“You repeat the same mistake! I keep telling you, pay attention!”
This line served solely to punctuate the yelp of pain which preceded it; wood clattered against wood shortly after.
“I am! How can you expect me to follow your advice when it feels like my wrist hangs by a thread?” Another voice spat back venomously. The expansive confines of the Room of Trials had been uncommonly excited that day, despite the lone couple being its sole occupants. Heavy oak dragged across the lacquered timbers which comprised its floor.
“You think that by going about your swordplay differently, you’ll learn better? Let me ask you,” With such a voice of authority and position of superiority over the other, this man could be nothing less than his instructor. “If I’d had been a serious threat, you’d have no wrist left to complain about!”
What followed was an almost dizzying display; wooden blades clashed and cracked against one another. Each fencer took their time on the offense. Backwards and forwards they went, the grunts and gasps of exertion became echoes off the dull ebony bricks which surrounded them. Once again, wood clashed with the floor, as did flesh; what was left on the floor was a crumpled pile of aches and pains, gasps and groans, reddened flesh and leather. The tutor’s extended foot began to slowly pull back.
“… And if I’d have been an Orc, you’d be dead right now.” Despite the constant back and forth, the gloating man’s breathing hadn’t changed in the slightest. It was still reserved, dignified and calm – an irony considering who it came from. He was more bear than man, thick, gruff tufts of hair covering almost every inch of his face. His hair wasn’t much better, a tangled mess of near ginger curls cascading down beyond his shoulders, which had moved little during his duel. Deep lines peeked out from behind this facial topiary – some the signs of age, some of action – which were all the more visible as he extended a calloused palm to his inferior. After a few seconds of deserved limpness, his chest raising and falling heavy enough to displace the leathers which covered his chest, the much younger student reached outwards, clasping firmly and dragging himself to his feet with grunt. It felt like his lungs were crammed up against his tonsils.
“You think too much with your sword. You’d be surprised just how much a well-timed foot can achieve,” His chest seemed to retreat again at the mere mention, enough so to bring about a smirk from the aged instructor. “Still, we’ve been at this long enough. I’m still not sure what’s keeping your Mistress, but I’m sure she’ll be here soon. Get yerself something to eat, Mori.”
“With pleasure, Berson.” It came across near spiteful, the leather of his sleeves pushed up just enough to allow him to rub at the black and red welts which were developing. A hearty chuckle was all that accompanied him on his way out.
The corridors of Ebon Wyrm Hold were nothing to be scoffed at. At least thirty feet, each was a cavernous mass of black rock and lacquered wood, each leading pathways as eldritch and baffling as the mind and hands which brought about their creation. Barely twenty years had taken their toll on the stonework, leaving in every hidden corner cracks and webs, each had long since become the home to every manner of insect which sought shelter. It was a stark parallel to the life they led, enough to bring a casual sigh from the young man before the still thumping pain in his wrist brought him back; it had a curiously effective way of helping one prioritize their thoughts.
Three corridors later and the architecture got no more familiar. It was always the way. Eighteen years and still his mind refused to decipher the labyrinthine structure of hallways which led every way a man could possibly dream. In this case, it had led him further upwards than he’d intended, ending at the entrance to the Master’s Quarters. It wasn’t hard to mistake them; barely three footsteps into the new hallway exposed the youth to the multitudes of artwork which clung to the walls, in particular, a deep red cloth which hung the entirety of the corridor’s length. Meter after meter fell beneath his now eager pace, exposing more and more of what was obviously becoming a tapestry to past glories. Black stitching flecked with gold decorated its entirety, detailing points of interest which to the untrained eye held no rhyme nor reason; figures of men stood side-by-side, yet several which dwarfed their companions by five, even ten times their height! Scaled beasts spewing intricately weaved clouds of flame, some with wings, some without. One stretched the length of a woven sea, another paling in length but spouting several identical heads and teeth, which if the proportions were accurate, were well beyond that of a man’s arm. Still, what caught his attention most was-
“Mmh! Who-“ The voice was enough to snap him free of his casual enthrallment, body jerking backwards, head snapping upwards at a sharp incline. The face which looked back at him – more down on him, than anything – was impossible to mistake. Pristine white skin, delicate as porcelain and looking just as fragile. Back length hair, pitch black and perfectly straight, framing the casually developing scowl perfectly. Her eyes were a stoic brown, but it was hard not to imagine them becoming an intense red at that moment.
“Mistress, I,” He barely managed to exclaim before a delicate palm came down, quite unceremoniously slapping him across the back of his head without missing a beat, scattering his scruffy black hair aside with a yelp.
“Have you become a Master since I left, childe?” She spoke simply; not a hint of anger, just practiced intent. It took a good few seconds for it to dawn on him what she meant, before suddenly shuffling, stumbling back just enough to get within her view, slamming a steel-toed boot to the floor, hand clasped at his chest – suddenly, he remembered Berson’s lessons just half an hour prior – before proclaiming:
“My apologies, Mistress! How was your pilgrimage?” He seemed to have covered his back well enough, her face softening just enough to take that intent stare off of his person, turning and walking from him. Agreeing to her unspoken beckons in kind, he quickly fell in step with her, following by her side.
“The Men of Ice are just as stubborn and resilient as ever; both in body and mind.” She gave a small breath, her equivalent of an exasperated sigh. “They refuse to sponsor us, still. Several Initiates fell. Only three of them still linger with the Valkyries. What are Elves doing this far North?” It was a question meant for herself, the youth who trailed at her heels at a loss for words.
“Your guess is as good as mine, Mistress; why weren’t the others informed? You’ve told me multiple times that,”
“That you need some practical experience? Don’t think I’m as forgetful as you are, Initiate. If I had thought you were ready, I would have summoned you. Were you summoned?” She took a moment to pause, giving him a casual glance, giving him time to think – it wasn’t needed.
“No,” He finally admitted, with a hint of defeat in his voice.
“Then I don’t think you are ready.” She pointed out, succinctly. Her train of thought continued aloud. “It may have simply been one of the fledgling towns attached to Vargrheim, but I would have thought that supernals so close to a major city-state would have at least provoked some semblance of common sense from that ignorant Jarl. Their stubborn isolation, what they feel has protected them for so long, will be their downfall; the city shall be their frozen tomb.” An exasperated breath freed itself from her once more, with a pitying shake of her head. “Regardless, I’ve had some time to make my recommendations. Against my greater judgment, you, Initiate Mori, are being officially transferred to Mjolnir Corp. I expect you on time at the feast hall at daybreak. We have a long day ahead of us. I will be your mentor indefinitely, along with two of your fellow Initiates.”
He hadn’t a chance to reply to a single point she had made. What could be mistaken for a spark of excitement was apparently picked up by her, as their timed steps ceased to echo outside the reserved hustle and bustle of the feast hall. A hidden grin graced her lips for the first time he could remember.
“I’d highly recommend you take some time to work on your pathfinding skills, childe. If you have such troubles finding your evening meal in your own home, I don’t hold out much hope of you navigating the Deadmarshes.”