Summer: 17 years at the Monastery, twelve weeks after second assassination attempt
“It’s time.” Master Ikthan’s voice brought Sunar out of his meditation. He’d elected not to keep the scar on his arm, and divided his meditation time between seamlessly repairing his skin and trying to maximize his reflexes. He’d spent most of the day on target practice with the various pistols the monastery kept on hand, focusing on aiming quickly and firing with his hand in different positions. The Temple had several guns available; generally those at the Four Peaks Monastery felt like guns were rather crude weapons, but they also believed in familiarity with all forms of martial arts.
He rose and faced his teacher.
A man stood with Ikthan; a male human in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, sandals, and finger gloves. He appeared to be middle-aged, but fit, though not particularly strong. The man started to reach for a handshake, then seemed to catch himself and bowed instead.
Sunar matched his bow, and looked a question at Ikthan.
The man saw the look and laughed slightly, “I am the wizard the good Master Ikthan has contracted for teleport services. Two persons, minimal baggage, one-way trip.”
Sunar let his eyebrows rise and his skepticism to show on his face.
The man’s smile only broadened at this, though he turned to Master Ikthan, “Plucky fellow, isn’t he old friend? Such doubt from one so young.”
Ikthan turned his eye to the man and raised the corner of his lip in amusement. Sunar barely had time to wonder what sort of history the two shared before the wizard turned to speak to him. “Sorry, to disappoint, boy, but most of us don’t wear robes with glowing mystical symbols, fancy pointed hats, tattoos, or even visible talismans. At least, not most of the time. Granted, many of my fellow practitioners tend desire fancy clothing which ‘befits their station’, but I prefer to be comfortable.”
Ikthan gave a small snort at this which the wizard pretended not to notice, but his smile widened slightly and amusement danced in his eyes as he continued, “Well, we might as well be off. The easiest way to do this is for each of you to place a hand on my shoulder, and pick your bag up with the other. Oh, and you might want to close your eyes for the transition. Some folks find it unsettling.”
Sunar did as he was bid, but curiosity kept his eyes open. Once a hand rested on each shoulder, the wizard pulled out a picture. It appeared to be the front of a fairly large estate-house, with an elaborately – but tastefully – carved front door. The wizard stared at it a few moments, then bowed his head.
It happened in less than the blink of an eye.
One moment Sunar was looking at the door to the meditation room, then his eyes unfocused for the briefest moment as the object he’d been looking at simply wasn’t there anymore. They settled on a view of the door from the mage’s picture.
He felt pain in his ears and forced a yawn, and noticed that the other two had done the same. A quick look around let him realize they stood in what seemed to be a fairly large estate, and the residence appeared even larger than he had guessed from the picture. The Wizard pressed the chime, and the door opened to reveal a half-elf, dressed in silk robes. He bowed then favored them with a slight smile. “Good to see you again, my friends. It has certainly been too long.” He speared the wizard with his gaze. “You would think that a man who can go anywhere in the Empire with an eyeblink would come visit more often.”
Sunar worried for a moment that they would argue, but both laughed. The half-elf bowed to Sunar, this time with fist wrapped around palm.
Sunar nearly started, but succeeded in remaining outwardly unphased as he returned the bow.
The half-elf’s eyes twinkled though his expression remained serious. “You would be Sunar, then. It appears that ikk… Master Ikthan’s descriptions of you were as understated as ever. I am Thalon Waterclimber. All of you, please come in.” He stepped to the side, gesturing into the house.
The wizard waved and sighed, “I would love to, but my lady expects me home at some point today, and you know what will happen if the three of us start swapping stories in front of the youngster here. I’ll see you for tea on Tuesday as usual, though? Good. Ta-ta!”
The man waved, then vanished. Sunar expected to feel a slight stir of air as atmosphere moved to fill the space he’d vacated, but instead he caught a smell like an ocean breeze. Thalon chuckled softly as he led the way inside, and muttered something about a show-off.
Sunar followed the two older men and took stock of the house. He found it to be incredibly comfortable; clean, well kept, but… something more. The décor was tasteful, somewhat minimalist without being Spartan, and over it all hung an air of quiet peace;
despite the many weapons which hung interspersed with the various
works of art. Swords, spears, shuriken – weapons he knew and had trained with most of his life – but these were astounding.
Each weapon was a work of art, obviously crafted by a master who had taken a great deal of time. His gaze traveled slowly over the display – lingering on the etching on a sword blade, pausing to drink in the pattern made by the wood stain of a spear. Amongst the more familiar weapons he also saw an occasional pistol. Some he could identify, some he couldn’t, but all of them hung in identical pairs. Some had inlays of bright metal, some didn’t, but he felt sure that each was of the same quality as the other weapons.
After allowing Sunar a few moments, Thalon smiled and spoke as they walked, “Very little of my art collection is worth a great deal of money, but each piece has a story of its own, and are, in my opinion, works of mastery. In many cases I even met the artist, in almost all cases I paid more than asked. The same is true of the weapons. And, most weapons have seen battle. Look closely, you’ll see the marks.”
A short time later, they reached a small room with floor-to-ceiling windows, lounging mats, and a low table with tea waiting upon it. Their host continued to speak while he poured tea “Master Ikthan tells me you need a second to make a challenge this evening.” He handed Ikthan a cup.
Sunar had begun to wonder why they were here, other than that the man seemed to be old friends of some sort with his teacher. He tried to keep the surprise from his face, but saw the other man note it with a slight quirk of his lips. “I had assumed that Master Ikthan would be my second. He said he’d be the one getting us in for me to make the challenge.”
The words had barely left his lips when he felt a stab of panic in his gut at the realization that he’d spoken rashly and possibly given insult. This man has volunteered to be my second just moments after we met, and I have made it sound as if I was disappointed. He spoke quickly, “My apologies Thalon Waterclimber, my words were ill chosen. I am honored and humbled by your offer to be my second based on no more than the word of my master, I just…”
“Do not know me yourself, and wonder why he would want someone else to act as your second? No offense was intended, young man, and none taken.” The half-elf reached out to pour another cup of tea, and his sleeve rode up his arm.
Sunar nearly gasped. Four small dots burned into the skin, in a pattern just…so: The brand of the Four Peaks Temple! This man had once lived in his home, and had chosen to go out into the world: He was a monk!
His host smiled. “I may not live at the Temple anymore, but Four Peaks will always be family. And,” he took a sip of his tea, “I have chosen to train myself in weapons that most Temples, even ones as progressive as ours, would prefer to avoid. Which is why the Master requested I be your second.”
Sunar took a look around the sitting room as he gathered his thoughts, took a sip of tea, nodded his appreciation of it, and looked square at Thalon. “Guns.”
Thalon grinned at him. “Pistols, to be precise. Particular tools, for particular jobs. I am also familiar with Vorgar: He has nearly been banned from dueling several times for various infractions, including cheating. Thirty years ago his actions would have gotten him stripped of his titles on top of being banned, but now…”
Master Ikthan caught Thalon’s eyes and made a calming gesture.
The half-elf took a deep breath, gave a curt nod, then turned back to Sunar. “I was asked to help you for a couple of reasons. One is to use what little time remains before we must arrive at court to hone your skill with the pistol. The other is because, as your second, it will be my job to inspect the weapons offered by your opponent.”
Sunar took another drink of his tea and put all the feeling he could into his words. “Thank you.”
A broad smile wreathed the half-elf’s face.“Always glad to aid a son of the Four Peaks. Now, let us begin.” He glanced at something just beyond Sunar’s shoulder.
Sunar heard a noise and turned. His hand flashed out and caught a pistol in mid-air. He turned back around and set his cup down on the table, then studied the weapon. A sound captured his attention and he looked up to find Thalon’s tea cup floating above the small table. He narrowed his eyes a fraction and gave his host his attention. “Teleknesis?”
Master Ikthan finished a sip of tea before speaking. “Thalon developed it as a boy, without training, after being taught proper meditation. While it is not a discipline most monks choose to pursue, he has found it useful over the years, and rarely uses it for parlor tricks.” He shot Thalon an amused look, and Sunar got the impression that the two men were sharing an old joke, an old argument, or both.
Thanlon grinned at Ikthan, then returned his attention to Sunar. “You did well in catching the weapon. Gripped correctly, ready to fire, good reflexes.”
Sunar nodded. “I have worked with pistols a little over the years, and a lot the last couple of days. I do not understand, though,” he glanced at the pistol again, then back to his host, “why it matters how I caught it?”
“The nobles around here treat dueling like a game, and are always trying to come up with ‘clever’ variations to gain advantage, under the guise of making it more… interesting.”
Sunar blinked in surprise, “You mean they treat attempts to kill each other like a sport?”
“Yes, exactly.” Thalon nodded, then shrugged. “Most of the time they aren’t actually trying to kill each other. As often as not, they use nothing more dangerous than stun pistols or padded blades, with rules like first strike or first blood. This has made Vorgar rather unpopular since he kills his opponents and few are willing to speak against him openly. Sometimes he does cheat, but not as often as you might expect. His confidence is not entirely unearned. He is fast with a pistol, and can aim from the hip.” He set his cup on the table, then stood. “Now, you have demonstrated you have reflexes and can catch a pistol properly. Let’s see how well you can shoot.”
The half-elf had built a firing range behind his house, with holographic targets that appeared at various distances. Thalon turned it on and set it up, then stepped away and gestured to Sunar. “Let’s see what you can do.”
Sunar gripped the pistol he’d captured from the air, took his position, and aimed – firing in rapid succession at each target. It took two shots to hit the smallest, but a feeling of elation filled him anyway. Five targets and only six shots! Ha! He stomped on the pride willing up and turned to face the older monks.
Thalon gave him the barest nod before pronouncing his shooting to be ‘acceptable’. “It will do. However, there are a few minor things in your technique that need adjusting.”
They spent the next half hour fine-tuning his marksmanship, and then two hours drilling a dizzying barrage of actions one should never take with a pistol: Toss the pistol at least five feet in the air, catch, and fire. Put the pistol on the foot, toss it up, catch, and fire. Fire while standing on one foot, with the other knee raised and gun-arm under the raised knee. Fire off-handed. Fire two guns, one of which was secretly loaded with a blank. And so on.
Thalon began to grow impatient, even though it never took him more than two attempts to master any scenario. Then he realized the purpose of the exercise: not to master the circumstances, but to learn to think through them and adapt. He began to pause for a moment after each instruction, and to perform each drill right the first time. He could see the moment when Thalon saw he’d figured it out; a small smile crept onto his face and a look of satisfaction appeared in his eyes.
Thalon called a halt at last, his expression more unreadable than Ikthan’s ever was. “We will be heading out in about two hours. You should face this challenge well rested. Find a comfortable place and make yourself ready.” He turned and walked back to the house without another word. Sunar watched him go, then sat down in the sun to meditate and wait.