Theresa ducked, avoiding The Watcher’s strike as his sword passed finger-widths above her hair.
Her great-grandfather’s sword whipped up like a snake’s strike, and her opponent barely got his staff up in time to parry. He yelped in surprise when her hunting knife suddenly shot forward—driving him back—and she followed like a wolf pursuing a wounded buck.
All around the fighting pit, the other Watchers cheered and jeered, thumping their staffs against their seats in approval. The Watchers of Roal were the great protectors of the University of Generasi and knew their spells well, but they did not call themselves wizards. They were warriors first, and to them, magic was simply another weapon like the spear or the bow.
And they wielded all their weapons well. Theresa’s opponent was no exception.
He wasn’t a small man: half a head taller than she was, and built like a blacksmith’s son. He was only a few years older, but fought with the skill of a veteran.
“Damn, woman. What the hell happened to you-Argh?!” He ducked a thrust that would have skewered him through the neck had the Spell of Ritual Combat not dulled both of their blades.
When he righted himself, his eyes were alight with excitement, and sweat poured down his brow. “You’re three times as fast as when we started, what in all the gods happened to you?”
“Same as you,” Theresa said, spinning both blades in her hands with complete ease. “Practice.”
He laughed, parrying another one of her blows while chanting a body enhancement spell. Mana made his muscles swell and his agility soared.
But Theresa hadn’t been pushing herself as far as she could yet. She leaned out of the way of another one of his draw cuts, then drew a deep breath, letting her enhanced lifeforce course through her body.
Awesome strength filled her limbs and her heart thundered. Everything slowed around her as her senses sharpened, and the world—the endless forest, as she saw it—became richer with detail. As she concentrated—letting go of everything that wasn't her opponent, the terrain, and herself—she could trace every droplet of sweat on his brow, see the reflection of the arena in his sword, and hear the rustle of his clothes and chainmail.
Now even his enhanced agility wasn’t enough.
He swore as her blades shot at him in a flurry of strikes, and he grunted as several blows struck his armoured arms and torso. Her leg shot straight up like a lever, driving into his solar plexus and blasting the air from his lungs.
The Watcher flew backward, flipped to regain his balance and open distance between them. Her eyes went wide as she watched his lips finish an incantation.
A burst of icy wind blasted at her. Theresa leapt aside, but the tail of it still caught her leg, slowing her as her limb went numb. The Watcher chanted another incantation.
‘What was he going to do?’ She wondered.
She braced herself, trying to steady her affected leg.
His speed suddenly doubled.
She remembered Alex talking about those spells.
With her leg numbed, The Watcher broke through her defences. He used his staff now, keeping out of her reach and thrusting it like a spear. Impacts rocked her body, but she dove at him, driving close, trying to ignore the numbness in her leg.
She parried the staff with her sword then caught his blade with her knife. Theresa drew her head back.
Her head slammed into his nose, and only his force armour saved it from being shattered. But he was an experienced warrior—more so than she—and even as he reeled, his leg shot out and kicked her numbed ankle, tripping her.
With a yelp, she hit the stones.
He leapt at her, his staff pointed down, ready to blast her with magic from close range.
“Dammit, I’m done,” she said, acknowledging that if this were the battlefield, she’d definitely be dead. She felt frustration rise, acknowledged it and let it go. Now that she was still, she could concentrate her life force into her leg, and she quickly felt the cold magic bleeding out of it.
‘I can’t wait until I’m able to do stuff like this while fighting,’ she thought. With a powerful kip, she jumped back onto her feet. ‘I know great-grandfather would have been able to.’
She had been growing her martial skill and power over the months, both in preparation for threats from Thameland, and for her goal of following in her great-grandfather’s footsteps. Her ultimate plan was still to explore the world one day, but before she could get there, she needed to explore and learn about herself. Then when she felt ready, she could go out and capture some of the power that let him build his life of glory.
So far, though, she had the impression that if her great-grandfather was an ancient tree, then she was still just a sapling. She told herself to be patient, but watching Khalik, Thundar and Isolde learning new spells and growing more capable as part of their cabal, and watching Alex build his golem, made her want to grow faster.
What she was able to do wasn’t obvious to see, like a giant walking clay man, or magics with powerful effects. It was much less flashy; even the blade-spinning she’d learned wasn’t proper swordplay, that was just for the fun of it. In the end, she wasn’t a ‘Proper Wizard,’ she was a warrior and a hunter, and she needed results to show how she’d grown in her own way.
Getting knocked to the ground and surrendering wasn’t exactly a good demonstration of growth.
Her opponent let out a long breath. “By every war god that’s ever drawn blood, I thought you had me again.”
“I thought I did too, Roland,” she said, a little disappointed as they walked out of the fighting pit. From the side, Brutus got up—still chewing on a large boar’s bone—and padded beside her as she greeted him by patting one of his heads.
All around the arena, The Watchers of Roal clapped and cheered as two more of their number stepped into the fighting pit. These nonlethal bouts served as exercise, practice, and entertainment for The Watchers. At the top of the arena, a statue of Roal—the ancient warrior-wizard who had started their order—watched them all, her granite eyes stern and determined.
Theresa squinted at it.
Several of The Watchers had pointed out that she and the statue wore a similar expression, but Theresa didn’t see it herself: the statue glared ferociously at the world like it was some kind of…stalker of death or something.
“Your skill’s impressive, you know,” Roland said. “I mean it. The Watchers don’t take people who are scrubs with a weapon. I’m new, but I had to prove myself, and you’ve already beaten me once and gave me a good run for my coin this time. Six months ago you could barely touch any of us.”
“Thanks,” Theresa said. “But ‘a good run for your coin’ wouldn’t matter if you’d been really trying to end my life. I’ve gotta get better.”
“Well, nothing wrong with getting better,” he agreed. “Still is a damn shame you don’t have the mana for wizardry: get a few years of spellcraft under your belt and another few more years of swordplay, and The Watchers would draw blood for someone like you.”
“I’m just good at Life Enforcement.” She shrugged. “I don’t-”
“Theresa! Theresa Lu!” she heard a voice boom from outside the arena. “There’s someone here to see you!”
“Right, catch up with you later, Roland,” she said, giving the young Watcher a nod and heading for the exit.
She grimaced, hoping to Uldar that it wasn’t Alex.
She’d been deliberately avoiding talking about her progress to him and other friends, including Khalik, Selina and Shishi. She just wanted to surprise them with how much she’d grown. It had taken her weeks of observing The Watchers, practicing near them, and joining in on some of their physical exercises before they’d finally invited her to spar. Sparring with them was by invitation only. It wasn’t because they were particularly secretive, it was just that they were good. She’d learned that they used to allow anyone who was interested to challenge them in the fighting pits, but the practice ended because of incidents with certain students and members of the city—all from old and powerful families—where they’d embarrassed themselves and had their pride bruised.
Now, they did what they were named for: they watched spectators for a time before they invited any interested folk to join them.
Still, being welcomed had only led to months of getting thrown around by the warriors, and it was only in recent weeks that her skill, exercise and life enforcement had finally started to close the gap between their least experienced members and herself.
She didn’t want her friends to see her practice until she could reliably beat at least some of The Watchers.
But, it turned out her worry wasn’t necessary.
To her confusion and relief—it wasn’t Alex who was waiting outside of the fighting pit.
Towering far above The Watcher that had called for her—a massive bearman—stood the hulking Grimloch. The sunlight glinted off of his teeth.
“You. Been looking for you,” the shark man rumbled.
“Um, hey to you too,” she said as The Watcher left. “How did you find me?”
“Ran into Alex. He said you came to practice here this evening.” Grimloch said. His snout twitched. “I smell blood. Yes. Whose is it?”
Theresa blinked. There’d been a bout earlier where someone’s shield had slipped and they’d gotten hit hard enough to burst their lip. They’d poured red all over the place. “Uh, not important. What’s going on?”
“Teach me,” Grimloch said. “Teach me this life thing you were talking about.”
And people said she was direct.
“I dunno, I’m not sure if I can,” she said. “My professor would be a better teacher.”
“Don’t know her,” the shark man grunted. “Know you. Can go to her after you show me the beginning, if you’re willing; you’re smelling different week by week. Smelling less like prey.”
A shudder went down Theresa’s spine. The extra creepy thing about his statement was that she knew he wasn’t trying to be intimidating, bragging or frightening. She understood what he meant.
Grimloch was an apex predator…and he knew it.
That was one of the things that hunters feared most in the wild: a predator that knew it had nothing to fear from you. An angry and frightened bear was dangerous. A cunning, confident and aggressive bear was how legends began.
“It’s dangerous,” she said. “Going down that path could cripple you. All that incredible strength you already have would be gone.”
“I’ll try it. I heal good anyway.”
She frowned, then sighed. “I’ll tell Professor Kabbot-Xin about you. And I’ll see what she says. Come to my class tomorrow.”
“Tell me where and when and I’ll be there.”
“You made the right decision,” the professor said sitting beneath the tree. “For one as new to the path as you, leading a test on your own would be dangerous.”
Rain pounded outside the wind and rain shield they had set up, barely hiding Grimloch’s growl of disappointment. The rest of the class was staring up at the shark man though they were trying to do it discreetly, but failing in most cases.
Shishi was the only one who wasn’t actively staring, but the first time she’d met the sharkman, she hadopenly stared at him with her jaw hanging open.
“However, if he trusts you,” the professor continued. ‘Then having you aid in his testing would calm his energies, and provide you—and all here—with a learning opportunity. It could be done before class begins. If that is alright with you, of course. Do you want to do this, Theresa? Remember, you’re only auditing the course, and if you’re not comfortable with this, you certainly don’t have to do it.”
Theresa paused. “Can…can I do this?”
“Having others aid with testing or other aspects of life enforcement is very common. If you wish to do it, I can take the lead in the test, and you can follow my energy. You have a natural affinity for the work we do here, perhaps because you are a descendant of Twinblade Lu, and you are growing to be quite skilled.”
“I trust you,” Grimloch suddenly said. “Seen you fight. Know you’re reliable.”
The huntress gave it deep, careful thought.
If she managed to do this, that would not only allow another to experience the path of cultivation, but a powerful ally would grow stronger. Grimloch didn’t have The Mark to interfere with his concentration and risk disastrous or even deadly results, so that terrifying possibility wasn’t an issue to consider. If she failed at it and things went badly, then she’d have responsibility for Grimloch getting injured.
She thought about her loss to Roland.
Would Grimloch trust and consider her reliable if he’d seen that? And just because she ‘grown quite skilled,’ that wouldn’t mean much if she messed up at an important moment; again she thought about how The Watcher could have killed her if it had been a real battle.
She was leaning toward refusing Grimloch, and just letting her professor decide what to do when a deadly, multi-limbed monster came to mind: the hive-queen. The Theresa of then—far weaker and less trained than now—had charged the burning creature without hesitation. Why was she hesitating now?
Would she do the same when they face the xyrthak?
Her jaw tightened. “Alright…if you want to try,” she said. “Then I’m willing to try.”
Grimloch’s mouth did an unnerving snarling thing which was probably supposed to be a smile.
The professor turned to one of her graduate students. “Would you get us a testing bowl, please? In the meanwhile, Grimloch, I want you to join us in a ten minute meditation. We shall see if you have the ability to concentrate long enough for this.”
The guided meditation passed quickly, with Grimloch going completely silent as he joined in with the class. His black eyes rolled back, exposing a dead, white surface and he stopped moving. He hardly even breathed.
By the time the meditation was over, the student had returned with the testing bowl. The professor turned to Theresa. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” she said. “I am.”
She turned toward the towering Grimloch, then froze, looking at his giant hands.
Grimloch grunted. “You’re gonna need a bigger bowl.”
Another bowl was quickly fetched.
Once the testing bowl was set up, Professor Kabbot-Xin turned to Theresa. “Why don’t you proceed with the question, Theresa?”
The huntress nodded, remembering when she’d been tested: “Tell me, why do you want to learn Lifeforce Enforcement?”
“Because I’ve seen what it can do,” the sharkman rumbled. “And I wanna see what I can do.”
She nodded. “Now place your hands into the bowl, Grimloch.”
“And you, Theresa, place your hands over mine,” her professor said.
All three closed their eyes, and Theresa let her mind call into the flow of life-force within herself, a flow that had grown much stronger. Yet now, when she touched her professor's, a shock rippled through her.
Kabbot-Xin’s life force was an ocean—deep, powerful and honed. Theresa was in awe as she followed her professor’s power. Then she felt Grimloch’s: his life flowed powerfully through him, but it was untrained and had not been reinforced with the power of nature. Theresa—looking at her own energy and feeling her professor’s—understood how much more hers could be.
For a time, their life forces circled around his while a strange…shift occurred in the shark man. The life force calmed and it…opened up to them. And with that opening, the professor reached in, and Theresa followed.
Their life forces touched and Kabbot-Xin reached deep into Grimloch and shifted…something in his core.Immediately his body reacted. His life force began to boil, ejecting impurities from itself.
They drew out of him a moment later.
The shark man shuddered then heaved, vomiting a stream of awful smelling black gunk into the bowl. Theresa was suddenly very glad they’d gotten a bigger bowl.
She smiled up at him.
“Welcome to the path of cultivation, Grimloch.”
“What a…way to start,” he shuddered, wiping the blackened stuff from his lips.
“It hurts right now, but you’ll see, your life force will get rid of all that stuff and you’ll feel much lighter in time.”
Just like she had.
Theresa set aside her frustrations, her confidence boosted somewhat by helping with the test.
She let go of her loss against Roland. She’d get another chance, and besides, as much as she kept thinking of it as a ‘what if it had been a fight to the death’, she knew that was only her insecurities talking.
‘See the world as it is,’ she thought. ‘That wasn’t a life or death battle, that was a sparring match. Leave it aside. It’ll distract you from what’s coming.’
She thought back to her reasons for starting life enforcement. “I want to protect my loved ones, and I want to follow my great-grandfather’s path to gain his strength and step into the world prepared for its dangers.”
That was what she should be focusing on.
She needed to go to the city. She had a bow to buy.
Then she paused, looking at Grimloch and thinking about the many weapon shops in the capital. “Hey,” she said. “Have you ever used a crossbow before?”
An idea had begun to stir in her mind.
She’d been approaching the fights like a warrior, but she was also a hunter.
And teams of hunters killed at range.