A Final Test
Light clashed against fire in the middle of the large space which sat between the alleys. Ruth and I both fired out barrage after barrage of magic, her spears of fire matching and intercepting my blades of light. It was the final day of my lessons with her, and as a graduating test of sorts, today’s session was an all-out brawl. No more focusing on only defence or offense. My task today was to land a fatal hit without being hit myself. The notion of fatally wounding my teacher might be a cause for some concern, but it was a fact that I had no chance of even hitting her if I didn’t earnestly go for the kill. I had to throw everything at my disposal at her, or I had no chance. Even though Ruth was restricting herself to using only as many spears as I did swords, it took all I had to keep up with her, even when she held back.
Over the course of a single month, between the training with Elysium and the lessons by Ruth, I’d developed the beginnings of a fighting style I could consider uniquely my own. It mostly involved me charging into close range of an opponent and staying close, using my magic to form swords or shields to protect me or to assist my assault where applicable. It was a style built around flexibility: if I met a physically superior opponent, I could use my magic to blind, distract or overwhelm them. If I met an opponent who was more specialised in magic, I could rely on my knife strikes to physically hurt them instead. In the event that my opponent was well-versed in both physical and magical combat, it would come down to a test of skill between us, to see who was better at mixing the two.
Of course, the above didn’t apply at all to Ruth, who was my superior in both respects. And for Elysium, well, her inability to use magic hindered her and almost got me a win the first time I tried it in our sessions. Then she picked up a weapon, and I ended up on the floor with numerous bruises. My teachers were both rather abnormal in terms of their strength. As a result, I, the pupil, learned a lot about fighting people stronger than me – though I’m not sure whether to celebrate that result or to mourn the many scars and wounds I sustained over the course of that month.
Returning to the session at hand, it was quickly apparent that even though I could keep up with Ruth’s assault, it was only a matter of time before she overwhelmed me. She was more experienced and more powerful. I had no chance if I let it drag. And yet she refused to show me even the glimpse of an opening, not even a feint. Her guard had no weaknesses. But if I wanted to win, I needed an opening.
Therefore, I had to make one for myself.
As I dashed past her, sword striking spear, I flicked one of the two daggers I held, throwing it in Ruth’s direction. Not even missing a beat, she tilted her head slightly away, causing my perfectly-aimed shot to just barely miss her neck, embedding itself in the wall behind her. While still fending off my magical assault, she spoke up.
“Come now, Glint. You can do better than that.”
I said nothing and grit my teeth, creating and launching another sword of light at her. At the moment she materialised her own spear of fire to match it, I quickly tossed something in my empty hand upward, in the path of the moving sword – I tossed a Resound Jewel. Ruth’s eyes widened for a split second as the sword vanished into the Jewel, as if sucked in by some unknown force. I saw the tip of the sword emerge behind her from the other Resound Jewel, tied around the handle of the weapon I had thrown at her. The next thing I knew, I was on the other side of the clearing, thrown against the wall, my abdomen hurting beyond description. It happened too fast for me to be sure, but I surmised that she had kicked me away at the last minute.
On the other side of the clearing, where our exchange had taken place, our constant movements had kicked up a large cloud of dust. I could see no movement within. My heart skipped a beat as I comprehended, for a fleeting moment, the possibility that I might have killed Ruth.
Of course, such worries were entirely unfounded. When the dust cloud settled, the figure of Ruth emerged, unharmed. Her sword was unsheathed and positioned behind her, its blade directly in the path of where my sword of light should have emerged. The impact had blown away the bandages that covered it, revealing, for the first time, the appearance of my teacher’s weapon. It was completely white, from the handle to the blade. The whole weapon seemed to be made as a single piece, with no discernable difference between the different parts of the weapon. Even the blade’s edge was white, made of some material that I’d never seen in my life – possibly some kind of metal, but certainly not steel. Small lines ran along the surface of the weapon, too orderly to be cracks. The whole weapon looked like some kind of puzzle, made from numerous pieces fitted together. Even without its wrapping of bandages, it was as much a mystery as its owner.
Ruth sheathed the sword, then walked across the lot to me and extended a hand. Her spears of fire had all been extinguished, so I took that to mean that the bout had ended. I sighed and took the hand, letting myself be helped to my feet.
“I suppose that means I failed?”
Ruth laughed and shook her head.
“Oh, no. Certainly not. You passed. By a large margin, I should add.”
“Hm? But I never did land a hit.”
“No, but if you did, I would be dead, no? The fact that you made me use Myriad stands testament to the fact that my life was genuinely in peril. The moment I drew this blade, I was no longer holding back. So take pride in that.”
I basked in the praise for a moment, then seized upon the unfamiliar name.
“Ah.” Ruth bit her lip. “Well, I suppose that telling you would suffice as a reward.”
She unhooked her sword from her belt and retrieved a roll of bandages from within her coat, starting to wrap it up once again as she explained.
“This over here’s Myriad. My constant companion and benefactor. She’s seen me through a lot.”
“Why do you go out of your way to hide it?”
“Her design tends to draw a lot of unnecessary attention. Attention I’d rather avoid.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like any weapon I’ve ever seen. Was it custom-made?”
“Well, I’d venture to say she’s the only one of her kind in the world. She was made for me by my- by someone very special to me.”
I wanted to ask about that obvious pause, but decided against it. It wasn’t my place to pry into Ruth’s private affairs. I decided to ask one last question, to close the discussion off.
“Why’d you call it Myriad?”
Ruth grinned as she put the last touches on the bandage wrapping of the weapon.
“I sincerely hope you never learn the answer to that question.”
With that done, Ruth clipped Myriad back on to her belt and sat down and the ground, gesturing for me to sit next to her.
“Well, we’re more or less done with our lessons. I’ve taught you all you need to know – you should now be perfectly capable of experimenting and developing new ways to use your magic, beyond what I’ve taught you. That Resound Jewel trick was a good improvisation. You might want to think about using a method that doesn’t require you to let go of your weapon, though. Now, we’ve got a couple hours before Elysium swings by to pick you up, so let me play the part of teacher for the last time. Do you have any questions about what I’ve taught you? Anything to clarify? This is your last chance, you know.”
For the next two hours, I asked all the questions I could think of. Some I already knew the answer to, others turned out to be irrelevant. But that was unimportant. The thought that my time as a student to Ruth was coming to an end filled me with distress. It wasn’t because of any kind of personal attachment to her – I didn’t know enough about her to form attachments like that. But it was more the fact that someone had, for the first time, gone out of their way to teach me magic. Something I had always wanted to learn, but an opportunity I had always been denied. Finally, someone had stepped up to give me this opportunity, and our time together was coming to an end, and that filled me with melancholy. That was the extent of it. To that end, I sought to use our time together to the fullest, to cram into those last two hours the curiosity of fifteen years.
Our discussion dwindled to an end just as Elysium emerged from one of the alleyways, strolling towards us. Ruth and I both stood up and went to meet her. Ruth deliberately nudged me forward, an action that was a confirmation that our sessions were at an end. I nodded and went to stand beside Elysium, facing Ruth. Elysium watched this in silence, then addressed Ruth.
“Your one month’s up.”
“I hope I didn’t disappoint?”
“Certainly not. He’s become quite the adept mage. He’s even started to give me trouble in our daily sparring sessions.”
“Maybe soon you can start holding back less.”
“Maybe. Are you sure you don’t want to continue being his tutor? If it’s a matter of money, we have more than enough. And Glint seems inclined to your company, as well.”
I nodded, but said nothing. I didn’t want to impose on either of them, and besides, Elysium was negotiating. Butting in would only annoy her.
“Tempting, but I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse. I have my own matters to tend to, and I’m afraid I’ve already tarried for too long.”
“I see. What are you going to do now?”
“I have a couple of private matters to attend to. Can’t tell you more than that, for both our sakes.”
“Would your private matters have anything to do with the reason why you’re going out of your way to teach Glint combat magic?”
The air turned chilly all of a sudden. Elysium was clearly issuing a challenge. But Ruth just smiled and responded in an even tone.
“Some of those matters are, in fact, related, though they’re not exactly high on my list of priorities.”
She stopped smiling and displayed a serious expression.
“Something’s going on. The King’s being too much of a fool. Resentment is increasing, the flames of unrest are beginning to burn. Hopefully it fizzles out, but I wouldn’t bet on it. This country is going to find itself in the grip of conflict sooner or later, and when it does, I’m counting on you – on both of you – to keep Rosalind safe. That’s all I ask. Steer clear of trouble. I want to say keep your heads down, but since Rosalind is apparently well-known now, that’s not exactly an option. That’s why I trained Glint in magic – so that in the worst case, he can take over as her protector.”
Elysium raised an eyebrow.
“Hm? You doubt my ability to keep her safe?”
Ruth laughed and shook her head.
“No, no. As long as you’re by her side, I’m sure she’ll be fine. That is, as long as you’re by her side. What happens if there ever comes a time where you’re not able to be with her? No matter how strong you are, you can’t be everywhere at once. That’s a lesson I’ve learned. A very painful lesson.”
A hint of sorrow crept into her expression, but quickly disappeared, replaced with a grin.
“Anyway, the time has long come for us to part ways. I’ll be keeping an eye on your progress. We’ll probably meet again some day, one way or another.” She turned to me. “When that time comes, I hope to see how much you’ve grown, Glint.” She turned back to Elysium. “I still want to duel you. Someday, maybe, when things have settled down. Look forward to it.”
With that, she crouched down and leaped, jumping on top of a rooftop in a single bound, waving once before disappearing over the edge. Elysium waved back and flashed a broad grin, clearly accepting Ruth’s challenge.
Meanwhile, it took all I had to stay conscious after briefly considering the aftermath of a duel between these two women. It was something I hoped I would never have the chance to witness.