You know how you learn a new word for the first time, and suddenly, it seems like it’s everywhere, and you wonder how you possibly could have missed it before? That was the feeling I got after I learned of Geoffrey’s struggle with cancer.
The following day, during morning physical training, I noticed just how weak he looked. His techniques were sloppy, and his strength was failing. Honestly, I did feel a little bad for him. It looked like a slow, painful way to go. However, this meant less competition for me. Now, all I had to worry about was Kazushita and Rachael. Geoffrey could no longer match me, and Danica was never an issue anyway.
Due to the fact that the interception mission was late that night, I decided to take it easy during training for the day. Our first activity was knife throwing practice. This was one of my best skills. With a flick of my wrist, or a full-body wind-up, I could hit the bullseye almost every time. After several perfect throws, I looked out of the corner of my eye at my classmates. Rachael whipped her throwing weapons with deadly accuracy. Kazushita also demonstrated great ability with the projectiles. Geoffrey’s knives were lacking power, and he struggled to even hit the target, much less a bullseye.
This further confirmed exactly who I needed to watch out for. Danica was at the other end of our lineup, and I couldn’t observe her. Actually, I hadn’t had any interaction with her yet this morning. That’s not surprising. As I had screamed at her last time I saw her, she probably would never speak to me again.
After the throwing knife practice was finished, Sagar announced that we were to head for the open gym. While on my way over, Dani dashed up to me.
“Good morning, Milo!” She chirped.
I was a bit startled by her cheerful greeting. She spoke to me as though nothing had ever happened.
We walked toward the gym together, Dani chattered about random things the way she always did. I was genuinely impressed at the way she could forgive and forget so easily. Well, given the opportunity to make amends, I made up my mind to attempt to treat her more like a friend. Although I was not adept in the arts of interpersonal conversation, I did my best.
“Say Milo! What’s your favorite kind of animal?” She asked.
“Um…I don’t really have one.”
“Oh come on! You’ve gotta have a favorite!”
“I really don’t care…I guess I like dogs.”
“I like frogs! Frogs are so cool! They can live in the water and on land! And they’re so cute! “
“Hey Milo! What kind of tea is hard to swallow?” She changed the subject.
“Um…I don’t know. Green tea?”
I wasn’t really sure how to respond to this. Was it a joke or something? I’m not so good with humor.
The girl explained herself.
“You know, ’cause sometimes it’s not easy to be honest. And being hard to swallow means-“
“I know what it means.”
“Even though it’s hard, I’m always honest. Lying makes my mouth taste salty. So when I say anything, you know that I’m telling the truth!”
This whole human interaction thing is not my strong suit, and I was relieved when we reached our destination. I broke away from Dani for a minute to speak to Sagar.
“Master Sagar?” I said to get his attention.
“Hm…Oh, yes, Milo?” The man seemed quite distracted.
“I just wanted to let you know, I appreciate you allowing me to take part in the mission. And I’m going to go a little easy in training today to get ready.”
“Mission? But, you’re still just in training. Usually people don’t get to go on missions until after they’re graduated.”
That caught me slightly off guard. “What? Hanson said that you and Commander Razo agreed to let me go to get some combat experience.”
“Hanson told you that, huh? Hm. It must have been Commander Razo’s idea, and Hanson just told you it was mine to make you more likely to agree.”
“Why would he want me to agree?” I was slightly puzzled. “Hanson hates me.”
“I don’t know.” Sagar admitted. “Though, I’m not surprised Razo suggested it. He believes in you, you know.”
I was a bit skeptical of that.
“How do you know? Have you even heard him speak? Has anyone in Tsalderek heard him speak?”
“Well, no. I haven’t heard him. I’ve never even seen the face under his hood.” Sagar smiled and changed his voice to a more reverent tone. “Some say he suffered a horrible accident, leaving him with no voice or face. Others say he’s a prominent public figure, and cannot risk exposing his identity. Another popular opinion is that he’s so powerful, the sound of his voice or sight of his face would destroy weaker men’s minds. I don’t even know what the truth is.
“All I know is I would follow him to the ends of the earth. His actions speak enough for me. Razo’s dedicated his life to trying to bring peace to the world. His ideals and his commitment to them are what make him deserve to be our leader.”
I nodded. I still wasn’t sure why everyone trusted Razo so much, but if Sagar wanted to pledge his allegiance, that’s fine with me.
“Well, I think I’ll just train on my own today, to make sure I’m still fresh for the mission tonight.”
“OK. That’ll be fine. I was not assigned to go, because of my teaching duties. So, I’ll probably see you tomorrow!”
As I went off to the side to practice concentration punches by myself, I heard Sagar declare:
“Today, we’ll be doing some sparring practice. Milo won’t be joining us today, so it will just be the four of you.”
Sparring practice! Hm. I really shouldn’t engage in anything that risky with the mission tonight, but I kept a close eye on my classmates. It was unclear if they knew I had a mission or not. Rachael, Kazushita, and Geoffrey all completely ignored me. Well, that was perfectly fine.
“Alright everyone. The mock fight will begin with both combatants standing. Perform non-lethal sparring techniques to get your opponent to the ground, and attempt to subdue them. When one of you is pinned for ten seconds or taps out, the match is over.”
I was starting to consider joining in. This sounded like fun, and a good chance to test my fighting strength against my actual competition. However, I refrained. The two girls, Rachael and Danica, faced each other first. This should be kind of a blowout. Rachael was dangerous, and Danica too nice to do anything too violent.
“Begin!” Sagar shouted, and Rachael went in on the attack.
The dark-skinned girl’s speed was really impressive, as she released a flurry of punches and mixed high and low kicks. Somehow, Dani was able to dodge each one of them. She backpedaled to escape the assault while weaving her head and lifting her legs. Then, she threw a couple of flaccid punches back at Rachael. The serious girl kicked her foot in a wide arc to block the attack, and followed with a spin kick.
It hit Danica on the shoulder, and sent her off balance. Rachael came in with a side kick, but her target was able to get around it, and back into the fight. They went on for a couple of minutes, when Rachael did a double fist strike. Dani blocked both arms outward, but the move put her off-balance. The other fighter took advantage of that by approaching, grabbing an arm and part of Dani’s vest, and performing a Judo Tai Otoshi.
This flipped Dani over Rachael’s leg and sent her crashing to the ground. The two wrestled for a few seconds, but the stronger girl quickly gained the upper hand, and got Dani’s arm in a Juji Gatame joint lock. Her back arched with pain as she tapped the ground to surrender.
“Stop!” Sagar concluded the match. “Rachael is the winner.”
The victor released Dani from her hold, who promptly popped up to her feet.
“Wow! Nice moves!” She exclaimed, and held out her hand.
Rachael just ignored her, and walked away.
I couldn’t say I was surprised at the outcome, but Dani did way better than I expected her to. To be honest, I wish she would have kicked that brat’s ass.
“Up next, Kazushita versus Geoffrey.” Sagar directed, and the two boys made their way to the sparring mat.
Well, if the last fight turned out more even than I expected, this one turned out far less. Geoffrey in his weakened state was no match for Kazushita’s superior strength, and it took under a minute for the larger young man to pin him to the ground.
“Stop the match!” Sagar shouted. “Kazushita is the winner.”
Kazushita and Geoffrey stood up, and left the mat without looking at each other.
“OK. Will the winners from the first two rounds please step onto the mat?”
Rachael and Kazushita both came forward.
“We’ll now have a sparring contest between the two of you, to determine the winner of today’s micro-tournament.”
Well, this got my attention! My two toughest competitors for the number one position! By watching the fight, I could start to determine which of them would be a fiercer contender. Could Rachael’s speed and quickness overcome Kazushita’s size and strength?
“Ready?” The two bowed to each other, never taking their eyes off of the opponent. “Begin!”
They hated each other as well, but they were united in trying to beat me. So much in fact, that the three of them had a sort of mutually beneficial alliance, where they tried to bring me down, and they could decide on ranks from there. The two strong combatants took fighting positions and circled around each other slowly. Each of them waited for the opponent to make the first move, while looking for an opening themselves. I watched without veiling my attention as the tension continued.
Suddenly, Rachael made the first attack. She dashed forward with a chin-jumping chin kick combo. Kazushita easily stopped both moves with his strong hands. With surprising speed, he tried to counter-attack with a sideways hammer strike to her right ribs. Rachael ducked, and tried to use the giant young man’s swinging momentum to lift his left leg and knock him to the ground. However, Kazushita was built like a mountain, and she couldn’t budge him.
He grabbed her upside-down around the waist, and prepared to slam her on the mat. Once in the air, she rotated her body around, escaping his grip and landing behind him, twisting his arm behind his back. The girl attempted to leverage his pained arm to put him on the ground, but he shook her off and delivered a powerful spinning back fist. Rachael blocked it with a high guard, but the force still sent her flying. She hit the ground, but did one of those awesome things where you push with your arms and flip up onto your feet. I think it might be called a kip-up.
Immediately after knocking Rachael aside, Kazushita rushed down on her, employing slow but very strong attacks. Rachael managed to block them, but any counters she attempted were unsuccessful. When he tried to give her a front kick off the mat, she ducked and did a low spin kick. This time, he crashed to the ground. The girl leapt upon him and attempted to hold his arm in an Ude Garami. The giant man was able to turn the groundwork in his favor, turning her over and pinning beneath his vastly higher weight.
Although Rachael struggled, the count of ten was reached, and the match was over. Kazushita had put her into submission, making him the champion of the miniature tournament.
Except he hadn’t faced me.
I couldn’t help it. I’m extremely competitive. It’s in my nature, and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass by. While Sagar was still in the midst of announcing Kazushita’s victory, I leapt onto the mat.
“OK big guy. Let’s see what you’ve got.” I challenged
Sagar didn’t reprimand me, but Rachael would not let me get away with that.
“Hey! You can’t just jump in at the end! You have to fight your way through like the rest of us did!”
I turned to Kazushita.
“Well, if I can beat him, and he beat all of you, that proves I’m the best one here, am I right?”
“He’s right.” Kazushita said gruffly. “He doesn’t need to face anyone but me. I’m the champion here!”
“Very well.” Sagar calmly stated. “If you agree, then we’ll do it. Final round…FIGHT!”
Kazushita and I stared each other down. We had quite a rivalry between us, ever since I handed him his first defeat when I originally came to Tsalderek. They all hated me, but I think that Kazushita had a special place in the sewer system of his heart for me.
Part of the reason I waited to attack was to let my adversary rest for a minute. I wanted to test his full strength, to see what he was capable of. I’d let him decide when he was ready. Eventually, he made his move. Kazushita approached, making quick, boxer-like jabs. This surprised me a little, because, in my observations, he did not use a boxer fighting style. He was more apt to wait for the opponent to come in and take a couple of shots, before going all out, using fierce attacks and throws. Well, I guess he could mix it up.
I easily blocked his jabs. After timing out his punches, one of them was slower than the others. I took this opportunity, and caught his wrist, spinning his arm in a full circle and putting a joint lock on his elbow. He rolled to escape, putting some distance between us. I came in, and feigned a kick. Kazushita moved to counter me, but I blocked and hit him with my palm several times on his side. He moved to block that side, so I moved to the other with a roundhouse kick. It connected strongly, and set him off balance. I then moved in with a low kick to the knee, and a spinning moon to his head. The low kick connected, but he blocked the high one.
Before he could counter, I grabbed his collar, reached back with my right hand, and drove it into his face, pulling with my other hand at the same time. The blow sent the young man stumbling backward, but still on his feet. Taking two quick steps, I leapt into the air to pummel him with a powerful jumping double side kick. At the last second, I tamed the strength of my kick so as not to cause permanent harm. It wasn’t time for that yet. Even at half strength, it was enough to knock my opponent to the ground.
Before he could react, I pounced on him to continue the fight on the ground. This was an area where Kazushita was probably better than me. In sheer strength and wrestling-type combat, he might have an advantage. That’s why I moved quickly.
In a moment, I had him in a Hadaka Jime choke hold, and would not let go. He thrashed and tried to throw me off, but I was cutting off the blood to his head. In a moment, he would either pass out, or concede defeat.
Well, he wasn’t conceding. It appeared that the young man would rather get knocked out than admit I just beat him. Fine, he can have it his way. Just as his body began going limp and his struggles ceased, Sagar called out.
“OK! Stop! That’s enough!”
I immediately let go, and Kazushita gasped for breath. I stood up and let him get up on his own. When he made it to his feet, Sagar addressed us.
“The winner of this fight was Milo, but he isn’t technically the winner of the tournament because he didn’t fight his way through from the beginning.”
I nodded, and did not look around. No one cared about “technically”. The tiny tournament meant nothing. It was obvious that I was the best fighter, and they hated me for it. Whatever.
Shortly after the sparring session, it was time for lunch. I was feeling pretty confident. I had just beaten the crap out of the next best student in the class, I was headed for my first mission tonight to get some field experience, and even Commander Razo believed that I was the Shadowy One. I tried to keep my inward confidence from showing. No one likes an arrogant jerk, and that’s just not the person I was. I usually internalized all of my emotions, to the point where I hardly felt them anymore. The only thing that came out on occasion was my rage.
Danica and I waited in the lunch line in the cafeteria to get our food. She was talking the whole time, but I wasn’t really listening. It’s not as though I was looking forward to the meal. Everything served in Tsalderek was formulated for function, and not for flavor.
Eventually we got our trays, and went back to sit at the table. Before I started eating, I looked over at the table with the three other students. I noticed Geoffrey was missing from his place. Then, he emerged from the kitchen. The young man must have had to go to the bathroom so bad, he needed to use the one in the kitchen, instead of making it down the hall. Cancer does weird crap to your body. If our situations were different, I would have felt bad for him. But now, it worked in my favor.
The three of them were glancing around nervously, from each other, to me, and back. This was a little weird, even for them, but I dismissed it. They’re just feeling inadequate because I kicked their asses. Dani was watching too, and looking between them and me. I attempted to ignore it all, and prepared to eat my lunch. Just then, Danica burst out;
“Hey! Do ya wanna trade lunches?”
My first instinct was to ignore her. But…I’m trying to be a little nicer to her. I gave her a strange look.
“Why? They’re exactly the same?”
“I know, I just thought it would be fun.”
Fun?! How is trading two identical lunches fun? I just shook my head.
“No thanks. I can see no reason why we should do that.”
“Please! Just this once? I promise I’ll never ask again! I just want to try it, like they do in normal schools and stuff!”
I shook my head.
“Nope. Sorry. That’s kinda stupid.”
She sat back, disappointed. Oh, well. She had to learn she couldn’t get everything she wanted. Just as I was about to take my first bite, Dani snatched my tray away, and began running with it.
“Hey!” I shouted, but she was already gone.
What’s with this girl?!
I vaulted over the table and started chasing her. She made it around the ends of the aisle, and headed for the exit. Just before she ran outside the lunchroom, I managed to trip her, and she skidded on the ground and collided with the wall right next to the door.
I had just about enough of this weird behavior, and could no longer hold in my temper.
“What the hell are you doing?! This doesn’t even make sense!!”
Everyone in the lunchroom was completely silent as their eyes were locked on us, but I didn’t care. As I scolded her, Dani kept eye contact with me, while she slowly ate from my lunch tray with which she had absconded.
“Is this your idea of flirting?! Stealing people’s food? It’s not funny, and it doesn’t work!! Is this what you wanted?! Us to be embarrassed in front of everyone?! I tried to give you a second chance, and then you go and pull something like this?! I don’t want to- HEY!! STOP EATING WHILE I’M TALKING TO YOU!!!”
The food was almost entirely gone, but I grabbed a handful of rice off of her- no- MY tray, and ate it, just to spite her. I leaned in close, and my voice dropped to a very serious whisper.
“Danica. I don’t want you to ever try talking to me again. I don’t need you, and I don’t want you. Just go and irritate someone else, and leave me alone. OK?”
She silently nodded as she finished the last of my food.
I walked out of the room with my head held high. I knew everyone was watching, but it didn’t matter.
Well, at least that’s taken care of.