The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Four Alpha

Hello, readers mine! I’ve decided we’re once again due for a preview chapter here, so that’s what you’re going to get. This will be #4 not of 5, but of 6–for Chapter 5 is comparatively short in its revised incarnation, and Chapter 6 has too much within it that I desperately want to share. Thus, I’ve decided to expand the number of chapters posted here on the blog to include it.

Fair warning–this ended up being quite a lengthy chapter at 8,000-some words. As has been the case for the previous chapters, it also contains spoilers for The Necromancer and the Revenant. If you’ve already read it or you don’t mind knowing elements of its ending in advance when you do, then let’s continue.

Like Chapters One and Two, this chapter is all-new for the second draft. It may contain typos, breaks in character voice, and other small flaws easily overlooked in the excitement of writing it. That said, I hope you shall all enjoy it!

So! Let us return to the grounds of the Lashing Rain school as Syla prepares to fight forty-some expert spear fighters in a convoluted bid to gain approval she should already have–

***

Chapter Four

A Spearhead’s Testimony

“A mortal may twist words, erase meaning, and deny evidence. But drive your steel through the flesh, and they will always be persuaded to die.” -Ten-zai, the Inferno Matriarch

Gratai’s eyes widened and she started to speak. “Peace, mother,” Syla said. “I agree with Zhen-mi, actually. Mostly. It’s simply missing a detail. I don’t need everyone in House Lin, or even everyone in this school, unified in favor of me. I just need to make sure the ones who I can depend on will act when I need it, and those who won’t will stay quiet, compliant, and out of my way.”

Gratai calmed. She cleared her throat. “You will lose every bout, my dear daughter,” she said. “You possess a quick mind, good instincts, and a ruthless spirit. With years of training you could catch them up, some at least, but today—”

“Well, yes, but that may or may not make a difference,” Syla said. “You didn’t change your mind about me because of some physical thing I did. You changed your mind because I defeated the ideas you had about me—the ones that let you feel right to act as you did. We’ll spar with spears, true. But it’s their thinking I need to beat, not their skill.”

Syla should not have to do any such thing, of course. But if simply saying that would cause these students, or any human, to act as they should, then she would probably still be in Firasca with the woman who birthed her.

Len cleared his throat. “Most warstock aren’t Gratai.”

“Tell a bunch of people from birth that they’re superior and most of them aren’t likely to change their minds in a single day,” Syla agreed. “Some of them are likely much more bothered that a foreign-born girl has been dropped into their culture and is awkwardly imitating their customs. I don’t fault them for that—I would be lying if I said it doesn’t feel deeply odd to me, too—and I’m not trying to change the whole stock system. I just need to find out if I can make them see me. Syla.”

“Best perhaps that I return to the Bastion, lest my presence interfere?” Gratai asked.

“Oh, no, exactly the opposite,” Syla said. “I need you to stand high and mighty over the sparring pits where all of them can see you. I need them to know that my mother, the second Inferno Matriarch, is watching everything they do, say, and think towards me.”

“How will that help?” Zhen-mi asked. “They will never dare act on their true feelings towards you when Her Strength is present.”

Syla grinned—a predatory leer worthy of Azukai and her iron fangs. “That’s the point,” she said, and alone of the others present, it was Hei Cho who matched her sly delight.

***

Notwithstanding that this was a martial arts school where large-scale spur-of-the-moment spars happened frequently and without warning, Syla had plenty of time to agonize over her decision while Hei Cho, her mother, and a certain Azukai sifted through formalities. The students sent Lei-zhu with her cold-crooked brows to deliver their acceptance. Syla spent several minutes jittery with nerves until Azukai arrived, with a certain dry annoyance creasing her eerie eyes, to say,

“They seem to have decided to glut themselves and laze about in digestion’s languor,” she said. “It will likely be some while.”

Syla passed the time by wracking her brain for every lesson her mother ever gave her. She also solicited Azukai for a mirror—then too her aid as well as Zhen-mi’s in arranging Syla’s hair. They stood in an empty alcove whose walls were punctured by thousands of thin questing vine-strands.

“It wears well, braided thus?” Azukai asked. Her flickering pale fingers, at Syla’s instruction, pulled and wound and tightened obsidian hair into knots. Zhen-mi held the mirror, moving at small gestures from Syla to let her see herself from different angles.

“It’s not a very impressive gift compared with everything you or mother can do, but yes,” Syla said. “My father Alomedi showed me this style. It’s popular among Kiwodan sailors, he said.” There was no use pretending that the stinging in her eyes came from anything other than tears, and she sniffled without shame.

“Dreadlocks pulled back behind the head and secured with cloth or twine are the mark of a sailor who survived the Cleavehull Sea. Like father did, for a while…” Syla rubbed her eyes. “There’s a little more to it than that, something about bits of iron and stones from beneath the quays at one’s home port. There’s a pattern to follow when binding them to each braid. But I’ve forgotten the pattern, and I haven’t survived the Cleavehull anyway, so this’ll do.” She laughed. “He was surprised that I could wear it, too. My hair takes curls as well as a straight fall and all manner of dreadlocks as well as Ceslonian court braids.” She rolled her eyes. “I’d rather have one of mother’s powers, but my fantastical mutant hair will have to do.”

“It needn’t, necessarily,” Azukai said. “We could…” She trailed off. “No, never mind, that’s a terrible idea.”

“Hm?” Syla asked, as she gathered her hair at the back of her head and motioned to Zhen-mi. Her handmaiden obliged her by moving in with a band of silk in the house colors.

“Bringing you to demonhood,” Azukai said. “It would offer you many new powers, but there exists a redoubt of woe and spite in the way of this plan. We call them the gods.”

“Mhm,” Syla said. “I appreciate your intent, but I don’t see the Pantheon letting a demon reign as Matriarch of anything. Given everything you and Kiresa had to plan around just to join us in fighting Mei-la…” she trailed off. “… and now it hurts again,” she finished.

Azukai nodded. Syla set her lips and tied off the band, creating a narrow bundle before the thick-wound dreadlocks spread into a fan-like fall down her neck-nape and back.

“At least I’ll look the part,” she said.

They spoke little from that point forward. Faltering attempts at dialogue sprang up and faded while Azukai and Zhen-mi worked together to fit Syla into a set of padded practice armor. The call came from outside. Syla fought once more to steady herself. There’s only so much to gain from breathing exercises, she thought. If I live too many days with my heart thundering in my ears from fright of the world, will it forget how to beat without panic?

“Syla,” Azukai said, hovering close and resting a hand on her shoulder. “Our Gratai lost ten sparring matches for every victory she took until the very day she ran away. Do you know why?” The zhumozhe smiled. “Because she always challenged the best students. You will one day eclipse the skill which is about to batter you, just as she did. If these haughty children live a thousand years and fight a battle every day, they would barely earn the right stand in your shadow.”

Syla firmed up her jaw. This was not the time for sentimental crying. She snapped her right hand to Azukai’s and clasped the zhumozhe’s fingers beneath hers in silence. Then, with a snapping step from the hips as brisk as any parade marcher, Syla stepped out.

Zhen-mi fell in beside her with thick wooden practice spears under her arm. Every last one was half again as tall as Syla. “Should I fetch any special refreshment for your rest breaks?” her handmaiden asked. This was most likely code for “healing spells.”

“I won’t call many holds for rest,” Syla said, looking out at the forty-five students assembled in a staggered ring around the rocks and sopping-wet foliage speckling the sparring ground’s mud. “Endurance will not be a deciding factor here.”

“Your ladyship anticipates many swift victories?” Zhen-mi asked.

Syla shared a smile with her. “One of those words is correct,” she said. She noted as she stepped through an algae-strewn puddle that the Lashing Rain students had concentrated on the circle’s opposite side. Gratai stood high up on the pronged balcony where Syla’s party had first arrived. Len and Hei Cho stood at her right and left hands, respectively.

These were, Syla reminded herself, the same students her mother defeated earlier. Even aside from that logic’s prime flaw, she noticed this wasn’t precisely true. A newcomer stood near her opponents’ back ranks. A tall figure wrapped in many alternating silk bands, golds, oranges, and reds on their arms that clashed somewhat with the deep-mauve vest that enclosed their body. Bronze symbols hung from dark-iron chains that wrapped their shoulders and formed a many-linked belt around their waist. Their face caused a flinch at first glance: mottled in uneven, splotchy bands up both sides of the neck with burn-scarring. The livid lumpen tissue ran up over the cheeks and onto the figure’s bald brown scalp, where it blended into a great mass that must cover their entire back.

Ragged six-way slits marred sockets which held empty darkness in place of eyes.

“Azukai,” Syla whispered, wrenching her eyes back to their false-calm sweep of the students, “am I seeing a ghost? And if not, who is that?”

“That is Yingsiun of the Kuliu family,” Azukai said. “Hei Cho’s favored protege.”

“I’ve heard that name before,” Syla said. She furrowed her brow. “A scandal, wasn’t it, some years ago? Didn’t he kill someone?”

“Yes, but that killing was the scandal’s resolution, not its genesis. His rival at the time, one Tang-fa of the Meifong family, fought him in a civil duel to determine who would become Hei Cho’s lead student. All rigorous by the Ton-Ga’s codes. They agreed to clash until first blood’s trickle,” Azu said. The zhumozhe frowned. “Except that Tang-fa grew enraged with him. When she seized the struggle’s momentum, she drove him back into a brazier and attempted to hold him there until he burned to death. The Banner-Guard had to haul her away. It took my own intervention to avert his death. His sight, however, I could not save. I offered to claim the girl’s head on his behalf.”

“And he accepted?” Syla asked.

“No,” Azukai said, and smiled with grim satisfaction. “He insisted that no one touch her until he had a chance for a second duel—this one to the death. He entered the bogs in self-imposed exile. I believe it was during that time that he gouged out his own eyes. He misliked that they could not see, yet a foe might still gouge them amid a grapple. Somehow, among the dark trees, he learned to fight better than he ever did when he could see. He returned, he challenged Tang-fa, and he killed her in the second movement.” Azukai flicked her gaze side-on to meet Syla’s. “He used the first to blind her.”

“Ah,” Syla said.

“It is worth knowing also that Lei-zhu is her sister,” the devil-matron said.

“That explains much, though perhaps it shouldn’t,” Syla said. “Why are so many of the warstock so proud of their codes when they can use them to kill other people’s family, but not when it leads to the death of theirs?”

“You know the answer already, my lady heir,” Azukai said. She looked up and nodded towards the assembled Lashing Rain students. Syla became aware, then, that their murmuring and shifting had died out some seconds ago. “It seems they’ve chosen your first fight.” Syla nodded and strode forward before she could start to panic. Had they heard that list bit of sniping from her? Why can’t I hold my temper long enough not to sabotage myself? she thought.

She shook her head to clear it. Her shoulders already ached with the practice armor’s weight. The rain existed now only as a memory, and drizzle. Rather than clearing the air, the downpour left it hotter and muggier than ever. Every breath came heavy with damp and the padded armor’s musky, moldered scent. Breathing a stagnant pond, then, as well as fighting in it, Syla thought. And they do this every day. And I don’t.

This was, she decided, the stupidest plan she’d spawned yet.

She recognized Shai’s sturdy build and amiable eyes beneath the plumed steel helm bobbing towards her. The spear-duelist acknowledged her with a low bow. “My Lady Heir,” she said. “I am honored to stand as your first opponent.” She swept her spear back inwards. Her expression was neither friendly nor unfriendly, purely alert. Syla matched it.

“Shai Yixiao,” Syla greeted her. “I am honored equally, that the Lashing Rain school greets me first through my sister in spirit.” Utter nonsense. Sending Shai against her was a blatant insult. Given the Yixiao family’s history with the Lins, it was clearly meant as an attack on Syla’s legitimacy as heir. Of course Syla couldn’t accuse them of any such thing. They’d just say they meant to ease her into the gauntlet by a match against someone she already knew. Also an insult, Syla thought. I don’t need coddling.

Telling herself that was well and good for her emotions. It did nothing for her tentative grasp on the spear or the stiffness the practice armor inflicted on her limbs. She tried to imitate Shai’s simple bow and moved so clumsily she almost spat in frustration. Though not monstrously heavy, the fabric resisted. It bunched up against her joints. This was less so like moving in a pond than in drying mud.

As for the spear, it was a beastly-hafted woodwork replicating a north Ton war spear: two and a half meters long covered in clear lacquer to protect it from wood rot. Its reach would ease the disadvantage of Syla’s piddly height. This also gave it the front-weight of any long thing held away from the body. It dragged at her hands. She must clench them to keep it firm, and that boded ill for handling it with any grace. She could wield it for a time with some speed, if little skill. But sooner rather than later, it would exhaust her grip. Its point wobbled in minor yet constant zig-zags when she presented it.

Shai’s height was merely the most visible and least important element of her size. It was in warstock heritage, and perhaps more importantly, warstock training, with a rich and ample diet all her life. It was in muscle and calloused hands and force-hardened bone. Her spear’s point did not wobble, nor even move, once she drifted it to the center line.

“Combatants at the ready,” Hei Cho bellowed. “You will fight under standard tournament rules. All strike-zones are valid. I will call a pause each time I determine that a blow would have been disabling. The first to accrue five such blows shall be the match’s victor. We are the strongest spear!”

“We are the end of Anseth!” the students called back. Syla noticed that Shai’s eyes flicked to her face. Her opponent cringed slightly and only mumbled the lines.

There were a great many things Syla wanted to say about the Empire of the Southern Song, the justifiable pride the north Ton took in having defeated its invasion attempts, and good intentions being an awkward pairing with nervousness over clashing cultures that shared complex histories.

What she actually said was,

JE-RAH!” in harmony with everyone else.

“Begin!” Hei Cho called.

Shai was measured, explosive, and nigh impossible to read. Syla’s modest training—and ample informal experience—had taught her to look for twitches and tells. A lean. A slant of the eyes. Something as simple as tensing and stillness. Shai offered no such hints. Her spear lashed and her body flowed in behind it to carry her towards Syla. Yet somehow Syla managed to drive the thrust aside and send it away from her body. The contact felt strange: airy and wobbling.

Shai recovered instantly with a sloping step to one side. She leaned back as she recovered the spear, then stepped back in the same instant that she launched a precise downward strike at Syla’s helm. Again, somehow, Syla blocked it. They fell into a rhythm as they circled and struck, and though Syla hadn’t yet come close to landing a strike, a certain satisfaction grew within her. Maybe she could do this!

She did not with a thrust for Shai’s head which the duelist sidestepped, nor at her feet which Shai hopped over. Even when their spears made contact for any length of time, the pervading sense Syla received was looseness. Her own practice armor resisted her more with its stiff-pack fabric than Shai’s spear did. Frowning, Syla moved her arms as if to deflect another incoming thrust. Then she twisted her wrists down to let her spear smack into the sodden circle’s floor instead. The wooden spearhead came in so slowly that Syla was able to backstep anyway.

Shai wasn’t even trying to hit her.

“Shai,” Syla said, making no effort to hide her annoyance “why do you start every movement swiftly, then slow it as it reaches the halfway point on its path? Why have you made a pretense of sparring against me if you’ll not even trying to strike me?”

The other woman’s eyes popped. “Forgive me, my lady Heir, I—”

“There will be nothing to forgive as long as you stop,” Syla said. “The fault is mine for failing to make myself clear.” She turned, fixing the other students with her gaze. “I did not come here to face idle spear-fondlers who only know how to treat a shaft well when it’s made of flesh. I came here to face the Lashing Rain school! I entered this circle because I want you to strike me with everything you’ve got!”

A resounding metal clonk rang Syla’s ears and sparks flared at her left eye’s corner. She staggered sideways, and only half from startlement, as she looked back and saw Shai recovering her spear. Small burn marks from the practice armor’s warding smoked on its point.

“Point, Shai Yixiao!” Hei Cho bellowed.

“I’m sorry, my lady Heir,” Shai said.

“Don’t be! That’s more like it!” Syla said, yelling for the school’s benefit. “Giving speeches when someone’s looking to put a spear through me—” She anticipated Shai’s thrust enough to move aside, but the subsequent leg sweep knocked her flat on her back. Shai stood over her an instant later with one foot on Syla’s spear, the other on her chest, and that seared wooden point at Syla’s throat.

“Point, Shai Yixiao!” Hei Cho called once more.

“Leads to that,” Syla agreed.

Shai smiled and offered her hand. Wards flared against wards as Syla accepted it.

“That wasn’t what I was apologizing for,” Shai said. “But, thank you.”

Within fifteen seconds, she blasted Syla in the first movement three times: a thrust to the face, an uppercut into the armpit gap on Syla’s right side, and a counterweight-swing down atop Syla’s helm.

“Return to your starting position, my lady Heir,” Hei Cho called. “Next opponent!”

Syla shortly lost track of time. She faced one student after another, each with their own slight variation on Lashing Rain’s relentless style. Some sprang back and whirled their spears back to the center line after landing the finishing blow while others circled around Syla. Some favored thunderous cuts to drive Syla’s spear down and bind it beneath their own thrusts. Others proved vicious-quick and slippery as eels when they slipped in, grappled her, and wrestled her to the ground with wards sparking and buzzing.

They all held one trait in common: Syla never landed a solid hit on any opponent. She managed some ephemeral taps. Hei Cho refused to call these. She had to agree—even if shame and building fury soon made her yearn to stamp, screw up her face, and scream until her lungs collapsed. This problem gave way to another by the time she lost her way into the second half. Even with pauses for breath during and after each bout, her whole body burned. Her lungs ached. Her heart felt halfway up her throat, ramming against it with each beat as if it would erupt from her neck. Sweat lathered her beneath the armor.

I’m going to melt, Syla thought.

It was at this point that Lei-zhu Meifong, thin faced and prim, strode forward to meet her. “My lady Heir,” she said. “It is inspiring to see that you are still full of vigor.” She lofted her practice spear above her and spun it hand over hand, then twirled through three windmilling diagonal circuits around her body before dropping its point in line.

Wonderful, Syla thought.

She hoped that the theatrics might disguise shoddy technique. She knew it for a vain hope. Hei Cho would never have tolerated such a student, even if her peers would. Still, she clung to the delusion for a few beats longer while she caught a few more breath-shreds. Then Lei-zhu sprang out with a thrust that only tapped Syla’s helm before bouncing away. Her armor’s wards barely had time to spark. Her foe rebounded with her spear’s impulse, gliding back a step further than necessary and making a show of spinning. Syla darted forward. She swung her spear out in a wide whistling arc, hoping to smash it sidelong against Lei-zhu’s helm. Her damning boots scuffed mud and splattered water.

That murky sound provided Lei-zhu all the warning needed to whip back around. Her spear whipped down in a right overhand cleave. Its impact rattled Syla’s bones and she actually lost her grip for a blink. She caught the spear again before it fell, but that slight pause gave Lei-zhu enough time to launch her own lateral swipe. Syla strove to counter it in the same fashion. Her flashy tormentor widened her lunge and shifted more body into her cut, and somehow defeated Syla’s blow.

There were, Syla began to realize, a great many points of polearm technique about which she knew nothing. And somewhere within that unknown was the reason why Lei-zhu triumphed over Syla using the strike with which Syla had failed mere moments ago—and that when Syla copied the strike she’d used to beat that one!

Lei-zhu made it a point to toy with her this way. Minutes dragged by. Breath grew heavier. Limbs shrieked their agonies and slackened further. From lacking springiness at each movement’s start, and struggling to control its finish, her mind thickened and her sinews numbed until they left her truly sluggish. She gasped. She staggered. She heaved for breath. She ground her teeth and came closer with each moment to screaming out what Azukai had told her, to scourging Lei-zhu with her dead sister’s shame just to remind her what it was like to be humiliated. Yet still, Lei-zhu would not land a finishing blow. They circled enough in their lopsided duel for Syla to see the others’ faces.

She looked first to Hei Cho, thinking he’d chastise his student at any moment. Yet, though frowning somewhat, he never did. Her mother stood far too calm. A faint fell glow lurked beneath her black eyebrows—each arched just a little more than normal. It was the only sign the Inferno Matriarch offered that she was in a murderous rage. Yet, she said nothing. Zhen-mi made no effort to hide her indignance. She gritted her teeth and her knuckles turned bone-white against her clenched fists. Yet, like a good warstock girl, she took her cue from her leaders’ silence.

Syla opened her mouth. Her eyes flared and she drew breath to scream at Lei-zhu. The hateful goad’s eyes narrowed. The anticipation of a smile tugged her pouty lips. No, Syla thought, that is defeat. This is a battle of dignity. A rage is just what she wants. Any other time I’d give it to her, but today… today, I deserve better than that. Forget the rest of them.

It was Azukai who found the chance to clue Syla. The demoness’ triangle eyes caught Syla’s hazels. She winked, little more than a twitch of her right eye, and flicked a glance over Syla’s shoulder at the Lashing Rain students. So as she ducked and slid down into the mud, scrambling away from an overplayed sequence of thrusts by Lei-zhu, Syla looked. The tight-lipped satisfaction she’d seen earlier was gone. They glanced at each other. Slight shifts at the hip, furrowed brows, occasional grimaces.

“This,” their looks seemed to say, “is a thing ill-done.”

This is a battle of dignity, Syla realized, which I’ve already won if I can just force her to end the match.

After so many years acting out so many roles, after so much humiliation, it wasn’t hard to combine the two. Syla blinked and gasped. She let her fingers slacken as she tottered forward. She let her spear drop onto the mud-washed rock in front of her. Lei-zhu grinned and committed the one unforgivable sin of a spear duelist.

Lei-zhu Meifong whipped her head around and shifted her feet into a pirouette. Lei-zhu Meifong turned her back on her enemy and for a single instant averted her eyes.

In that instant Syla summoned a surge of energy, though her forearms screamed and tore, and she threw herself forward over that rock as she seized up her slickened spear. Her right foot slipped out, whether from mud or exhaustion Syla could not say. She knew it with a thought-shimmer swifter than words. She wouldn’t reach Lei-zhu in time—not unless she could make the spear reach further. So as she jabbed her arms forward, as her left hand dropped down to steady her against the rock, she let its haft slide through her grasp. Vibrations rippled down the shaft as it struck metal. They tore it free from her fatigue-chilled fingers an instant later, but there was no denying that instant’s existence.

That instant when, braced upon the ground, Syla held her spear straight out with its counterweight alone balancing it against her palm, and its shaft flexed in collision against Lei-zhu’s warded brow. Its charred tip hissed and spat steam as it fell into the water.

“Point, Syla Lin!” Hei Cho bellowed. As Lei-zhu spun, her mouth dropping open in denial, a laugh and a cheer emerged from the Lashing Rain students. Shai, red-faced with glee, shook herself with the force of her applause. “Quiet!” Hei Cho called—but by the undertones of his voice, Syla knew he said it with a faint smile.

“T-that—that is not…” Lei-zhu sputtered, looking down on Syla, “that is not a properly-executed reed thrust! That is not proper technique!”

In view of all the technique Lei-zhu had shown thus far, Syla offered the most damning response she could conceive: two raised brows, a flat stare, and utter silence.

“Your Strength,” Hei Cho asked, projecting his voice, “to your knowledge, has your daughter yet been instructed in the Lashing Rain school?”

“She has not, Grandmaster,” Gratai’s voice echoed out.

“As your teacher, I must respectfully suggest that you correct that mistake at once,” Hei Cho said. “There’s talent there going to waste. And I would have loved to see you execute a reed thrust at all, Lei-Zhu Meifong, if you’d been so exhausted on your first day of instruction!”

Lei-zhu bit through her lip and stared at the mud. Red droplets ran down her jaw and stained the morass beneath her. Her training helm and loose hair-strands shadowed her thin face like a cavern-mouth hung by soaking creepers. Thus it was only Syla who could see the tears which did not join them, but glinted briefly on her cheeks before they ran down into the darkness under her collar.

Syla, meanwhile, hauled herself up and collected her spear. This was exactly the comeuppance Lei-zhu deserved. Syla should not have to restrain herself further, nor scrounge stamina she didn’t have to show kindness to such a petty, vicious, and possibly bigoted scrap of a woman. But it was at a moment just as desolate at this, she knew, that an unexpected kindness could breach the warstock facade. And what I deserve, Syla thought, is to wring some sort of progress out of these people.

So as she stood and ground aching legs forward through air that felt heavier than lead, she did not pass Lei-zhu by in spiteful silence as she wished. Manipulative as it might be, as much as it took something from her she did not have to give, and as much as a part of her hated herself for playing the role that comforted her enemy, Syla drew even with the girl.

And, as with Gratai, as with Morkui, as with herself, she gambled everything on a guess.

“Lei-zhu,” she murmured, without turning her head, “no matter what they say to you, no matter what they put you through, the only one who has the power to decide whether you become like your sister, is you.”

She heard a faint, shuddering inhalation from within the helm. She’d struck true.

She resisted the urge to say anything further. She returned to her starting position.

“Begin!” Hei Cho called.

Lei-zhu took two lunging steps, legs stretching so far her movement more closely resembled a striking viper balancing from its back coils than a human body, and administered a single heavy overhand to Syla’s helm before she could react.

“Point, Lei-zhu Meifong!” Hei Cho called. A thrust, two cuts, and a grapple and disarmament later, he called it for the fifth and last time that day.

Lei-zhu presented a stiff bow to Syla with lips tight against trembling. Then she turned on her heel and walked back among the other Lashing Rain students.

Something changed after that. A small thing, perhaps, or everything. Each student came forward. Syla, too worn to do much besides flailing her spear in their general direction, nevertheless bowed and held their gaze. They held it in turn, save when a grapple or a sudden slip on Syla’s part broke the line. They held it while they retreated, in precise and unadorned steps, from each finishing blow they landed against Syla. Then, all at once, the second-to-last student recovered her spear from a thrust up underneath Syla’s helmet-brim. She bowed, walked backward, and rejoined the others.

Yingsiun Kuliu stepped forward. He was neither short nor tall by most standards—thus, by north Ton standards, a shorter man. In these close quarters, Syla could make out the sequential designs dyed into his multicolored bandages. They depicted soothing things. A house singer in flowing robes with her three-string instrument at a jaunty angle as she sang to children. A curious thray perching on a bath’s edge. A father and mother both wearing fine armor as they smiled at a boy stretched out over their knees.

“Do you like them?” Yingsiun asked. His voice, though a croak now, carried ragged wisp-notes that might once have been soft and boyish.

“They’re lovely,” Syla said, and then on a strange impulse that violated all Moriah and Gratai had ever taught her of etiquette, “a little busy when taken as a whole, but it’s worthwhile in order to express… er…” she trailed off and blinked, shaking her head.

“Thank you, my lady Heir,” Yingsiun said, and bowed. “Hearing honest compliments makes me much happier.” He turned, looking up towards the grandmaster with his empty eyes. This change from the routine so shocked Syla that she felt a ghost of adrenaline.

“Combatants ready!” Hei Cho called.

“Grandmaster, my lady Heir, I have a request to pose to the revered zhumozhe Azukai, if I may,” Yingsiun said.

“I have no objections,” Syla said. She couldn’t help but wheeze a little as the frail surge of energy ebbed away.

“This is within all codes, and well-spoken. You may,” Hei Cho called.

Yingsiun nodded, and turned towards Azukai, who said, “It will be my pleasure.”

“Then, if it lies within your power, I would ask that you restore the lady Heir’s endurance,” Yingsiun said. “I have no intentions of letting her win a round, for I will not dishonor her requests of us by holding back. But out of regard for her strength of will and her own growth as a warrior, I would be remiss if I did not suggest this.”

“Would you mind explaining your logic,” Syla said, leaning on her spear, “for this exhausted husk of a woman… who will one day lead the house you serve?”

Yingsiun bowed. “It is only that tired minds struggle to learn. I am, for the moment, the best student at this school. I wish you to gain knowledge from this bout.” He added, in a somewhat lower voice, “and, with all due contrition for speaking above my station, I think you deserve to leave our school with at least a little more life in you, my lady Heir.”

“Are you attempting to court me, warrior?” Syla asked, chuckling.

“Not unless you ask me to,” he answered. “This is the respect you are due.”

You’re gods damned right it is, Syla thought. Aloud, she said, “And I appreciate that.” She staggered around yet again, not bothering to suppress a groan this time. “Azukai, can you do this thing? If the answer’s yes, then do it fast and I’ll shorten the lecture I give you later.”

“It blooms from my sphere’s essential nature,” Azu said, hovering closer and settling to the ground near Syla. Muddy water drifted back and away from her elaborate shoes. I should learn to do that, Syla thought. Azukai drew her from this stuporous reverie by whispering, “Out of respect for our surroundings, I refrain from ministering to you with a hug. It would be very infantilizing and undo the wonders you’ve achieved today.”

“I appreciate that,” Syla said. She inclined her head. Azukai placed her pale palm against Syla’s brow, and warming lilac pulses ran through her. Her spirit rose at warm tingles and a heady-making sensation like that of laughing at a share joke. Fog and strain cleared from her thoughts. Her sweat’s sting lessened, then disappeared from her brow. Lastly faded the burning within her muscles.

To her surprise, Azukai reeled and blinked in her turn. “A difficult thing for its complexity, though not in simple energy terms,” the zhumozhe explained. “I am not much drained, but adrift for a… a brief confusion of the self, I must call it.”

“Ah,” Syla said. “Then know that I thank you doubly, Azukai.” She clasped the zhumozhe by one superhuman forearm. Azukai returned the grip and smiled.

“Yingsiun is, I think, the one exception to my earlier words,” she said. “Learn well. And, I ask, grant him the chance to show his full worth. It is a rare vestige.” Then she released Syla’s arm and flitted past her.

“Combatants ready!” Hei Cho called once more.

“I do have a query for you as well, my lady Heir,” Yingsiun said.

“Begin!” Hei Cho called.

Yet her opponent did not dash in and end the fight immediately. Syla squinted, though with inquisition rather than scorn. She kept her spear in line and prowled slow circles around him. “I will hear it,” she said. It occurred to her that perhaps she should spring at him first. Would that be proper? Yet it was not impossible for foes to speak at each other over their weapons. Rare, and theatrical, yet not impossible. She decided it was no disrespect to the spar to speak.

Unless, of course, she laxed her guard entirely, and he took the initiative.

“Would you see the world as I see it?” Yingsiun offered. His tone carried only the faintest irony. “I offer it… because instinct tells me that I should. There is no other reason.”

“You know that when you put it that way, I have to say yes,” Syla said.

“You honor me,” Yingsiun said. All lapsed into eerie, perfect harmony then. As Syla slipped her left foot back and across, peering past her spear’s bobbing point, Yingsiun’s own movements came to match the rhythm of her steps. As slick and fluid as mercury, he sank to one knee, and Syla’s right foot touched down. He took his left hand from his spear as she again moved her left foot.

She grounded it once more. And Yingsiun touched the ground. And the world inverted.

When a center emerged once more from the crackling froth that enveloped her mind then, lightning tingles still ran through her skull. A midnight anti-realm loomed on all sides. Faint outlines rose up in tangential glints like blue fire’s reflections on the oblique sides of glass. Yet where that glass’s transparent center should be was darkness. It took Syla a moment longer to realize that these outlines were traced by ripples that sprang from her own feet—and, soon enough, by Yingsiun’s. Pulsating channels ran through some of what she saw, and formed frameworks outlining the padded armor they wore.

A pressure formed against her consciousness, and as sudden as a blow to the head she sensed another’s mind. Though sensations came with it—a sharp clashing feeling she must call alertness—and flickering images, it was at once utterly alien and the most natural conclusion. It was as though she reclaimed a sense heretofore dead, or lost, or imprisoned.

She saw her opponent as branching blue patterns outlining a human form. The branches changed and distorted, stretching forward and away or bunching close together as the invisible body containing them changed its postures. His flesh, his bones, and the breeze-tugged bandages wrapping his body: these appeared only as incomplete impressions. Their jumbled lines came and went with wind, and water droplets, and a certain steady rhythm Syla at last recognized as her own heartbeat.

And though Yingsiun’s material body might lack eyes, here a broad starry oval bloomed where she thought his forehead would be. So too for the assembled students of Lashing Rain, though each had twin sunbursts sprouting from their mundane eyes.

Or should that be as their mundane eyes? Where on Canno are we? she thought.

We have not gone anywhere.- The notion arrived as pure understanding. Only after an instant, fleeting and clear as a stone dropping into a pond, did mortal need rearrange it as voice, cadence, and language. Thus did Yingsiun speak to her.

You can read my thoughts? Syla thought.

His silhouette nodded. As compared with that instant understanding, it was glacial. The blue branches, or roots, lit up all along the phantasmal suggestions of her opponent’s shoulders. Reds and oranges flared beneath a meniscus of implied skin, outlining tendons and the interweaving strands of muscle fibers. The light multiplied and flared. Yingsiun stood and brought his spear back in line. Its haft lit up with red flares. As it did, Syla at last became cognizant of a sight lurking near the back of her awareness. It was a violet corona streaming from high above. She glanced, and saw that it sprang from a towering shadow who alone of all those assembled had neither branches nor phantom outlines. And as far as she might look throughout this realm of altered sight, the narrowest and keenest of that corona’s rays had no end.

A small something unfolded then within Syla’s mind that she could not yet name. The first spark of illumination about the nature of one Gratai Lin. A spark that she could not help but feel she should have kindled herself long since, and put a name to.

Yet Yingsiun offered her no further time for thought. The roots outlining his body lit up. Just as it occurred to Syla that it could hardly be fair fighting him in this realm where she could not even see his spear, its haft ignited on her sight—forming a thrust. She stamped around and drove her body into her parry, or tried to. Yet for whatever reason her grip buckled inward and his point nonetheless found her. The pulsating lines burned brighter for an instant. Magic, Syla realized. I’m looking at the energy of enchantments.

-This is the gift of my perception,– Yingsiun agreed. -There is no distraction when I see only what matters most.-

-It’s unnerving,- Syla sent, -and spectacular. I thank you for sharing it.

He sketched a quick bow. Syla rewarded him for his courtesy with a lunge and a spear-slash that she meant for a quick far-reaching snap. She thus discovered that even a common spear, even without a gram of steel in it, became a wrist-wrenching club if handled awry. Her strike faltered. Yingsiun’s spear darted out. Its contact arrived as a mere brush. An instant later that brush became immutable pressure as its carven blade wound around and manipulated Syla’s spear aside. Her opponent’s hands flickered past each other with but the barest shift in the bind’s pressure. A moment later he dealt a deft flick to her helm.

-I would tell you how I attained this power, my lady Heir, if I myself only knew. Perhaps you would not want it. I cannot see light and texture, with one exception. This sense emerged when I found harmony around one desire: to see the look on Tang-fa’s face when I killed her.

This was the last notion he sent before his mind’s pressure withdrew. The shared sight persisted. It kept Syla alone with a killer. A living man no less a Revenant in his way than Mei-la had been in hers. Though no wrath twisted his presence nor spite his steps and flowing spear-form, their bout took on deeper meaning:

That the prime difference from a duel to the death was simple intent.

 So Syla Lin, all but untrained, fought the best of Hei Cho’s pupils amidst shifting energy and unlikely light. Yingsiun fought like none of his peers. His control transcended the appearance of control. He was rigid when their spears clashed, yet loose as silk and unknowable as mist between each contest. He possessed Shai’s explosive speed, and more, yet his movement never appeared sudden. When he struck—a torquing uppercleave from the hips, a mirroring downstroke along the same line when Syla half-managed to block the first cut—it seemed as though he had been striking all along. It felt rather that Syla had only noticed his flashing rushes once they were halfway completed.

Each movement looked so natural that it seemed a sacrilege to interrupt it. It was mesmerizing. A spear-adept’s grace. Moving poetry. From delicate drifts as he changed through guards in perfect response to moves to thunderous counterstrokes. He was the sort of warrior storytellers dishonored when they too easily wrote or said “easy as breathing”—the slips and shifts of his spear were as a second heartbeat.

Yingsiun passed up the chance for many a scoring stroke. Yet when he halted his point an instant before striking Syla’s forehead, or throat, or an armpit-gap in her armor, he did so with clear purpose. He never demeaned his excellence with frivolous twirls as Lei-zhu had. This was a match prolonged not so that he might humiliate her, but that she might learn. So Syla learned. By the reverberating luminescence when their spears struck, by the ripples their feet cast and the inexplicable mist that loomed and faded when some substance in the true world—no, she amended, the world as she was used to seeing it—drew close enough to her body, Syla sought to understand Yingsiun’s movement.

She watched the lines he formed with spear and arms and body. With all Canno’s noise stripped away, movements that once seemed as obscure as shadows dancing on a cloud became simple. In time Syla tired, and her heart again thundered in her ears. Yingsiun struck, each time inexorable, and Hei Cho called the match. The electric tingles around her eyes faded. Syla returned to Canno as she knew it. While she was still reeling, Yingsiun dropped to one knee, balanced his practice spear across it, and drove his elbow into it. It snapped with a resounding crack. He did not flinch when a long splinter drew blood on his arm. Gasps nonetheless broke free from some of his Lashing Rain peers.

“I am sorry, Yingsiun of the Kuliu family,” Syla said. “I sense you’ve offered me a great compliment, but I fear I’m too ignorant to understand.”

“It would be cruel to force the spear to continue,” he answered. “It will never feel the energy of a worthier soul.”

Syla knew better than to protest that. So she sank to one knee, kissed the knuckles of her right hand, and touched these to the sparring circle’s ground as she bowed to Yingsiun. Rising, she said, “I have one other question, if it is not too personal. How did you know Azukai could restore a mortal’s energies?”

Yingsiun pursed his lips to one side. “I fear I am tempted to lie, to say that it was a simple logical conclusion. It is known she counts motherhood among her spheres. Mothers nurture and comfort us when we are too tired of the world to stand on our own.” He said it with such simple, innocent conviction.

To hear it brought warmth, and a bittersweet aching, and also—and yet—a clutching acid tendril that could only be envy. What kind of mother does he have, or did he have, that after everything he survived, he still counts that as natural fact? Syla thought.

“The truth, revered Heir, is that it…” Yingsiun continued. He shrugged and offered an apologetic smile. “It seemed intuitive. That’s all. Forgive me. I am skilled only in the spear, not the arts mystic.”

“Perhaps you might learn,” Syla said. “You have a great gift, whatever it is.”

Yingsiun frowned. “I would like to, but I do not know if there is anyone to teach me.”

“Then allow me, at least, to promise you my patronage,” she said. “If you do decide to pursue this talent, present yourself at the Bastion. I will provide whatever you need.”

Yingsiun smiled, crinkling his scarred eye-sockets to the point that they, too, appeared cheerful in their phantasmagoric way. “Thank you, my lady Heir,” he said.

After that she accepted the Lashing Rain school’s recognition for completing the gauntlet. There were no full-throated cheers, no chanting or song, nothing so raucous as the day of Syla’s confirmation as Heir. For all that, she liked it better when each duelist in turn approached and asked the privilege of clasping her by the forearm. Shai all but pulled her arm out of the socket. Lei-zhu’s look was difficult to read—an odd firm-browed expression undone in its dignity by the suggestion of a pout in her lips.

Maybe she should scorn their approval. Maybe this wouldn’t last. And surely, there were undercurrents here that rested uneasy with her if they rested at all. But by blood, smoke and spite, this moment was hers, and she’d damned well enjoy it!

Yingsiun, along with Hei Cho himself, stepped forward at the last. Both grinned and could not resist giving her arm a single firm pump. These are men of the same spirit, Syla thought, however different their appearances.

“Now,” Hei Cho said once the congratulations and suspicious-quick comradery—time would tell whether it would last—came to an end. “It gives me great pleasure to formally recognize our lady Heir, Syla Lin, as a student of the Lashing Rain school. I, however, will not undertake her instruction. There is one more qualified than I to teach the reaping spear.” He bowed himself aside, and Gratai approached Syla once more.

“You needn’t study if—” Gratai began.

“No, you’re going to teach me,” Syla said. “The reaping spear is the symbol of the Matriarch’s authority. I will not be the woman who breaks that tradition.” And deep within herself, she couldn’t help but revisit that one beautiful moment when she rang Lei-zhu’s helm. That total exultation, however brief it was—Syla meant to feel it again.

Gratai’s smile ceased wavering, and broadened. “Then I shall gladly do so.” She tilted her head, and the smile grew amused. “What altered your path?”

“Someone opened my eyes,” Syla said.  

It was easy to wash away in the warmth of that smile and forget that anything wrong existed in the world. Syla was sure she’d been worried about something. At length she recollected. She quenched her pride. The weight of the sole purpose which brought her to the school today once more settled on her.

“Something has been found,” Syla murmured, “of which you once said it was a quintessential farce that others assumed they would benefit from it.” Gratai turned grim. “I see. Then it’s best we speak on the rest in the Bastion.”

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