Their first Martial Arts class with Professor Ezzaniel met on the big lawn on the University’s middle level, near the gazebo. Having eaten early, the freshman class arrived long before the professor. To their mild discomfort, several other students were already lurking about the periphery of the lawn, obviously watching them. None came close enough to introduce themselves or offer greetings. Despite not yet being entirely comfortable with one another, the eight found themselves edging closer together under the scrutiny.
“So, you really packed away that chicken,” Zaruda said to Juniper, who tilted her head in evident confusion.
“Is that bad? It was really good chicken! I’ve never had cooked food before, and Mrs. Oak is very good at cooking.”
“Yeah, but…you’re a dryad.”
“Yeeesss…” Juniper looked even more puzzled. “And you’re a human.”
“I thought you nymphs were all vegetarians. Y’know, not eating Mother Naiya’s creatures and all that.”
“What? Where did you get that idea? You know how many things in nature eat animals? Including quite a few plants!”
“And besides, almost all life forms exist by consuming other life forms. Plants are nourished by decomposition of dead matter in the soil, and are then eaten by animals. It’s a vast, intricate web, and everything in it is food for something else.”
“I…guess that’s so…never really thought about…”
“What, you thought I’d value the lives of animals more?” Juniper planted her fists on her hips, frowning. Even that was pretty on her. “It’s fine to kill broccoli and rice but Naiya forbid anyone harm a chicken? Maybe you should get out more, Ruda!”
“Okay, okay, whoah now,” said Teal soothingly, sliding between them. “It was an honest misunderstanding. I’m sure Ruda didn’t mean any harm. And we all got to learn a bit about dryads. Everybody wins, right?”
“I guess so,” Juniper said slowly, then suddenly broke into a dazzling smile. “I’m sorry, Ruda, I misunderstood what you meant. I’ll get better at that, promise.”
“Hmp.” If anything, Zaruda looked even more annoyed than before.
“So, that’s a pretty amazing sword,” said Teal cheerfully, carefully moving to block Zaruda’s view of the dryad. “Where’d you get that from?”
“Ah, yes. My sword.” Zaruda removed her hat, dropping it behind her; deprived of its shade, her face suddenly looked deadly serious. Slowly, she drew the rapier and held it out for them all to see. Sunlight gleamed along steel and gold and glittered in the facets of a dozen gems. “My grandfather was one of the greatest sword crafters who ever lived. This…this was his final masterpiece, a great gift commissioned by the king of a foreign land. He labored on it for a year, and when it was done, the king’s ambassador returned to collect the blade—but offered only a tenth of the promised price! My grandfather, of course, refused. Without saying a word, the ambassador stabbed him through the heart, and fled, with a dozen furious pirates on his tail.” She let the blade fall slowly, resting its gleaming tip against the ground. “They did not catch him, for he used some form of shadow magic to escape. But I swore to my father that I would take up this blade, and once I was strong enough and skilled enough, hunt down that ambassador wherever he may hide, and end his life with this very sword.”
She bowed her head in the sudden, heavy silence.
“Zaruda,” Trissiny said hesitantly, “I had no idea. I’m sorry if I…”
“Nah, I’m just funnin’ ya.” Ruda lifted her chin and grinned. “I read all that in a book once. My papa gave me this for a sweet fifteen present. Isn’t it sparkly? I think it’s dwarf-made.”
Trissiny went pale, then scarlet, stammering in apoplectic rage. “I—that—I—that—you—”
“Breathe,” Teal murmured, placing a hand on her back.
“Good morning, students.”
Professor Ezzaniel appeared almost as if by magic, striding toward them with the easy grace of a prowling cat. He was a tall man with a proud eagle’s beak of a nose and a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, his black hair cut just long enough for its natural wave to be apparent, and beginning to show silver at the temples to match the faint crows’ feet bracketing his eyes. He was dressed simply in slacks, an open-collared shirt and a coat with a saber belted over it, and carrying a large carpet bag.
“Good, no one has seen fit to begin their academic career by playing hooky. Most years, there’s at least one. As I know each of you by name and your rather distinctive descriptions, we shall dispense with roll call and proceed directly to…theory.” Ezzaniel placed the bag at his feet and folded his arms, sweeping his eyes across the group thoughtfully. “I understand that Professor Tellwyrn has you analyzing one another’s strengths and weaknesses.”
“Yeah,” said Gabriel. “Is that, uh…normal?”
“’Normal,’ Mr. Arquin, is a word you will find has little bearing on this campus and none whatsoever on your history professor. However, this dovetails nicely with a test of your analytical abilities which which I like to open our first class. In your opinion, students, which of your classmates is the most dangerous combatant?”
Nobody bothered to answer, but everyone immediately turned to look at Trissiny, who straightened her spine and lifted her chin, saying nothing.
“Ah, yes. A reasonable conclusion, but a shallow analysis. The focus of this course will be to give you the tools needed to preserve your life and health in a hostile situation, and based on my experience with teaching those new to the martial arts, I expect several of you will be surprised by the cerebral elements of this course. Combat is, to a great extent, in the mind. More than merely studying combat, we will also, chiefly on days when weather prevents meeting outdoors, study many of the dangers of this world and how to most effectively counter them. Knowledge is power; power is survival.”
He stroked his goatee, smiling slightly. “To begin with, while Ms. Avelea is indeed a force you would be wise not to challenge, Miss Falconer is a far deadlier one. For that error I cannot blame you, as there are certain things I should imagine you have not yet been told. However, it was an error in judgment to dismiss Juniper. Given the choice, I personally would prefer to duel a paladin than a dryad.”
There were several raised eyebrows at this, and Juniper looked uncomfortable, but Gabriel openly scoffed. “What? Seriously? I mean…look at her.”
“Ah, yes, because appearance is always a sure indicator of substance. I see we have a budding tactician in our midst.” Zaruda laughed loudly, earning a glare from Gabriel. “Mr. Arquin, let us engage in a little test. You see that tree?” Ezzaniel pointed at a towering oak that stood at the far edge of the lawn.
“Good. Go over there and hit it.”
He stared at the Professor blankly for a moment. “…I’m sorry, what?”
“Is your hearing less than nominal? Do please tell me so up front; that will make a difference in the methods I use to train you.”
“No, Professor, my hearing’s fine,” Gabe snapped. “I’m simply questioning what it tells me because it’s hard to believe a teacher would say something so dumb.”
“Belief is a crutch that cripples your faculties, Mr. Arquin. You are wasting your classmates’ time. Get over there. Now.”
With a long-suffering roll of his eyes, Gabriel turned and stalked over to the indicated oak tree. He paused beside it, looking back at the group as if to double-check that Ezzaniel could possibly be serious. The Professor gestured at him to proceed. With a shrug, he lifted a hand and slapped the tree.
“Pitiful!” Ezzaniel shouted. “Once more, and pretend that you mean it.”
Not even looking back at him, Gabriel straightened his shoulders and threw a punch into the trunk. He took a step backward, grimacing and shaking his hand.
“We can do this all day, Mr. Arquin,” called the Professor. “Let me see whether there’s any meat in those arms at all, which frankly I begin to doubt.”
This time, Gabe actually snarled at him, then drew back his fist and slammed it into the bark with a thump that was clearly audible all over the lawn. There were some scattered cheers from the onlookers, but Gabriel doubled over, clutching his hand in obvious pain.
“Very good, Mr. Arquin. You may rejoin us.”
He stomped back over, glaring furiously and breathing loudly through his teeth. “Right. Fine. Very cute. Now, am I allowed to know the freaking point of that?”
“Quite.” Ezzaniel folded his hands behind his back and turned to address the group as a whole. “This has been an example of the price of ignorance. As Mr. Arquin has just demonstrated, punching a tree is a painful and pointless exercise. The reason for this is physics: a tree is immobile, massive and dense, especially in comparison with most of you. A dryad, students, is a magical creature, and thus physics alone fail to account for her full traits and capabilities. She has all the properties of a tree, but more conscious control of them. Being punched by a dryad is very similar to being struck by the full weight of an oak, moving at the speed at which she can swing her fist.” One corner of his mouth quirked upward in a sly half-smile. “Dryads are, for the most part and making allowances for individual personality, peaceably inclined. They can afford to be; if you irritate a dryad, she will simply remove you from her personal space. This can extend for several miles, and she can do it with one blow.”
Juniper, by now, looked positively mortified; everyone else was eying her nervously.
“Our first class, as you may have already surmised, will focus on gauging everyone’s level of skill,” Ezzaniel went on crisply. “More on analysis later. First of all, those of you with weapons, remove them. We will exclusively use safety equipment in this class. Miss Punaji, Miss Awarrion, come here, please.”
Zaruda had already unbuckled her rapier and dropped it to the grass beside her hat. At his summons, she shrugged and swaggered over to him, grinning, with Shaeine gliding along behind her.
Professor Ezzaniel knelt to open the clasp on his battered carpet bag. “Within this bag are the practice weapons you will use for this class. Each of them is an enchanted item which will mimic the properties of a normal weapon but inflict no harm upon anyone, and there lies within sufficient variety to appease even the most exotic tastes. Simply put in your hand, grasp the first object you find, and pull; you will produce a weapon appropriate to your fighting style.”
“Neat,” said Ruda, bending over and plunging in her hand. She straightened, dragging a rapier from the bag, hilt-first. It was far plainer than her own, but apparently the same in basic design. She stepped aside to make room for Shaeine, who knelt, reached in with both hands, and pulled out a pair of matched scimitars.
“Heh, not bothering to defy the cliché, are we?” Zaruda asked, grinning.
“You used that word at lunch, as well,” replied Shaeine, tilting her head inquisitively. “I am not able to infer the meaning from context.”
“What, cliché? That’s, uh… You know how a phrase or idea or something is really awesome when it’s first invented, but gets repeated so often everybody gets sick of it and it loses all meaning?”
“Ah, yes.” Shaeine nodded in understanding. “We call that a drizzt.”
“Enough chatter,” Ezzaniel said brusquely. “Ladies, square off. Now, we shall observe the requisite etiquette in this class, so a duel will begin with a bow.”
Still grinning, Zaruda swept an elaborate bow, flourishing her rapier. Shaeine simply bowed from the waist, swords held loose at her sides.
“Very good,” said the Professor. “Begin!”
Zaruda lunged forward, the tip of her sword aimed for Shaeine’s heart. It was slapped deftly aside by a scimitar, and the drow fell back, blocking each blow with small precise movements, allowing the pirate to push her around in a circle. Ruda, for her part, threw her weight into each thrust, seemingly tireless. Then, like a pendulum reversing its swing, they changed roles, with Shaeine pressing forward in a sequence of whirling, dancelike movements that forced Zaruda back, her rapier barely intercepting each hit.
Back and forth they went, first one way, then the other. The onlookers, both their own classmates and the other miscellaneous students at the periphery, watched avidly, the latter occasionally shouting advice and encouragement. As time went on, Zaruda’s face grew sweatier and more frustrated, while Shaeine remained as collected as ever, despite her heavy robes and cloak.
“All right, enough,” Ezzaniel finally called when a break occurred in the combat. Shaeine stepped back, lowering her weapons, but Zaruda lunged at her again.
The Professor was a blur in a stylish black suit. He bore Zaruda to the ground, her sword flying off in the opposite direction; after a brisk tangle of limbs she ended up face-first in the grass with both arms pinned behind her back.
“When I call an end to combat,” Ezzaniel said mildly, “combat ends. Is that entirely clear, Miss Punaji?”
Ruda lifted her head and spat out a few blades of grass. “That was amazing! Do that again, but slower. I wanna see how it—erk!”
“Yes clear ow ow leggo!”
Smoothly, he released her and stood. “See that you remember. Now, then. Miss Punaji, you were handed a sword as soon as you were old enough to lift one, set against an opponent roughly your own size or possibly slightly more and told not to die. Miss Awarrion, you have been carefully trained to exacting competency in a ritualized style of combat but never had to defend yourself in your life. Am I correct?”
“Correct,” Shaeine said crisply.
“Wow.” Zaruda got to her feet, brushing grass off her coat. “You got all that just from watching us fight?”
“I got all that because I know how pirates and drow nobility, respectively, raise their children. However, nothing I just saw contradicted my expectations. This is why I selected the two of you as opponents: one is all street-learned skill with zero technique, the other just the opposite. You can learn a great deal from one another, and I’ll expect you to do so. Return your weapons to the bag, please.”
He swept his gaze across the remaining students speculatively while they did so, then nodded. “Ms. Avelea, Mr. Caine, you know the drill. Weapons, then face off.”
Toby pulled a simple wooden staff from the bag; Trissiny, having left her goddess-given armaments at the edge of the circle, produced plainer replicas of her shield and short sword.
“That’s amazing,” said Toby with a grin. “How’d you manage to pull that shield out? I’m pretty sure it’s wider than the mouth of the bag.”
“You know, I…” she looked down at the round shield thoughtfully. “I have no idea.”
“Each year, I am surprised anew at the talkativeness of youth,” Ezzaniel mused. “There is a time for conversation and a time for combat, and you confuse them at your lethal peril. Bow, and begin.”
They did so, Toby with a simple bend of the waist, Trissiny saluting with her blade at the heart as she bowed. Then she surged forward, shield first.
Toby clearly knew what he was doing. His movements were swift, precise and powerful, and he was not limited by a purely technical knowledge of the staff, but able to improvise when she tried to trip him up. His choice of weapon also gave him the advantage of reach, which he used well, trying to keep her at too great a distance to employ her sword. The one advantage she pressed was that he was clearly not accustomed to an opponent with a shield; rather than trying to hook his longer weapon behind her shield and throw her off balance as she had learned to do at the Abbey, he simply beat against it to push her back when she closed in. And he never went on the attack. Trissiny chased him in a circle first one way, then the other, at first waiting for him to reverse the tide of their engagement, then growing increasingly confused when it never happened. It occurred to her that he might be trying to outlast her, which would be a good tactic. His conservative style forced her to expend a lot more energy trying to penetrate the wide range of his whirling defense.
“Enough,” said Ezzaniel quite abruptly. “Cease.”
Trissiny immediately stepped back, though she did not lower her shield, which at that moment had Toby’s staff heading straight for it at blinding speed. He managed to rein it in at the last possible instant, and they exchanged a slightly awkward grin.
“Ms. Avelea,” said the Professor, “I’m afraid this class will be an utter waste of your time. Your level of skill is well beyond the scope of this level of study. Beginning next year I will place you in advanced courses; you are not nearly so skilled that I have nothing to teach you. However, given Professor Tellwyrn’s insistence upon keeping the eight of you as a unit during this semester at the least, skipping a level is not currently an option. I may make use of your talents to assist your classmates.”
“I’ll be glad to help in any way I can, Professor,” Trissiny said modestly, bowing to him. Behind her, Zaruda sneered and rolled her eyes, receiving an elbow in the side from Teal.
“Mr. Caine,” Ezzaniel went on, “You are clearly not new at this either, but you have a long way to go. I saw several opportunities for you to end that contest using the superior reach and speed of your weapon. I cannot be sure, yet, whether your skill was simply inadequate to the task, but I am sure that you lacked the initiative even to try. We must work on teaching you to employ some aggression.”
“I don’t do aggression, sir,” Toby said quietly. “It’s against Omnu’s way. I train only to defend myself.”
“Do you imagine, Mr. Caine, that you are the first holy warrior ever to lack a taste for violence? This is the great irony of your position, paladin. It will simply not always be possible to defuse conflict before it occurs. Once the weapons come out, there remains only one way to end violence.” He stepped closer to Tobias, staring directly into his eyes. “Finish it.”
Ezzaniel turned and walked away, folding his hands behind his back. “If your role in life is that of peacemaker, you must resign yourself to the fact that sometimes, peace can only be made through force. Peace is a condition that exists only when those who hate to fight are better prepared to do so than those who love to. Furthermore, as far as finishing blows are concerned, it is very simple and very easy to kill. If you would learn to neutralize an opponent while doing them the minimum possible amount of harm, you must master the art of attack; master it more thoroughly than any killer ever needs to. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Toby dropped his gaze, looking profoundly troubled.
The Professor sighed. “All right, return your weapons. Fross, Juniper…we’re going to have to skip your contribution to today’s events. I am forced to design an alternative curriculum for each of you. Fross, in particular, will simply not be able to engage in physical combat, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to learn about protecting yourself. I will be working with Professor Yornhaldt to arrange your studies, but in the meantime, I do want you to pay close attention and learn as much theory as you can absorb from this class.”
“Can do, Professor!” the pixie chirped.
“And Juniper…you won’t have a strictly hands-off class, but for the time being, I’m not sending you against a classmate in a duel until I have a better idea of your level of skill and your ability to control yourself. I mean no insult, but the potential for catastrophic injury is simply too high.”
“Okay,” Juniper said in a very small voice, eyes downcast. Fross settled on her shoulder.
“Which leaves only two.” He turned and raised an eyebrow at those remaining; Gabriel bared his teeth, still clutching his hand. “Mr. Arquin, Miss Falconer, choose your weapons.”
“Sir?” Teal raised her hand. “I…can’t. I’m an avowed pacifist.”
“Then you will die by violence,” said Ezzaniel curtly. “Pick a weapon, Falconer.”
Her eyebrows lowered. “Perhaps you didn’t hear me…”
“Perhaps you failed to attend me when I explained this very issue to Mr. Caine just now. Your convictions are not my concern; your ability to defend yourself is. Rest assured, Miss Falconer, considerable safeguards are in place in this class to prevent you from doing any harm to your fellow students, accidentally or on purpose. However, you will acquire the necessary skill to do so—or, more precisely, to prevent such being done to you.”
“I would rather suffer violence than inflict it,” she retorted.
“And once you have passed this class, that will be your business. Until you do, it is mine. I promise you, Miss Falconer, your compliance is not optional. I strongly recommend you offer it voluntarily.”
Teal drew in a long, slow breath, then stalked over to the carpet bag and thrust in her hand. Moments later, she withdrew it, empty.
Ezzaniel rolled his eyes. “Close your fingers around whatever item you find, Falconer. Your stalling tactics are neither original nor acceptable.”
“I tried!” she protested. “There’s nothing in there!”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Try again.”
This time, Teal sank her arm in the bag up to her shoulder, making a show of rooting around for a full minute, before coming up empty.
“Reach in and pull out a quarterstaff.”
With a sigh, she put her hand into the bag a third time, and almost immediately pulled out a staff just like Toby had used, possibly the same one. She blinked at it in surprise. “…huh.”
“My, my. You actually are a pacifist. Most people will find a certain weapon that resonates with them, even if they have no knowledge of its use.”
“Did you think I was kidding?” she snapped.
“I think you’re an eighteen-year-old, and I have dealt with far too many of those to presume that you know your own mind. Regardless…put the staff back, Miss Falconer, this is as good a time as any to begin working on open-handed techniques. Mr. Arquin, my apologies; this means you won’t be starting off with a weapon, either.”
“Whatever,” Gabriel grunted.
“Square off and bow,” Ezzaniel ordered. They did so, both looking unhappy and uncertain. “Begin.”
Teal awkwardly raised both hands, bracing her legs. She didn’t even form fists, and looked like she was trying to catch a ball. Gabriel just stood there looking at her, then at the Professor.
“Did you two perhaps intend to sign up for a comedy improv class instead of Introduction to Martial Arts?” Ezzaniel demanded. “Fight. Now.”
“I…” Gabriel looked back at Teal, who shuffled her feet, still watching him warily. “I can’t hit a girl.”
“Oh, by all the gods in the sky,” Ezzaniel groaned. “I’d hoped to go at least one year without one of these. Very well, Arquin, fate has graced us with a remedy to your ignorance. Falconer, step back, please, since you’re clearly only going to hurt yourself here. Ms. Avelea, if you would be so kind, go over there and punch Mr. Arquin in the mouth.”
“Yes, sir,” Trissiny said grimly, striding forward.
“What?! Wait! No!” Gabriel tried to scramble backward, tripped over his coat and tumbled to the grass, where he attempted to crab-walk away from Trissiny until she got too close. Then he curled himself into a fetal position, arms over his head.
“Ugh,” said their professor in tones of utter despair. “Avelea, stand down. This is like kicking a retarded, three-legged puppy with two lazy eyes. Well, at least I know who my special projects this year are going to be. Falconer, Arquin, I’m going to tell you this once: no grades are being assigned today, but if you keep up this hilarity, you will find yourself failing my class, and thus repeating it. I am fully prepared to prevent you from graduating until I am satisfied that you are capable of protecting yourself, if that takes until you are my age and I am forced to teach from a rocking chair. Furthermore, Professor Tellwyrn will back me every step of the way, and feel free to go ask her if you doubt it.”
He knelt to snap the carpet bag closed and lifted it. “The purpose of today was for me to learn what I will need to teach to whom. Mission accomplished. All of you should have something to think about before we meet on Wednesday, at which time we will begin training in earnest. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of being earnest. If you are not capable of caring about your own self-preservation, then care about your grades. Until that time, you are dismissed.”
With that, Ezzaniel turned and strode away in the direction from which he had come, still with that easy loping step; it was as if he were part liquid. The freshmen stood—or in Gabriel’s case, huddled—and watched him go.
Then Zaruda grinned broadly. “I like that guy!”