’m not sure. Tabitha’s cuts were deep, but she didn’t reach my skin. I’m not sure if that was her intention or not, but I don’t exactly feel like asking.
“You’re fine, huh? Then I suppose we can continue,” Tabitha drily remarks. It looks like she’s lost most of her excitement after our initial clash.
I ground my teeth in frustration. Is fighting me so easy that a battle maniac like Tabitha can’t even find joy in it?
No, screw this!
I might not be able to beat her, but I’m not so weak that I’ll just roll over against her!
Tabitha notices my defiant look, and her smile starts to reform. “Good, Master Pacore wouldn’t have accepted you as a student if you didn’t at least have a spine.”
I bite back an angry retort and activate Flash Step twice to close the distance between us in a split second. Tabitha prefers to take the offensive, so I'll try attacking her this time.
Slashing downward, I aim for the shoulder of her shield arm. Tabitha backsteps, her feet gliding across the ground, much like how Pacore moved in our fight. She raises her shield to stop my attack, so I shift my grip and try to direct my sword towards her breastplate instead.
"Better," Tabitha remarks, raising her sword to parry my strike.
Our swords cross again, and this time I’m ready for her to-!
Tabitha jumps backward, using the force behind my attack to move easier. And to add insult to injury, Tabitha's sword flashes again right before she’s out of range, and I feel a new cut in my armor.
Tabitha stops fifteen feet away from me, with a cocky grin on her face.
The dam inside me brakes, and I shout at the infuriating woman. “Will you stop fucking up my armor, already!”
“Will you ask the same from your future opponents?” Tabitha retorts. “I thought you said you were a blacksmith? Fixing your armor shouldn’t be that hard for you.”
“It still takes time,” I hiss in frustration.
Tabitha snorts at my remark, “You’re the one complaining about time? You’re not the one who needs to train a child from scratch before her master returns.”
I’m stunned by what Tabitha said. Does she consider beating the shit out of me a necessary training method, all just to save some time?
Tabitha's grin widens when she sees my shocked expression. "You're the one who chose this; remember that."
“When did I ask for this?” I slam my hand against my breastplate and the deep cuts Tabitha left in it.
"When you agreed for me to train you," Tabatha grins like a demon. "I offered you a choice," she points out. "You could've denied my offer and waited until Master came back for you. However, you choose to accept my tutelage, and now you represent me."
“What?” I ask, not understanding her reasoning.
"You asked me to train you," Tabitha reiterates. "The next time Master sees you, your growth will reflect on me. Master Pacore wrote about how talented you were and your future potential, but all I see are bad habits you've learned in this backwater territory."
“I’m fifteen and not a warrior,” I feel the need to defend myself. “And I’ve been practicing sparring with a sword and other weapons for years now!”
Tabitha laughs like she just heard the funniest joke in the world. "And tell me, did you out-level the people you've been sparring with?"
“Why does that matter?” I answer Tabitha’s question with another question, not wanting to mention my father’s or Camden’s levels to my sadistic sparring partner.
“You won most of your bouts then,” Tabitha presses her point.
"I don't see how-," I begin to say, but Tabitha cuts me off.
“A rabbit can’t teach a dragon how to fly,” Tabitha states with a knowing look. “Unless your sparring partners were ex-military or retired monster hunters, I doubt they could’ve properly taught you anything more than holding your weapon correctly. You would’ve been stronger and faster than them with much more Stamina. Unless you’re pushed during training, you’ll start to form bad habits. It’s hard for the weak to teach the strong.”
“I’ve learned a lot from others,” I counter.
Tabitha points her sword at me. "If you had a competent teacher, they would've told you; you shouldn't have practiced with so many weapons. My master didn’t let me add a shield to my training regimen until Sword Skills reached level 75. Let me ask you, was Axe skills your highest weapon skill?”
Tabitha’s eyes drill into me, and I reluctantly answer. “It’s close, but Hammer Skills is my highest weapon skill.”
Tabitha nods her head. "I thought so; I'd call your master incompetent if it weren't," she sends a quick glance up at Master Del before turning back to me. "You should've brought a war hammer to our fight, not an axe and a sword."
"But I've sparred the most with my sword and axe; why would I use a weapon I'm not familiar with?" I find myself asking a surprisingly chatty Tabitha. I can admit she knows a lot about combat.
“And yet, your Hammer Skills is still your highest leveled weapon skill; why is that? It’s because, as a blacksmith, you hold and swing a hammer more than anything else. Weapon and tool skills are by far some of the easiest skills for a person to learn. As long as you have some decent training, reaching level 50 in these skills is easy for people like us." I assume Tabitha is talking about talented individuals because reaching level 50 in a skill, even if it's tier 1, is considered impressive by village standards.
“Weapon and tool skills are the representation of the time you’ve spent practicing with them and grant a natural familiarity whenever you use them. Though you say you’ve fought more with your sword, I could tell your body was much more relaxed with an axe in your hands,” Tabitha explains.
I never realized that! I know it always felt more natural to work in the forge than spar with dad and Camden, but I didn't know that feeling came from my skills.
“You should not have focused on so many weapon skills, or at least kept one as your main weapon without spreading yourself so thin,” Tabitha reprimands me with her sword still pointed at my chest. “And that is only the first problem I’ve noticed. If we are continuing, prepare yourself!” Tabitha rushes at me again without any prior notice.
I hastily find my footing, which I'll admit softened during Tabitha's impromptu lecture. Tabitha leads with a shield bash attack which I use Flash Step to dodge. I'm using Flash Step a lot, and it's burning through my Stamina at an incredible rate, but I can’t dodge Tabitha without using it.
Like Pacore, Tabitha’s footwork is scarily precise with no wasted movement. That said, I don’t get why I can’t match her. Tabitha might have a few more points in Dexterity than I do, but it can’t be by much. That means she has to be using a skill to move like she is, but what is it?
I bring my scimitar up defensively and block two quick slashes from Tabitha. She’s still trying to cut up my breastplate like earlier, but I’m feeling less malice behind her attacks now. Is this just her way of teaching?
My sword is larger than Tabitha's, and yet I can't seem to push through her defensives. Each time I swing, Tabitha blocks with her shield and delivers a lightning-fast counterattack. And whenever she attacks, I try to block her sword with my own, but she never lets our clashes turn into Strength competitions.
This is nothing like my training with Camden; he'd be out of breath already. And though dad can match my Strength, he can't keep up with my movements whenever we spar.
I see what Tabitha meant when she said the weak couldn't teach the strong. Dad and Camden did teach me how to hold an axe and sword, but if I compare all our sparring sessions to my fight with Pacore and now with Tabitha, I can see we might as well have been children fooling around.
Every fight I’ve been in has had me forcing out a victory through the strength of my stats.
The goblins weren't trained warriors. We ambushed the chameleon spiders as a group. I used up all my mana to blow up the bandits. Then, I did the same thing again when I encountered the soul eater.
I haven't won a single fight through skill!
"Stay focused!" Tabitha shouts, reminding me I'm still in a fight. She stabs her sword at my gut, and I'm forced to use Flash Step again to evade.
Only as soon as I shift positions with my skill, Tabitha swings her shield at the spot I appeared and sends me flying through the air.
Mana Skin absorbs a lot of the impact when I hit the quarry floor, but I still groan in pain as I get up. “How do you know where I’ll be?” I ask, hoping Tabitha will take the bait and give me a minute to catch my breath.
I know my plan succeeded when Tabitha doesn’t immediately appear in front of me, trying to stab me. “Your footwork is terrible,” Tabitha flat-out tells me. “You know a few basic stances, but again, you aren’t used to shifting between them during combat, probably because you’ve never needed to. I can take one look at your feet and see whether you’re going to try and attack me, shift positions, or defend. That, combined with your stiff movements, makes reading you a breeze.”
“Stiff movements?” I stretch every morning; how am I stiff?
“Yes, what footwork skills do you have?” Tabitha asks me, having seemingly gone back into lecture mode.
I know this pause in our battle won't last forever, so I touch up Mana Skin and try to recoup some of my lost Stamina while answering Tabitha. "I have Running at level 77. Is that what you're asking?" At this point, I don't even care about revealing a few of my weaker skills to Tabitha; I'm not exactly winning by keeping them secret.
Tabitha freezes, hearing my skill level, and her eyes go wide.
"What, 77!" I hear Sandra exclaim from the top of the quarry. I'd like to see her expression right now, but I won't take my eyes off Tabitha. I don't know when she'll resume our sparring, and I won't be caught off guard again.
"I see, so master wasn't exaggerating your potential," Tabitha throws me off guard with a respectful nod. "I didn't manage to pass my first level 75 skill test until I was 32 and after much hard work. For you to get a tier 1 skill to that high of a level at your age is certainly commendable. You must have put a lot of hard work into it," all of the sudden compliments from Tabitha make me start to feel a little embarrassed. I wonder what Tabitha would say if I told her Meditation was higher than Running and that my highest leveled skill is actually Sense Mana which is tier 2.
“I don’t know why you put so much effort into such a skill, but I can respect you for it. However, though Running is a movement skill, it isn’t what I was referring to. I meant skills like Steady Feet, Quick Feet, anything with feet in its name, really."
“Uh, I have Double Step and Flash Step,” I embarrassingly reply, seeing where Tabitha is going with this.
“I see, is that all?” It’s sad to see Tabitha going from praising me back to looking disappointed. "I'm sure those skills help you run long distances relatively quickly, but neither of those skills will help you in combat without significantly more training.”
“But Flash Step has helped me a lot, and it’s the only reason I can dodge most of your strikes,” I point out to Tabitha.
“Flash Step is a common tier 3 movement skill. It’s unlocked when you cover a certain amount of distance in a certain amount of time, but it's dependent on the skill it originated from. Your skills are meant more for linear movement, so unless you unlock more movement-related skills and integrate them into Flash Step, I’ll be able to predict where you’ll appear every time you activate the skill,” Tabitha explains.
I’ve always pushed myself to go faster, but I haven't prioritized movement during my battles other than flash stepping away from enemies. Or, as Tabitha might point out, I never needed to.
“I have a lot to teach you,” is the only thing Tabitha says further on the matter before resuming our sparring.
You'd think having one of my significant flaws pointed out to me would improve my chances of winning. But now I'm stuck overanalyzing all my movements, trying to overcome my sloppy footwork. As I block a flurry of swings from Tabitha, I'm trying to move more while keeping up a reliable stance, holding a weapon I was told I shouldn't be using. Is Tabitha aware that her advice is throwing me off, or is that her diabolical plan?
"Now you're overthinking," Tabitha berates me, cutting yet another slice into my breastplate. At this point, I've recognized I'll have to take the thing apart and reforge the plates inside, and now I’m curious just how many cuts my new armor can take before it becomes useless.
“Thanks for pointing that out!” I yell, trying to counterattack. Activating Double Strike, I aim for a small opening I think I see in Tabitha’s defense. She blocks my first slash with her sword and the second using her shield. Tabitha then proceeds to shift my sword to the side, freeing up her own sword, which she uses to score another hit on me.
We continue to trade blows with each other for an agonizing twenty minutes, and in all that time, I never get a clean hit on her. I grazed her armor once, but her smile makes it hard to tell if she just gave me that one.
Sweat is pouring down my face, my mana pool is half empty from refilling the holes in Mana Skin, and mentally I feel just as exhausted. My arms are trembling, holding up my scimitar.
The only thing that shows my attacks weren’t completely pointless is the small amount of sweat on Tabitha’s forehead. Her armor is pristine, but seeing her start to show some fatigue means I put up at least a semblance of a fight.
"That was a good warm-up," Tabitha's demon grin doesn't even anger me anymore. "Can you continue?" She asks me in an excited voice. She's flip-flopped emotions so many times, I've given up on trying to read her and decide to take her question at face value.
I want to say, let’s continue, but our last few clashes have been exceedingly one-sided. Shaking my head, I sheath my sword. “I’m done,” I tiredly collapse to my knees.
“Really?” Tabitha asks, clearly disappointed. “You can’t continue a bit longer?” She pleads like a child asking for another cookie.
"I don't think it will be very exciting for you if I do," I wheeze with a bit of sarcasm.
“Hmmm,” Tabitha hums in thought. “At least you have a decent amount of Stamina. You might not be well trained, but at least you lasted longer than some of my other sparring partners.”
I choose to take that as a compliment, while Tabitha looks like she’s thinking hard about something. “Where to start, where to start?” She mumbles to herself.
Oh, gods, she just spent the last thirty-something minutes putting me in my place, and she already wants to start my training!
“You don’t have a proper weapon with you right now, so I suppose we should start on your footwork,” Tabitha ponders out loud, walking towards me.
At least I can let out a sigh of relief when Tabitha sheaths her sword and moves her shield back over her shoulder. I may be tired, but the thought of figuring out how Tabitha and Pacore move as they do fills me with enough energy to get back to my feet. I’m ready to learn whatever secret skill they’ve been using.
Tabitha stops a few feet in front of me with a serious look on her face. “I’ll have to start you with the basics, just as Master Pacore did with me when he took me in as his disciple.”
“Ok,” I grin, letting a bit of my excitement show.
“You’ll need to learn the skill Master Pacore has taught all of his students.”
"I'm ready," I confidently reply, which earns me an approving nod from Tabitha. Sandra is going to be so jealous after I master whatever skill I'm about to learn. Wait, I cast a glance up at Master Del and Sandra, who look happy to see our sparring session is over. Is Tabitha going to teach me a new skill in front of them? I would assume a skill Pacore teaches to each of his students must be a well-kept secret; shouldn't Tabitha ask them to leave?
“Hold up your arms,” Tabitha instructs me, not caring one bit about our onlookers.
“Like this?” I stick my arms out to my sides, trying to follow her directions.
“No, like this,” Tabitha moves directly in front of me and positions my arms. “Bring this foot forward,” she kicks my right shin guard. “Now, move your other foot here,” she taps the ground with her boot.
I feel like a mannequin as Tabitha directs me into a weird full-body position. How does positioning my body like this help with my footwork?
"Alright, that looks right," Tabitha nods at her handiwork before moving uncomfortably close to me.
What is she?
Tabitha takes my left arm and has me wrap it around her armored waist. She then proceeds to take my other hand into her own, and my brain crashes.
“Now match my feet,” Tabitha instructs me, stepping forward, so I need to step back. "Good, keep doing that."
My body clumsily follows Tabitha's as she leads me in a slow dance. That's what she's doing, right, dancing with me? She isn't teaching me some super-secret skill or anything; she's just having me dance with her.
When my brain finally reboots, I stop in place.
“You messed up already? We haven’t even picked up the pace yet,” Tabitha looks up at me with disappointment in her eyes.
I pull away from Tabitha and take a few steps back. "What the hell are you doing?!" I shout at her.
With a puzzled look, Tabitha cocks her head to the side. “We were dancing, obviously,” she answers in a matter-of-fact tone. “Do you not know what dancing is? Is this village that remote?” Tabitha’s seemingly genuine questions make them that much more insulting.
“I know what dancing is!” I hiss. “I’m wondering why we’re dancing?!”
"Oh," Tabitha has a light bulb moment. "You see, dancing together is the quickest way to earn the Dancing skill," Tabitha replies like that’s the answer to all my questions. It doesn't help that I hear Sandra laughing from the top of the quarry. Can't she go back to feeling concerned for me?
I swallow back the anger slowly building; yelling won't solve anything. It's just so frustrating that Tabitha seems to have lost a few brain cells since we stopped sparring. She articulated my flaws perfectly when she was pointing a sword at me; now she's teaching me with half-answers. “And why are you teaching me to dance?” Keeping the anger out of my voice is harder than I thought.
“To fix your footwork,” she simply explains.
“With dancing? This is the first thing Pacore taught you?” I bluntly ask, picturing a giggling Pacore messing with a young ignorant Tabitha.
As if on cue, Tabitha brightens up at the mention of her master. "Of course, Master Pacore, in all his wisdom, spent our first lesson teaching me to dance. I was young and reluctant to learn such a skill, but Master took the time to explain to me why the skill is so important," Tabitha continues to sing Pacore's praise while finally giving me a decent answer.
“You see, what is dancing, if not a duel using our feet,” Tabitha proclaims. “You have to match your opponent’s rhythm and predict where they’re going to move. It is a beautiful form of battle that the nobility has been practicing for ages!”
Why do I get the feeling that’s just how Pacore worded it so his battle maniac student would listen to him?
“Let’s try again, and this time, try not to mess up,” Tabitha offers me her hand, to which I blush as I step forward taking her outstretched hand.
Tabitha repeats the initial steps, and I quickly find myself in a slow rhythm waltz type of dance. I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular back in my past life, and the only dancing experience I have under my belt is a couple of awkward middle school dances, where I was the definition of a male wallflower. My stats allow me to keep up with Tabitha's movements, but I'm stiff and overly focusing on her feet.
I feel like a fool, and it doesn't help that Sandra sounds like a cackling hyena overhead. I'm glad she finds this funny! Plus, while we're dancing, Tabitha has her battle grin plastered on her face, and I soon see why.
The longer the two of us dance, the faster Tabitha's footwork speeds up, to the point I'm almost tripping over her feet. So, she does treat this as a battle and is deliberately trying to trip me. It's hard enough with her being shorter than me and leading the dance, but I certainly can't match her skill. If Pacore demanded she had her Sword Skills at level 75 before picking up a shield, I could only imagine what level Tabitha's Dancing skill must be at. For that matter, what level was Pacore's Dancing skill at? Not even Tabitha's movements could compare to his.
It isn't long before I'm stumbling backward after tripping over one of Tabitha's armored boots. I try to drag her down with me out of spite, but like a slippery snake, Tabitha pulls her hands free and watches as I crash to the stone floor. Is it so much to ask for an ordinary teacher, I ponder to myself as I look up at Tabitha?
"Again," Tabitha leans over and offers me a hand back up. She may be brutal in her training, but she's considerate in her own way, I guess. Taking her offered hand, we start over from the beginning.
Again, I try to match Tabitha’s footwork for as long as possible, and again I end up falling on my ass.
We repeat this again...
And again... with me improving by a few seconds each time.
Having not fully recovered after the sparring, and just like running for long periods, my Stamina bar starts to drop pretty low. The fatigue of dancing continues compounding with my earlier sparring session's exhaustion, making getting up more and more difficult.
I get a short moral boost when I feel a slight shift in my soul indicative of a new tier 1 skill, but falling on my butt again quickly reigns in my joy.
“Again!” I stare up at Tabitha’s outstretched hand.
“I don’t suppose you can teach me any other skill?” I ask, taking Tabitha’s hand, aggreging to another round of punishment.
“You need to work on the basics first,” Tabitha tells me, sounding like a real teacher for a moment. “If I tried teaching you a stronger skill, and even if you were able to learn it, that doesn’t mean it would do you much good.”
“Why?” I ask, dodging one of Tabitha’s feet.
“You lack knowledge that comes from having a good teacher,” Tabitha points out to me, shifting her feet and picking up the rhythm.
"Hey!" I try kicking her shin, but Tabitha easily shifts her legs out of the way.
“Do you think I don’t speak the truth?” Tabitha asks me, not caring that I tried to kick her. She twirls us in place and sends a glance up at Master Del. "The stone kin, the person you called master, he is 'stripped,' yes?" She whispers to me.
I almost lose my footing then and there, but I manage to shift my hips and hop over one of Tabitha’s feet. “How did you?”
"I couldn't feel much magic from him while we were walking here. Stone kin place great importance on magic, to the point they look down on anyone with little to no magic skills. Our kingdom had to order Master’s armor because the stone kin outpost bordering Scholl wouldn’t accept any of his personal orders.”
"Pacore can't use magic?" I ask, surprised by Tabitha's casual revelation.
Tabitha nods like it’s no big deal. “Master Pacore never had talent with magic, but that never stopped him from becoming great." Now it makes so much sense why Pacore had such a massive magic gem embedded in his armor. It was so that other people could charge his equipment, and he wouldn't need to worry about the enchantments running out of mana.
“That’s good to know, but what does that have to do with my master?” I ask Tabitha, oddly keeping up with her increased speed for the first time.
“If your master has no mana, then his people would’ve treated him as worthless despite any success he might have had, just as they did Master Pacore. They would not have wasted their time teaching him crucial information," Tabitha spells it out to me.
I grit my teeth in anger; I know how much Master was underappreciated. Master Del doesn’t like to talk about his life before he left Truset, and I can see why if what Tabitha is saying is true.
“Many believe the higher the tier a skill is, the stronger it makes them. It’s the job of experienced masters to dispel this rumor. Yes, the higher the tier the skill is, the more potential it has, but as I said earlier, it needs to be supported by your lower tired ones.”
Is that the reason why I'm having trouble leveling Precise Strike and my other skills past level 40? Is it because Blacksmithing has yet to reach level 75, or is it because my highest weapon skill is only level 61? It makes sense you need a strong foundation; that's probably why my magic skills are leveling quicker than my other skills. From tier 1 to 4, all my strongest skills are mana related, after all.
“Then if I practice dancing night and day, I’ll be able to beat you?” I cockily grin at Tabitha.
She chuckles, "You're welcome to try. Skill levels aren't everything. Let me ask you a question Master Pacore asked me when he accepted me as his student. Who would win between two evenly leveled warriors? Both men share the same stats and are the same age; the only difference is one has spent every minute of his life swinging his sword at a practice dummy getting his Sword Skills level to 100, verses a man who fought in numerous battles and managed to only get his sword skills level to 75?”
“The warrior who participated in all the battles,” I confidently answer. That’s obviously the answer she was looking for.
Tabitha nods with a smile. “You’re smarter than I was at your age. It again comes down to how you practice. You can dance twenty hours a day and eventually raise your skill level higher than mine, but it won’t improve your footwork in battle by much. Just because you have a high-level skill doesn’t mean you’ve mastered all its applications.”
I’ll have to seriously consider that as I move forward with my training. I started off hating this day being looked down on by Tabitha, but she's not as bad as I thought. She's not much company outside training and combat, but you had to respect her knowledge and skill on the subject.
I may be tired, but I finally see the reward dangling in front of me. It's at this point Tabitha trips me again, and I end up on my ass.
“If you continue this training, you'll at least be able to put up a fight… eventually," Tabitha reassures me, offering her hand again.
I want to reach out and continue our training, but I need a quick rest. "Can I just sit here for twenty minutes?" I ask.
"If you must," Tabitha calmly replies, pulling back her hand. Her excited grin disappears and is once again replaced by her passive stare.
I turn away from her, not wanting to be reminded that she's just standing there waiting for me to catch my breath. Using this short break, I plan out the rest of my day and how I'll proceed in the near future.
I'll need to leave my armor at Del's, so mom and dad aren't worried when I get home. Plus, I should stop by Anastasia's and have her do a quick touch-up. I wasn't seriously injured today, but my ass is sore, and I'm sure I'll have a few bruises from my earlier sparring. That’s what I need to do in the short term, but more importantly, I need to reconfigure my schedule to fit in training sessions with Tabitha.
She’s shown just how much I lack in my fighting skills, and fixing those problems is just as important as my other skills. I need to spar with Tabitha, work on my forging, finish deciphering the engraving ink recipe, all while finding time to practice my mana skills and spending the limited time I have with my family. But I’m not sure if there’s enough time in my schedule for all of that?
And how am I going to tell Tabitha I won’t be able to spar with her as much as she wants?
Turning my head slightly, I glance at Tabitha out of the corner of my eye. She’s still watching my every move with her stony expression.
I’ll break the bad news to her later, no reason to make her mad when we still have hours left in our training.
Why does it feel like life is becoming busier?
Oh well, life moves on. The only thing I can do is continue to do my best. I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll learn from them. That’s life.