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Me and Yvonne take positions in front of the grain bag, blocking lady Lance who has been dominating the game as soon as she entered it, forcing us to team up against her.

It doesn’t count if your hands aren’t tied behind your back!” Yvonne yells in panic as lady Lance flashes past us, I fail to react entirely as she steals a spoonful of grain and throws it into the pot.

As the referee, I declare that move illegal.” I declare, solemnly.

What move?!” Lady Lance frowns, indignant. “All I did is spoon up some grain and put it in the pot, that’s the entire game!”

But there was no grace.” Yvonne makes an objecting, picking up on the new angle.

And not enough cleavage!” I add, seriously, making Yvonne bursts out in laughter. “You need cleavage in your moves, otherwise this is just a barbaric game.”

Indeed! Indeed!” Yvonne agrees in the middle of her giggling fit.

Lady Lance ignores us to take advantage of our lack of focus and seize the sack of grain in one hand, stealing it from us and taking another spoonful.

It was time out!” I yell in protest, running after her.

We didn’t agree on rules!” Lady Lance yells back, maneuvering around the pot as she drops spoonful after spoonful inside.

Lies and treachery! Piracy even!” I pause. “Yvonne, my trusted mate, we must launch a boarding action and seize the grain back!”

Ooh, great idea.” Her voice takes a mischievous tone that I ignore, eager to find out in what way she’ll colorfully betray me.

I move in-between the lady Lance and the pot, ignoring the fact that my headache is steadily worsening. I block her attempts to slip the full spoon past my opening on the left with swift moves of my right hand. Yvonne makes use of that to slip behind lady Lance and steal the bag away from her.

I start moving towards her to guard the bag against lady Lance who is already rushing forward, head to head with me, but as I approach Yvonne, I find betrayal looming in her eyes.

While lady Lance extends her hand toward the grain bag, Yvonne takes a sidestep to launch her leg and trip me up, using her free hand to push on my back and direct my fall straight at lady Lance who reacts instantly.

Her hands shoot towards my waist, catching me in mid-air but joining me in the fall, she spins her shoulders to bring me above her while angling her back towards the ground.

I barely feel the crash as lady Lance cushions it completely, taking the hit while holding and shielding me from the fall. Best, betrayal, ever. I think loudly towards Yvonne while I bury my face in the pit between Leomi’s neck and shoulder.

You okay?” She asks me.

I’m great, thanks.” I answer with a shaky voice. I’m melting inside your arms, but there is no need to save me from that.

I notice a small tremor in my right hand as it rests upon Leomi’s left shoulder, it lays so close to her heart that I can feel the aftershock of each powerful beat, even through the hard leather armor.

I sense her move and soon after, feel the back of her hand’s cold fingers press against my forehead.

You’re burning hot.” Lady Lance tells me.

Perfect word choice, couldn’t have found better myself!” Yvonne exclaims loudly from afar.

I’m fine.” I try to raise my head but my headache convinces me otherwise.

She has a fever.” Lady Lance says.

I’m sure she does.” Yvonne replies, audibly enjoying herself.

This is not the time to play your games, Yvonne.” Lady Lance admonishes her.

I disagree, my lady, this is the perfect time to keep talking about that person with a fever while you hold a small inconsequential peasant in your arms forever.

Steps approach us and someone applies a cold wet cloth on my forehead soon after.

A kiss would make it all better.” I mention in passing.

She’s in delirium.” Lady Lance says, close to my ear.

Well, you have no reason not to then!” I hear Yvonne say with glee from afar.

I focus my entire attention on her touch as she gently presses her two cool lips on the bridge of my nose. My heart further melts as she wraps her arm around my waist, holding me tight in a hug to die for, before slipping her other arm slips behind my knees. She stands up soon after with a fluid motion that ends with me carried up inside her arms.

But a few tens of seconds later, I feel her shift and lay me down on the ground. No! I was too wonderfully distracted and she took advantage of the opening to let me go!

This indignant protest is the last thought I have before falling asleep.

— — —

“…reall…kes you, yo…ow. Sh…n’t th…pe t…ray…”

It doesn…tter. I hav…uty. Thi…n’t a sit…ion to pla…oun….”

I’m not playing.” I grumble in protest, before turning on myself in the blanket, satisfied and already forgetting all about it.

— — —

I wake up to Yvonne holding a cold flask of water against my forehead.

Hello, sunshine.” She says. “Drink up.”

I don’t argue since my throat feels dry, sitting up to have an easier time drinking while looking around. Patrick is running his spoon in circles around his bowl with a frown, I notice a large bump with a cut on it at the side of Patrick’s head, debris from the explosion. Lady Lance is front of him, eating silently.

This is cold.” Patrick complains. “And bland, didn’t you add salt?” He throws in Yvonne’s direction.

You don’t have to eat it, but if you do, please choose between saying it’s good and keeping your silence.” I say harshly, borrowing my mother’s words every-time me and my brother complained.

I hear a muffled laughing sound coming from Yvonne, and spot the small smile on lady Lance’s lips.

The dimwitted peasant has learned of insolence, an achievement, no doubt.” He replies, scathingly.

Ass-face.” I mumble, below anyone’s hearing ability.

Yvonne walks up to the backpack and takes out the smoked ham leg, there is only a little bit of it left around the bone now. She then unsheathes her knife before proceeding to carve the last pieces off, placing them in a bowl.

She is soon done and stands up, walking around Patrick’s hand as he extends it towards the bowl, to make her way up to me, giving me the bowl with the generous portion of gruel and ham inside.

Wasted.” He spits, scornfully.

I stick the bowl between my knees before quite literally attacking the food as I devour it, my spoon sometimes piercing through a piece of ham on the way to the gruel, just so it can refill my mouth faster with both. The portion of food is gone within three minutes, but now that my stomach is filled, my mind jumps to the next pressing issue without pause.

Did you get the two workers ahead of us?”

I did.” Lady Lance answers.

I heard a clicking sound earlier in the tunnels, while you were both sleeping.” I tell them.

What? That’s the first thing you should have said, you idiot.” Patrick exclaims in anger.

I was awake to stand guard, you all needed to sleep, we ate, now we speak.” I shrug. “I heard the sound when I was maybe twenty minutes out, near the crossroad to the left of the tunnel.” I add.

Do you think they followed you here?” Lady Lance asks.

It’s possible, but I couldn’t see or hear anything more as I came back.” I answer. “They don’t have eyes, so I have no idea what they’re actually capable of.”

I don’t know what their precise capabilities are either. I was only given a quick overview by my professor since there should not be any Rykz present anywhere near the Izla, or any sea for that matter.” Patrick grumbles.

What do you think you were doing out exploring the tunnels with your injuries?” Lady Lance asks with disapproval.

Found myself a weapon.” I answer, a bit embarrassed because the sortie did exhaust me considering how I fainted soon after. “Parts of.” I amend myself, pointing at where I left the broken sledgehammer head and the rusty iron bar.

I glance at Yvonne from the corner of my eye to find her body turned in my general direction. I exaggeratedly raise my empty bowl above my head, slowly putting tension into my arm, before suddenly throwing the bowl at Yvonne. She is startled but manages to react quick enough to catch it anyway, however, there is nothing she could have done to stop a few of the little droplets of gruel left in the bottom of the bowl from splashing on her face.

Insolence!” She exclaims with false outrage, failing to hide her grin as she throws a mocking glance towards Patrick, who is already frowning at her choice of words, no doubt wondering whether she is making fun of him or not.

I stand up, smiling as I make my way to the two pieces of junk I intend to turn into a weapon. The first thing I do is compare the diameter of the iron bar with the circular hole cutting through the hammerhead, designed to fit the handle.

The iron bar is slightly smaller, but not excessively so, so it slides in without a problem. I then pull on my flow, I place my hand on the sledgehammer head to hold and touch both pieces at once, I focus on recalling the memory of the construct I intend to use to my mind, it is something destructive to the materials it is used on but durability isn’t a concern here.

I tweak the targeting segment of the construct to identify both rock and metal. I move on to the segment controlling meld speed to increase it for only the rock. Next is the segment involving material dilatation to lower it for the metal. That’s about all I can think of, hopefully, there won’t be too much damage done to the integrity of the sledgehammer once it’s over.

I focus on the process, monitoring it to make changes, I adjust the rate of the melding and degree of dilatation on the fly. After a full minute of concentration, the process is cut short because the construct run out of energy.

Much sooner than I hoped but it isn’t surprising considering the state of my reserves. I take the time to calm my short breath before pulling my hand back to inspect the result.

The sledgehammer’s head is a bit thinner on its length near the handle,. The iron bar no longer has a layer of rust where the melding took place, there is a circle of metal of about a millimeter where rock and metal meet, it shines dully. It oddly resembles the metal that the Rykz warriors use for their armor, it feels like an odd mixture of smooth and rasp at my touch.

I stand up, seizing the meter long handle with my hand at one-third length. I try to lift my new weapon with that grip, and I succeed but it takes a good effort. Too much effort to repeatedly use that one-third grip.

I shift my hand up the handle, taking hold at about two-thirds this time because that’s where I find the balancing point of the weapon. I swing it around a few times, occasionally blocking the lower part of the handle under my armpit to regain or maintain control.

The problem is that holding the weapon at two-thirds up the handle’s length is going to force me to get in closer than I want to be to land a strike. I raise the weapon above my head before bringing it back and throwing it forward in an arc, releasing my grip over the handle until my hand slips all the way down to the bottom before clutching my fingers back into a tight grip.

The sledgehammer swiftly launches, its path following the arcing motion I had imagined when I threw it. The problem is that I hadn’t thought this all the way through, the weapon doesn’t stop and continues along its natural path, guided by the anchoring point provided by my hand, it collides with the ground in front of me, five centimeters away from the foot I placed forward for stability without realizing.

Fuck!” I exclaim, jumping back and stumbling. I hear Patrick’s mocking laugh behind me, soon joined by Yvonne and lady Lance’s amused giggles.

I shrug, not letting them distract me as I raise the sledgehammer once more to throw it along a similar arc as before. This time, I think to guide the arc with my hand, influencing it towards my left so it has enough space to pass over the ground and lose momentum at the end of the arc as it fights gravity.

That idea works somewhat, I maintain my command of the hammer’s path, but I lose control of my body as the sideways motion makes it spin a full circle and a half on itself to compensate. Another spout of laughter explodes behind me, I pointedly ignore them, as I take a small pause to reset my footing.

Try the other way, swing it forward but keep it in line with your right arm, compensate the imbalance with your waist and back muscles.” I raise the weapon above my head, following lady Lance’s advice, and making sure that the weapon head is aligned with my arm. “When you reach the mid-swing point, release your grip over the handle and only keep hold of it lightly with your thumb and index, let the hammer spin in your hand until it reverses and the handle hits your palm. That’s when you tighten your grip again and guide it in a backward swing that passes by your leg to end behind your shoulder.”

I try to throw it in a vertical arc forward, aligned with my right arm, trying to follow her step by step instructions. I fail at the first step. I lose my grip completely as soon as I try to relax my fingers and the hammer goes flying forward, impacting the room’s wall.

“That was a demonstration.” I hurriedly say before they can start laughing. “The throwing attack went perfectly, and it successfully followed the plan I made after it left my hand.”
“Indeed, a remarkable application of verbal improvisation.” Yvonne nods in approval.

I retrieve the weapon on the ground, getting back into position for another attempt right after.

You just need to find your speed.” Lady Lance says. “The force delivered is a function of the weight of your weapon and its speed, once you find the minimum speed you need to achieve to do damage you have a starting point you can work with.”

Is that like the 3, 4, 5, thing?” I ask.

What?” Lady Lance asks, confused.

I saw a stonemason draw a triangle by using the 3, 4, 5, measurements, the triangle ends up with a right angle and the mason used that to make corners.” I explain.

That’s … I didn’t know that.” She muses. “It is alike, yes, but we don’t have the tools to measure speed or force delivered so mathematicians have yet to agree on a formula.”

So, I need to focus on controlling my speed and maintaining my balance until I find something that works?” I ask.

Yes, you don’t need as much speed as I do to damage your target since your weapon has much more weight behind it, but what it also means is that you will have to divert more of your strength and mental focus towards it to control it.” She explains. “The type of weapon we use is different, but the fundamentals of combat are remarkably similar whether you use a blunt or a cutting weapon. It is regrettable that I did not think to pick up a sword for you back then.” She shakes her head to dismiss the thought. “You first need to find a balance between control and speed so that each strike you make is dangerous but doesn’t endanger you.”

I try swinging the sledgehammer in front of me, much slower than before, as I attempt to follow the chain of steps lady Lance gave me. I somewhat succeed in holding my grip as the weapon pivots inside my palm, but at such low speeds, it isn’t very surprising. I perform the strike another dozen times at low-speed to gain a handle on it, only accelerating the speed of the arc during the last couple tries. I stop training even though I am making progress because my shoulder feels sore and my arm is drained.

There isn’t anything very complicated with the chain of actions, the several grip changes in close succession are what makes this difficult, but the movements themselves are simple, from a two-thirds grip to an end one, to immediately follow that up by mostly letting go of the handle, keeping only two fingers to guide the weapon pivoting on itself until it hits the inside of my palm, the weapon then finishes its momentum behind my back.

You bring it back with an uppercut if you miss, or simply pull it back if it hits.” Lady Lance adds as I attempt the strike once more.

I manage to keep control of the arc and stabilize the momentum without too much effort at the end. As soon as the weapon stops, I follow her advice and launch it back upwards in an uppercut strike. It reaches about as high up as my ribs while requiring the use of much more strength.

Looking good.” Lady Lance complements, I fail to stop the slight red tinge from rising on my cheeks. “Keep training these two strikes and that will be plenty for the foreseeable future.” I nod in agreement as she continues. “Now comes what you need to know if we run into more Rykz. They fight relentlessly, they do not lose focus, they don’t make mistakes if you don’t provoke them. You can feint them, but you cannot wait for them to trip themselves up because they won’t. On the other hand, they don’t improvise and will only use flow to reinforce their bodies unless they have no other solution, you’ve sadly experienced it.” She pauses as I suppress the shiver coursing through me at the memory of the fire.

Prolonged engagements are in the Rykz’ favor as our focus will waver and fatigue will pile up. They don’t seem to suffer from fatigue, or if they do, they don’t slow down because of it so that makes little difference.” Yvonne provides that bit of information.

I win two bouts our of every ten when I train with my mother.” Lady Lance says with an embarrassed smile. “There is twenty years of experience and several levels of skill separating us. She is Exemplar, trained by the best temple guards alive, and yet I defeat her twice for every ten times we fight. Combat is unpredictable, no one can perfectly fight or sustain a perfect form successfully because living beings are too complex to consistently predict their behavior or react to their actions in the correct way to counter them. There are always gaps in perception, slips of the foot, shadows that obstruct sight, simple wear and tear of your equipment. What you must learn to do is to react with the minimal delay possible to new information, training yourself to react in specific ways when confronted with specific information is something that both fills and opens a gap in your defenses.” She stops to take a breath but doesn’t continue. “I apologize for the slight rant, this is too much information at once. Just train your strikes until they flow naturally.”

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