57 No Going Back
A crimson red orb — glimmering as if there were tiny tongues of flame flickering within. This is what the soldiers were searching for. Soph places the orb on the table — unsure of what it meant.
The soldiers were ready to kill you back then — their wounds and number was the only thing stopping them. What more now, in the city — where they could muster their forces?
"This is bad," Thomas exclaims — staring at Soph as if confused whether what she did was good or bad.
Soph shrinks from the scrutiny — realizing that perhaps she made a mistake in hiding the strange core.
"It's fine Soph," Bruce reassures her. "The soldiers were acting really suspicious. They would have found a reason to cause us trouble if you gave them that core — maybe even eliminate us silently."
Soph gasps, realizing the danger that a single core from the forest brought to her newfound family.
"We have to take it back to the forest — maybe bury it in the woods." Thomas offered. "Nobody would know." He nervously paces across the room, in deep thought over the welfare of the children.
"That would be a bad idea," you explain. "The guardians have a way of assimilating the core of another being. Whatever being had this core, it was a powerful one — we don't want it falling into the clutches of those insects who'd one day be our enemies."
"We break it then," Thomas suggests, eager to get rid of the damnable orb and go on with his life.
"That would be too dangerous," you reply.
You recount how you battled with hell hounds with Trent — focusing on the part where they exploded once their cores got damaged. You assume that the same thing could happen to this core — and that the energy within it could bring about more than just a simple explosion.
"Torm," Bruce remembers the Smith. "He could probably find a use for that."
"We can't leave the city," you exclaim. "It would draw too much attention."
Thomas turns to Soph, "Join the others. Let us take care of this mess," he ruffles the girl's hair to lift her spirits. "You did well."
Soph takes her leave — giving each of you a slight bow before leaving.
"We'll keep to the city for now," Bruce declares. "Let's focus on the kids."
You spend the next few days focusing on the kid's training.
One of you would always run with the kids — pacing them as well as keeping them safe. Running isn't the most difficult part of their training — but it is the most taxing. The kids learn to persevere as well as to push through pain and exhaustion.
Strength training involves two separate sessions that last for two hours each time. The kids are made to perform a certain number of pull-ups, pushups, squats, and throws. The girls are given a bit of leeway — but they're still encouraged to perform as well as the boys. Anna quickly proved that she could stand toe-to-toe with many of the boys — even with her dangling physique. Bruce noted her awakening powers and made sure she wasn't taxing her body in performing her feats of strength.
Weapons training was everyone's favorite session. These kids wanted to fight orcs and having a weapon in their hands got them closer to the battlefield. They went into the training expecting they could choose what weapon to wield — only to be disappointed after everyone was given assigned weapons.
Half the boys train using swords and shields, the rest get to train with Thomas with the bow. Not a few of them wanted to wield two-handed swords like Bruce — especially after Milo and Soph recounted the forest battle with the orcs and the guardians. Bruce merely laughed, saying it was too early for them to wield massive weapons.
The four girls are trained in the use of halberds and the windlass crossbow. Taryn wanted to try the bow — even mentioning that Thomas told her that you once had a lady archer among the wolves. Bruce just shook her head and smiled sadly. If anyone of them could use a bow it would be Anna — she already showed her ability to strengthen herself and her lack of curves allowed her to handle the bow easier.
The melee and ranged practice were switched with each session — giving everyone a chance to get the feel for melee and ranged combat.
Bruce remembered to give the children a day off after completing a cycle of training — but most of them opted to use that extra day in weapons practice.
"Don't overextend Nolls," you bellow, "and draw your sword back in as if your life depended on it."
It actually did. Most of the boys overemphasized power over form and defense — leaving themselves open for a quick counter.
"Excellent work Jeord!" you praise the boy.
Joerd was the only one who managed to grasp the use of the shield on his first day. His cuts were sharp and quick, and he always kept the shield in front of him. He veers his shield to one side, extending his arm in the process as he stabs with his sword. His sword hand never leaves the safety of his shield — giving his opponents no way to counter.
Tim was the outlier. He performs well on defense — almost at par with Jeord. However, he spends most of his time with the bow — preferring to attack from afar rather than engage in melee. You see Thomas giving him a few pointers as Tim looks on with full attention.
Everyone stirs as Bruce enters the courtyard carrying two practice swords made of steel. He tosses you one of them and smiles, "It's about time for that rematch — let's give the kids a taste of what real fighting looks like."
You weren't sold to the idea, but seeing the expectant looks on the children's faces — all you can do is nod and smile.
"Not here," Thomas exclaims. "You two will need a bigger space to duke it out."
Today is a rest day — all the children could go see the fight. Bruce timed it perfectly.
He leads the way out. It was decided that the two of you would fight outside — near the children's staging point for their runs.
The children were already excited at the prospect of seeing the oncoming battle. Sadly, most of them sided with Bruce — thinking it would be an uneven match.
Bruce opted for metal swords — quite suitable knowing the stresses they would be put through considering the strength of the two of you. You know that he's strong, fast, and definitely skilled — you just don't know if he could actually match up with you.
The duel commences.
Bruce moves first sending a probing slash towards you.
You choose to parry instead of dodge — it would give you an idea of his evolved strength as well as the make of your practice swords.
Both of you step back — realization in your eyes. The swords would not hold.
Bruce has been using Horizon in most of his battles and the added frost in its blade has made it a heavier weapon. Your Skybreaker is a maul — quite capable of taking more punishment than a flimsy sword, more so, a practice weapon.
He tosses the practice sword at Thomas and you do the same. He draws Horizon from its sheathe as you draw Skybreaker from your back.
Thomas gestures for the children to move a few paces back.
You are at a disadvantage without your shield — Bruce's reach extending far beyond your maul.
He holds Horizon close to his body, its blade pointing at you. A defensive stance? It seems Bruce is more wary of you than you think.
You circle around him — forcing him to change his stance as he compensates for your changing position. You won't go easy on him — not now. He deserves your respect and part of that respect meant treating him as an equal.
Time slows down.
Your next step sends you flying towards Bruce — charging into his unprotected flank.
He turns, slowly at first, then faster. His eyes lose their former amber color — now turning bluish-white. He turns Horizon towards you and meets your charge with his own.
It was as you assumed, he could move faster. You think about parrying, but it might ruin Bruce's weapon. A veer to the left and a sidestep sends Bruce charging past you.
Before you can launch an attack, he swings his sword backward — sending waves of ice and frost, similar to a frost wolf's breath.
You take three quick steps back before smashing the incoming mass of ice with your hammer.
Skybreaker glows before smashing into the ice — sending a wave of concussive force blasting towards the ice and frost. The breath-like mass of ice disperses — no!
A spear of ice was hidden in the rime and frost. Its momentum unchanged by the concussive force as it heads straight to your heart.
The peril sends a wave of energy into your body. The icy javelin seems to slow into a mere crawl — slowly inching its way towards you.
You grasp the icy javelin and send a wave of black through your hands to stop its momentum.
It was a mistake.
The spear of ice explodes in a burst of cold — seeping to every part of your exposed flesh. Bruce charges — thinking the blast of cold would stun or at least hinder you.
He was wrong.
Horizon swings at your torso — giving you no option but to move back or parry. Or so he thought.
You slide towards Bruce — using your hammer as a shield to skim under Horizon's icy blade as you ram its shaft into his torso.
He jumps back — impossibly fast — but not fast enough to escape the hooking head of Skybreaker. His own speed sends him crashing to the ground — landing on his back with a thud.
"Hahahaha!" he laughs, a genuine laugh of joy and mirth.
You offer him a hand and he takes it.
He gets up from the ground and pats you in the shoulder. "See that Thomas, I told you this one could actually take a horde of those orcs."
"I barely saw anything," Thomas replies. "It was all blurry, and your mist was everywhere."
The kids are dumbfounded. They hardly saw anything — but they knew a battle happened before their eyes. Lingering ice covered the ground and they could still feel the impact of Skybreaker's concussive explosion on their skins.
"How did he win?" wonders Milo, he obviously thought Bruce would win — especially after witnessing his massacre of the orcs in the forest.
"He let me win," you say to the kids and partly to Bruce. "Whenever he swings his sword — it means he's not serious. When he keeps it close to his body — even without the ice — that's when he's most dangerous."
Bruce seems to ponder at your words — realizing he was sacrificing technique in favor of power, especially regarding his use of frost.
"Let's go back," he smiles at the children. "Uncle Caleb will treat us all to a meal."
The children cheer — but their glee turns to confusion as you near the town gates.
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Soldiers manned the gates — each one eyeing you and the children.
"Everyone needs to be inspected," bellows an officer from the looks of his clothing. "Check everyone including the children."
Thomas gives you a sharp look, knowing that you had the crimson orb in your person. You gesture that it's okay and proceed towards the soldiers.
The soldiers are thorough — even rough at times. You see Captain Thibault with a look of dismay on his face, seeing how the soldiers treated you. Some of the children want to resist — but one look from Bruce calms them down.
"What's this about," Bruce asks, trying to seem as calm as possible.
"Just standard procedures," the officer says. "An item of value was stolen from the army camp."
"We've never been close to the army camp!" Thomas protests.
The soldiers finish their inspection. To their credit — they took nothing of value.
"It's not on them sir," one reported.
"Carry on then," he dismisses all of you with a wave.
You enter the town — still under the piercing gazes of the guards.
Thomas runs to you. "How d—"
"Later," you glare at him sharply. It seems the soldiers were really intent on finding that core.
That sentiment became clear the moment you reach the Den. Everything was in shambles — as if a tornado made its way into the house.