This week’s cards:
The mountain top shone like a beacon, covered in shiny white snow that reflected the sun in the cloudless sky. Akani had to shield her eyes from the glare, seeking shelter in a small thicket of fir trees. She leaned against the fuzzy needles to catch her breath and get her bearings. Her bare arms tingled in the frosty air. Her leather tunic and cloth leggings did little to protect the cold nipping at the rest of her skin.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. The footfalls of something heavy in the snow. Heavy, and close.
A flutter of movement brushed at her hip. Akani looked down at the hilt of her weapon still in its sheath. She can sense the aggression coursing through the living metal of the blade, a slicing animal poised to strike it’s foe.
Akani peered around the fir tree behind her, into the snowplane that ascended towards the peak. With eyes squinted against the glare, she spotted a trail of a couple dozen footprints, deep and wide like the steps of an elephant. The tracks snaked out from the wood’s edge to the middle of the plane and then…nothing.
A rustling from above broke her confused observations. There is a prickling up and down her neck and spine. Her weapon rattles insistently in it’s sheath. She curls her fingers around the hilt in a tight fist. Before a single thought has time to form in her mind, Akani found herself rolling through the snow, the blade of her long dao sword brandished and flashing in the cold, sunny air.
The rock beneath her trembled as a large figure lands at the base of the fir tree Akani had been using for cover. The being looked human, only much, much larger: at least ten feet tall, with arms and legs the size of tree trunks, his head covered with long black hair, face muffled by a bushy black beard. He was clothed in a mass of eight or ten wolf pelts, with heavy fur-lined leath boots on his feet. He leveled his eyes at Akani with a menacing glare, and emitted a sadistic growl from deep in his throat.
Akani’s mouth went drip. Her arms felt heavy, her legs frozen.
Steady on. Focus. Breathe…
It might have been the wind through the fir needles. It might have been her imagination. But the silvery edge to the words left no doubt in her mind who—or rather, what—had spoken them.
She tightened her ground on the dao, squared herself toward the barbarian, and waited.
The barbarian took three running steps towards her, covering the distance as quickly as a lion descends on an antelope. Akani held her ground as he bore down on her, passing into her range of attack. As she raised the blade to strike, he rolled his thick fingers into a fist and landed a crushing blow to her rib cage, knocking her to the ground. The dao flew from her fingers, through the trees and out of sight.
The next thing she knew, she was on her back with the barbarian’s knee on her chest, pushing her splintered ribs into her lungs. He closed his hands around her throat and began to squeeze and tug. Her mouth gaped in a silent scream as she realized he meant to rip her head from her body.
“That is very disappointing.”
Akani opened her eyes. The trees, the barbarian, the snow-capped mountain all melted into a fog of sweet-smelling smoke, shifting and coalescing back into a small, candle-lit room.
“What is the first rule of combat?”
She pulled herself up to sit, rubbing her sore and undoubtedly bruised throat. Across the dim, unadorned chamber, she could just make out the Master, standing on the altar, silhouetted by several row of candles behind him. By his side stood a large obelisk, a three foot tall obsidian rock etched with intricate symbols. On top stood a long red taper with a thin wisp of smoke pulling itself away from the wick.
The Master placed the candle snuff next to the taper, folded his hands on top of his grey robe and looked squarely at Akani, who was still struggling to stand.
“I asked you a question, Hopeful,” he repeated. “What is the first rule of combat?”
Akani spluttered, coughed, and finally managed a raspy, breathless response.
“The first rule, is, only when, a soldier falls, should a weapon…fall.”
The Master nodded. “You neglected the first rule, and it caused you to fail your completion exam. Therefore, you shall remain a Hopeful for another season.”
Akani took a few shuffling steps towards the Master. “But Master, the test is unfair. The barbarian has the advantage, for his limbs are his weapon and cannot leave him.”
The Master arched his eyebrow, a hit of a sad smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“That is your problem, child,” he said as he turned to leave. “You still make distinctions between your flesh and your weapon. Until you correct this error, you will never be a true Jeskai warrior.”
With that, the Master retreated into his solitary chamber and closed the door, leaving Akani alone in the temple. Squinting in the darkness, she spotted her lost dao, sulking in a dusky corner. She retrieved the blade and trudged back to the barracks, sore and swollen, but with a fire burning furiously in her belly. She knew in her heart someday she would conquer the barbarian. Someday she would be victorious, a great warrior, a hero. Someday…soon.