A Practical Demonstration
So it was that I found myself approaching that same tavern the next day, a little before the second hour after noon. Seeing my approach, Ruth – standing at the entrance to an alleyway next to the tavern – waved at me and beckoned me over. Her hood and mask obscured her features, and her large, black robes masked her figure. She was an enigma to me – try as I might, I could not come to any conclusions about her physical ability or her readiness to fight. That worried me. Her stance was as impenetrable as Elysium’s, preventing any potential enemies from gleaning any sort of relevant information about her. I briefly recalled the short exchange Elysium had shared with her the previous day, when they had casually joked about destroying the city as a manner of collateral damage. Something in me, something primal, told me that if it was this woman, such a result was entirely possible. A chill of fear ran through me, but I grit my teeth and headed closer to her nonetheless. When I was finally next to her, she smiled at me, her lips the only part of her face exposed by the mask.
“Nice to see you decided to go through with this.”
“Well, after everything I said yesterday, I could hardly go back on my word.”
“A man of honour. Consider me impressed.”
“Enough of that. What will we be doing? I’m guessing there’s some purpose to you standing by this particular alleyway?”
“An excellent – and correct – guess. The place we’ll be training is down this alleyway.”
I ran through my mental map of the city’s alleys. If I wasn’t mistaken, this alley led down into a central, connecting area where a total of twelve alleyways met; a large, open space obscured from the eyes of the public. If this was indeed her intended location, I could draw several conclusions about the nature of her training. First, that it was one she would prefer to go unseen. Second, that it would require space to move around in, and third, that it would probably not result in large-scale destruction that would require a fully open area. There, was, however, one thing that concerned me.
“Y’know, that open space you’re thinking of is secluded, but all of us lowlifes know about it – it might not be as private as you’re probably thinking.”
Ruth waved her hand dismissively and continued walking.
“It’s fine. If anyone drops by uninvited we can just include them in our training.”
I really didn’t like the sound of that.
We eventually reached the open space and, as expected, she stopped and turned around.
“As you’ve probably gathered by now, this is where we’ll be training. You’ve probably already figured out why I chose this place, so I’ll spare you the details and get right to it. Show me what you can do.”
At her request, I narrowed my eyes and concentrated, just as I had done the previous day on the rooftop. I felt the light gather around my fingertips, ebbing and flowing, forming a vaguely sphere-like object that refused to hold its shape, constantly changing and morphing. Ruth frowned.
“Hmmm… you’re certainly not lacking in power, but you’re lacking in focus.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do you visualise the light formation?”
“Visualise? In what way?”
“What kind of image do you use to form your light.”
“Image…? I don’t know. I just kind of… do it, I guess.”
“Hm. To be able to achieve manifestation so naturally – you do have talent. Well, try this. Dismiss that light and close your eyes.”
I did as I was told and squeezed my eyes shut.
“Steady your breathing, settle into a rhythm, try to feel your heartbeat.”
In, out. In, out. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. Three heartbeats.
“Now try to form the light again, but this time pay attention to where the light is originating from.”
Mildly confused, I did as I was told. I called forth the light within me, trying to focus on its source. I felt a warm pulse from my heart as I began to call on my magic, infusing my heartbeats with added intensity – I felt a warm light in my chest. I gasped in surprise – this was a sensation I had never noticed. The surprise broke my concentration, and the magic faded, causing my heartbeat to return to normal.
“Good. You found it. Now call on your magic again, and focus on it. Find the light within you and guide it. Trace its path, from its source to your fingertips, from your fingertips into the air.”
I focused within myself, calling upon my magic once more – the light sprang to life once again, warming my chest, filling my heart. I imagined it flowing outwards, along my chest, down my arm, along my fingers, into and out of my fingertips. As I imagined this route, I felt the light within me shift to follow the same path. I directed the light out of my fingertips and into the air, where I still felt the pulsations of the light as a part of me. I collected the light together and imagined myself compressing it, shaping it into a tightly packed ball.
“Good. Open your eyes.”
I did as I was told and saw that, within the palm of my hand, a small, perfectly round orb of light was nestled. It had none of the indeterminate haziness that usually characterised my magic, and was instead refined and flawless. I ran my fingers across it and found that it was smooth and hard to the touch. I poked at it in wonder as Ruth laughed.
“Well, I was going to save the technique of compression for later on, but I guess you’re even more of a natural than I thought. Congratulations. You’ve just made a ball of hard light.”
“Light that’s been strengthened and compressed by magic, to give it a physical presence.”
“What do you mean, a physical presence?”
“It’s faster to show you. Lob the ball at the ground. Do it hard.”
Unsure what throwing light at a solid object would do, I shrugged and complied, expecting it to dissipate harmlessly upon contact. I was wrong. The orb of light smashed into the ground and dispersed, but not before leaving behind a tiny crater, with a depth about half the size of the ball. I stared at the hole, my jaw agape, unsure what I had just witnessed. Ruth giggled.
“It’s a shock, I know. To think that something so immaterial could come to bear so much weight. But that’s the power of elemental affinity magic like ours. We can take something usually insubstantial and grant it substance.”
I opened my mouth to ask her what her affinity was, but I was interrupted by a loud voice from behind me.
“That was a nice fireworks show you had going on there, kid. Real pretty. Not sure it’d be much good in a fight.”
It was a voice I vaguely recognised. Resisting the urge to groan, I turned around to face the person who had intruded on our training session. As I suspected, it was the same man who had tried to hit on Elysium the previous day. One arm was in a brace, but his other arm held an axe. Presumably, he was out to seek revenge for his humiliation or some nonsense like that. He’d probably noticed me in here with Ruth and gone to get some friends to beat me up, taking Elysium’s absence to be a chance to get at her through me. He’d never seen Ruth before, so he probably assumed she was just some random magician who could be overwhelmed by numbers. I waited for him to begin bragging about how he was going to teach me a lesson with his friends, watching him with bored eyes. He sneered.
“I notice that other woman’s not with ya today. Lucky me. I owe her one for breakin’ my arm like that, when I wasn’t ready for it. Saw ya in here without her, figured I’d teach her a lesson by sendin’ her little boyfriend back without an arm. Maybe a leg, too. I dunno who’s that other person with ya, but hey, not like it matters. I’ve brought a couple of friends, too.”
As if on cue, men emerged from the alleyways that led into this area. Each of them were armed in some way, some with swords, others with clubs. Including the taunter, there were twelve of them in total. The man spit on the ground and directed a crooked smirk at me.
“Nothin’ personal, kid. If ya want to blame anyone, blame your whore of a girlfriend for crossin’ the wrong guy.”
I sighed. It was as if he was trying to be as laughably predictable as possible. If I were on my own, I might have been intimidated into fleeing. But on this occasion, well…
I turned to Ruth, whose mouth was curving upwards in a shadow of a vicious smile. I knew it. She was waiting for something like this to happen. She spoke, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Well, this is fortunate. We can work these fine men into our training regimen. I was hoping I would be able to provide a practical demonstration. Please do try not to disappoint me, good sirs.”
The leader of the group’s face contorted with rage, likely due to the fact that he felt he wasn’t being taken seriously – and to add insult to injury, the tone and pitch of the voice made it clear that he was being challenged by a woman.
“You… you fucking bitch! Get her!”
At this cue, one of the other men, armed with a sword, raised a loud yell and dashed forward, slashing downward at Ruth. Ruth waited till the last moment, then casually sidestepped the blade. As her would-be assailant staggered forward from the unconnecting blow, she swiftly delivered a sharp kick to his side, sending him reeling backwards. The men all froze, and Ruth took off her mask, revealing her beautiful face, twisted into a cruel smile. She turned to me and spoke, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“You saw that man try to attack me, correct?”
“Therefore I am currently under attack. In other words, anything I do from this point forth is legitimate self-defence.”
The men froze, then as one, they shouted with anger and rushed her all at once. She calmly avoided all their attacks, redirecting those that would have hit me, and spoke in an even voice, addressing me.
“Now, you’ve already seen that it’s possible to compress your element…”
She dodged beneath three blades that passed over her, and delivered three swift jabs that sent the attackers staggering back.
“…but so far, you’ve only been able to form a single sphere.”
She caught a club aimed at her head, and used it as a handle to throw its owner back in the direction from which he had come.
“But with enough training and time…”
She struck the arms of two men swinging down at me, sending the path of their swords away from my body, then delivered two palm strikes to send them flying.
“…you’ll eventually be able to shape them into more complex forms…”
With a flurry of jabs and kicks, she sent the remaining eight assailants flying, causing them to join the ring of the twelve men around us who were currently on the ground and groaning.
She snapped her fingers. Immediately, twelve spears manifested above the assailants. Three were made of fire, blazing and burning bright. Three were made of water, fluid and changing, yet still maintaining a fixed, unmistakeable shape. Three were made of rock, rough and flaky, but sharp enough to kill. The final three were made of wind, concentrated little tornados of wind that looked ready to drill holes into their victims. She snapped her fingers again, and all twelve spears slammed down into the ground, eliciting twelve screams of terror that echoed through the alleys. I instinctively closed my eyes at the moment of impact, not quite willing to witness the gruesome scene which no doubt awaited, but when the sound of flesh being torn apart never came, I opened my eyes again. All twelve spears were buried into the ground next to their targets’ heads. A miss? Not possible. Not at that range. This was a mercy.
Ruth snapped her fingers again. This time, a veritable legion of spears manifested around her, surrounding her on all sides. Tens, no, hundreds of spears, comprised of magic and some element, forming a defensive wall around us, their tips pointed at the men. Ruth spoke again, a hint of amusement entering her voice.
“Well? That was quite the disappointment. You’re free to try again, but I honestly would advise against that. Might have adverse effects on your health. What’ll it be?”
The men, as one, scrambled to their feet and bolted away, down the alleys. Once the last sounds of their footsteps faded, Ruth gave a wave of her hand, and the nest of spears disappeared.
“Well then, that was just a practical demonstration of what is possible with an elemental affinity like yours. You might not be able to achieve quite the same volume, but I’m confident that you’ll be able to generate at least a few weapons of hard light, given enough training.”
I was only half-listening. I was too astonished by what I had just witnessed.
“Ruth… who are you?”
Ruth tilted her head quizically, as if she didn’t understand the question.
“I’m just a travelling merchant from another land. Nothing more. Shall we continue?”
I hesitated, then closed my eyes and nodded. I had a vague feeling – a conviction that Ruth’s identity was something I was better off not knowing.