Chapter 115: Throw DownAlexandraErin on October 4, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Nae Gets On The Stick
Mindful of my promise, I returned to my dorm room and put the case with Teddi’s crown in it inside my dresser drawer. This left me with not enough time to really do anything before my final class of the day but more than enough time than I needed to get there, so I indulged in a very leisurely walk to the athletic center, and worked on re-attuning my senses as I went.
Because I knew I’d be fighting against Nae and I wanted to keep my focus near to the ground, I concentrated on strengthening my earth-connection. The diminutive kobold moved so quickly and displaced so little air compared to a human or giant-sized combatant that trying to track her through the air element could be confusing. Her small form was surprisingly heavy, though, and that gave her a very distinctive impression whenever her feet touched down.
Since I was walking on the school’s enchanted concrete paths, that was the main thing that I felt when I drew on the earth. There was a solidity about them that was more than physical, due to their numerous defensive enchantments. The softer earth on either side of them felt more muddled and hazy in comparison.
I found that if I closed my eyes I could still almost see the course of the sidewalks, not just the one that I was on but the ones that branched off or joined it… though I didn’t keep my eyes closed for long. I had the impression of other people around me but I didn’t want to bet on my ability to translate so many different sets of footfalls into exact locations at once.
My demon side seemed more than capable of instinctively interpreting whatever came at it… me… but I didn’t want to push that any further until I’d had a chance to implement Eloise’s advice. It still seemed weird after half a lifetime of basically keeping on the edge of starvation, but when I thought about it… well, everybody had heard of keeping a guard dog hungry to keep it mean.
Coach Callahan was talking to Pala in the hallway when I got to class.
“Good start yesterday,” she said to me. “Now keep building on it.”
I nodded. I wasn’t up to saying anything like “You bet, Coach” and sounding sincere, and “yes, ma’am” just didn’t seem like the right response with her. If she didn’t pick up the undertones those words had for me I might have been able to ignore them, but she did.
There were a couple people I didn’t recognize in our salle, standing off to the side and talking among themselves… I didn’t think they were part of our class and they definitely weren’t part of the select group that the coach had separated out for special attention, which meant they were probably some of the gladiators she meant to test us against. The last I’d heard, we were still supposed to be fighting each other, so maybe they were here to observe. Or maybe Pala had asked for a little support.
A folding table had been set up on the side of the room, and there were stacks of folded up purple garments sitting on it. They looked like the warm-up outfits that the warrior-athletes wore. I knew that the university sold them… maybe it was fundraising season? Then I noticed that a set of privacy screens had been set up in the corner nearest the table… it seemed unlikely that the two additions to the room wouldn’t be related.
“Attention please, everybody,” Pala said as she came into the room. “Starting today you will have the option of wearing phantasmal outfits during your fights. Please find your size on the table and get changed. They are all mockeries. If you tell me what size fits you best, I will mock them for you before class begins in order to save everyone time. I am to tell you that you may continue to wear your own clothes, but… in order to… facilitate… a wider range of tactical options, we cannot be responsible for wear or tear caused to actual garments. If you would like to have your own phantasmal garments to wear, please either leave the real items with me or show up early enough to mock them yourselves.”
She said the part about facilitating a wider range of options with such halting precision that I knew they weren’t her words. I thought that maybe someone had approached Coach Callahan with a question about whether something was legal, and since her goal was to make our fights as close to real as possible, she’d said “hell, yes” and then figured out how to make them possible.
It seemed like if anyone was going to get their clothes torn off, it would probably be me, so I didn’t hesitate before grabbing a pair of pants and a jersey off the table that seemed to be in my size and ducking behind the screen. Repairing damaged clothing was pretty trivial magic and Two would do it for a very modest fee, but I was thinking about the long walk back to the dorm right as the dinner rush was starting.
I was also trying to think about what kind of tactics would result in actual tearing of clothing. The phantasmal mockeries of weapons that we used ignored them as much as possible… they’d produce ragged gaps in material where it was necessary to display an illusionary wound, but they were more worried about when an arm should fall off than when a shirt should.
There was the risk of incidental wear and tear on clothes since our physical exertion and any contact between body and floor would always be real, but since we were already trying to take our opponents down as hard and fast and often as possible, I couldn’t really see special tactics could change anything in that area.
So… if it wasn’t about weapons… that pretty much just left bare hands.
Did somebody want to throw in some grappling techniques? I could see that ending very badly… there was actually more at risk than a torn shirt if we started mixing more unarmed combat in a class that involved such a wide mix of physical strength other abilities. We could mock up weapons and clothing but we couldn’t do the same for squishy flesh. I’d be okay, of course, and Nae and Pala probably would be, too, but anyone who fought any of us could be in danger if we started throwing punches.
Of course, Nae and I would be fighting each other, so it would be kind of moot, anyway. Even if Pala threw open the floodgates to unarmed fighting, nobody would be in any real danger of her iron claws or my demon strength.
Then I remembered Nae’s rather unusual parting questions to me the other day… her interest in my pants had seemed too weird and random to be connected with anything, but we had been talking about my invulnerability just before. She’d asked me if I’d consider fighting in shorts, I’d brushed her off, and now we were changing into disposable illusionary togs
I didn’t think she could win a match directly by fightingwith tooth and nail… there would be no injury, real or illusionary, to trigger the end. But the pain would be a distraction, and possibly if it got bad enough then I could be taken out of the fight by a mock-wound that wouldn’t otherwise be considered debilitating. Possibly. I didn’t know how much Coach Callahan’s system took in about the actual physical condition of a combatant.
Either way, it was something I’d have to watch out for. I enjoyed a good bite as much as the next masochist, but I’d been bitten by an angry goblin before and it had not been a good bite. I could hardly cry foul play on the tactic after my few-holds-barred fight with Pala, though.
After a moment’s reflection, I realized this didn’t actually change my strategy much… Nae had already been aiming for my legs. I still needed to guard them, to hit her before she could get in close.
I’d have to remember that she was more resilient than she looked, too, because the chances that I would be able to defend against a bite while worrying about the possibility of my foot or leg colliding against her with some force seemed pretty slim.
“Okie dokie, you all know who you are fighting… so please begin,” Pala said, once everyone had either taken the chance to change or made it clear that they were going to risk a few tears. Nae was among the latter group, though she wasn’t wearing much to begin with. It was a leather garment that was somewhere between a loincloth and very short, very tight shorts. Goblinoid anatomy didn’t offer much that needed covering.
We squared off against each other. I opened my connection to the earth a bit wider and noted the pressure of her feet against the mats. Small, but heavy and quick. Her feet stabbed the ground when she walked.
“Are you ready?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “Whenever you are.”
I realized as I said it that I was already ceding the offensive ground to her… I’d basically taken it as a matter of course that she would come to me. That wasn’t necessarily a poor choice. I wanted her at arm’s length. If we were both coming at each other at the same time, I’d have less control over the distance when I struck.
So it definitely wasn’t the wrong choice, but it still should have been a choice. I didn’t have to play the same game all the time.
Nae, for her part, seemed to be mostly using the same tactics that she had before, with one variation… she was still skittering in fast and low, but she’d added shoulder-slung sheathes for her blades and was actually rushing in on all fours… she had a surprising amount of agility, and the feral posture only increased her speed.
I took it as a sign that I’d been right about her bringing her teeth to bear, but then she did a leaping pass past me and managed to whip a knife out to slash at my thigh. I was able to smack her away without taking much damage, but she’d caught me by surprise. She must have had her sheathes custom designed for quick access… well, she did know an expert leather worker.
She kept up the bounding charges and the leap attacks, but she always struck out with her weapons, never with her teeth or claws. I couldn’t tell what was going through her head… while charges were faster this way, her attacks weren’t any more effective this way… if anything, they were awkward and had less control.
I was starting to second-guess the whole thing. Would Coach Callahan actually institute a whole new system of clothes mocking in order to allow Nae to use a technique she could only safely use on one fighter, though? As logical as the conclusion had seemed to be, it was possible that I was reaching… but then, it was also possible that the coach had figured if one student felt the need to hold back from something she could do out of fear of damaging clothing, then others might, too.
Her ideal was to make the matches we fought as much like a real life-or-death fight as possible, and ironically, the more of it she could make illusionary, the more that would be the case.
Regardless of whether Nae had inspired the change, it seemed like if she had even been thinking about the possibilities of bringing her bear-trap of a jaw into play she would definitely go for it now. So why wasn’t she?
I’d already taken her down two or three times and never given up more than a glancing cut. She was doing much worse than she had the day before, when we’d been pretty evenly matched… it was possible that some of that was me doing better, but mostly it was that she was doing an unnecessarily showy attack style.
It was just like I’d thought before: when she jumped, she temporarily lost most of the advantage her agility gave her. Trying to dodge her leaps was a bit like dodging a catapult stone, but it was easier to step aside when she was in the air than when she was scampering around underfoot and it was definitely easier to hit her.
That’s not to say it was necessarily easy… if I focused all my attention on the swing then I was kind of screwed if I missed, so it was more a matter of twisting out of her way and hitting her at the same time.
In the brief pause after one of her defeats I shifted some of my elemental connection from earth to air, because it turned out that I didn’t need to know exactly where she was during her run-up as much as I needed to be able to trace her path towards me after she leaped. I was beginning to wonder if she had some kind of elemental connection that was warning her that I was “reading” the ground.
Then… it happened.
I wasn’t sure what it was, but it definitely happened.
Nae… did something… in the moment before she lashed out with her knife. There was a burst of motion. She kind of twisted in the air, in a way that didn’t seem connected with her actual attack. I batted her away and stepped back and let her run at me again.
There. She’d done it again.
The third time, I had a clearer idea of what I was looking at because I had a better idea of when I should be looking. I realized she was leading her charge with her head, just like she would if she wanted to bite… and then she had to sort of whip herself around in order to lash out with her blade. That’s why her attacks were so awkward. She’d been positioning herself to lead with her teeth and then not bringing them into play.
Was she having second thoughts? Did she doubt my half-demon skin would actually protect me from harm, or that the human half would feel sufficient pain to make it worthwhile? I could buy that… if she’d completely botched her first approach and then tried something else. She wasn’t repeatedly deciding to go for the bite and then making a spur-of-the-moment decision not to. In fact, while she was putting her best face forward with each charge, the trajectory wasn’t quite right for a bite. She was passing me, not bowling me over.
So… what exactly was holding her back?
But then, I might as well have asked why I was holding back… it was because I knew I’d have to fight her for two more days. Because I knew that the cumulative results would matter more than winning a single fight. We were both gaming things in the same way, both counting on the idea that no single one of our “fights to the death” was actually that crucial in and of themselves.
She was figuring out the speed and angle of attack so that she could make a bite attack work, because she wanted to make it count.
I made the decision to up the ante ahead of schedule. I’d still have time to figure out something to do for the next two days, and I might throw Nae off now or force her to show her hand earlier, and anyway, if I was obviously holding nothing back I’d make a better impression and probably get a better grade. Callahan didn’t think much of grade-grubbing, but I thought she’d be less opposed to gaming the class for a better grade than she was to gaming the limits of the fight system.
In any event, since Nae was determined to jump around so much anyway, there was a part of my strategy I didn’t have to give away yet. I didn’t have to force her to jump over my staff… I just had to get the tip under her when she came at me. My instinct was always to strike out, to try to swat her away, but what I wanted was control and so I pushed that down and focused on her, on her position and mine and the moment she lost contact with the ground. When that happened, I dipped the end of my staff low and swung it around, then brought it up like I was lifting a shovelful of earth or a bale of hay with my pitchfork… or so I imagine, having never shoveled earth or pitched hay.
There weren’t many students I could have comfortably smashed into the ceiling… the initial impact would be mostly illusionary, but the fall to the floor would be real. I was pretty sure Nae would walk away from that collision under her own power, though, so I decided to go for it.
She exhibited better reflexes and more control than I’d expected, though. She grabbed onto my staff with her hands and swung herself down beneath it. I could deal with that, though, because at that point she was out of room to maneuver… I just brought my staff down hard and hammered her to the ground. The illusionary aura flashed red immediately.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting any of that,” she said.
“We’re both full of surprises today,” I said.
I fully expected her to whip out the one I knew she was saving after that, but she didn’t. She also went back to darting in low and trying to slash my calves and ankles or the back of my knee, though she continued to try to use my staff as gymnastic equipment as much as possible. It was clear that she was experimenting… sometimes it worked out well for her, but when it went poorly it tended to end the battle quickly.
Effective or not, there is something terrifying about a tiny kobold clambering up the length of one’s weapon. If it had been a real battle, I probably would have thrown my staff away and ran.
I finished the day ahead in terms of number of victories, but I felt less certain about who the winner was in our ongoing battle. Nae had gotten better at avoiding my staff or making use of it without getting caught between it and a hard surface, and I knew she still had at least one more card up her lack of a sleeve.
I’d felt pleased to have caught on to her strategy, but I couldn’t help thinking that just because I’d figured out one thing didn’t mean I’d noticed everything.
What else might the crafty little kobold be planning? What else might she come up with in the next few days?
It would be a bad time to get complacent.