The following day, at the crack of dawn, I began my training with Dylan. For that purpose, we created a small, open space in the middle of the back room, clearing it of the various tools and spare parts that littered the floor.
Under his instruction, we began with a variety of exercises to strengthen my body musculature. These included short sprints for agility, prone holds for core muscle endurance, and weight-lifting for upper body strength. As the morning wore on, we moved on to sword technique, sparring with carefully-weighted wooden replicas of the gladius. Dylan had been right when he’d warned me not to expect any slack from him: he was a relentless trainer, and he drilled me intensively, almost to the point of appearing maniacal. By midday, I was just about ready to keel over from exhaustion.
“Watch your opponent!” shouted Dylan, raining a flurry of lightning-quick blows down upon me, which I only barely managed to parry with my blade. “Learn his style, observe his pattern of attack, and then strike when the opportunity presents itself!”
At least, that was the theory. In practice, Dylan moved incredibly fast for a man of his age, and I quickly found that I had my hands full just trying to avoid being whacked by his blade.
“Point!” he snapped, as his blade delivered a painful rap on my shoulder. “Point, point, point!” His blade slipped past my defenses thrice more in quick succession, striking me on various parts of the body and raising angry red welts where blunted wood met exposed skin.
Dylan took a step back and scowled heavily at me. “At the rate you’re going, you’re going to get yourself killed on your next encounter, boy. Don’t just react when the blade comes flying your way. Watch your opponent’s body language, then anticipate and move to block his attacks,” he admonished. He wasn’t even breathing heavily, and already I was panting like a dog on the run.
“Now, you take the offensive,” commanded Dylan, raising his own sword to middle guard and glaring at me expectantly.
“Remember that the gladius is different from a broadsword. Learn to wield it with one hand, and stab, rather than slash, whenever you can – this is usually lethal, and leaves you less open to a counterattack,” he advised. “When slashing, aim for the limbs – a handicapped opponent is soon to be a dead one!”
Eager to dish out some serious hurt in repayment for the earlier blows he’d landed on me, I stepped forward and angled two quick strikes at Dylan, one high and one low. He blocked them with contemptuous ease, never moving from his original position. Undeterred, I delivered a rapid series of powerful blows, intending to overwhelm him by main strength alone, but was similarly repelled. In frustration, I lunged forward with a sweeping strike similar to the one that I’d employed in the fight against Black Hood. Instead of parrying the blow, Dylan simply ducked beneath it, then promptly rewarded my clumsy effort with a painful jab to the solar plexus. I stumbled backwards, wheezing and struggling to catch my breath.
“Never lose your cool,” scolded Dylan, as I rubbed at my bruised midsection, wincing. “Leave your guard open for even a second, and the enemy will exploit it without mercy! Had that been a real blade, you would surely have been impaled upon it and slain.”
This continued until lunchtime, and by then, I was so tired and hungry that my hand trembled with the effort of holding a fork. Lunch was simple fare – eggs, sandwiches and beans – but that did nothing to discourage me from helping myself to a very generous portion and wolfing down my food. I was ravenous, and even the leftovers from the previous night’s dinner looked rather tempting to me.
Observing that I was probably too tired for more physical training, Dylan suggested that we work on my fledgling ‘special’ abilities post-lunch. Eager to escape the rigorous training that I had experienced in the morning, I heartily seconded the idea.
Standing alone in the center of the room, I raised Aequivalere to eye level and focused my attention wholly upon the sword. Holding the image of a furnace in my mind, I imagined the blade gaining heat and glowing red hot, the pommel warming the palm of my hand. My palm was still throbbing from the burn inflicted upon it the day before, so it was not difficult to accomplish this. As the sword’s temperature seemed to rise to an unbearable level, I opened my eyes sharply, willing the blade to come ablaze with flames.
Nothing happened. The sword remained stone-cold, its blade a metallic sheen of gray. I glared at the blade, feeling extremely foolish.
“Well, what’s wrong? Why haven’t your powers manifested yet?” demanded Dylan impatiently.
“I’m… not sure,” I muttered, scratching my head in puzzlement. “I was perfectly able to do it yesterday, so what gives?”
“Think back to the moment when you defeated Black Hood,” suggested Dylan. “What was going on at that time, and what were you thinking?”
I frowned, brows furrowed in thought, as I recalled the final moments of that battle. Already, the happenings of the previous day seemed a distant memory, just another occurrence in the rapid progression of events that had unfolded since I’d left the house that fateful Saturday afternoon.
Mindless with rage, I rushed him, blade whistling through the air in a deadly arc. In that instant, I noted, absently, that the gladius had turned red-hot, scorching the palm of my hand.
As I briefly relived that moment, a sudden brainwave hit me. Rage – that was the key. I had been filled with fury at the final insult that Black Hood had offered my parents, to the exclusion of any other thought or feeling, including my instinct for self-preservation. I decided that it was worth a shot.
Once more, I closed my eyes and envisioned the burning house, that memory which had haunted me every day since and made my life a living nightmare. I saw my parents consumed by the pyre of their own home, huddled together in sheer terror as I watched on helplessly. And I heard, once more, Black Hood’s malicious voice, filled with sadistic delight as he taunted me and recounted the excruciating manner in which they had died.
Anger came to me in a rush of heat, filling my body and mind with an all-consuming hatred for the Lord of Darkness and his evil minions. I felt pure, unadulterated fury at what he had done to me and my family, and I knew with deadly certainty that I would make him pay dearly for it.
“You’ll die by my hand, scum,” I shouted, forgetting, in my rage, that I was still in Dylan’s shop. I reversed my grip on Aequivalere and, with vindictive force, slammed it through the nearby wooden bench. Flames immediately blanketed the sword and began to spread across the unfortunate piece of furniture.
“Good grief, boy, what the hell do you think you’re doing!” yelled Dylan, hastily grabbing a fire extinguisher from its mount on the wall and scrambling over to the burning bench. He popped the pin on the extinguisher’s head and began spraying its contents over the bench, sweeping the nozzle from side to side repeatedly. As I regained my composure, Dylan put out the rest of the flames and turned to me, panting.
“Well, boy, looks like we’ve just found out how those mysterious powers of yours work. At the cost of one finely-crafted wooden bench, no less,” he grumbled.
“Anger,” I supplied meekly, feeling rather abashed at my sudden outburst. “When it’s intense enough, I can channel my anger through the sword and set it ablaze.”
“Right,” growled Dylan. “Now, in a realistic combat situation, there’ll be all kinds of desperate fighting going on, so you can expect plenty of bloodlust and anger at your enemies, especially if they just made a pass at you. “
“But,” he cautioned, “You’ll need to learn to focus and control your emotions, keep them in check, so that you can make use of them when you want to, and fight in a sensible manner. Otherwise, if you lose control and just charge at them like you did with Black Hood, you’re going to get yourself killed, special powers or no.”
I had to admit, he had a point there. Of course, that would mean a lot more training, which I really wasn’t looking forward to. But I thought back to the horrific manner in which my parents had died, and I resolved to avenge them, no matter the cost.
I nodded grimly. “All right, let’s get on with the programme. I’m not stopping till I can use my powers at will.”
So train we did. It went on until midnight, by which time I was both mentally and physically exhausted. I stumbled over to a small mattress in the corner of the shop, and literally fell asleep before I hit the bed.