Over the next fortnight, my days were reasonably structured. Training and learning, from the time I woke up till the moment I slept. In the morning, before the sun rose, Elysium would train me in the use of the dagger, forcing me to attempt to land a hit on her. In the process, I naturally found myself becoming stronger and faster. I had always had a rather lean build – in part due to malnutrition. The daily exercise, in addition to the regular meals, had started to fill me out – skinny, weak arms were replaced with lean, muscular ones. Legs which were already well-trained from a life of running and chasing gained an additional layer of muscle, adding strength to my kicks. It was still in the early stages, but my body was starting to turn from that of a lanky, starved street rat into that of a lean, trained fighter.
In the afternoon, Ruth would work with me on my magic, teaching me to shape and control it, to bend the light to my will. She also taught me a bit about the nature of magic and the theory of magic, though a lot of it went over my head. What I was able to digest was that magic was fundamentally information; when I gathered light in my hand, what I was doing was sending information to the light in the area, to bend it to my will. When I created light from nothing, what I was doing was sending information to the world at large, to force it to enact a change such that light was created. All very interesting and fancy in theory, but I thought it to be of little practical use. What was the point of knowing the nature of magic, if the way I called on it remained unchanged? When I brought this up to Ruth, however, she only smiled and assured me that time would allow me to see the value of this information. I wasn’t particularly convinced, but this little lecture had replaced one of the regular grueling training sessions, so I was thankful for it nonetheless.
Finally, at night, after all my physical and magical learning was done, I would turn to the books with Rosalind, to learn how to read and write. This was a task which I performed with great eagerness. I had always wished to learn to read, at least, if not write, but had never had the time nor the money to find someone to teach me. The other thieves were little help on that front – none of them could read, save for a few of the leaders. Anneliese, of the Syrens, had the ability, but she was constantly on the move, negotiating with the other leaders and settling disputes, and therefore was too busy to spare time to teach the other Syrens, much less an outsider like me. Anneliese was the only leader I was friendly with, so my options on that front were limited, as well. Therefore, Rosalind’s offer to teach me letters came as a golden opportunity to learn and to improve myself, and I dedicated a great amount of time to the craft – at meals, I would trace out the letters in my head. While on the move from the inn to the tavern every afternoon, I would recite lists of words and imagine how they looked like in writing. As a result, I learned very quickly. After just a fortnight, I had fully memorised the alphabet and was able to write a simple letter – though my penmanship was rather lacking at the time. Rosalind had expressed hopes that given the fast pace of my learning, I might be able to start reading full books by the end of the year – a prospect which excited me greatly. Looking back, I daresay that learning my letters was by far the most enjoyable part of my training – though Elysium’s and Ruth’s teachings were, of course, extremely valuable.
Over the course of these short two weeks, I found out more about Elysium and Rosalind – I found out about their old tavern, the Serene Ezov, and how they had turned to music as a way to make up for the revenue loss caused by the alcohol tax from the previous year. I learned of their ties to Hager Bainel, their plans for expansion, and the stories of their first concert. I heard about how they went around the region, setting up branches of the Ezov in major cities, holding concerts to promote these branches. I won’t go into detail about their journey, as the tales they shared would fill perhaps ten of these volumes. In addition, some of their tales were rather embarrassing in nature, and therefore I could not share them with others in good conscience. However, I will state that throughout this period, despite sharing about their beginnings, Elysium remained staunchly quiet about her life prior to their first meeting. Whenever I brought it up, she would quietly shift the topic and avoid the question. For a while, I was convinced that she didn’t exist prior to their first meeting, but I knew that was a ridiculous notion. Eventually, on our travels together, she did tell me about her past – but again, that is not for me to divulge. I will write no more on the matter.
I resume this tale on a morning about a fortnight after Elysium took me under her wing. As usual, we were sparring on the rooftop, with the sun slowly creeping up over the horizon. Seeing my improvement, she had upped the difficulty level – the goal was still a single hit, she was still required to stay in one spot, but her hands were no longer held behind her back. A simple modification, but it made the task several magnitudes harder.
The dagger in my right hand lunged toward Elysium’s head. She deftly turned her head aside, her arms moving around my outstretched arm to throw me. Seeing this, I immediately swung the dagger in my left hand laterally, aiming for her open side. Keeping one hand on my arm, she struck downward with her right arm to knock away the strike. With my balance disrupted and precarious from the failed attack, she used her elbow to redirect my momentum and tossed me over her shoulder, releasing my arm. Suspended midair, I forced my legs beneath me to act as a spring, and the moment she let go, I turned from forward fall into a somersault, landing some distance away, knives at the ready. She laughed and applauded.
“Good. Your recovery is getting better. Always remember: in a fight, the first one to fall on the ground loses. If you’re prone, you-”
“-expose all my openings, yes. I know. I heard you the first ten times.”
“Oh, I see you’ve gotten comfortable enough around me to crack jokes. Well then. You’ve only failed fifteen times today. We have time for another fifteen more.”
I gritted my teeth and forced myself to think. For two weeks I had been at this, and I had yet to land a single hit. Her reflexes were just too ridiculous. There had to be something, some way to secure an advantage. One hit. Just one hit. I didn’t care where it landed, I just needed to land a single hit, just to prove that she wasn’t wasting her time.
Elysium’s advantage lay in her immense combat experience and her superhuman physical capabilities. Those were unsurmountable, unless I could leverage on my own advantages.
So then what were my advantages? The fact that my opponent’s movement was constricted… and the fact that I had magic at my command. Through Ruth’s training, the speed and accuracy of my magic had improved by leaps and bounds, and I was now able to form solid shapes with mana. If I could weave my magic into my attack, I stood a chance. But that wasn’t enough. I knew instinctively that just using magic like that wasn’t enough to land a hit. I needed something else, a trump card.
I thought back to what Ruth had taught me about the nature of magic. Simple theory, nothing worthwhile, nothing that was of use. So what if I knew that magic was information? So what if I knew that casting magic meant sending information to create light? What use was that?
Then, with a flash of inspiration, it dawned on me. Magic was information sent to the world, to cause certain phenomena. In that case, what if it worked the other way round? In other words, if it was possible to create phenomena using information, it should also be possible to store phenomena as new information.
I ran over my plan in my head. The theory was sound. I didn’t quite know how to invoke the magic in the way I wanted, but I had an inkling of what I needed it to do. I would have to rely on instinct. All that was left was to see if I could put it into practice.
“Oh, that’s a good look, right there. Did you think of something?”
Elysium interrupted my thought process with a bemused observation. I said nothing and nodded.
“Well then, show me what you’ve got.”
Taking that as my cue, I ran toward her, knives in hand. But just before I reached slashing range, I threw myself low, sliding across to her other side. As I passed her, I materialised a sword of light at her right side, sending it slashing laterally across her abdomen. At the same time, I materialised a second sword behind her, slashing at her back in case she tried to avoid the first strike by leaning back. Her face coloured with surprise for a fraction of a second – but only a fraction. Reacting with inhuman speed, she ducked down below both attacks and, in the same motion, reached for my collar while I was still being carried forward by my slide. But at the moment she was about to touch my collar, I split into four copies of myself, each of us ducking away from her outstretched hand and quickly moving to surround her.
Well, technically speaking, what I had done was to take my image and store it as magical information, then I had sent three copies of that information outward as clumps of magic. Under the influence of this information, light had been created and shaped into three identical copies of myself – and I could dictate how they moved by sending pulses of information. I’m not entirely sure how the whole thing worked – I just told myself I needed the light to do exactly that, and it just happened. I suppose I can chalk it up to natural talent or something.
Anyway, even though there were four of me, only one was substantial – the others were just images. I didn’t have the familiarity with magic to be able to grant the copies physical weight – though I knew it was theoretically possible by applying the same principle as my swords of light. Only my real self could land the hit – but with four of me, there was no way for Elysium to know which was the real me, and she now had to deal with six possible attacks at once – two from the swords, and four from me. She couldn’t dodge them all, and I was the copy in her blind spot, so it was less likely that she would attempt to dodge mine. It was my win.
Or so I thought.
As I slashed forward, I felt a brief weight on my shoulder. The next moment, Elysium disappeared from my encirclement. I then felt the sensation of a finger pressed against the back of my neck.
I sighed and released my magic – the copies and the swords disappeared. I hadn’t been able to see it, but my guess was that she had vaulted over my shoulder to take my back. I was more than a little disappointed. All my effort had come to naught. Elysium chuckled and ruffled my hair.
“Well done. That was clever. The swords were one thing, but the illusions? That could have been dangerous. They seemed so real.”
“If they were so real, how did you know which was me?”
“Two mistakes you made. First, you tried to go for my blind spot. That’s the obvious choice. The moment you surrounded me, I knew you were going to try and attack my back. So naturally I would assume that would be the real you.”
“Wait, but how did you know there was a real me?”
“That was your second mistake. Your copies were pretty good, yes, but they didn’t have shadows. So I immediately knew they were insubstantial.”
“Eh? But the sun hasn’t come up – there shouldn’t be enough light to cast noticeable shadows at all, how would you tell?”
“Glint, dear. Your swords were pretty bright, you know.”
I slid my face into my palms and groaned. Of course. I was an idiot. Elysium patted my head.
“Now, now. Cheer up. You made mistakes, but this is your win.”
“But I didn’t manage to hit you.”
“Maybe not, but you did manage to make me move out of my spot. That’s arguably harder than hitting me, especially since I was resolved to stay in that spot. But your plan and the way you executed it was masterfully done. Good work.”
I blushed, unused to praise.
“Anyway, we’ll call it a day. You deserve it. Besides, I need you to come into town with me today. I’ve already told your tutor to give you today off.”
I tilted my head questioningly.
“Hm? What are we doing?”
Elysium packed up the weapons with a grin and walked toward the stairs.
“Just follow me and you’ll see.”