Chapter Eight - Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Mat was nothing if not driven. The obstacle course stretched out for leagues in curving tight corridors. He wasn’t sure how Alkir had the time to set this up, he had never seen Alkir leave his side for more than a few minutes and yet the complexity of this would have taken weeks if not longer for somebody to design and implement. Walking was still somewhat difficult to keep up with, but the course dictated that he jump, evade and run. He placed an increasing amount of trust and faith in his boots. Their soles gripped the otherwise smooth stone flooring and found purchase enough to let him move as he deigned. He struggled, his whole body burned with a ferocious effort. There were moving parts, swinging weighted tubes that would knock him off a balancing beam only a few inches across. Fans would generate currents that he had to fight against and several obstacles required him to not only run through but to leap over a gap and stop before falling into another.

There was no world outside the course to Mat, he leapt and fought against the constructs set against him with extreme prejudice. He refused to take even the slightest break, regardless of how fervently his body demanded it. Mat felt as if his body was being broken down and rebuilt, cell by cell he felt a piece of him die and then reborn. He could feel the cerelune in his blood, catching in every breath he strained to hold and in every tensed muscle. His strained jogging became a run and then a sprint. Running through the cerelune was hard enough, but it was made worse by the various obstacles and denials that would activate if he did not pass through a section of the course fast enough. A wall would pop out and snap back slamming into him. The force would cast him back through the cerelune depths, their weight would make him slam harder into the ground.

He struggled to get up after each failure, not because he lacked the willpower but his body was beginning to fail him. The pain of the cerelune burned bright in his mind, he wasn’t quite sure what Alkir had meant by experiencing euphoria. There was never anything but pain, sometimes he could push it out and block it but it was always there. But blocking out pain required resources he desperately needed elsewhere. And so he had a choice, live with the searing pain and be able to move and run and jump as he needed, or block out the pain and be incapable of the enhanced capacity he knew he needed to operate at.

He could feel the bruises bloom and recede as his cerelune charged body healed his hurts faster than it would have ever been capable on its own. Every now and then Alkir’s voice would sound around him, offering him encouragement and advice on his form. He never gave so much as to solve the particular portion of the course, or so little that Mat repeatedly failed despite his aid. It was always enough that Mat could work the rest out himself, make the minor – sometimes major – adjustments to his attempts and summarily pass on to the next portion of the course. One particularly time as he had been failing relentlessly stuck out to him as Mat was forcing himself up from the floor on trembling arms. He had said, “Success is not about getting everything right, it is about managing the damage from repeated failures and making sure you get back up again,” and those words had stuck with Mat since then.

Mat had been through the course so long that he wasn’t quite sure just how far he had to go, or how far he had come. He estimated that it was at least five days past. The course itself was grueling. Mat couldn’t imagine anybody would be capable of passing its horrors. Alkir had been right though, that the primary focus was on his flexibility and balance. For longer than he could understand he repeatedly failed the simplest measures, balance beams at first were impossible to navigate. But as he progressed they got more difficult, multiple levels of beams that he had to hop between, often with other obstacles swinging or creating a current that blew him off and into the ground. Every effort was filled with pain and toil.

His ankles particularly hurt. The weight of the boots over the days had been both a burden and a blessing. They gave him grip and stability where he would not have had any, but their weight pulled at his joints, particularly his ankle and knee every time he raised his leg. It only grew worse when he ran or jumped, he could feel the boots like a chain tied to his ankles that yanked down sharply every time he lifted his feet. Every step caused him to wince, even before the pain sent an electric jolt up his legs because he knew what was coming and that he was powerless to stop it. He soldiered on the best he could, pain was far from a familiar concept. He considered it more like an enemy so old that it had practically became a friend. But this was more than even he was used to, the constant failures and harsh falls to the ground along with the variety of ways that the course denied him further entry and showed him his failings, punctuating every misstep with pain.

Mat was panting heavily as he stared at the bit of course ahead. He was atop a platform that was at least fifteen paces high, high enough that when he fell off one of the many balancing beams ahead, he had no hope of getting back up. On the left and right of the course the walls had large fans that switched on and off, blowing powerful currents across the beams. To make matters worse, whenever weight was placed upon one of the beams, they would retract into the starting platform. This forced Mat to move faster than he would have liked, while constantly having to switch beams so that he could cross to the other side. All while dealing with the constant currents that switched on and off, it was more coordination than Mat had the capacity for in his weakened state. He had failed no less than fifteen times here, each time he struggled more and more without any gains. He was tired and wanted nothing more than to rest, but he knew that wasn’t an option. Resting would get him nowhere.

He had thought about Displacing, it should have been possible except he had already tried it. The cerelune was placing so much pressure on him that he couldn’t concentrate through the pain and the effort of simply standing. So he pushed that aside. If he couldn’t under the most optimal conditions within cerelune, he definitely couldn’t if he was on the balancing beams. The effort of trying to keep up with all the various conditions of the course at once was far worse than any of the attempts he and Alkir had made under ‘combat conditions’ as Alkir had phrased it.

Mat was doubled over, his palms pressed hard against his thighs just above his knees. He could barely catch his breath anymore. He stared ahead, the fans switching on and off. He waited for the familiar gap and pushed forward onto the thin balancing beam. It immediately started to retract and he had to double his pace just to stay in place. His feet quickly switched in front of each other as he sprinted across it as fast as he could, which wasn’t very fast at all he thought. From the corner of his eye he saw the fans switch on, it took a couple seconds to get up to full speed. He hopped to the side, shifted his feet to compensate for the soft current and he dashed as fast as he possibly could, digging as deeply as his body allowed. While that beam retracted, the current began to push against him to the left. A second or two more and he’d be blown sharply into the beam to the left and then he’d fall to the ground with a sharp crack. Fearful of the pain and angry at his lack of progress he pressed forward and jumped at a soft angle towards the next beam. He felt his left heel catch on the current and he sharply pulled it forward out of fear.

He landed on the beam and barely had two seconds before the fan to his immediate left began to spin up. There was no way he could make it. He had pressed himself too far and his body refused to go further regardless of the obvious consequences. His legs were thick and heavy, his blood boiled and burned with a raging pain that threatened to overtake his senses. He couldn’t concentrate. He only knew the fan had turned on because he felt the familiar force of the current pressing against him with unrelenting cruelty. He had reached his limits, the same limitations he refused to accept before were crashing down upon him. Darkness gathered around him. At least if I pass out I’ll have a bit of guilt-free rest. He thought with a dark chuckle.

Darkness bubbled and gathered around him but he felt his body tense rather than slacken. It wasn’t until he felt a familiar, sickening tug at his navel did he realize what was happening. He quickly brought to bear all of his focus and effort and Displaced. He blinked out of existence and appeared on the opposite platform. The force of such an incredibly short Displacement had forced the cerelune around him out, replacing it by a bubble of air. Mat staggered forward from the force of the Displacement but only had a few seconds before the cerelune collapsed back upon him. The force was intense and turbulent, spinning him around like a collapsing vortex of clay bricks.

The cerelune knocked his breathing mask off and crushed it against the wall to his left. Mat gasped for air and tasted the bitter, sharp burning of cerelune. He tried to cough it out as it scorched his mouth and lungs. The turbulence of the water tossed him around like a ragdoll and cast him to the ground ahead of the platform. He struggled to reach the mask. If he could just put it on maybe he would be okay. He had never learned how to swim and had been out of breath besides. His vision quickly dimmed in a way that he knew had nothing to do with the familiar shadows of Displacement. As he reached out he saw his hands and wrist beyond the sleeve of his clothing. They were speckled black and blue. His fingers looked crippled and dysfunctional as he desperately grasped at the mask.

He could feel the metal on the tips of his fingers but he couldn’t get a hold of it. He shook with the effort but his body remained pinned to the floor. He could feel the cerelune thick and agonizing in his lungs. He felt like he was going to implode as he forced his mouth shut against the cerelune. It pushed itself inside his nose and the slightest slip would have him choking on the cerelune. He knew he only had a few moments of consciousness left, he could barely see the mask for the sightlessness of his eyes. He managed to pinch the mask between his index and middle fingers. Pulling it to him took all of his remaining effort. It was like pulling a small barn. He cupped it to his face but it was bent and didn’t form a seal. His hand slackened and the darkness took his vision from him. The last thing he would see was the mask pressed awkwardly against his face, refusing to save him.

Mat awoke, his body racked with pain like it was on fire. He felt his eyes open but there was no light. Matren began to panic and move his broken body, but a hand clamped down on his wrist and pressed it down. “Mat, calm down,” said the familiar voice.

“I can’t see! Why can’t I see?” he shouted at the tops of his lungs.

“Mat, it’s me, Alkir. Calm down and let me explain. Stop fighting me, please!” he pleaded, “Do you remember what happened to you Mat?”

“I was drowning in cerelune, the mask, Alkir the mask wouldn’t work. It was broken. I think – I think I broke it when I Displaced. I didn’t know. I didn’t even think I could, it just happened,” cried Mat.

Mat could hear the screech of a chair being dragged to his bedside. It creaked as Alkir sat in it and gently patted Mat’s shoulder, one of the few areas that weren’t screaming with pain at that moment. “You did drown Mat. I was able to revive you but, you suffered some severe cerelune poisoning. We don’t know the full extent of the damage but it’s fully infused in your system now. The Healers have been working for the past few days to help you. They’ve given blood transfusions but it doesn’t seem that it’s helped very much. So I ordered them to stop,” he said with a tinge of guilt.

“Stop, why? Shouldn’t I want the cerelune out of me?” asked Mat. His voice had never sounded more like a scared child than in that moment.

“That was their thought too. But you only woke after they stopped. Several of your bones have mended in the interim. It’s my belief that the cerelune fundamentally changed you somehow. Or your body adapted to the poison rather than allowing it to consume it. I don’t know for sure, nobody has ever survived such overexposure. You’re incredibly lucky to be alive Mat,” he said.

“I don’t feel very lucky. My body feels like it’s broken in a dozen places, my mind feels like a piece of broken glass and oh yeah, I can’t see!” he shouted angrily.

“Blindness is often a side effect of cerelune poisoning. It should subside over a few days. Needless to say, the Elders don’t think it’s a good idea that you continue your cerelune immersion training. They’ve left the final decision up to me, and I’m passing that down to you. If you feel you’re capable I’ll allow it, but only under my strict supervision. And with the promise that you won’t Displace, whether you mean to or not. Do we have an understanding Mat?” asked Alkir.

“I don’t think I’m ready to answer that just yet,” answered Mat truthfully.

“That’s a wise decision, kiddo. Now, there’s one more order of business so to speak. I have a theory that I think you might be interested in testing out,” he hedged carefully.

Mat could feel something, like a disembodied part of himself but foreign. He couldn’t come to grips with the sensation but he was certain he could feel it off to his right, near Alkir. “Alkir, what’s going on?” he asked, voice quavering.

“What do you mean? Nothing’s going on right now.”

“I can feel something, something near you, what is it?” Mat asked, growing more distressed. Mat could feel it moving above him, waving back and forth like a pendulum swinging from his head to his navel. “That, right there above me what is it!” he shouted.

“That’s cerelune. You mean to tell me you can sense where it is without seeing?” he asked.

“I can. What, what does that mean Alkir?”

“It means that I’m onto something. Listen, Mat I believe that the cerelune has somehow been adapted by your body to be a part of it. If I’m right, the blood transfusions were hurting you, not helping. I think that an infusion of cerelune will potentially help you. I’ve got a small vial here that I can inject into you if you’re willing. I think it will help but just in case I have a Healer standing by right next to me in case you have an adverse reaction,” he explained.

“Hello,” said a tiny feminine voice.

“Hi,” Mat replied quietly, “I’ll do it. If you think that it can help me, I’ll try anything if it might mean I won’t be blind.”

Mat could hear Alkir clinking something glass and metallic together, a few clicks and then a cold, damp swipe of something against the crook of his elbow. What followed was a sharp pinch followed by an intense burning sensation, like Alkir had injected boiling water into his veins. It filled Mat with a pain that eclipsed everything he was currently suffering from. His muscles started to seize and spasm. And Mat began to feel very distant, like he was watching from the far end of a long tunnel.

His body twitched and seized violently, his back arched and he saw Alkir and the Healer rush to his side, trying to keep him down and turning him onto his side. Alkir’s face was grief-stricken as he held Mat protectively against him, keeping the boy on his side. Mat’s whole body was wrapped in various bandages but there were several bright blooming bruises over every inch of skin. Mat cringed reflexively at the image of his body below sent into a seizure. The Healer was about to inject Mat with something when Alkir shouted at her and held his free hand out to stop her. It took Mat a few moments to realize why he had stopped her. The bruises were vanishing, and despite the seizing the cerelune infusion did seem to be working. The bruises and visible wounds were closing and receding, leaving behind fresh pink skin.

The seizing slowed and Mat felt a tug back down the long hallway he had been watching from. He resisted, he didn’t want to go. He was free from pain and fear there. He could watch without worry or prejudice, but the tugged dragged him along his feet regardless of how much he resisted. He dug his heels in but it only made them squeal against the dark flooring until he was pulled all the way back. Pain flooded back into his mind, and he screamed as the seizing subsided. The pain was quickly replaced by a soothing calm and he stopped screaming just as suddenly as he had begun. He could feel the cerelune coursing through his veins, interweaving itself through every last shred of his body.

Alkir slowly rolled him onto his back and dabbed a damp cloth to his forehead. It sizzled and hissed, producing a small puff of steam. Alkir frantically wiped down any exposed area he could in an attempt to cool Mat down. But he didn’t understand that the heat didn’t hurt him, at least Mat didn’t feel it producing any pain. He felt calm and relaxed. Even as Alkir and the Healer tried dousing him with cool water he remained unfazed. The cerelune relaxed him and gave him a back his sanity. He had felt the pain splinter his mind and shatter his thoughts like a hammer against glass. The cerelune was slowly piecing him back together, but it went beyond that. It didn’t just fix him like some broken doll. It made him stronger, better than he was alone.

Mat opened his eyes and a flood of shimmering blue waved across the room. He blinked hard a few times until the blue vanished from the room. Alkir and the Healer were still cooling him down, or desperately trying to at any rate. Alkir caught a glimpse of Mat’s eyes and froze solid like a poisonous animal was staring back at him, poised to strike. Alkir stared at Mat, taking a small light and shining it into both of his eyes. The light hurt, but he didn’t feel the need to shut or squint his eyes like he used to. He could see despite the blindingly bright light, it washed everything out from his vision but as soon as the light had gone he could see perfectly again.

“Mat, how do you feel?” he asked tentatively.

“Better, a lot better. Whatever you did worked and worked really well. I think I can get out of bed now actually,” said Mat, much to the surprise of everyone. He didn’t wait for Alkir’s blessing before he smoothly rose until he sat upright. Alkir tried to push him back down but Mat resisted and Alkir relented.

“Mat, your eyes, are they okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, perfect in fact. What’s wrong with them them?” replied Mat, sensing the slight worry in Alkir’s body language.

Alkir wordlessly grasped something on the white nightstand and held it up to Mat. It was a mirror and the person who looked back didn’t look terribly much like Mat. His gentle, umber eyes had been transformed into two jewels of sharp and bright cerelune blue. Mat leaned in close to be sure, blinking one eye then the next. He had always disliked his eyes, but he had never considered having anything else. He stared back for a while, noticing several smaller changes. His face was slightly more defined with sharper features along his cheeks and jaw, and his hair had more gold than oak in it. It wasn’t a major difference, but ones he noticed right away. He didn’t quite know what to think about it. He liked the changes, they made him look more refined and regal, but at the same time those features were his and now they were gone. He wondered if his mother would still recognize him, or if she’d weep for the changes he had undergone.

Mat nodded. “I don’t imagine there’s any coincidence that they’re the same shade of blue as cerelune?” he asked.

Alkir shook his head and set the mirror back down on the table, face down. “I sincerely doubt it. Why don’t you try standing, and move about a bit?”

Mat swung his legs over the side and slid forward so the balls of his feet met the cold stone floor. He normally would have recoiled out of discomfort, but there was a strange separation now between what he felt and how it affected him. He knew it was cold, he disliked it but it didn’t cause him severe discomfort, not enough that he’d pull away from it at least. He balanced himself on the tips of his feet and spun around hopping around in ways that he had never been able to before. The difference was astronomical, but that could have easily been from the training or the lack of his training clothes. He grinned to himself and tried to do a backflip. He jumped several paces higher than he could before, leaned himself backwards and pulled his knees to his chest, hooking his hands beneath his knees. He felt the world tumble around him and he let go of his knees, landing in a deep crouch beside his stunned Sosen and Healer.

Alkir stared in shock. “Are you sure you should be doing that Mat? You only just recovered. Maybe you should give yourself a break, let your body fully rest, hmm?”

“I’m fine Alkir, truly. I feel great!” he replied.

Mat began to unravel his bandages, revealing clear skin beneath. Whatever bruises or wounds he had were gone and he could scarcely remember them ever being there, or the pain that had accompanied them. It was like waking from a terrible nightmare and trying to remember the dream but being unable to. He struggled with the memories before they slipped through his fingers like bits of sand. Eventually they vanished into a deep, dark abyss. He didn’t bother trying to go after them any longer, he knew all that awaited him was memories of pain and hurt that was better left alone.

“I’d like to get back to training,” he said.

Alkir stared, completely nonplussed. “You can’t be serious. Mat you almost died and you were unconscious for two days straight. Please tell me you understand what I’m saying, the severity of what has happened to you must not have settled in yet. The cerelune infusion probably just put you back at square one. You shouldn’t trust it to completely make you better and ready to go again. I would deeply recommend taking at least two days break until you resume your training,” said Alkir.

Mat sagged is shoulders and then stood upright, chest puffed out. “How about this. You can give me whatever training you feel would tire me out the most, and if I show the slightest sign of fatigue, I’ll stop and I won’t object. Please, Alkir. I’m ready, and if you truly don’t think I am, then test me and prove it. If you’re right I won’t say a word of protest, you have my solemn vow,” said Mat, pressing his hands together pleadingly.

Alkir gave a weary sigh. “Fine. But the moment you look like you’re struggling and I’m pulling your training and putting you into bed myself. Even if I have to watch you to make sure you stay in bed and rest. Got that, Matren?” threatened Alkir.

Mat gave a snort of a laugh and nodded. He was certain that it wouldn’t come to that. He gave one quick cursory look around the room. It was white and sterile, even the stones were white and somewhat slick. There were a few extra beds here and there, all with white linens and mobile white screens separating the beds. Each bed was placed near a window where bright morning light shone through. In the center of the room were several cabinets that Mat assumed had various medicines within. What dominated the space was a large desk where it seemed several people should have been stationed at any one time. But given that Mat appeared to be the room’s only resident he doubted they had any reason to keep the desk fully staffed.

Alkir stalked out of the room quickly and out into the hall. The hallway was filled with soft light from glowing, rotating crystals set upon a point. The hallway was narrow and doors littered the walls on both sides. The door quietly shut behind Mat leaving him and Alkir in the hallway alone, the smell of sanitizing agents hung thick in the air. Mat wrinkled his nose and covered his nose and mouth with his hand. He shut out the smell and focused on the training room far below and away. It took him less time than usual to Displace, and he appeared on the soft rug that ran along the center of the training room. He smiled to himself and took stock. His landing was easy, not much that could be improved there. But he didn’t feel quite so fatigued or tired afterwards. The frost that covered him was quickly shaken off with a quick jerk of his head. He still hadn’t thought up a way to mitigate that particular annoyance.

Mat was well into his Displacement practice when Alkir burst through the door. For a moment he looked like he was going to yell at Mat, but when he saw that Mat was fine, his expression shifted to neutral. “Tell me next time you plan on doing that Mat,” he chastised.

Mat looked away sheepishly. “I thought you might say no, and I knew I could do it without any issue! Look, I’ve been Displacing while you were gone,” said Mat.

“No, I wasn’t gone I was catching up to you!” replied Alkir.

“I’m sorry, Alkir. I didn’t mean to worry you. But I honestly feel better, so go ahead and test me however you want and watch me pass with flying colors,” bragged Mat.

“What do we say about braggarts, Matren?” chided Alkir.

Mat looked down and scuffed his boot on the stone floor. “Nobody likes hearing from a braggart,” recited Mat in a stark monotone.

“We’re going to put your newfound reflexes and balance to the test. Your powers can wait for now. I’m going to start your form training. I’ll show you what to do and I want you to copy me exactly. Then I’ll test you myself and see how you’ve grasped the concepts. First we’ll start with the common weaknesses of the human body. We all share similar weaknesses, no matter the age or race. Step over there onto the rug, you’ll want the softest landings possible,” said Alkir, pointing towards one of the white chalk lines Mat had slashed into its fabric.

Mat walked over and turned to Alkir. Alkir in turn grabbed a large stuffed dummy and carted it over to Mat onto the carpet. “The joints are particularly important to exploit, but they’re easy to armor and many people will make sure they have some form of protection for at least their elbows and knees. Armoring the wrists is impossible without greatly limiting range of motion, same for the ankles and under arms. Those are the points at which you can strike and strike hard,” he said.

Mat looked at the dummy. “Why not just strike at the stomach or the chest? They’re large and open areas and that’s where all the vital organs are right?” asked Mat.

“Aside from those places being easily armored, they’re easier to defend. Let me ask you, how would you attack a tree?” quizzed Alkir.

“I would chop at it’s trunk? Provided I had an axe of course,” he said.

“And what if you didn’t, how would you use your hands to injure the tree?” pressed Alkir.

Mat frowned in thought for a moment. He couldn’t hurt the trunk with his hands, and he couldn’t dig out its roots either, leaving him only one option. “The branches. I’d attack the branches and break them in my hands leaving it defenseless,” he exclaimed. “Right you are! That is where you focus when you’re fighting a person. You don’t strike the trunk of the tree unless you’re sure of your approach and strength. Even then it’s often a lot harder than it would appear and many opponents can catch you off guard when you come in for an attack. That leaves you with the unique option of attacking their methods of attack. Most people don’t think of doing that, but you would attack a sword with another sword would you not? Your limbs are no different. They are weapons to carry out our will and they should be treated as such.

“First you need to know that simply going for these points of weakness isn’t enough. Any decent opponent is going to see your attack coming and defend, or even counter your attack with one of their own. When you’re attacking you’re exposing yourself to an attack just the same as they are. The most common combination is to deflect and attack. If they swing out their arm at you, you deflect it and attack. It’s easier to hit when you know how it’s going to move. If they’re in control of its movements then you can only guess where it’s going to be when you attack. If you deflect or move their attack with your own, you’ll dictate their movements. Now, I want you to attack the weak points while I move the dummy around and have it attack you,” finished Alkir.

Mat nodded, balling up his fists tightly, laying his thumb across the span between his first and second knuckle of each finger. Alkir shifted the dummy and twisted it, making its left arm flail through the air at Mat. He hit it out of the way with one fist and struck out at the red patch that was the elbow. As he did the other cloth-stuffed limb smacked him on the back of the head. Mat flinched and the first arm he had struck away smacked him again. They started to pound on him with soft blows but the effect was startling and bewildering. He felt overwhelmed and he quickly went into a defensive position as the dummy wailed on him with its stuffed limbs.

“No, no, no Mat. I understand that’s a natural reaction but you have to resist as much as you humanly can. Guarding yourself like that only invites your opponent to attack you relentlessly, eventually they will find a way through your guard and they’ll inflict some serious hurt. You can guard and block, but you can’t turtle like that. It’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing. Now, try it again,” barked Alkir.

Alkir swung out an arm of the dummy at Mat and he deflected it and stepped in past the dummy’s limb. He struck out hard with an uppercut to the underarm and the dummy staggered away. Mat pressed onward and kicked at and punched wildly, the dummy’s stuffing sunk inward as he attacked and then something struck into Mat’s head and he staggered back. The dummy took advantage but Mat was ready, he deflected the first blow and threw up his guard for the second before jumping and kneeing the dummy just under the chin. Alkir let the dummy sail backwards and fall to the ground.

“Very good Mat, but you started getting sloppy when you pressed the dummy. Still, you understood and grasped all the basic concepts. Let’s try a few forms, I want you to follow exactly as I do,” said Alkir.

Mat nodded and intently watched him. Alkir went through the basic stance, feet wide so that he wouldn’t be easy to knock off balance, he put up his fists to show the most basic form of close quarters combat. He threw a punch, going slowly so that Mat could see how his arm rotated and his hips twisted as he leaned into it. The air rushed past his fist and made a sharp whisk every time he punched the air. Mat watched as Alkir went through the motions of various punches and strikes, showing him how he should refine his form.

“When you punch, you don’t just strike forward, it’s a slight arc that gives you the most power. You can strike straight but it reduces some of your force, and it’s known as a jab. It’s meant to soften your opponent or to make them think you’re attacking them in a specific way, while you intend on attacking differently. Doing that is called feinting, and when done properly will leave your opponent wide open for your true attack. Back to the punch though. You rotate your arm as you extend to strike, you sway your shoulder into the punch and throw your hips into as well. The real power of a punch comes from your hips, twisting them to push into your punch gives it an incredible amount of stopping power. When you combine all of the above,” he said, snapping a punch into the air with a whisk, “you get a potent and powerful attack. A punch however is just one of many different types of strikes you can perform. For now, we’ll focus on punching by itself until you’ve fully grasped it.”

Mat nodded and slowly practiced the form Alkir had shown him. He stretched out his arm and stepped forward. He forgot to twist his hips and his punch fizzled at the end. He repeated the steps slower the next time, and Alkir stood beside him, placing his strong guiding hands on him as he went through the steps. He moved Mat’s arm more, positioning the shoulder behind the arm rather than off-center as Mat had been doing. He lessened Mat’s in-step, so that it was a smoother transition rather than the jarring on Mat was doing. He put his hands on his hips and showed him how to twist into the punch.

After several repeated attempts with Alkir’s help, he left Mat to perform it on his own, watching intently for any mistakes. “Very good Mat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you make the same mistake twice. That’s an incredibly good skill to have, always remember your mistakes so that you don’t repeat them. Now that you’ve got that set down, I’ll begin teaching you some proper forms. But you’ll need to practice them relentlessly, they’re not easy and it’s very likely you’ll get them wrong. Your body is able to handle the forms, but it still is not used to them. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you don’t perform perfectly,” warned Alkir.

Alkir spent the rest of the day and the entire following week teaching Mat the various starting forms that all Sweepers were required to learn, as well as some of his own personally devised ones. Mat found these forms particularly difficult, they weren’t action oriented and they were slow and methodical making his muscles quiver and shake as he tried to hold the form. He would go through the whole form while Alkir watched wordlessly, offering no advice and no criticism. It was only at the end that he told him he had done something wrong, and instructing him to do it again. It took Mat three whole days to be able to get it to within an acceptable degree that Alkir no longer felt the need to point out his flaws. Instead he simply told him to repeat. For the whole of the week that was all Mat did. He focused on the forms, his muscles grew stiff and shaken, there was nothing to Mat’s life but the forms and sleeping. Every single night they trained Alkir had woken him up in the middle of the night and forced him to perform the forms a few times before going to bed.

When he had woken that first night his muscles were bound so tight he thought they had calcified and turned to stone. His muscles were strained so tightly that it felt as if they would snap at the slightest touch. Mat winced and forced his muscles to move, it was harder than anything he had done before. It made Displacement look easy and cerelune immersion like a stroll down the hall. His very body resisted every movement. It pulled tight back towards his core as he forced it out. If he relaxed even the slightest his arms would snap back like rubber bands. He coerced his muscles to extend despite the pain that wound through them. He shook with effort but refused to stop. The stiffness eased slightly but pushing his arms and legs past to anything resembling normal range of motion made his muscles feel as if tiny knives were slicing into the fibers and threatening to cut them free.

After the fifth day Mat was able to get up quickly and immediately begin practicing the form Alkir had prescribed. His muscles relaxed and loosened faster and faster until he didn’t seem to need it anymore. Yet he never protested to Alkir waking him and he always went straight to his form. By the end of the week Mat had begun to wake up in the middle of the night just before Alkir would wake him. He’d climb out of bed and stalk over to the carpet barefoot and smoothly proceed doing the form he had been practicing that day. Mat hadn’t touched the training dummy, nor had he learned any more forms. Had he not been constantly improving, he would have objected to Alkir’s methods. But they did appear to be working and mastering a form was far from a simple affair that Mat could accomplish in a few days to a week.

“You’re pushing yourself too hard Mat,” said Alkir, “you’ll burn out if you keep up like that.”

Mat was still pressing on through his form, but he paused to look at Alkir. “But if I never push myself, I’ll never succeed my limitations.”

Alkir shook his head, and motioned for Mat to come sit down. “That’s not what I’m talking about Mat. You need to know where your limits are when it’s best to press them, and when it’s best to leave them be. Training is more than just understanding and learning something new. It’s about a communion with your body, training helps you to get in touch with the various intricacies of who you are. While I commend you for always wanting to push yourself harder and become stronger, what we’re doing here is more than that Mat. It’s about self-discipline and being able to use everything that you have at your disposal. If you’re always pressing your limits then you won’t learn what it’s like to live within them.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend you to give up and live with any failings you might have. What I am saying is that you should take a little bit of time to understand yourself. Your body will give you all the information you could ever need. If you don’t ever listen to it, then when the time comes that you no longer can push your limits, you won’t know what to do,” said Alkir.

He crossed one leg over his knee, resting his ankle over his left knee. He leaned back in his chair. Took out a small knife, the blade popped open with a tiny metallic clack and he began cutting deep slices into his apple. He made three equally thing cuts into the apple, the slices looked like tiny hand fans. He flicked them with his thumb and then cut the middle one out. To Mat this looked like some sort of ritual. Alkir then cut out larger slices of apple and ate them one by one, but he always was careful with the core. He never cut into it and he always kept a wary eye on it, like he was bracing for something.

“Alkir, why do you cut your apple like that?” asked Mat, pulling up a chair and sitting down across the table from him.

Alkir looked up and then back at the apple, his brows furrowed in concentration. It was clear to Mat that he hadn’t realized he was doing it. It must have been an old habit for him not to realize he was even doing it. Mat took a bright and shiny red apple from the bowl of fruit and tossed it idly as he waited for Alkir’s reply. Alkir eyed the red apple suspiciously. And then it struck Mat that he only ever went for the golden apples and left every other type, most especially the red apples.

“Sorry, Mat,” he started, “How exactly am I cutting the apple?” he asked, but his eyes told Mat that he knew exactly what he meant, but he wanted to know what Mat saw.

“You’re cutting the apple weirdly, like you’re waiting for it to turn into a snake or jump out and bite you. I wondered why, nobody else I’ve ever seen has done that,” answered Mat.

Alkir smirked to himself. “That’s because about eight, ten years ago I was assigned a mission to help a group of nameless rebels overthrow their warlord. It was a pretty simple job, sow discontent among the populace, offer aid and a means for them to throw off the shackles of their oppressors, that sort of deal. We were doing pretty well too, the warlord, a real twisted individual whose name is so inconsequential it doesn’t bear mentioning, was on the ropes. We had his Royal Guard all but killed and only him and a few of his high-ranking captains had managed to survive the latest push. So he held himself up in the palace, I say palace but really I mean fortress. That place was designed for prolonged sieges.

“I mean, at this point it was clear he had lost. The people were behind the rebels and there were only a handful of his men left. The palace was heavily fortified with traps and area denials that were triggered by various means. We lost at least a quarter of the rebel army just trying to get into the grounds. That night, I was going to go inside and finish things,” he said when Mat interrupted him.

“You were going to assassinate him, right?” asked Mat.

“If you would let me finish,” warned Alkir.

“Sorry, Alkir,” replied Mat, bowing his head.

“Obsequeence does not suit you Mat,” he said as Mat grunted at him and gave him a sharp glare, “That’s more like it. Now, as I was saying. That night I was going to find my way inside and kill him and all his captains if it came to that. Then I was going to come back and kill the rebel leaders before vanishing.”

“Wait! What did you just say? Why would you kill the rebel leaders, they’re the good guys aren’t they?” asked Mat, deeply concerned.

Alkir shook his head. “It’s never quite that simple Mat. Most people who have the desire, will and power to fight don’t do it out of help for those less fortunate. They do it for themselves, for the power they could get. Letting them live would just perpetuate the cycle. They’d eventually become corrupted by the power they wielded and they’d refuse to give it up. They’d grow increasingly paranoid until they started killing whole towns and people of different ethnicities just because they were different. If somebody who held particular beliefs one day tried to kill them, then they’d ‘purge’ their territory of all people who held the same beliefs as that person. To them it made sense, all people like that would-be assassin would also try to kill them, so they should act before it happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Around dusk large packages began to drift towards the town from the highest point of the castle. It seemed the warlord had affixed gliders to the parcels and to each one he wrote out his surrender and apologized profusely for his actions. He sent them to the villages and surrounding encampments where the women and children were, those we were defending, and those that were the most affected by this regime change. There was food inside, the kind of stuff these people had never been allowed to eat, fruits like fresh apples and the like. Big shiny red apples that looked delicious. Those used to be my favorite type of apple.

“I was going to grab one when a soldier had taken a bite of one first. The apples were rigged with a small charge. When it was bitten into they’d blow. All around us the parcels the warlord had given out in hopes of softening his punishments were turning the heads of men women and children into a fine red mist. Hundreds of children and women died, people who had only wanted some food,” Alkir said wearily. He hung his head tiredly and heaved a heavy sigh.

Mat stared ahead with a blank gaze. “Why? Why would somebody do that? What did he even have to gain from it?” cried Mat.

Alkir shook his head. “He had nothing to gain. He wanted them to suffer because he knew no matter what he was going to die. At least he was able to inflict one more travesty upon those people, or so I imagine he thought. If his mind even worked that way. I never did get to find out,” he said, his voice was thick with melancholy.

“Didn’t you go inside and kill him?” asked Mat. He couldn’t imagine Alkir would just up and leave after something like that. He imagined he’d go in, break every bone in his body and then when he begged for forgiveness, kill him. That’s what Mat would have done to somebody so terrible and cruel. He’d do it in an instant.

“No. Apparently killing children and women indiscriminately didn’t go over so well with his captains. By the time I had managed to get inside and to the room he was in, there wasn’t anything left of him to kill anymore. I had heard screaming the entire way and figured he was bored of killing innocent children and had moved on to his own captains. I hadn’t thought it would be his own screams I had heard. The captains had tortured him for hours and when they had had enough, they cut him into pieces. They started small, just bits of skin but they moved up to his fingers and his ears and nose. They took everything from him and I can’t tell you how long he survived. But it was for hours at the least.

“When I had arrived, the captains had committed suicide and there wasn’t enough of the warlord in one place to fill even a matchbox. I don’t know how they did it, but they had scattered his pieces all over the palace, each piece no bigger than a thimble,” he said, shrugging.

“What about the rebel leaders, what’d you do with them?” asked Mat.

“You mean how did I kill them?”

Mat nodded.

“I guided them into the palace, making sure to keep the defenses armed. One by one they died. When only the leader and myself were left, I threw him on a trigger and watched him die. I returned to the camp, promoted the few people among them that were decent enough to lead and I left. But I had warned them that if I had to come back to deal with them and their misdeeds I would not go as easily on them. You see, they had thought I killed the captains and the warlord, which made me something of a terrifying creature that they’d rather not cross, either way it worked and I haven’t heard anything bad from that area. And it’s not that I haven’t been checking,” he said smugly.

Mat stared at Alkir. He had a hard time imagining people being afraid of him. He was always so kind and polite. “Do you think they’d still recognize you if they saw you?” asked Mat.

“They did when I visited about a month past, now enough reminiscing. Get back to your form Mat, particularly Bending Branch. You’re particularly sloppy on that.”

Mat took Alkir’s advice but he still pushed himself and worked as hard as he could without running himself into the ground. The hard work and effort Mat poured in paid off and he noticed small things about himself he hadn’t before. He had greater dexterity, his balance was worlds ahead of what he had even after his cerelune training and he was able to slide into another form with greater ease. But more importantly, when he thought Alkir wasn’t looking and he was supposed to be taking a break, he would perform the forms differently, faster as if fighting an imaginary foe. And he began to see the beauty of the forms, and the movements that hid their attacks, he could see how they were to be used against another. He saw how some forms directly countered another, or how one was a modification of a previous one, and used together they would both cover the other’s shortcomings.

It wasn’t until the second week that Alkir decided to make it harder on Mat, who up until then thought he had been doing a decent job. He soon found out that Alkir had been giving him an easier time of things on purpose to warm him up to the true training. He would be required to perform – flawlessly – what he called, “The Temlu,” it was a compilation of all the forms he had learned, one flowing into the next. If he failed one form, he would have to go back to the very beginning and start all over.

Mat wasn’t particularly agreeable to this but he could see the strength in it and kept his mouth shut. Alkir seemed quite surprised by that, he obviously expected great objection. Mat performed the Temlu for what forms he had learned, the Twisting Willow, the Bending Branch, the Black Briar, the Galloping Horse and the Angry Mule. They all emphasized perfect posture and deep abdominal breathing. If he didn’t have so much trouble doing the forms as slowly as was required he would have found it enjoyable and relaxing. But the speed at which he did the forms, each one took at least ten minutes if he did them completely perfectly. Yet even after nearly perfecting a single form, he still commonly failed, or a muscle would twitch out of place and he would have to begin again.

This method of training made it all the more difficult on him when he learned a new form. What Mat didn’t realize is that every new form made him inadvertently practice all the ones that came before it. So as, the Floating Petal and the Basking Lizard were added to his already long list of forms, he grew more and more proficient with everything that came before. It was an ingenious way of making sure that no matter how skilled a practitioner became, they would never be able to forget the basics.

Mat struggled particularly with the Floating Petal form. It was filled with soft smooth motions that twisted him around. He supposed that’s where the name came from, his movements were practiced and powerful but not light and airy as Floating Petal required. He didn’t particularly consider it fair that Basking Lizard was Floating Petal’s antithesis. While Floating Petal required exaggerated but soft and floating movements, the other, Basking Lizard required slow, methodical and strong movements. As soon as he managed to get through all of Floating Petal without Alkir stopping him and forcing him to repeat, he would start on the Basking Lizard form. His muscles would be so used to the light, airy movements that they’d forget how to be stiff and strong and he would summarily ruin the form.

The airy movements were difficult enough for him, but coupled with the strong differences between all the forms and he had to constantly change how he moved to suit the form. This seems like designed punishment. How am I supposed to get used to doing all of these forms if each one is different than the last? Why aren’t the Twisting Willow and the Floating Petal forms next to each other? They’re similar enough that I could move from one into the next easily. Maybe that’s the point, to never allow my body or my mind to get complacent and used to a particular form. I’ve heard Alkir say complacency is one step away from death, so that makes some sense.

Mat’s body had slowly adapted to the constant state of flux, as the days poured on and turned into weeks he found it easier to slide into each form regardless of how different they were. He made less mistakes, enough that he still had to reset several times a day, but not so many that he hardly got through one repetition of the Temlu. He was feeling proud of himself, and that made him worried. Mat was beginning to associate a feeling of burgeoning pride with that of impending doom. And sure enough when he looked over at Alkir, the look on his Sosen’s face confirmed his fears. He cursed inwardly at himself.

“I think you’re ready to put some of what you’ve learned to use, don’t you think so?” he asked Mat.

Mat looked at him with wide eyes. “If you think so Sosen, then I will abide,” was his overly formal response.

Alkir rolled his eyes at him and smiled. “Good to hear it, get over onto the carpet. No, in the center Mat. I said center Mat. Right then,” he ordered.

Mat stood in the center after some gentle prodding on behalf of his Sosen. Alkir crossed the room to stand in front of Mat. “Show me Bending Branch,” said Alkir.

Mat assumed the tall, leaning stance and moved through the form’s motions slowly and methodically, he noted no less than three separate places he might have messed up, but Alkir didn’t see or said nothing. By the time he had finished he was sure there were at least five mistakes. “How did I do?” he asked.

“Seven failures to hold the proper form, but better than usual. Now Mat, I’m going to show you a variety of offensive and defensive motions that when put together form each particular style. Once I’m done I want to go over them with you in practice,” said Alkir.

Mat nodded and watched patiently. Alkir went through the various motions of each style he had learned, and broke the whole form into its separate components. Mat could see that every motion smoothly moved into the next, and when applied to the specific attacks that Alkir was showing him they became an assailable force to be reckoned with. Twisting Willow was his first form, the one that he had thought had been most difficult, but he was ignorant and didn’t know of Floating Petal or Black Briar.

Twisting Willow, as the name would imply was focused on keeping the body loose and flexible. It was primarily a form of evasion and mitigation. By keeping the body loose and limber Mat was able to shrug off attacks by moving with the flow of the hit rather than against it. It revolved around twisting strikes that used the power of Mat’s core more than his actual legs or arms. By attacking mostly from the core the strikes looked loose and lazy, they were harder to attack and harder yet to block as the flexibility of the form allowed for quick and easy adjustments to break through guards. Twisting Willow was perfect for staying out of reach of most attacks but it was relatively weak on the offense as such while it could land strikes the attacks themselves weren’t exactly stellar in their effectiveness or stopping power.

Bending Branch was focused on the use of limb strikes, particularly the elbow. It focused on keeping the arms and legs out and working while the body remained well protected and behind the limbs. The ‘branches’ did all the work, while the trunk supported them. Of all the forms Bending Branch was the most stationary, most of its form was dedicated to limb striking, with special focus on the elbow and wrist. It was useful to weaken the joints but Alkir warned the form wasn’t meant to be used continually as its attacks telegraphed more often than other forms did. But because of the telegraphing nature, Bending Branch had built-in a number of counter-ripostes. Meaning while a normal strike might be telegraphed and the opponent would easily counter, Bending Branch went on to supply its practitioner with the capacity to counter the counter blow. Thusly catching the opponent completely off by surprise and using the telegraphed attack to get the opponent to attack how and when they wanted, while leaving them wide open. That particular set utilized the moves Creaking Limb to telegraph the attack, Broken Bark to block and manipulate the attack to the side away from harm and Swaying Branch to strike the elbow sharply from below with the intention of disabling.

Mat was beginning to understand how to see the various moves came from each form. Not all of them were named the same either, while Bending Branch had a lot of moves that were in some shape or form named after trees, there were a few that weren’t. Chiefly among them, Standing Stone and Swift Water, the former was a way to take a hit without bending or breaking, but Alkir warned that it took knowledge of the coming attack to determine if Standing Stone was going to help. Some attacks could completely break through Standing Stone, and Mat would need to use his best judgment to know how far Standing Stone would keep him safe.

Black Briar was a set of close-ranged movements. As the name would suggest they were tight and cramped, with complicated intertwined movements. It was primarily a grappling style that focused on restricting and controlling movement of the opponent. Thick Underbrush for example used the legs and ankles to stomp on the opponent’s foot with the left, and then hook the opponent’s other foot with the right, causing them to lose their balance while distracting them from the real threat of an impending chokehold after they fell. Submissions and powerful grips comprised the majority of Black Briar. With it Mat could manipulate and opponent with guiding grasps. He could also stop an attack by using one of the variant holds. Breaking Bonds exploited various pressure points innate in the joints, by doing so Mat could force his opponent to release their grasp or weapon if performed on the wrist. If it was performed on another part, it could lead to a painful numbing that deadened the limb for a while, making it useless. And as every form that Mat had learned so far required every limb, he could count on the efficacy of disabling one of his opponent’s four limbs.

Galloping Horse was a fairly transparent name for the form. It involved quick, powerful kicks and practically no arm movements except to facilitate the various kicks. Crane Takes Flight and Bucking Mare were the two problem motions Mat had. Crane Takes Flight required him to balance on the balls of one leg and as an opponent closed in. He would quickly switch and kick out with the leg that had been holding him up. It was difficult to pull off, but with the opponent fully expecting the other kick to land, it afforded Mat a fairly easy to use feint that had a high success. It was also a form of a snap kick, which was any sort of kick that flicked out quickly. They were particularly strong when connecting to the head due to the shock and jarring nature of such a kick.

Slowly, over the weekend Alkir had taught Mat about each of the forms he had learned. Then with Mat he would name the attack and ask Mat which position he was referring to and most of the time Mat was able to pinpoint the attack and accurately display it for Alkir. Alkir decided to take it one a step further and list off the names of the motion, asking Mat to accurately display it. While Mat’s memory wasn’t his best trait by far, he had focused intently on learning them and was pleased to find he retained the vast majority of them in his memory. There were only a few he didn’t immediately recognize but a quick process of elimination allowed him to display the right stance and movements for Alkir’s approval. With the preparation out of the way, Mat was eager to get some practical use out of his knowledge.

“We’re ready to start sparring now aren’t we?” Mat asked excitedly.

“We’ll see if you are,” he replied with a wry grin.

He motioned Mat to begin. With a smirk, Mat rushed forward with Twisting Willow, but Alkir did nothing but stand there waiting for him to attack. Mat adjusted his stance as he came within range, channeling Angry Mule he struck out with Knocks Over The Cart. Alkir slid into Black Briar and countered with Tangled Thorns. Mat winced in pain and pulled himself closer to Alkir transitioning into a modified Swaying Branch, catching Alkir in the side of the head and forcing him to release Mat’s other ankle. Mat coiled and rolled towards Alkir and attacked with Swift Water, knocking Alkir off his feet.

Alkir recovered by bending backwards and performing a handstand, bouncing backwards onto his feet in a crouch. He watched Mat rush at him with Galloping Horse as Mat leapt into the air with an obvious feint. Alkir slid to the side easily dodging it, and just as Mat thought he had gotten the best of his Sosen, Alkir blocked Mat’s Bucking Mare and countered with his own Falling Tree. Alkir slammed Mat into the ground with his whole body, and rolled off him. Standing beside him Alkir looked down at Mat to see how he was doing. He seemed out of breath, which was no surprise since Falling Tree was a strong move that Mat hadn’t thought could be used in the way Alkir did. Mat twisted, his legs flying into the air with Choppy Water. Alkir caught his ankle with one hand using Coiled Bramble and as he wrenched his ankle and twisted, Alkir transitioned into Dancing Breeze, bringing Mat over his head in a sharp arc and then down with a brutal slam into the carpet.

Mat laid there stunned, his breath all but gone from his chest. He rasped and wheezed trying to get it back. Alkir extended his hand to Mat and without a second glance Mat clapped his hand onto Alkir’s in acceptance. He was lifted up onto his feet and corralled to a chair where he poured water for him. Mat drank, coughing every so often as his wheezing subsided. For a while they sat there quietly while Mat drank water and recovered. It was Alkir that broke the silence first.

“You did pretty well Mat, but you telegraph your attacks too much and you’re far too eager to take me down. Remember when I said you need to learn to operate within your limits? Unless it’s absolutely necessary, you should always exercise within the bounds of your limits in combat. Only push yourself if you have no other recourse to take, which includes escape. If you don’t you’re going to run into the same problem you did here, when you over reach you become an easy target to read. And once an opponent has a read on you it’s very hard to change the flow of the battle back to your favor,” he said with a supervisory tone.

Mat frowned. He had thought he’d done fairly well considering how strong Alkir was and how experienced as well. “Did you only choose from the forms I had learned?” he asked curiously.

Alkir smiled at him. “You noticed that huh? I didn’t use them all. If you’d like I can stick to one form so you can practice knowing the moves I’ll be limited to,” he offered.

Mat shook his head fervently. He didn’t want charity. “No, that’s alright. I won’t get better if I only focus against one particular style or form. I’m ready to go again,” claimed Mat.

Alkir nodded and motioned back to the carpet. Mat could feel the beginning of several new bruises along his back and ankles where Alkir had gripped him. He looked up at Alkir curiously. “Do I have to adhere to the forms you taught me? Or can I use something of my own design?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t advise it, but you can use whatever you see fit, just no biting or spitting. I’m not teaching a child how to fight, I’m teaching a Sweeper, understand?”

Mat nodded his assent. He ran at Alkir this time without any form, he attacked with Thousand Hands which Alkir easily blocked with Swaying Leaf. Breaking Blocks was deflected by Alkir’s Blustery Breeze and just as it was Mat twisted and sunk low to the carpet and spun around with Thick Underbrush, hooking onto the back of Alkir’s Achilles’ tendon and pulling sharply to knock him off his foot. Alkir quickly switched his weight to the other foot and kicked his leg up to get it out of Mat’s influence. He brought he heel down hard on Mat’s thigh with Planted Seed. Mat yelped in pain and rolled over out of the way of a second attack. He clutched his leg, which bloomed in agony. True to its name the kick had planted a seed of pain that only grew worse. It happened to hit a nerve that triggered a severe muscular spasm, making the leg in question effectively useless. But Mat wouldn’t be deterred. He got up on his one good leg and lifted himself up, waiting for Alkir to get within range. Alkir transitioned into Floating Petal and cast his fist out in Dancing Pollen. Mat countered with a Snapping Turtle. Alkir placed his feet squarely and transitioned into Standing Stone, blocking Mat’s kick and then smoothly went into Swift Water and took out Mat’s only good leg, leaving him on the ground, once again gasping for breath.

On and on it went, Mat and Alkir trading blows and then discussing the faults and issues that Mat had. Alkir prompted him on various form abuse and the misuse and misattribution of some of the motions he had taught him. Mat had an inclination to use Swift Water when he was farther out than he should have been, making it easier to spot and even easier to avoid. But he commended Mat on his ability to come up with unique variations of proven forms and to invent his own, though he warned against the overuse of improvisation. While they were sparring it was more than obvious that Alkir was dictating the terms of the fight at any one point, Mat may have gotten a slight upper hand here or there but Alkir was giving him the opportunities in which to do so. Mat wasn’t under any delusions that he was capable of doing more than Alkir, or even anywhere near. He watched and studied Alkir when they went through the forms and he tried his best to watch how he fought and used the forms in ways that he hadn’t thought of, while still using them within their proper limitations.

“Your primary issue,” Alkir had started to say one particular night, “is that you keep pushing. You don’t settle for a small win and you grab for another. It’s that greed that makes you-“

“Predictable?” Mat cut in.

“No. It makes you open and vulnerable to reprisals. You don’t get cocky, and that’s something a lot of young Sweepers have to come to terms with, but you just don’t know when to quit! You push and you push and when you get the tiniest foothold you push more and that’s when you grasp extends beyond your reach and you fall. Approach any combat situation like a chess match. Each form and motion therein has three effects. It can succeed, it can be rendered inert by a block, check or evasion and it can fail, which often involves a counter of some sort.

“If you were to realize that once you’ve succeeded you need to analyze your options and take the most effective path, you’d capitalize on your success rather than marginalizing it. You need to change the way you approach this tactically, Mat. You can count on your opponent constantly changing their view of the battlefield and that they’ll change how they operate based on the changing situation. If they’re losing they’ll adapt a strategy that will see that the tide is turned in their favor or at least stop your momentum. When you’re losing and being driven back, you attack like a wild, ferocious animal. That can, at the right times, be a good solution to a problem such as that but it’s not a cure-all. You can’t just apply that same ferocity to everything. When you’re matched and I’m blocking or deflecting but unable to land a blow myself, you attack with that same ferocity. And when you’ve managed to strike a blow you attack with the same feral energy as you always do. You don’t adapt or change and that by far is your greatest flaw and will be the hardest thing for you to change.”

Mat sunk back into his chair. He hadn’t really thought about how he fought in that sense. He thought about what form or movements he should make but he never thought far ahead or reflected on what happened. He was compelled to keep fighting and it was difficult for him to stop. Ever since he was little he had always been the weakest, smallest kid around. Even here he remained the smallest and weakest and though he knew that didn’t matter much to the Sweepers, it caused him to overreact when he sparred. The bruises and bloody noses were evidence of Mat’s failings and the pain was a persistent reminder that he wasn’t learning the lessons he should. He never let the same mistake trip him up, except in this. The way he fought came out unbidden whenever he started sparring. He’d always start the same, cool, calm and collected. But as they exchanged blows and Alkir made a fool of any of Mat’s attempts the anger and fear crept up and took control. He stopped thinking in terms of what would best counter what and instead he lashed out with as many vicious attacks as he could think of. It was like a constant noise in his head that blocked out all other rational or analytical thought.

Mat swore he’d put an end to that. He would be better, he would be stronger and he would keep his cool despite the situation at hand. He stood and walked over to the carpet. His face was lumped and bruised with a few cuts here and there. The pain didn’t bother him much now, he was not only used to it, but he expected it and let it wash over him like the rain. As he stepped onto the carpet he went through the forms and motions he knew in his head. Twisting Willow flowed into Floating Petal which gathered into Black Briar with its unique grapples and throws. Black Briar in turn gave way to Bending Branch and its sharp limb strikes, which in turn flowed into Basking Lizard with its relaxed movements and almost lazy motions that Mat had little care for. Basking Lizard gave way to Angry Mule which naturally fed into Galloping Horse.

Matren went through the forms again and again in his head, forming them and then flowing into the next and organizing them into categories that made sense to him. While Twisting Willow and Bending Branch didn’t fit together, Twisting Willow and Floating Petal did. He smiled as he began to make the connections that Alkir had warned would take him some time to begin forming but that once they did, it would be natural. His body would know the ways without his mind trying to constantly lead it about like an animal on a leash. Mat’s cerelune blue eyes flashed open and he looked at Alkir. “I’m ready.”

Alkir stepped up to him. “Let’s see what you’ve got Mat,” he said calmly.

Mat jumped, twisted and kicked out at Alkir, but he had already thrown up his guard. The kick forced the two apart and Mat landed on his feet with a soft bounce, he was spurred onward but he stood his ground and waited for Alkir to recover and come after him. And he did with Spinning Leaf meets Rushing Waters. Mat blocked the former but pulled his leg up and initiated Braying Mule on Alkir’s Rushing Waters. Mat’s foot stomped hard on Alkir’s calf as he came to knock Mat’s feet from under him. He used his foot, planted on Alkir’s calf as a pivot point and he leaned forward thrusting his elbow out into a modified Falling Tree.

Alkir stared in shock and threw up Standing Stone. Expecting this Mat rolled his form to the side, executing Blinding Break. His fist rolled right into Alkir’s ribs and he felt his first and intensely satisfying full contact punch on Alkir. His Sosen coughed out from the attack and introduced Mat to Tumbling Weed. Mat was caught up in it and rolled like a bowling ball away from Alkir. He dug his feet in and tried to stop himself but the force of the push was beyond anything Mat had been capable of dealing with. When he dug his heels hard into the ground he popped up onto his feet for a moment. Alkir had already risen and was closing in behind Mat, even as he was careening forward. Mat rolled into Blinding Break to twist his torso as he fell and then he swung out his legs into Swaying Branch. Mat knew that wouldn’t be enough to catch Alkir, but it might be enough to deter him from closing in.

It had turned out Mat was right. Alkir paused, buying Mat just enough time to recover and bounce to his feet with Standing Tall. Alkir, realizing what had just happened rushed Mat with Bucking Mare and Prancing Pony. The flurry of kicks caught Mat off his guard and they pummeled his chest. As he staggered back, Alkir twisted himself mid-air and thrust a powerful Cantering Colt into Mat’s chest. Mat barely had enough time to fall into Floating Petal and get just enough distance so that Alkir’s foot missed its mark by half an inch. Mat was determined to capitalize on the opportunity and he executed a modified Coiled Bramble. He locked his fingers tight into Alkir’s ankle and twisted his feet on the ground, shifting all his weight as Alkir had done as he flowed into Dancing Breeze. Alkir went sailing over Mat’s head as he heaved him with all his might.

As Alkir made an arc to the floor he kicked out with Braying Mule, landing a hard kick square in Mat’s face. Painful spots of light blinded him and he instinctively moved backwards even after he almost staggered backwards and tripped over himself. He regained his vision just as Alkir’s fist had come crashing into his face with Breaking Blind. Mat felt like his jaw shattered into a dozen pieces. The force of the punch was nothing he had ever felt before and he went down without the slightest resistance. He stayed down for a while, drifting in and out of consciousness. Alkir knelt beside him and shook him awake a few times but when it was clear Mat wasn’t completely there, he began to administer some minor first aid.

That singular punch had somehow knocked Mat’s thoughts loose. He couldn’t think, much less focus on what was going on outside his own mind. He felt disoriented and shambled. Try as he might he couldn’t get up or regain the utility of a working mind. It eventually became a sounder decision for Mat to shut his eyes and drift off to sleep. But some part of him refused to relent. He felt himself rise and push Alkir’s helping hands off him. He staggered to his feet and struck out with Root Cracks Stone and he twisted, glancing Alkir’s arm with Cantering Colt. He could barely see what was going, his body was moving on its own without his command. He opened his eyes and saw Alkir had shaken off his attack and was coming towards him. He pulled himself down into Floating Petal and narrowly dodged around a Dancing Breeze followed with a Braying Mule. With Alkir several paces ahead of him, Mat shut his eyes and Displaced.

Alkir’s eyes went wide when he saw the shadows blink Mat out of existence. Mat knew full well that he wouldn’t be able to control himself on the landing. He had even leaned into the Displacement for additional strength. He blinked back into existence hardly an inch in front of Alkir. Mat had only the time to thrust out his right knee. He crashed into Alkir like a cannonball. Mat had come up with a name for it, Rising Star. The force was exponentially more than Mat could have ever created with his current strength. Alkir went flying across the room, coming to rest nearly thirty paces away. Mat fell to the ground in a tumbled mess. While Alkir salvaged his momentum and landed in a crouch, one knee lightly touching the ground before he sprang up to full height. He looked in Mat’s direction for a moment expecting him to get up again. But Mat was done.

Alkir rushed to Mat’s side, but he staggered halfway there, clutching his chest where Mat had slammed into him with Rising Star. He knelt by Mat and shook him awake, but Mat couldn’t easily respond. He tried, as much as he possibly could. His eyes fluttered open revealing cerelune blue chips staring up at Alkir. “Did I do a good job Alkir? I call it, my Rising Star,” said Mat with a chuckle that turned into a hacking cough.

Alkir set him onto his side and then scooped him up into his arms. “You did very well Mat. I’m going to be bruised for a long time. I might actually get myself checked out, that really smarts!” cried out Alkir. He deposited Mat into his cot and grabbed two ice packs, one for Mat and one for himself. Mat drifted in and out of consciousness, watching Alkir and then not.

“I think I can get it working,” Mat said cryptically.

Alkir shook his head vehemently. “No, I really don’t think Displacing in battle is a good idea. Despite its efficacy you were clearly affected as well. You fell to the ground and weren’t even able to get up for crying out loud Mat! If you could find some way to control it after you made contact, then yes I think you could make something very interesting, but if you miss, it would be devastating Mat,” warned Alkir.

Mat stared at Alkir with one eye perpetually opening and closing. He lingered on the slippery precipice between consciousness and sleep. He thought about how he could control himself better and came up with nothing. Using the opponent as a means to slow down was the only viable way he could make it an effective attack. But Alkir was right, if he missed then all of the force of the impact would be placed on him. Figuring that he would be better able to solve his problems when his mind didn’t feel like a cup filled with shattered glass, he rolled himself over the ledge into sleep without another thought. The last thing he remembered was the freeing sensation of falling.

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