Tessa could not, it turned out, ‘do this’, where ‘this’ was overcome an opponent who was twice her level. Giving herself over to Pillowcase’s reflexes helped a little. Practicing Lisa’s advice didn’t seem to help at all first, but after Tessa’s fifth dunking things started to change.
“I think I see what you did that time,” she said as Sister Cayman helped her out of the pool. “You’re not using that much more speed than I am, are you?”
“Nope. I’m moving slower than you in fact.”
“But you’re capable of moving much faster aren’t you?” Tessa asked.
She’d done as Lisa had suggested. She’d put together a strategy for each match.
Her first one had been a disaster.
Too many thoughts, too much planning. She’d pictured a nine step process through which she would partially disarm Sister Cayman, unbalance her, feint for a heavy blow and then shield bash to knock Cayman off the plank. The plan had gotten as far as ‘begin trying to disarm your foe’ before Cayman had swept Tessa’s feet out from under her completely.
Tessa’s second plan had simplified things a bit, trying to a more straightforward disarm. It had failed just as quickly.
Reflecting on her failures had brought her plan down to “block and attack” with the idea that the attacks needed to be real without overcommitting herself so that when an opening presented itself for an unbalancing strike she’d be able to take it without thought.
It was a good plan. It had failed, but it was still good.
“Speed isn’t everything,” Cayman said. “A fast hit thrown at the wrong target is worse than useless.”
“Being too slow isn’t working out all that great either,” Tessa said.
“That’s not what you’re having problems with.”
“I’m barely able to parry or block your attacks,” Tessa said, but she knew Sister Cayman was right. Jerking her arms and body around faster wasn’t going to make up the gap in skill between the two of them.
“You were doing better in our last exchange,” Sister Cayman said. “And it looked like you were slowing down there too?”
“I was. I thought if I stayed loose and kept my movement more constrained I’d be able to keep up with you better,” Tessa said.
It was one of the early lessons that had been sewn into Pillowcase. Don’t waste motion. Spend the force you can exert as efficiently as possible. Ideally, which each defense, make the attacker pay.
The Consortium saw combat as basically the same as any other business transaction. Both parties wanted something, and the goal was to make sure you spent as little as possible achieving your objective while ensuring that your opponent lost everything they had.
“You’re on the right track,” Sister Cayman said. “Do you want to keep going?”
Tessa glanced at Lisa and then at the other nuns who were waiting. Lisa was a bit soggy as well. Even [Vampiric Reflexes] weren’t enough to keep her from being pitched off her plank, though Tessa noted that the team healer was having a better time keeping her footing than the team tank was.
“I’d be happy to, but should the other people get a turn too?” she asked.
“Oh watching this is much more fun than going for a swim ourselves,” Mother Graymourn said. She was passing around a ceramic jug which seemed to be holding tea based on the cups the nuns were pouring the contents into.
It sounds like you noticed something? Lisa asked privately.
Maybe? I think I know what she did to me this last time, Tessa said. She’s mixing up her heavy hits with her quick ones, but the ‘quick’ hits aren’t really any quicker than the solid ones. It’s disorienting and it’s making me focus on the wrong things. I’m trying to shift my block at the speed I’m perceiving her moving, but that’s not lining up with her real attacks.
So what’s your game plan to deal with that? Lisa asked, climbing onto her plank once more.
I can’t just slow down. If I’m too sluggish, she’ll land a regular old normal hit on me.
That’s what you can’t do. Think about what you can, Lisa said.
Pillowcase had several ideas on that subject, including calling in close air support, retreating to rearm with some long distance plasma bolters, and deploying mines along the planks. That none of these ideas were feasible wasn’t lost on Pillowcase, the Consortium simply had fairly specific ideas on how superior foes were to be dealt with.
What I can do is go more on the offensive, Tessa said. I leave more openings when I do that, but just like I can trust to my armor to protect me from the blows, I need to start trusting my dexterity to help me regain my balance.
Sounds like its worth a shot, Lisa said. Remember; picture it working. Then stop thinking.”
Turning off her mind had been something Tessa was never good at. Sitting quietly had been impossible for her as a kid, and meditation had never accomplished any more for her than providing time for her to obsess over whatever anxiety was chewing on her mind.
Pillowcase was able to help there, fortunately. Fighting required a special kind of awareness, not empty headed, but empty, a distinction which Tessa didn’t immediately grasp.
With the plank beneath her feet though it started to come to her.
Cayman was on her own side of the pool, waiting for Mother Graymourn to call for them to begin. She looked interested but serene. This wasn’t anything of monumental importance to her. It was just training with a new fighter.
A tightness in Pillowcase’s chest released. Ego could be a terrible master, as could buying into the narrative that showing weakness or failing a test revealed unforgivable flaws.
In theory that bit of anxiety should have come from Pillowcase. She was the one who’d faced the constant threat of being recycled for parts if she couldn’t meet the Consortium’s strict testing standards. Pillowcase knew that wasn’t an idle threat either. Several of the [Clothwork] in her original production lot had been deemed defective and been instantly scrapped when their combat performance reviews came down.
Tessa felt the anxiety that had vanished wasn’t derived from Pillowcase’s memories though. It was derived from her own.
Pillowcase was used to trials overseen by severe, stone faced proctors, where each subtle flaw was noted and judged secretly. A [Clothwork] only discovered they had failed the tests when the command word was given for the them to shutdown permanently.
The [Sisters of Steel] were the polar opposite of that, with their jovial banter and a shared and open review of each bout that seemed to be focused on helping the loser improve rather than placing each failure on a scale that would eventually seal the loser’s doom.
Social failings weren’t an issue for [Clothwork] since they were built to work in whatever groups the Consortium saw fit to assign them to. Another solider was always welcome, where Tessa’s experience with groups had been far less welcoming at pretty much every stage of her life.
In Tessa’s world, it felt like, if they weren’t ostracizing her or belittling her then people were looking to take advantage of her, usually for things she was too naive to know to look out for.
But Sister Cayman didn’t seem to be like that. And neither did Mother Graymourn, or Sister Acroghast. The nuns in general seemed to just be interested in having fun. Tessa could see it in Sister Cayman’s smile and the easy, eager way she walked down the plank.
She wasn’t holding back, when they fought, Cayman was fighting to win. She respected Tessa’s skill, even if it was less than her own, and as a result she was using their battles as a chance to solidify the basics, which was something Pillowcase knew even the most advanced fighters needed to work on pretty much constantly.
Did Cayman have special moves that would have completely overwhelmed Tessa? Probably.
Was she trying to humiliate Tessa and demonstrate much more powerful than Tessa she was? Absolutely not.
This was training. It wasn’t about being perfect, or being able to dominate everyone else. It was about learning.
Tessa smiled back at last.
She didn’t have to be perfect. She didn’t have to win. All she needed to do was understand.
She might not get even a single hit better than she was in this session, but that wouldn’t matter. She would carry everything she did, and everything Sister Cayman did, with her. She’d turn each blow, each block, and each fall over in her mind and draw out from them everything she could to make herself better and stronger.
But first, she had a fight to win.
More offense, she thought and Pillowcase breathed in bringing the world into focus.
Everything was now, and everything was here.
Cayman threw a triple thrust to start.
Same as their last fight.
Block and miss.
Hit to the head.
Dip and move into rising mace swing.
Spear thrust to the left shoulder.
Off balance, but correct with a knee bend.
Use the bent knee. Surge forward. Offense. Shield bash.
Blocked by the spear.
Cayman gave a step.
Overextended. Shift back. More offense. Mace swipe to the knee.
Hah. No surprise.
Spinning strike from the spear.
Catch the spear with the shield and pull.
Cayman’s solid. Good for her. Also good for recovering balance.
Cayman kicked high. Shield caught part of it. Armor soaked the rest.
Reply with a high swing. Ring her bell with the mace.
Nope. She is too damn fast.
No. Don’t try to match her.
Not fast. Ready for the mace.
Spear strike to the back of the right knee.
No. Don’t ask. Just attack.
Kick the spear. Straight punch.
Connected! Right to the face!
Oops. Gah. Head butt. Not expected. Balance not great.
There goes a leg.
Drop? No! Jump!
That’s higher than…
Spear hit, right in the gut, right after reaching the top of the leap.
No balance. No leverage.
Going in the pool.
Land in a handstand on the plank.
How was that possible in armor?
Do. Not. Think.
Spear right in the back.
Face down on the plank.
Flip backwards and up.
Balance restored. Ground lost.
Also the mace. Where? Bottom of the pool, probably.
Spear to the head? Nope, dodged.
Cayman’s stronger. A lot stronger.
Fall back. Literally fall. Trying to slide between her legs and get passed her.
Nope. Plank’s too small. She stops that with a boot to the chest.
She jumps back.
Jump back too.
Lots of space. Good for a spear user. Bad for a mace and shield fighter who’s lacking a mace.
Cayman nods towards the pool. An invitation to jump in and save her the trouble?
Yeah, hell no.
Turn with empty left hand forward and give her the ‘Come get some’ gesture.
Laugh with her. Can’t help it.
Interrupted with a shield charge.
Shield charge interrupted with shoulder strike.
Falling back from the shoulder strike.
Grab the haft of the spear.
Going off the plank. Taking Cayman too.
Cayman’s swimming back up to the plank.
She dropped her spear there.
Mother Graymourn said the winner was the first person to step onto the other team’s side.
She didn’t say the fight stopped when someone fell into the water.
Not for the plank.
For the other side!
Tessa pulled herself up from the water on the opposite side of the pool to find Sister Cayman a foot behind her with the most amused expression on her face.
“That was really good!” she said.
“Does this count?” Tessa asked. “It’s not cheating is it?”
“Of course it’s cheating!” Sister Acroghast said. “That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d learn here.”
“I believe what my second-in-command means to say is that, finding a path to victory outside of the constraints that seem to be imposed on you is the lesson she was most definitely failing to mentor you in, and congratulations on picking it up on your own,” Mother Graymourn said. “Also, no, it wasn’t cheating. I never said you couldn’t swim around your opponent.”
“Not a great plan in general, but you totally got me with it,” Sister Cayman said. “I thought you were just going to come up like the other times.”
“Then I believe you’ve learned a lesson too,” Mother Graymourn said. “Opponents don’t stop being opponents until the battle is completely done, and sometimes not even then.”
“Yep, and if I learn it another hundred times, maybe it’ll stick,” Sister Cayman said with a bashful smile.
“I’m grateful for all of this,” Tessa said. “This kind of experience is invaluable.”
“More than just experience,” Lisa said. “Check your xps.”
Tessa glanced at the head ups display for her own basic stats. She’d been so focused the display, the chat log, and everything else had faded away completely, so she’d missed a few important things.
[Soul Knight Level 20 Achieved!]