In Which Opportunities That Are Missed Are Spotted
It very quickly became very clear that Callahan intended for this to be a particularly brutal lesson. The room we were in was sort of on the large side, but so was the class. We’d previously fought on an open field, with room to spread out. Now we had a much more confined space, and she was getting the entire class fighting at once. Well, almost the entire class. There was still no Steff, and I thought some other faces were missing, too… in fact, I knew it, because there were no dwarves.
I wondered if they were all conscientious objectors to the pseudoreligious trappings for some reason, or if Callahan had set up some other exercise for students she thought didn’t need any help “slaying the God of Pain”, or if the dwarves had all retreated en masse for reasons having nothing to do with the class.
Even with some of the bulkier bodies missing from the floor, space was very much at a premium. As more pairs of fighters got their weapons mocked and got down to it, the area available to each pair shrank. Already people were bumping into each other and narrowly avoiding errant swings from their neighbors as Gloria and I looked for a spot to stake out.
For a moment I thought this was poor planning… or reckless apathy… on Callahan’s part, but then I realized that she would want everyone to be bunched up right on top of their opponents, where even the cautious and the quick would not be able to avoid getting hit.
Footwork would not play much of a role in the day’s lesson… the object of the exercise was to keep standing, not to keep moving… to fight on in the face of pain, not necessarily to fight well. It would be dirty, it would be ugly, and above all it would be painful, which was likely to be the point.
Gloria was surveying the floor with a decided lack of her usual determination… it seemed like she was looking for a good spot and finding none. I knew that Gloria had learned to wield a sword by watching her brothers and imitating them by herself. It made sense that she wouldn’t be any good at fighting in close quarters… she wasn’t really used to having an opponent in front of her, much less people all around her.
I wasn’t good at fighting under any circumstances, so at least I wouldn’t be on unfamiliar ground.
“Come on,” I said, heading for the edge of the room. If we fought next to a wall, at least there’d be one less side to worry about bumping into people on. “Let’s just get out of everybody’s way.”
I didn’t see Gloria moving, or have any sense that she was following me so I looked over my shoulder… actually remembering to stop moving my legs before I stopped watching where I was going for once. She was still rooted to the spot, looking at me like she wasn’t sure she trusted me enough to run me through in a spot that I picked out.
Well, if that was what I was going to get for trying to be nice I’d just have to look out for myself. I made a beeline for the far corner of the room, then turned around with my back to it. Gloria was still standing there by the mockboxes… I was out on the floor and had my weapon ready. She’d have to come to me, and she’d have to fight with other melees going on all around her… or she could be the one who got yelled at by Callahan.
It didn’t come to that, though… Gloria shook her head like she was trying to shake away a bad influence, very visibly swallowed, and then stalked across the floor towards me. This time she offered no bow or other mark of respect in lieu of a prayer.
“I suppose you would be used to keeping your back to the wall,” she said.
“Not really,” I said. “Not in a fight, anyway… I have spent most of my life trying to stay out of other people’s way, but I haven’t spent that much time working on staying alive.”
As we squared off, I quickly found out that there were drawbacks to where I’d chosen to make my stand. Gloria needed a little room to swing her sword, but I needed more room to swing my staff. I was okay with the basic stance… holding the shaft with both hands centered around the middle… but I’d be banging it into the walls if I tried to swing it like a club, which was really my best bet when it came to inflicting pain. There had to be ways to attack with it effectively without holding it near the end and whomping, or jabbing with it like a pitchfork… something would work better if it actually were my pitchfork… but none of them popped into my head while I was standing there holding the stick up in front of me.
It was a great stance for defense. Gloria came at me without another word, though even I could see the moment on her face when she decided to attack me. The sneer on her face startled me. Luckily, my reaction was to bring the staff up… with the defensive enchantments helping guide my movement, I easily blocked her overhead swing, and the quick slash that followed. With the corner at my back, I was pretty much a fortress.
It looked like Gloria had accuracy enchantments… or rather, blessings… laid on her sword. That was just a guess. If it had been arcane rather than divine, I could have told in a few seconds if I got my hand on the thing, but that wasn’t an option with the original article and I wasn’t sure how it would work to try to read the enchantments on the mocked copy. But when I watched her movements closely, it seemed like there was something guiding the blade. Her swings started out sort of loose and sloppy but ended up focused and true at the point where my staff intercepted them.
It made sense… swords were a lot better for that sort of thing than staves. A blade embodied the idea of “weapon” much more concretely than something that was basically a big stick, and accuracy was a property of weapons. I vaguely remembered hearing that swords and arrows were considered the archetypal weapons by armoury enchanters… possibly I’d picked that up in my enhancements lab, though my attention had a tendency to wander when weapons were the subject.
Staves, on the other hand, were seen as defensive… at a practical level, they were better for blocking than killing. It was certainly harder to inflict an outright fatal wound with a staff, but for the purpose of the day’s exercise there were no outright fatal wounds, just painful ones. When it was enchanted enough to be practically unbreakable and wielded with enough strength, though, there was something to be said for a staff over a sword.
My weapon was all handle and all striking surface. I just needed to figure out how to use it. As much as it suited me to sit there blocking all day, Callahan had made it clear that anyone not getting into the spirit of the exercise would be helped along. That… and not anything that the man in my dream had offered me… was why I needed to figure out a better strategy. I’d take some hits while I was figuring things out, but it would be no different than being hit with a non-magic weapon: however much it hurt, I’d get over it.
I fended off a few more attacks from Gloria. Behind her, the floor was filling up. Most people had tried to grab what looked like open floor, avoiding the walls… but they were finding themselves just as boxed in, and now the pack was moving towards us. I decided to wait until she had more to worry about than me before trying anything really desperate or fancy. Instead, I lashed out at Gloria’s sword arm with one end of the pole after one of her attacks.
I hit more hilt than hand, and realized afterwards that if I’d really put some oomph behind it and followed through I still could have rattled her bones quite a bit. I’d been too hesitant, too tentative… too delicate about it. As it was, I barely threw her off her stride and took too long getting myself squared back up again. She took advantage of me being off-balance… mentally even more than physically… to pull her sword back and lunge at my stomach.
My staff’s magic saved me… my reflexes weren’t enough, but it all but snapped into position by itself. I batted her sword blade down with more force than I’d used trying to attack her. The impact jarred me… her grip loosened for a moment and she stepped back to adjust her hold on the hilt. Again it occurred to me seconds too late that I should have followed through there.
Why was I missing so many opportunities the time I was determined to succeed? Other melee classes hadn’t gone like this… had they? Or was it a case that I hadn’t even been paying enough attention to know I’d missed an opportunity? The principle that Callahan had espoused regarding knowledge might have applied: in studying fighting, what I was learning was how badly I sucked.
No, not how badly… how. In what ways. Fighting ability wasn’t a quantity, a numerical score. Standing around on a battlefield waving a weapon wasn’t a magic ritual that made you a better fighter. Even practicing specific movements that other, better fighters made would only take you so far. It was almost scientific: you figured out what worked and what didn’t work, and why.
Of course, like any such “science”, the rules you derived from it couldn’t stand up to repeated contact with reality and trying to rely on them too much would likely result in embarrassment or death, which would probably be why people also talked about “fighting instincts”, and why even the best fighters did occasionally die.
But thinking about martial skill as being like a kind of science appealed to me. I tried whipping at Gloria’s hand with the end of the staff again, this time more forcefully. She was learning, too… she withdrew her hand quickly, stepping back and around the swing and then lashing out at my arm from the side. That was a bit harder to block than the last one had been, but the fact that I needed to twist around to get the staff up to block it made it easier to follow through.
I heard Gloria grunt as I batted her sword out wide. I didn’t waste a moment ruing when I realized I should have smashed her in the face before she recovered. I was figuring things out. One of the things was that the staff’s magic was working against me… it would have been easier to just step a bit to the side and move my arm out of the way, but the instincts of the defensive weapon were stronger than my own reflexes. Could I do something about them? I didn’t want to have to figure out if what it wanted to do was the correct thing every time Gloria came after me, but that meant either following its lead every time or ignoring it every time.
Or silencing it altogether… I was, to some degree, an enchanter. Battlefield enchantment was considered a high-level discipline. I knew it was possible in general… there were whole fighting styles devoted to combining swordplay with spells that could be practiced and drilled until they could be cast in an instant to enhance an attack. I honestly wasn’t sure if MU offered courses in that kind of thing, and if it did then I would be far from qualified to take them.
But messing with the characteristics of a phantom weapon would probably be easier… being unreal, they would have less “weight” to them. It only took a tiny effort to feel the magic of the thing in my hands… the thing was magic, after all. I could sense the eagerness of the defensive spells. They were more complex than the sort of property enhancement I was used to. There was no way I could have woven them myself, but how hard would it be to suppress it or rip it out entirely?
For that matter, could I throw a little accuracy into my phantasmal staff? Sustaining that sort of thing for the duration of a swing would probably be no problem. Doing it in a way that didn’t totally fuck up the swing past the point that I was gaining any benefit from it would be another.
I blocked another attack from Gloria. Callahan had made it sound like there weren’t going to be any pauses or breaks in the entire period, which meant I wasn’t going to get much time or room to do anything complicated in. I made a wild swing at Gloria, forcing her to back into a big guy who was backing into her, and while she whirled halfway around out of reflex, I reached out down the pathways of magic I felt coursing between my hands, grabbed hold of the defensive spells, and ripped with all my mystical might.
I felt it giving way in a big way… too big, I thought at first. I felt the staff losing integrity inside my hands, saw it flicker and almost vanish. It snapped back into satisfyingly solid pseudoreality pretty quickly, though. In the instant after that, I realized that I’d just thrown away a pretty solid advantage.
The blue-tipped staff of defense had been almost as basic a magic weapon as you could find, especially compared to Gloria’s more elaborate holy blade. Now it was the most basic magic weapon you could find: a simple magic quarterstaff. A centuries-old wizard probably had better weapon enchantments on his staff of power than this thing did. It was now nothing more than a basically unbreakable stick for hitting people with.
It already felt more awkward in my hands. The way I’d been holding it before had felt so easy, so natural… now I wasn’t sure how to space my hands or what angle to hold it at. It was now very obvious that it had been the weapon’s preferences, not mine… what was that old enchanter’s saying about the trustworthiness of things that seemed to think for themselves? I didn’t suspect the staff was sinister, but just because something was well-intentioned didn’t mean it would be smart to rely on it.
Gloria looked at me like she could see the change. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I made an effort to hold it like I’d been holding it before… it was a good position to defend from… and looked around the room. Callahan was looking at us. Her expression was as close to neutral as it probably got… she looked skeptical but not openly hostile. If she’d been watching, she would have just seen me making that wild swing and now she was watching to see what I would do next.
That meant it was time to figure out what exactly that was.
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