“And four to go!”
Both Sarah and myself lunged at our opponents. I already knew Sarah was going to pause just outside of attack range while I continued crossing the distance to my opponent. Psychological games, gaining the advantage by disrupting the expectation that we’d move in sync. It wasn’t a large trick, but every trick counted.
I made a quick swing with the right pad at my opponent’s face, and he deftly defended against it. I swung twice more, using the second swing as a feint before committing to my real attack. Not that it mattered; he defended against the attack with practiced ease.
Dr. Alcomb said that they probably weren’t as familiar with pugil sticks as the two of us were. As my opponent made a testing jab that I easily blocked, I came to the quick realization that his familiarity with a pugil stick itself wasn’t important. He was comfortable with a weapon in his hands and probably had more experience than me — no matter what, this would be tricky at best.
“Mouse!” I barked as I began to circle my opponent.
“Pillow!” came Sarah’s reply. I’d let her know that I was going defensive, and she’d responded with gibberish. She was bad at that, not giving me any real information. It did wonders for messing with the heads of our opponents, though.
When fighting with a halberd, to an untrained eye a couple of initiates clashing could appear almost the same as two masters. For such a masterful weapon, it was easy to look to observers like you had no idea what you were doing.
Pugil sticks were, in a weird way, exactly the opposite. A person started out looking like a flailing idiot, and as they progressed through their skill base, they continued to look like a flailing idiot. It wasn’t until they got good, with an eye for combat, that they appeared to be decent.
My opponent might not have the skill with this particular weapon, but he had skill and experience and was making up the slack fast. I deflected one attack, took a feint and had to skitter back to keep from getting a solid blow on my helmet. He wasn’t making for wild strikes — each attack was surgical, either to test out my reflexes or to try and force me to give him an opening without letting his own lack of skill give me an opening.
Time and time again, we attacked. I swung, and he moved to deflect or block with the naked center bar, trying to hit me with a counter attack. He swung and I either deflected or dodged before coming through with a counterattack. Neither one of us was getting a solid blow, and as our weapons did nothing more than graze our armor it became apparent to me what the problem was.
If his fighting style were to be compared to a power, his would be a Brute, or perhaps a Striker. Push through the enemy’s attack or otherwise render it useless, and then punish them for it. By comparison, my own fighting style could be more compared as a Shaker or Master. I excelled at taking my enemies down, but I was better at maneuvering them to where either myself or others could take them down more easily.
Both combat styles were equally valid, and truth be told they were virtually interchangeable. There were times where he would have to focus on maneuvering enemies, and there were times where I was best served by focusing purely on offense. They were two sides of he same coin.
A coin that was making me sweat as I ducked under a swing. I went for a counterattack, but the sound of Sarah using her power made me jolt, going wide. The only upsides of that were that she sounded like she was keeping it gentle and that my opponent was just as startled as I was.
This was useless, though. Pugil sticks were designed to not hurt your opponent too badly, no matter who used it. The way you held it didn’t help matters any — with how far apart the hands were placed, a pugil stick was theoretically great for blocking. In practice, however, you didn’t have the time. You also didn’t have the ability to easily make precision strikes or strikes with much force. For a weapon seemingly designed for simple near-mindless flailing, even if the ends were equipped with spikes or something, it was nearly worthless.
As a training aid, to help teach someone to move on their feet and become confident with a weapon in their hands, it was great. However, for people like my opponent and myself, it was just annoying. Instead of going full offense, we were used to making precision blows, moving with or fighting through the flow of battle, attacking and counterattacking.
I backed off from a poorly telegraphed swing, gritting my teeth. This was getting old quickly, and was barely testing my body at all. I could tell that my opponent was feeling the same way. Fine. As he made a half-hearted swing again, I danced away and quickly changed my grip, holding more like a polearm or quarterstaff. It wasn’t perfect, the pad at the end by my hands made it awkward, but if felt much better to take a quick jab at him. I was rewarded with a solid score on his chest.
I started to push my momentary advantage, taking a step towards him. Almost instantly, though, I realized what I was doing and how unfair it was. Instead of going for a feint like I had been going to, I made a wide swing for him, not using the power or speed that I should have, and was rewarded with him easily blocking it with the center of the stick. I reset completely before making an overhand swing that was easily blocked. Once again, I made a wide swing from the side.
This time, his block was a little odd, his right hand twisting as it lowered. As soon as I connected with the block, he let go with his left hand and twisted his wrist, snapping it so the pad of the pugil stick hit my helmet. It wasn’t a hard blow, just enough to make a point and force me to recoil out of instinct. As an added precaution, I took a few extra steps back.
Whomever he was, he took up a modified fencing stance, his left arm wide and open, ready to grapple. I got the feeling from his stance that he didn’t actually use a rapier — most likely, he used a longsword. His stance was set to better sweep the blade than a parry-thrust combination. Still, he was obviously trained in at least a bit of fencing. Good. Fighters with a wider range of skills to draw from were more fun for me to spar with.
I quickly nodded, getting my whole body into it. I wanted him to know that this is what I wanted. The man responded by standing straight for a moment and raising his sword in a wordless salute before dropping back into the stance. Mutual respect, one fighter to another.
I made a testing thrust with my pugil stick, and he easily deflected it before tagging my shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind the awkward padding at the end of the stick being right below his hand. I envied him for that — it was throwing me off a little bit.
He made a sweep of his weapon, and I used the end of mine to redirect it too high to be a threat before jerking back, tagging his helmet. Returning the previous favor. I pulled back and tried to give him a hard thrust, but he deflected it. This time, before he had the chance to counter, I was already dancing back.
I heard the sound of Sarah’s power, but it was light. She was only using it for tagging, enough to maybe knock someone back a couple of steps. Not enough to actually harm someone.
As my opponent and I got into it, him slowly pressing against me with powerful strikes while I tried to maneuver around to force him into giving me an opening, I started to notice something. When he connected a blow with my body, he had a surprisingly light touch, but his deflections were casual, almost awkwardly so. The physics were all over the place. With the downright casual way he was deflecting, either he was drawing kinetic energy from somewhere, or he was using some sort of other power to mess with the equation somehow. It was enough to distract me from the occasional sounds of powers being used.
“Armadillo,” Sarah barked. She was having trouble — her opponent had some sort of defensive power that she couldn’t get past. That was problematic.
“Snipe!” I let her know that I was having difficulties, but that they were more of technique in nature. The main issue wasn’t that I was having problems. In all honesty, I loved a challenge. I actually liked losing a sparring session. You learned more from a loss than from a victory.
The problem was Sarah. When Sarah sparred, even if she didn’t use her powers, she still sparred to win. For her, the challenge wasn’t the interesting bit, it was the thrill of victory. With how we were fighting, most likely my opponent and I would lose stamina well before one of us had an uncontested victory. Sarah wouldn’t like that.
My opponent braced his pugil stick against his free arm and performed a dashing thrust that forced me to practically leap out of the way. I quickly swiped at him, only for it to be deflected. Almost immediately, his hand was on my pugil stick and I felt his connect with my side, the padded armor keeping my ribs from getting the brunt of the blow. It had surprisingly strong force behind the strike, even more than the snap should have had.
In a flash, he was bringing his pugil stick up and over, even as I was already reacting. His goal was to continue a modified escrima maneuver to disarm; it was impressive to see someone using multiple combat styles at once. Fortunately, my leg was already raising, the quick snap of muscles making it connect just above the hips before he could bring his weapon down on my arm.
He stumbled back, ready for my counterattack, but I wasn’t interested in that. I suddenly wasn’t interested in fighting at all. Instead, I flexed my leg, bringing it up almost to my chest and back down. I did it again, feeling a sense of… I wasn’t sure. Disconnection from my body?
No pain. My knee should have been screaming at me, but there wasn’t any pain at all. I stared down at it for a long moment, trying to get a feel for what was going on. The more that I focused on my own body, though, the more I felt uncomfortable with myself.
There was that pleasant burn in my lungs from exertion. I was far from out of breath, but in the five minutes we’d been going at it, I’d been working hard. A very mild burn in my calves, arms, and pecs, but that could be chalked up to simple exertion. There was no tension in my muscles, they remained ready to do whatever needed to be done. A strange, simple absence.
A lack of pain? I rotated my shoulder a little, and got nothing other than the simple movement. It was so very alien. But now that I focused on it, I could feel the difference. It was like there had been a ten-year-old attacking my entire body with a toothbrush my entire life, and now they’d finally gone off to live their own life. It was so very strange…
I felt a nudge on my back and quickly turned around. Sarah stood a good ten feet away, her palm up. Apparently, she’d fired a gentle shot at me, and I hadn’t even heard it. I ducked my head a bit. “Sorry. Um, weevil.” Another nonsense word for our code. We had a lot of them, so that we could confuse our enemies while still communicating in combat.
“Dandelion,” she said cautiously. “You okay?”
I could see her opponent, his posture suggesting concern. Behind them, the doctor had her hand on her glasses, playing with them a bit. A nervous habit, maybe? I turned my attention back to Sarah. She was gripping her pugil stick in her free hand harder than she needed to. “Yeah, I’m good. I just, uh, realized something about my body. I’m fine, it’s a good realization. Appalachian.” Let’s go at it hard and fast.
“Cowbird,” she responded. That was interesting, though a possible solution to our individual problems. She wanted to switch opponents. On the surface, it was a bad plan. Our opponents were picked off of our strengths. However, our individual opponents were best at being an equal counter to our strengths. In this case, there was the strong chance of us being able confuse our enemies by our very different combat styles. At the very least, I might be able to get the Blaster to yield and then we could double-team the Striker.
I nodded and turned back to my opponent. His posture was cautious; no doubt he was eyeballing me, trying to figure out my physical condition. He’d probably backed off after the kick, taking note of how I’d lost all interest in fighting him. He was probably worried that I’d hurt something with that kick, when nothing could be further from the truth. Still, I was sure that the two of us could take him.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?”
Nope. The sound of his voice combined with his body type, the way he stood, and how he moved told me everything. I knew immediately who he was, and he could take both of us out without effort in a real fight.
“Yeah,” I said in a forced chipper tone, getting a grip on my pugil stick. “Have at you!”
Me knowing how powerful my opponent was didn’t mean that I was going to stop. If anything, it made the sparring session more interesting. As soon as his stick was back up in a defensive position, I called out to Sarah. “Badger!” Go all out, all the tricks, all the stops.
“Mongoose!” She had to get into position before we could switch like she wanted. That was fine. Hold out until she was ready to switch, make the Blaster submit, then the both of us could get our rears handed to us by a master.
With her information, I closed the distance in two steps, my weapon held for a sweep towards his feet. Instead of following through properly, with his pugil stick already lowering to defend, I used the momentum to help propel me into a jumping crescent kick. Those were usually for attacking someone on higher ground, but were easily modified for distance.
My kick missed, though I wasn’t sure if it was because of my opponent moving back or because my own aim had been off. Either way, it didn’t matter. Instead, I kept the spinning momentum going as I hit the ground, using my pugil stick to try and trip him. This time, my stick rebounded off of his. As I came up, though, I aimed a kick squarely at his ribs.
I connected, but his arm came down, clamping my leg into place against him. That was bad — while I had stability at the moment, he could easily remove that just by moving a bit. Instead of waiting for him, I instead twisted my body and lashed out with my other shin, aiming for the back of his legs in a modified scissors takedown.
Had it been a month ago, just trying that probably would have hurt my knee bad enough that I’d be effectively out of the fight. Had we not been in this padded armor, it probably wouldn’t have worked. But we both went down on the mat, our pugil sticks flying.
Almost the moment that the pugil sticks were free, my opponent grabbed me by the chest and rolled hard so he could be on top of me. His grip, though, was poor and unfocused, a situation made worse by the padding that we both wore. I couldn’t blame him, though — he was a purely melee fighter, while I tried to keep myself more well-rounded. I grabbed both of his arms and yanked outwards, using the better fulcrum of my position to rip away his grip. Immediately, I followed it up by bringing my knee into groin.
It wasn’t enough to hurt, but humans are conditioned to react. I actually spent years reconditioning myself to not react if there was no pain there, thanks to Sarah’s help. He jerked his hips up, which gave me the clearance I needed to get my knee between us, helping me to flip him off me.
Immediately, we broke, and quickly rolled towards the pugil sticks. Within a moment of grabbing them, we were back on our feet. Before I had my grip was fully settled, he was swinging at me, forcing me to dance away. He swung again, and a third time, pressing the attack and keeping me off base. Even still, I kept myself going where I needed to, placing my back towards Sarah.
“Vole,” I barked, dodging another attack.
I deflected another swing, making a a counter that was easily blocked before Sarah called back. “Squirrel!”
My opponent was attacking again, but I completely ignored him. Instead, I turned and scrambled as hard and as fast as I could while keeping low. Now in front of me, Sarah jumped back before thrusting both arms down towards the ground and using her power. Harder than she had any other time today, enough to propel her back and up. She rotated mid-air, her feet almost grazing my helmet.
The Blaster’s stance shifted quickly — he was more than used to the battlefield changing suddenly. As I drew in close, instead of getting ready for my attack, he charged me. Both hands gripping the pugil stick the way it was supposed to be, he came at me swinging both ends fast and furious. That made me stop dead in my tracks fast to go on the defense.
Not that there was much defense from a flurry of blows like that. He was just as fast and agile as I was, making my avoidance not as effective as my other opponent. Fortunately, they were pretty much worthless, barely feeling any any connection, when he actually connected with me at all.
Instead of trying to avoid, I took a few blows just to do a quick foot sweep. He jumped back to avoid it, but even as I rose I could tell that he had a Mover aspect, too — for the power he put into the jump, he moved too far. He didn’t fall right, either. Flying cape, I could handle that. He was at least being proper enough to keep mostly to the ground.
Still, it gave me the chance to go at him, holding my stick like a polearm again. I made a thrust for his head and he ducked, more out of mundane reflex than anything. Obviously not used to close quarters. I followed up my thrust with a downward stroke to strike his shoulder…
…and went straight through him. For a moment, he became like a void in human form, only instead of an absence of light, the void was composed entirely of it. My stick passed straight through without the slightest pause, nearly making me stumble. As soon as the stick had cleared him, though, he reappeared, knocking one padded end into my head.
Oh. No wonder Sarah was having trouble feeling like she could win against him. She was probably hoping that I could come up with some sort of counter to it. I probably could, but with what I’d seen and how battle hardened he was from his quick adjustment in tactics, it was going to be an uphill battle trying to get him to a point where he’d yield.
But as he struck me with a flurry of random blows, I couldn’t help but grin. This was a rare opportunity for me. For once, I could go all out. I could go completely on the offensive, bring everything that I had to bear without actually worrying about hurting or possibly killing the other person. I could seriously put my body through its paces.
I suddenly brought my pugil stick up in a sharp arc, and once again he became immaterial. He barely flickered back into existence before I brought my foot up to deliver a powerful kick. Had he not flickered back out again, my heel would have caught him squarely in the solar plexus.
Thus began a strange routine of him flickering in and out as I tried everything that was either a single blow, or a combo that could be done without actually needing the force of impact to set up the next stage. I began to use every type of polearm striking that I could, mixing in powerful kicks whenever I could. I was focusing on trying to get precision as I became a maddened offensive rush.
As I worked through everything, I began to realize what was affecting my precision so badly — it was the fact that my body wasn’t fighting itself any more. If my muscles had been messed up when I was younger, I’d spent years learning to adjust for that in order to maintain my edge. My brain was now hard-wired to deal with that, subconsciously adjusting. Now, I was going to have to learn to not adjust any more. It might take years, but it meant that I could get even better than I had been.
The other thing that I realized was that my opponent wasn’t nearly so worried about winning the sparring session as Sarah had been. He was still moving, still being a hard target that I had to adjust for, but there were several times where a kick or maneuver gave him an opening for a counter attack that he ignored. He wasn’t here to fight, he was here to give me a workout.
The lack of competition on his part, the lack of any sort of urgency, it made me enjoy this even more. I could just focus on working my body, feeling my heart hammer in my chest, my muscles burn, and my endorphins soar. This was almost as good as that feeling of weightlessness. I had honestly forgotten what it was like to train without worry or pain.
That didn’t mean, however, that I wasn’t keenly aware of Sarah’s competitive edge. She wanted to win, and I knew it. But like this, I couldn’t be any help. If I moved to assist her, my opponent would move to interfere somehow. Maybe use his Blaster powers, maybe keep one of the two of us distracted. It didn’t matter what he did, he’d decrease our effectiveness.
So, instead I worked to position the two of us as I continued my flurry. Sarah was engaging her opponent, her back to me, and I positioned my own opponent between myself and her. That way, I could keep an eye on them, waiting for an opening to help.
Even with my vantage point, though, I continued to press my assault, cycling through fighting styles. Guisarme, naginata, the Byronic attack, spear, ji, yari, Pythagorean theory, Taekwondo, Jeet Kun Do, Wushu, it didn’t matter. Some of the kicks were grounded, some of them were jumping. The flurry of attacks cycled in and out as fast as possible.
It took almost five minutes before I saw Sarah get a hand on her opponent’s pugil stick. Even as she used her power-enhanced strength to rip it from his grasp, I was stepping back from my own opponent. Their battle was effectively done now, and it was time for me to get to work.
As he solidified again, I tossed my pugil stick away. I could read his response through his body language, the slight twitch of the head, the cautious tensing. That was fine. I raised my fists, beat them together, and motioned to him to do the same.
Slowly, hesitantly, he tossed his own weapon away and raised his dukes. Awesome. I lunged forward, then made my punch slower than I should have, with not nearly enough force. He deflected, but it still impacted with his body. This time, though, he didn’t phase out. I did it again, a little faster, and then a third time. Not once did my punches go through him.
I quickly backed off, though, tensing. He paused for a moment, unsure of himself. I motioned for him to come at me before he nodded. Good. Sometimes you manipulate the battlefield through your angle of attack, and sometimes you can just outright ask your opponent to do what you want.
His punch was quick, but it was without form. A man unused to having to rely on anything less than his powers for a fight. I still made a show of deflecting it, or, rather, trying to. He still connected with my shoulder, deep enough that it was a solid blow.
As he drew back for another punch, I saw Sarah lift her opponent off the ground and put him down on his back. Endgame time. I deflected my opponent’s next blow the same way, before I began to dance a little. Keep his attention on me, and not what he might hear from over there.
By the time that Sis finally made her way back up to her feet, my opponent was getting into the swing of it. He was apparently more interested in helping me improve my skills than fighting, which I didn’t mind. Psychological warfare was a skill. He’d throw a punch, I’d deflect it poorly on purpose, and then he’d go at it again.
Finally, however, I caught his wrist, pulling it to the side and not letting go. That made him pause for a moment before he tried swinging over our arms with his other fist. Exactly like I wanted. I grabbed that wrist as well before pulling and twisting the lower arm. The upper arm helped to act as a fulcrum, sending him onto the floor with twice the force than I could have by flipping him with one arm. It also let me keep better control of not only how he fell, but what he could do once he hit the ground.
Almost instantly, Sarah was standing above the two of us, pointing a pugil stick at his head. “Yield!”
He paused for a moment before suddenly laughing, a rich sound. He was genuinely impressed and pleased with this turn of events. “I give, I give!”
Instantly, I released his arms and was on my feet, giving him space. Sarah looked at me, and I could tell by her body language that she was smiling. Despite the hammering of my heart and the endorphins running through my body like a runner’s high, I wasn’t.
While she was temporarily content to revel, I turned on my heel and purposefully marched four steps away before turning back. Now I could tell that she was curious; she could tell from my behavior that something was up, but she wasn’t sure what yet. Not that I could answer. As I pulled off my helmet and tucked it under one arm, she moved to join me and do the same.
The two of us were mirrors once again, only this time, she was following my lead and standing at rigid attention, staring firmly in front of us. I had to admit that the cooler air against my sweaty face felt wonderful.
The two men made their way to their feet, relaxing a bit. Slowly, my first opponent pulled off his helmet, and I could feel Sarah grow more rigid next to me.
“Chevalier, Legend,” I said with the most professionalism I could muster. I had to fight to control my breathing. “Thank you for letting us win.”
Legend pulled off his helmet, grinning. “I guess I gave it away, didn’t I?”
“With your reflexive power? Yes, sir. However, I already had confirmation of Chevalier’s identity. His power was more subtle, drawing from the different weighted pugil sticks, and perhaps something else. However, it wasn’t until I heard his voice that I was able to put it all together.” I was screaming inside, equal parts wanting to hide behind Sarah and wanting to run up and shake his hand.
Chevalier smiled at me. The hair near his temples had the faintest hints of gray to it, but that was the only real sign of aging. It was an open secret that Valkyrie had stalled the aging process of the upper members of the Wardens. “You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember meeting you before.”
“You haven’t,” I said simply. “But I when you came to school to speak, I was present. I just never had the courage to shake your hand.”
Chevalier smiled a little larger. It was one of those smiles that adults gave kids without meaning to. “Of course you’d remember that.”
“We came to see how you were doing,” Legend said. “When word got out that you were out of ICU, we decided to give you our regards if you were up to it. We were a little surprised when the good doctor here roped us into this.”
Dr. Alcomb removed her hand from the stem of her glasses, hunching over a little. Embarrassed? No, something else. She was afraid of reprisal. Had she done something wrong? Or did the two have a history of butting heads over patients, and she was expecting a cutting remark from Legend or Chevalier?
“That isn’t the only reason we came,” Chevalier said instead. “There is, of course the political aspect of it all.”
Legend cut in. “But before we get into any of that, relax a bit. After that workout…” He chuckled, shaking his head. “I don’t think I’ve had a session like that in years. Maybe decades.”
Sarah chuckled a little as she fell into a more normal posture. I fell into something more akin to a military at-ease stance. Right now, protocol was the only thing keeping me together.
“And I’ll be honest,” he continued. “We may have gone easy on the two of you, but you did better than you might think. You’ve obviously got both skill and talent. And decent experience. I’ve had harder fights, I’ve had people who played me in a fight better, but the two of you were a balance that I don’t get often. I’m impressed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sarah said with a warm tone.
“How are the two of you doing?”
“Good,” she said with a nod. “My arm’s working better than I expected. Jordan here seems to have lost a bit of precision, but he’s got more strength and flexibility than he used to. With enough time, I’m sure he’ll get it back.”
“And then some,” I said helpfully. “I hope, at least.”
“Good. But how about the rest? The two of you have been through an awful lot these past few months.”
Sarah and I looked at each other for a brief moment before looking back to them. “Eh,” she said with a shrug. “We’re fine. Saint Louis was stressful, but we managed pretty well and bounced back fast. Getting hurt was a shock, but really, we’d be more upset if we hadn’t had the chance to save some lives out there. Us getting hurt… it’s just a part of the job.”
“Just part of the job,” Legend repeated solemnly. “And tell me, what do you feel your job is exactly?”
“Getting ready to join the Wardens.” There was a hint of pride in her tone.
Chevalier smiled a little. His posture, however, changed a little. It went from relaxed, maybe a bit exhausted, to a more professional stance. It was the smallest of movements, but it was still there if you looked close enough.
“Good. Because that’s part of why we’re here today.”