Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 21

Walking the plank was not, generally, supposed to be a pleasant experience. The narrow beam under Pillowcase’s feet though felt as firm as a football field of solid bedrock. That was the good news. The bad news was that Sister Cayman looked to be as sturdy as solid bedrock too, and she was having just as little trouble navigating the beams over the pool.

“The rules are pretty simple,” Mother Graymourn said. “The first team to have someone set foot on the other side’s ground win. If you get knocked off into the water, try not to drown. If you get killed, try to float long enough for us to fetch your body out. And, as always, remember to have some fun. Begin!”

That was it. That was the extent of the coaching the [Sisters of Steel] offered for their sparring session. The only help beyond that was Sister Acroghast taking a spot on the easternmost of the plank, leaving the central and western planks for Pillowcase and Lost Alice to defend.

Sister Cayman was nice enough to introduce herself as she and Pillowcase stepped onto the opposite ends of the central planks, but once they were locked in battle, the time for casual banter was done.

The planks were about half as wide as Pillowcase’s shoulder. Plenty of room for her feet, but it did require that she take a fighting stance with her right foot well in front of her left and her body twisted to present the shield in her right hand forward. It was a solid defensive position but with her weapon arm shifted back, throwing viable blows with her the practice hammer they’d lent her was challenging.

Sister Cayman had either fought battles in this particular arena before, or lucked into a fortunate choice of weapons. Spears, it turned out, were ideal for situations where direct thrusts were difficult to avoid and the stepping inside the spear wielder’s reach wasn’t a particularly simple option.

“Don’t let her drive you back,” Sister Acroghast called out over the ringing blows from the two handed maul she was using.

Pillowcase had been giving ground each time Cayman doubled up on an attack. It was easy enough to block the spears initial thrust. That’s what shields were designed to do and they were good at it even in the hands of a relatively low level combatant like Pillowcase. An experienced spear user like Sister Cayman was familiar with that too, and had strategies to work around it. When her first strike missed, as it was all but guaranteed to, she was able to follow it up with a series of probing, short range, thrusts, each following a new path around the shield.

Tessa knew her armor was good enough to protect her from blows with the force Cayman was throwing. She also knew that a successful hit could not only knock her off her feet and into the pool below  but also create larger openings even in the case were the first wasn’t enough to get the job done.

So, when the spear thrusts began to overwhelm her, she’d given ground, spending distance to buy time. 

And it had worked. 

Sister Cayman was clearly higher level than Pillowcase. Tessa would have known that even if she was stuck with her regular human eyes. Being able to see the “30” for Cayman’s level made things such much simpler and Tessa once again found herself wondering if she could keep Pillowcase’s vision even after she switch back to her human body.

Contemplations like that earned her a smash to the side of the helmet. The blow tipped her center of gravity to the side, but Pillowcase’s well designed footwork was enough to keep her on the plank.

“Stop trying to not lose,” Sister Acroghast said.

Tessa wasn’t sure who that was direct at. Sister Acroghast was facing her opponent when she spoke, but the advice seemed generally applicable.

Not that it was practical advice. Or even necessarily good advice.

It had the benefit of being simple to follow – all Tessa needed to do was tumbe off the plank and she would definitely have stopped trying not to lose. Somehow though, she didn’t think that was what Sister Acroghast had in mind.

Sister Cayman took advantage of Tessa’s confusion to get in a solid shot below the shield, stabbing Pillowcase’s leg so hard, Tessa though it was going to tear off. 

It didn’t, but it did leave Pillowcase balancing on one leg for a moment while fought to regain her balance.

Lacking any better options against a vastly superior foe, Tessa tried to hurl herself forward with the thought that if she could carry Cayman off the plank with her, at least she’d be protecting their side from an attacker as best she could.

It was a good plan, a valiant one even.

It just wasn’t good enough.

Sister Cayman saw the Pillowcase coiling for the charge and chose that moment to step forward and strike with her weapon as though it were a staff. One quick high blow that connected with Pillowcase’s shield was followed by an even faster low sweep which took her legs out from under her.

And like that it was done.

Tessa felt herself splash into the cold water and heard the cheer go up from the other [Sisters of Steel] a moment later when Sister Cayman stepped off the plank.

It wasn’t embarrassing to have been knocked off her plank by a level 30 [Guardian]. The math for a matchup between almost any level 30 against almost any level 15 was clear and decisive, so there was no shame in defeat. If anything Tessa felt proud at having delayed Sister Cayman for as long as she did.

Or she would have if Lisa hadn’t still been standing on her plank when Sister Cayman helped Tessa climb out of the pool.

“Well done, well done!” Mother Mayhem said. “Evaluations? Anyone want to comment on what they saw?”

“I saw that I picked the wrong weapons for this,” Tessa said.

“Don’t blame the tools,” Sister Acroghast said.

Tessa wanted to object to that, but she considered how spectacularly ill suited a two handed maul Sister Acroghast had used was for the battle scenario before them. 

And yet Sister Acroghast had chosen it in place of a spear and a sword and shield she’d been offered.

It was a bad call, but Tessa had written it off as Sister Acroghast trying to level the playing field a bit, since she outleveled Sister Cayman and the other junior members of the [Sisters of Steel] by more than Cayman outleveled Pillowcase.

Maybe it was more than that though?

“Pillowcase’s footwork was limited. I would guess this is the first plank battle she’s fought?” Sister Cayman said. “Also from the stance she took, she is probably used to having strikers gathered behind her.”

“Bah, that’s too easy to guess,” Sister Grigrin said. “She’s an [Adventurer]. Of course she hasn’t fought like this before and, wow, how shocking that she’s used to having other people handling the striker role for her.”

“Let’s give Sister Cayman a chance to speak,” Mother Graymourn said. “What was it about her footwork that led to your conclusions Sister?”

Tessa felt both mortified and fascinated by the discussion. Listening to people pick apart her incompetency in exacting detail was pure nightmare fodder, but, the conversation was so practical and analytical that Tessa was almost able to avoid taking it personally.

“Certainly Mother,” Cayman said. “When we started she squared off in a standard defensive stance. As we began our exchange though she stayed in the same stance, only retreating to buy distance as I pressed her.”

“Isn’t that reasonable?” Mother Graymourn asked, the question existing only to be refuted. “The plank limits movement. Keeping a solid base and maintaining her focus on defense against a superior foe are sound tactics, no?”

Phrased like that Tessa’s choices seemed reasonable, but the phrasing was a trap.

“Not in this scenario,” Cayman said. “Her stance was acceptable for balance, but removed her offensive options. Retreating as she did would have bought time for strikers to do their work, but with no backup and no offense, she would have inevitably been forced off the plank.”

“One she was backed onto solid ground, wouldn’t she have been at an advantage though?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“Her position would have improved, but the same move that took her off the beam would have let me claim a spot on their side,” Cayman said.

Tessa was able to picture that all too easily. Landing on solid ground would have been less of a fall but even more embarrassing. Falling into the water had looked like Sister Cayman got in a lucky shot. Falling when Pillowcase had plenty of support under her feet would have made it crystal clear that she was unable to hold Sister Cayman back in the slightest.

“What would have been a workable strategy then?” Mother asked, a pleased expression suggesting that she found Cayman’s analysis acceptable so far.

“With a shield forward stance, she could have pressed for a grapple, moving forward and claiming space with the shield rather than surrendering it,” Cayman said. “If that didn’t work, she could have used a pivoting backstep to reset our positions and switch to an offensive stance before using the impact force of her mace to destabilize my balance.”

“That would have left her open to your strikes though,” Mother Graymourn said.

“She possesses a good enough strength to body mass ratio to make avoidance a viable technique,” Cayman said. “Alternatively, her coordination rating is high enough that she could have relied on soaking the blows with her armor and compensating for the impact with body control.”

“Soaking the blows from a level 30 [Guardian]?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“Well, I wasn’t hitting that hard,” Cayman said, looking somewhat abashed to have missed a point in her otherwise solid case.

“Well, what do think Pillowcase?” Mother Graymourn asked. “What did Sister Cayman miss?”

“Not much,” Tessa said. “She’s right that I’m not used to fighting like this. I was designed for fighting with a full squad of other soldiers. Usually with a specific objective in mind, and usually against inferior foes. Bodies like this are costly to make so we don’t get thrown away casually. Not usually at least.”

“Think you can do better next time?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“I can try,” Tessa said. Pillowcase was used to training, but Tessa’s nerves still hummed with anxious energy.

“Good,” Mother Graymourn said. “Let’s get setup again then. I want everyone to watch Pillowcase this time. Check her footwork. Check her balance. She’ll try the suggestions Sister Cayman made. But Sister Cayman knows that. Be ready to make some new ones for the next round.”

Tessa was surprised that the other nuns were okay with giving her another turn. She’d guessed that she would need to wait for all of them to have a chance to cycle through, but it seemed like they were all more than happy to watch her step up for another dunking.

“You going to be okay?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“The only thing that holds a bruise is my ego,” Tessa said. “I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised I’m losing to a level 30, but it’d be nice not to suck quite so badly.”

“That’s what training’s for,” Lisa said.

“I’ll try to remember that as I head into the water this time,” Lisa said.

“Nope. No negative thoughts. If you get knocked off, you get knocked off. Don’t plan for losing,” Lisa said.

“Just being realistic,” Tessa said.

“Don’t be. I know the game was basically a big math puzzle, but this feels a lot more like a real competition,” Lisa said.

“What’s the difference? Aside from the obvious lack of numbers I mean.” 

“In a real competition, mind set matters. A lot,” Lisa said. “And in training it matters more. This is brand new, so processing what’s going on is hard. Hard, but not impossible. You can get a jump on it by visualize how you’re going to win. You need to reach for that and fight for it, and then, however it turns out, evaluate what happened so you be aware of what’s happening more easily next time.”

“That sounds like iterating on a section of code,” Tessa said. “I can do this!”

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