Three black stripes connect the cuffs of Rum’s navy short sleeve shirt to his collar. He grabs his favorite black jacket and tosses it on in one fluid motion. The grin on his face is fueled by more than just his pride in his attire. Today, the day of his freshman class’s performance, he will be able to wield his buster sword. He’s trained tirelessly to accommodate Stark’s advice into his swordsmanship, wielding his blade as not a heavy weapon, but just a weapon.
When he and Shuri met outside campus, he would visualize his buster sword as the training blade he had become accustomed to handling. His moves are still rather clumsy, but he feels his growth will become apparent once he masters this new style.
Perhaps Mom could give me some pointers when the year’s over. If I haven’t gotten it down by then, that is.
Rum approaches the weapon rack and grabs his buster sword, lifting it easily with one hand. He stares at his reflection in the dark metal. He knows his blade can withstand his blue electricity, but the thing nagging at him is why it can. He’s never had a reason to question his Sulublei powers before, and yet he now realizes he knows very little about what exactly he can do with it beyond charge up his sword once a day.
I’ve been trying to summon it more than once a day, but it never works. There must be some fundamental understanding I’m lacking. Nuria has absolutely no trouble summoning her flames. Hell, she can even control the temperature to such a degree that she can even use heat without any kind of combustion. I probably should’ve trained with her more than I did. Then maybe my steel debt wouldn’t have happened.
“You gonna stare at yourself all morning?” Aven asks derisively, reaching around Rum to snatch his scythe from the rack.
“Good morning to you, too,” Rum retorts sourly and lowers his sword.
“Just don’t go and try to barbecue me if we spar today.”
“That’s if Tameri even pairs us against each other again.”
“Who knows? She might want an encore performance of your utter humiliation.”
“I think you might be humiliated today,” says a flowery voice that floats from the doorway.
“Oh, don’t you start, eagle eyes,” Aven snaps.
Pan leans in the doorway, back against one side of the frame, her left leg pressed against the opposite end. Her recurve bow rests across her lifted thigh, perfectly balanced. “And it’s not just Rum that can barbecue you. Come to think of it, you’ve never seen my S’nue talent, have you?”
“Let me guess, it’s as flashy as anger management over here,” Aven says while pointing over his shoulder.
“Not quite,” Rum says. He steps aside to allow Roy to grab his hand claws. “But it does look nice during the sunset.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere today,” Pan teases. “I’m taking the gold. No more last place over here.”
“Then I assume you think you’re taking down all the boys?” Roy asks. He keeps an expecting gaze aimed at her while fastening his hand claws to his belt via a pair of metal hooks.
Pan pumps her leg to bounce the bow into the air. She catches it without looking after straightening in the doorway. “Every one of you will be bowing down to my superior skills by the end of the day.”
“Superior skills to whom exactly?” Aven eyes her as he forces his way out the door. Pan chases after him, trading barbs as they descend the stairs. Roy enjoys the show as he trails behind them.
Rum stands alone in the room, holding firm to his buster sword. He connects his magnetized leather band and suspends the sword around his body.
Forget about the lightning. Today, I just have to hone my skills as a future Slayer.
Shuri’s weapon case opens out like a staircase, sporting two shelves. He lowers each blade into their fitted perforations in the cushions. His harness is attached to a loop of hooks on the canopy of the case. He takes a couple of snapshots with the campus as the backdrop.
Shuri hears the flag behind him whip faster and hastily shuts his case. The clicks of the latches matching the tap of a wooden cane against the ground.
“Are you ready for your exam today?” Neth asks.
Shuri rises and hefts his case before facing his grandfather, making no attempt to hide his displeasure. “As ready as I could muster.”
“Shuri, when are you going to move past that? I stopped your steel debt so you could focus on your wind powers a little more.”
“Is that so?” Shuri asks, though a scathing undertone is undeniably there. “What if I have no interest in them?”
“Then why learn how to sky-step? Why learn to clog your ears with wind?”
“I’m finding less of a need for both,” Shuri says.
“Shuri, you should put more time into your Sulublei talents. It’ll –”
“Keep me away from weapons, yes. You’ve made that plain, but I am not quitting Tameri’s class. I like what I’m learning, and despite your overwhelming support, I’m good at it.”
“I never said you weren’t.”
“Good, then we’re in agreement,” Shuri says sharply. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to be late for my exam.”
Shuri turns away and takes a step off the edge of the roof, finding footing on a solid disc of swirling air.
This is my last time using this stupid trick.
Shuri hops off the disc early, landing safely despite the ten-foot plunge, even keeping hold of his case. His camera bumps against his knees and chest as he stands tall.
And when I beat everyone else today, I’ll show you the picture of what a champion looks like.
“I have one last thing to say before we get started, everyone,” Tameri announces as the freshmen gather around the foyer of Jojen’s Dojo. “Today, it is all about the five of you. Since the sophomore class will have their exam in a couple of days, you have access not only to the second floor, but the courtyard around back, as well. And even though the dojo students are absent today, you are banned from going into their classrooms. You will have three hours to practice with your tools before we have lunch, and then reconvene for the exam. I’m sure the lot of you have guessed it will involve one on one sparring matches. You’d be correct.
“However, anyone who harms their opponent will be expelled. Follow the rules to the letter. Do not stab or cut your opponent. You win only by disarming, tapping them with your weapon, or pinning them. Understood?”
Tameri nods when they acknowledge her directions.
“Anything to add, Jojen?” Tameri steps aside and joins Stark on the wall opposite the students. She watches attentively as they absorb Jojen’s speech.
The stout blacksmith clears his throat and says, “You lot weren’t the worst that Tameri has ever brought here, but you are far from the best. When you leave here today, realize that this is only the beginning of your growth as Ohaida. Continue to reach higher and higher plateaus of skill and strength and discipline. And if any of you think you’re the best by the end of today, I’ll accept any challenge.”
“Is that a promise?” Aven asks with his usual arrogance.
“Okay, that’s enough. You all have precious little time to prepare. Go and hone your skills as best you can,” Professor Tameri advises sternly.
Tameri watches as her class scatters to practice, Roy being the only one to visit the courtyard. However, she smiles when Rum approaches Jojen, and it widens when she sees Jojen agree to his request. Rum vanishes from sight last, following her former instructor into the basement. Her gaze lingers there for a few moments.
My old grizzly bear of a teacher. Who knew he’d take a liking to Aurum, as well? Probably sees what I see. He always has.
“Stark, I’m stepping outside. Care to join me?”
“No, thanks. Not a fan of rain,” Starks says. “And shouldn’t you take this time to coach the students?”
“Today is for them to figure out things with their own wit,” the professor replies with a shake of her head. “Besides, I’d like to be surprised by what they display.”
“If you say so.”
Professor Tameri turns and exits the building. She ignores the minimal rain falling, letting the cool soothe her soul. She relishes the day of performance unlike any other. More than skill, it shows her how dutifully her students respond to instruction, and how their attitudes regarding weaponry can be refined. For most, she tends to instill in them more respect for their abilities, but there are the rare bad apples that she finds need greater tempering. She laughs inside, realizing that she may have been more of the latter as a child.
I was anything but modest in those days. Took me too long to realize just how dangerous I was. My reputation was close to being an infamous one. Without Jojen, without Vanis Town, and especially without Four Hearts Academy, I cou- would’ve been hunted down. However, with all of those things in my life, I am safe beyond measure. My students will know nothing less.
Two lateral slashes precede the same number of light thrusts. Rum pulls his sword closer to his body, then attempts to twirl it in a windmill defense, but the rotation is rather slow. He changes tactics and practices his upswings before flipping the handle midair and stopping his blade before making contact with the dark stone floor. He takes a deep breath and straightens his posture, preparing to repeat the sequence of moves.
“Nerves getting the better of you, aren’t they, Sparks?” Jojen asks.
“No, sir,” Rum replies, repeating his lateral swings. “Just trying to figure something out.” He makes more confident thrusts, but narrows his eyes at his sword. The lack of light illuminating his body frustrates him.
“Would that happen to be how to guarantee losing?”
“No. My lightning isn’t coming out.”
“You trying to break your sword, too?”
“That’s the thing. My sword’s never had any issue with my electricity. I can always use it with my sword once a day. I’m trying to get that use out now, but it’s not working for some reason.”
“Are you sure you’re doing it right?”
Rum hesitates answering a moment, but concedes that an outside opinion may be the thing he needs. “To be entirely honest, I never really had to work to summon it before. It’s just always come when I willed it. But right now, even though I want it to come, it’s not listening.”
“Are you sure you want it to come out, then?”
“Of course, I do!” Rum shouts. “I’m not trying to harm anyone with it today. I wasn’t last time either, but I was angry. Stark said that anger was probably the trigger back then.”
And that by itself is odd. I’ve never summoned my lightning when I was angry before. And Nuria can sometimes be too much to handle. What is going on with my body? I feel like I can’t do anything right anymore.
“Is it because I’m here?”
“I’m sorry, what?” Rum asks, lowering his sword. The countenance of defeat seizes control of his face.
“You’re being careful not to hurt anyone. Perhaps you’re including me in that count. And, if that’s the case, then you should be fine long as I’m here. And I’ve seen how you look up to Tameri. I doubt you wish to hurt her, either.”
“Yeah. It made her original assignment hard to tackle. I was so worried I was going to cripple her when I saw my attack land.”
“Let me tell you something, Sparks. Tameri is the strongest Ohaida I’ve ever known, and not just because of her swordplay. She’s the kind of warrior you rarely see; the one who knows their limits, on both the positive and negative spectrums of their abilities. You’ve barely seen a fraction of what she is truly capable. Should the day come you witness it, make certain to be on her side.”
Rum finds himself smiling. “I’ll keep that in mind when I guess what her other power is.” The young warrior returns to his training, and his sequence of moves are much faster, leaner, and infused with a new sense of confidence.
This contest is mine!
When Roy races toward her Pan uses his forward momentum to lead into a sneaky trip. She squats down above him and places her recurve in his face, crafting a laser arrow from between her fingers, stopping it just short of his face. She grins and leaps away from him. Roy’s person vanishes from the ethereal space, replaced by Shuri. She ducks and dodges his slashes, keeping just outside his range. She implores the same trick to defeat him as well.
Wait, no. That’s lame. Can’t beat him with the exact trick he just watched me use. Rewind, please.
Time reverses itself in the ethereal plane until she and Shuri are again on their feet. She uses her bow as a defense mechanism against his swords. She plants her feet down firm when the ghostly version of Shuri thrusts both blades her way. She twirls her recurve bow and knocks both blades to the floor. With her opponent defenseless, she leaps onto his shoulders and immediately leans back, slamming Shuri onto his back.
That’s more like it!
Shuri’s body wavers and dissolves back into the vacuity. In his place comes an ethereal form with an affinity for dark and navy clothing. Pan’s ghostly counterpart grins as they do battle. She focuses so much on her enjoyment of the scenario that she has to rewind time once her opponent bests her.
Ah, I think I can give him a break. Call it even after that earlier compliment. Besides…
The final boy to enter into the ethereal plane is Aven, and the arrogance of this ghoulish copy is just as palpable to Pan as the real thing. She decides to change his attire around so that a white ring target is present on the front of his shirt.
I shoot better at him than the target anyway. Might as well combine them for maximum results.
“Hey, eagle eye! You gonna fire anytime this century?” Aven’s voice rings loudly throughout the ethereal space.
Pan’s eyes snap open and she groans. “If you don’t have anything better to do than annoy me, you might as well go practice yourself.”
“No need. I’m well beyond the level of all you scrubs. Winning is a given.”
Pan rolls her eyes, then sits down on the desk she was squatting over, laying the bow across her lap. The training short bow and rubber-tipped arrows remain unattended on the floor beneath her perch. She looks up at Aven’s perch, only his elbows and the blade of scythe exposed over the edges of the light.
“Why do you act like a dick?”
“Excuse me?” Aven says, peering over the edge slightly.
“You’re good, yes, but you act like you’re superior to everyone. Tameri and Jojen included. What makes you think you’re on their level?”
Aven keeps his head exposed, but his eyes turn away from Pan. “I think that way because I have to. Saying the words “I’m better” does nothing unless you truly believe it. I believe I’m that good. I have to. I don’t ever want to go back to the alternative. If that means I’m labeled as a dick, then so be it. There you have it. Satisfied?”
Pan stares at him in silence for a moment. “Do you have to a dick, though?”
“Did you not listen to a word I just said?”
“If saying the words doesn’t matter, then that means you could say, I don’t know, nicer things,” Pan argues.
“I could, but that wouldn’t be as entertaining. Back to your training, eagle eyes. You still have last place for a few more hours.”
Pan seethes and grips her bow tightly.
The afternoon deluge leaves everything but Tameri drenched, even as she stands out in the middle of the sidewalk. Drops of rain fall around and through her, pooling all around her feet. She enjoys the chill of the breeze, one of her favorite things about Vanis Town. The falls have always been a beautiful mix of rainy and dry days. Neither of them particularly warm, but Tameri’s never been bothered by cold temperatures. She only uses the rain to exercise her powers freely, a chance she often denies herself. Soon the falls will hit the campus.
Today makes 62.
However, the droplets assail her spadroon mercilessly. She runs her fingers along the cold metal sheathe, though her skin phases right through every inch of water. Until she grasps the chalk-colored guard, that is.
You and I have experienced so much together. I suppose it isn’t fair to let you take the brunt of the storm alone.
In the next second, Tameri’s as soaked as her spadroon. She smiles and turns for the front door. She blinks away excess water from her eyelashes. In that brief instant, she misses a small object sail past her, affixing itself to the automatic doors via an adhesive gel. Tameri can make out a countdown in concert with beeping. Her eyes open wide as the screen on the device reaches the “00:00”, and take the full impact of the grand flash of light.