I bring the raw iron bar back to prepare to throw a jabbing strike, Patrick’s eyes hurriedly break away from mine to follow the movements of my hand. I hear Lady Lance take a step closer to us.
“Jessica, stop this at once!” She orders me.
“No.” I reply calmly, but firmly, without hesitation.
I launch my arm forward, striking Patrick in the stomach with the bar’s flat head. With one arm broken and the other holding the broken piece, he cannot do anything to block me. He doubles over and retches, a small amount of yellow stomach fluid passes his lips to drip on his chin.
“I don’t get the fun in this.” I utter towards no one in particular, just making a note in passing. “Maybe with a third hit, it’ll come to me?” I add with a mocking smirk for Patrick’s benefit.
“Why is your wound bleeding?” Yvonne asks from somewhere on my left.
Ah. They moved on either side of me. The thought surprises even me who had it, odd how I can remain calm while analyzing the situation. I would have thought myself more … disturbed, more affected when taking such an aggressive course of action. But the strong feeling of unease that I feel in the pit of my stomach seems like a negligible emotional reaction after breaking someone’s arm.
I keep quiet, not inclined to explain myself in the slightest at the moment. Patrick also keeps surprisingly quiet but that may have to do with the spasms coming from his belly.
“Rest … Restrain the … peasant! S … She is mad!” He coughs out between breaths, just like I not so long ago at all.
He de-escalated his demands rather quickly when he realized the other two aren’t obeying him but asking questions instead. I raise my arm again, bringing the bar over my head, adding gesture to my threat of a third strike.
Patrick wasn’t watching me directly but rather throwing teary looks to my left and right. He must still have caught the change in my posture from the corner of his eyes because he flinches visibly in reaction to my movement.
“Fear it is, then.” I laugh without restraint, so fully that my lungs start protesting soon after I start.
I find myself somehow looking down on the Lordling from above, despite being at least twenty-five centimeters shorter and having to incline my head upward to see his face.
I let my arm come down, still humorously snickering. I feel no satisfaction at inducing fear in this idiot, but … My actions seem to have broken me out of a chasm of depression that hung over my thoughts of the future. I hadn’t realized its presence before, but it is obvious to me now, in its absence.
Retaliation. Wasn’t that what Celyz said? I understand their motivation so much better now that I’ve felt how liberating it is, how necessary of an action it is to take after being attacked, ambushed. It seems that some people will only listen if concrete consequences are brought into play.
“Jessica.” Lady Lance calls out to me.
I turn my head to look over my shoulder.
“You’re still laughing.” She tells me with a worried frown. Am I? I stop. I was.
“My Lady?” I ask her without any of the affection I usually inject into it.
“What’s going on?” Lady Lance asks.
“Not important, Lordling and I had some issues.” I spin my head around to glare at him. Ass-face fails to hold my gaze, lowering it to stare at the fracture in the middle of his forearm. “They are now resolved unless I am further provoked, are they not?” I ask him directly with a thick threatening tone that I don’t bother to hide.
He fails to respond. His traits are taut, probably from pain. I snap my head back around toward Lady Lance. I keep my silence, patiently waiting for her to speak up.
I coolly succeed in ignoring the magnificent light gray irises to directly gaze into the abyss of her pupil. We remain so for a long moment before she nods, acknowledging my answer and putting an end to the incident, at least that is how I decide to interpret it.
I make my way to a wall and leave the iron bar laying against it before approaching the door. Behind me, I hear Yvonne telling Patrick not to move while she sets the break.
I throw a glance outside, two workers are approaching with a wicker basket each. My stomach rumbles in hunger. I impatiently wait for the workers, taking the baskets off of their odd three-fingered hands and placing them on the ground one by one.
I swipe a bowl out for myself, moving to sit down with my back resting against a wall, I place the bowl in-between my legs and start devouring the mushroom grub with a bottomless hunger.
“Your eyes look much more alive, now.” Lady Lance comments, sitting down next to me with a bowl of her own. I shrug. I don’t feel like sharing at the moment.
“Will you teach me how to fight?” I ask her between two bites.
My question must have surprised her because she stays silent for a few seconds, long enough that I stop myself from taking another spoonful to throw a glance at her, on my side. The expression she is making seems … bright, not really a smile, but a lively countenance?
“I’m glad you found something to hang on to.” Lady Lance tells me in a strangely cheerful voice for the situation. “Of course I will teach you.”
“Thanks.” I get back to greedily consuming the food, finishing my bowl soon after. “Another?” I ask.
“There.” She holds another bowl out to me.
I empty that bowl in record time too, at about the same time as my Lady finishes her first one. I refuse a third bowl by lifting my palm up despite being able to down it without trouble. I patiently wait for her to finish eating her second portion.
Throwing a casual glance at Yvonne, I find her in the process of carefully assembling a flow construct over the broken part of Patrick’s arm. It reminds me of the strengthening construct that I left active, I quickly drain it of what little energy it has left.
I check my reserve, finding that I have about three-fifths of my flow capacity. Ugh, math. It’s about … fourteen hours worth of regeneration for a healthy human. Took me what, three days to accumulate?
“Shouldn’t we hide the iron bar?” Lady Lance asks me.
“I think it would look more suspicious to hide it if a Rykz noticed the fight and reported it, let’s just keep it. I don’t think the Princess will mind us taking just one.” I turn to her as I answer and add a wink at the end.
“Alright.” She nods. “Let’s go find a quiet place where I can teach you some basics about flow to begin with.”
I place a hand on the wall to help myself back to my feet and we get out of the building, leaving Yvonne to deal with Patrick’s ravings that fluctuate between invectives, threats, and muffled cries of pain.
Lady Lance guides me towards the general direction of the lavatories but by taking a different street than usual. It turns out that this path leads directly to the large well laid on top of a stone base.
She signals me to wait there, I watch her get into a lavatory from afar, coming out with an empty copper basin. I throw her an inquisitive look.
“It’s easier to teach a construct if you leave an example of it inert and suspended inside water to examine.” She tells me, making her way to the well.
Once the basin is filled with water and placed on the ground between us, she gathers a small glowing sphere of flow in her hand.
“Can’t you just hold the construct like that over your hand?” I ask.
“It takes a small amount of energy to keep flow energy floating like this, it’s negligible if you immediately make use of it, but if you try to maintain a construct hovering in the air like this.” She waves the unstructured ball of flow back and forth sideways to illustrate her point. “It will consume energy incomparably faster than if it is left idle in water. Also, to keep it in mid-air like this I need to maintain my connection to it and that means you can’t connect to it yourself to inspect it freely.”
I nod in understanding and she starts shaping the small ball of flow into segments, slowly and one at a time. I recognize the construct she is making immediately because it is a simple strengthening construct.
At least I think so until she stops right before finishing it and drops it in the water. There seems to be a whole segment missing.
“Did you forget the timer segment? It won’t work if there is no segment controlling pace and duration, right?” I ask, puzzled.
“I didn’t forget, look closer.” She answers, looking at a point between two segments.
I lean forward to take a closer look into the water, finding that right in the spot she is staring at, there is a single droplet of flow that is floating along with the entire construct and not independently. A strong indication that it is part of the flow structure.
“That timer circle is so small it looks like a dot.” I say, baffled. “Your construct won’t activate for more than a second.”
“This is the most basic shape of a lion strike construct.” She tells me with a smile in her voice. “It lasts only for a split-second and burns all of the energy injected into it at once, the result is that during the time-frame when the construct is activated, you can launch a single strike with as much force as your ligaments, bones, and muscles can possibly withstand without damage.”
“Isn’t that really dangerous? What if you make a mistake?”
“Then you will tear muscles or ligaments and injure yourself, you could even break your bones if you aren’t careful with the angle of your strike.” She warns me in a serious tone. “It is a way to maximize the use you make of your reserves, the Emperor designed it to be used by untitled warriors who only have access to their own reserves. During a battle, you simply cannot fight for long while fueling a complete strengthening construct, you will inevitably run out of flow within the first few minutes. Do you mind a bit of history for context?” She asks.
“I don’t, go ahead.” I answer, turning to face her.
“When the Emperor was simply Rasaec the warlord, about nine hundred years ago, he led several campaigns that allowed him to gather enough experience to see the flaws in the strengthening construct, he saw a way to improve on it, to change it so that ceases to be a crutch to become a killing blow. The Emperor was no scholar, but what he sought to create was just an innovation and so after years of gathering knowledge about how the basic strengthening construct functions at its core, he knew enough to make this simple innovation: the lion strike.”
“Why is it kept secret from civilians if it is just a simple innovation?” I ask.
“It is not a true secret but spreading the knowledge of it remains a crime because it was and remains critical to the Empire. Once he perfected the construct, the Emperor, a simple warlord at the time, began conquering his neighbors while carrying the banner of a golden lion’s head to refer to his newly developed construct. A risky move at the time as it cost our Emperor almost every asset that he had left to acquire a golden-colored dye, it attracted the greed of the surrounding domains when they heard of the banner. But he defeated them all in battle, one after another. An issue presented itself however, the domains of those that he defeated were simply too far apart and numerous for him to occupy, his army was not large enough to split.”
“That was the first Noble Council, right?” I ask.
“It is often described as such, yes. But in reality, it was an ultimatum: the Emperor threatened harsh consequences if they refused to negotiate. The Emperor offered protection to those who swore allegiance to him while using his army’s intimidation and strength to pressure those who would refuse. Only two domain declined the offer and they were swallowed by the others within a year without the Emperor even needing to make a move. In the following decades, Emperor Rasaec used the lion strike as both a carrot and a stick, he taught it to those most loyal to him while suppressing those less loyal thanks to the existence of his army’s unmatched might in battle. This simple innovation.” She points towards the construct floating in the water. “Was critical to the very birth of the Empire.”
“How difficult is it to make a construct? You said that improvising is impossible, but it seems like the Emperor did just that.”
“Can you truly call it improvising if it took him years to gather the necessary data just to make a simple modification such as what you see here?” She asks me.
“I suppose not.” I nod in agreement.
“The importance of creating new constructs is the very reason behind the University’s existence. The difficulty of the task is such that the Emperor himself decided to directly make use of his influence to ensure its independence from the most powerful Noble families who still attempt to seize control of it despite the Emperor’s protection.” She takes a pause to inhale a deep breath of air. “To create a construct, you must understand everything that each of the segments composing it does on a mechanical level. You must then assemble those segments into a coherent whole that remains stable and is able to maintain cohesion even when some of the values of the segments themselves are changed.”
“I’m not sure I’m entirely following.” I admit.
“Let’s take your example of making a triangle that has a right angle using the 3,4,5 dimensions in centimeters. That would be about all the information that you need to teach someone so that they become able to use a construct that makes a right angle’s triangle. But to create that construct? You would need to find the formula behind the values, you would need to create the construct in such a way that when one of the values is changed, the other two also change to create the end result that the construct is built for: a right-angled triangle, only with slightly different values than the original. You need to calibrate each segment and how they interact with each other precisely without making a mistake that could cause an accident.”
“And for internal constructs like the strengthening and lion strike, it is even more dangerous single the slightest mistake can directly result in death.” I finish.
“Exactly. I’m glad you’re aware of the dangers because the next step in teaching you is to figure out what ratios you use for your strengthening construct.”
“I was taught not to meddle with the segments, except timer and target.”
“Good advice to follow … if you’re a thirteen-year-old.” She replies with a mocking expression and a raised eyebrow. I roll my eyes in response to the jab.
“I use a two-fourth muscle, one-fourth bone, one-fourth ligament. But to be honest, I’ve rarely pushed myself hard enough to strain my bones or ligaments unless I’m pulling out a rock deeply buried in hard ground.”
“Yes, with a single person’s flow reserve it would be difficult to push a simple strengthening construct that far. The lion strike is somewhat different because you burn all of the energy in a single burst, it puts a heavier strain on the body. The segment ratio between muscles, bones, and ligaments changes as you increase the power, at higher levels of strength it becomes more important to reinforce your bones and ligaments than to boost your muscles. Bones and ligaments are much more fragile than muscle, and you will need to use different ratios than those you are used to when using the lion strike.”
“Sounds clear enough.” I say, mostly to inform her that I’m following the explanation.
“You will need to fine-tune the ratios yourself because what you need to boost or reinforce will depend greatly on the form of the strike that you decide to use, you will have to figure out what parts of your anatomy are put under stress when you attack and focus on them.”
“Isn’t that a dangerous method?”
“Not if you do it right, here, start by memorizing the construct and I’ll show you how it’s done.” She reaches out for my hand, taking hold of it with her slender fingers and guiding it over the construct in the water.
I chase the disruptive thoughts that accompany her touch out of my mind. I inspect each segment of the lion strike, finding only two differences between it and the normal strengthening construct: one in the tiny timer segment, obviously, and the other in the targeting segment, also expected.
The targeting segment is actually a full third thicker in width. Is it due to the nature of the lion strike? She did say that you need to adjust the targeted areas depending on your strike. The segment is more complex because it’s required to be specific and specialized in effect rather than just targeting the whole body.
“You got it?” Lady Lance asks, releasing my hand.
“Start with applying the construct over your whole body while we figure out what kind of strike you’ll use.”
“We’ll proceed by elimination from there? Remove the parts of my body that I don’t make use of to strike from the targeting segment?” I look up to her.
“Exactly.” She nods. “Watch, I’ll execute the three strikes that I use for you. First, the one you saw me use.”
Lady Lance extends the fingers of her right hand in an imitation of a sword, bringing her right arm all the way behind her back, passing her wrist over her left shoulder. The speed at which her hand is released and makes a diagonally downward slash so quick that I barely see a flash.
One-half faster than when I saw her execute the strike while burdened with the weight of a sword. She doesn’t move her arm from the position it ended up in after the strike.
“Next is also something you’ve seen me do, but you probably didn’t recognize it as a lion strike at the time.” She turns her wrist and then her arm flickers upward from its position in a sweeping upward slash. “It isn’t as impressive but you cannot underestimate the utility of a quick and powerful backhanded strike in actual combat if only to cover your openings after throwing a strong attack.”
“Last is a stabbing strike, it is most effective when used against armored or shielded opponents.”
She takes the same position Patrick used during the first ambush in the tunnels. Her hand and forearm aligned horizontally while she pulls her wrist back all the way until it lays next to her armpit. This time there is no flash, her arm seems to simply change from a retracted position to one fully extended forward, the speed was such that I missed it.
“Those are the basic stances, you will need to adapt them to your fighting style. For example, the same basic principles behind the slashing strike can be used to create a powerful overhead strike like you executed with your hammer.” Lady Lance explains.