With a thought, I sent a clone darting in to intercept one of Elsif’s as she went for my flank, and though mine shattered on impact, the shards of the broken illusion tore through hers.
Taking advantage of the moment, I let myself flow forward. Sword leading, I whipped the tip of the blade around Elsif’s heavier weapon and pushed it aside just enough to open her guard. Anticipating the maneuver, however, she closed her eyes to blind me for a moment and my sword touched nothing but air as she leapt away.
Hissing in frustration, I whirled as her vision came back to me, revealing her several steps to the right and I brought my sword down, diverting if not blocking the thrust meant for my midsection. I threw a clone in her way, thinking to give myself some space, but Elsif batted the illusion aside and swung at me with a haymaker that I only barely avoided, the wind of its passing brushing across my face like a mass of feathers.
Elsif let the swing play out, turning it into a complete spin, and her boots crunched on the snow as she lashed out with a straight kick at my waist. I wove to the left, neatly avoiding the blow, catching sight of another clone coming up behind me with fist raised as I did. I caught the offending wrist as it came down and used its momentum to shoulder throw the clone at its creator.
The norn, however, vanished in a burst of violet light, and I threw myself forward as she rematerialised behind me. A mercilessly strong hand caught me by the collar of my cloak, but before she could yank me to the ground I dropped my sword and slipped out of the heavy garment. She grunted in approval, tossing the thing aside as I dove for my weapon..
I rolled to my feet, sword in hand, clones swirling into being around me, but Elsif was too fast. Through her larger, more solid clones and her own brute strength the norn battered my illusionary defences aside, and while I was able to avoid the kick to the back of my knee with a deft sidestep, I couldn’t evade the open palm that struck me in the solar plexus like a hammer.
I staggered back, swinging my sword in a wild arc in front of me to force her back while I recovered, trying to concentrate enough to conjure a path to victory, but Elsif was sheathing her sword.
“Stop! That’s enough for now,” she said. My chest ached, and blood still ran hot in my veins, but I knew well enough that to push Elsif for further exertion when she said a training session was over wouldn’t do any good. I forced myself to take a long, deep breath. “You haven’t lost any of your speed, but you’re still focusing too much on grace over substance.” She picked my cloak up off the ground, shaking the snow and pine needles free before handing it back to me. “You’re rattled too. Distracted.” The norn went on as I sheathed my sword and forced myself to calm down, taking in gulps of frigid air. “Was she that fearsome a foe?”
“I don’t like losing, that’s all,” I said after a moment. “Moreover I don’t like the idea that she’s out there and stronger than I.”
“Does it bother you that I am stronger than you?” She asked, her tone casual, matter-of-fact. “Does it bother you that there are those, in turn, stronger than I? There are mesmers out there, in the world, that can do things neither you or I could.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone – mesmer or otherwise – who has eyes like mine.” I replied. This was not the attitude I had hoped for from her, though I wondered why I had expected anything else. For all she had managed to teach me, she had often been unfair in her criticism of me.
“Nor have I, but it’s a strength as well as a weakness.” She shrugged. “One day you will surpass me. One day you may truly be one of the greatest mesmers in Tyria, but given what I heard you tell me about her I doubt you will ever be able to stand and face this necromancer of yours as an equal.”
My adrenaline surged back to life, and cold anger soared to new heights. I took a step forward and opened my mouth to speak, but Elsif was suddenly in front of me in a burst of pink light, her fist driving into my gut and blasting the breath from my body. Her hand was on my face then, enveloping it as she lifted me bodily and slammed me down onto my back. I tried to gasp in surprise or pain – I wasn’t sure which – but the air was gone from my lungs, and all that came out was a desperate cough into her palm as my hands clawed at her mercilessly strong wrist.
Clones flickered into being, but I couldn’t focus, couldn’t give them enough substance to be more than a mind annoyance to Elsif, who conjured illusions of her own to dismiss each of my attempts with no apparent effort.
“It will be years before you can defeat me, my pupil, and I am naught but flesh and blood, bone and sinew.” There was a subtle but terrifying increase of pressure of her fingers on my skull, and I had the distinct feeling that if she were actually trying she could have crushed the front of my skull like a fruit. “This necromancer of yours is a monster, and you are simply not equipped to fight such a thing alone.” I tried to kick at her, but she moved to kneel over me, robbing me of any leverage, pinning me down. Her other hand wrenched my fingers free from her wrist and pinned both my arms above my head in the muddy snow.
“I am not saying you can never defeat her. I am saying you will never be able to stand face to face with her and match her as an equal,” she said, looking down at me, most of my face hidden by her massive hand. “But I can and will teach you how to hit harder, yes, as long as you understand that there are some boundaries that we are simply not meant to break. Some borders that are never meant to be crossed. Some limits that are just that – limits.”
She moved her hand away from my face then, studying my expression, and then seemed to relax her grip on my wrists somewhat, enough so that while she hadn’t released me her grip was less painful.
“I have done this for a long, long time, Kaede. I have been fighting for as long as you’ve been alive, and have been honing these talents for almost as long,” she said. “Ignoring this warning will get you killed, or worse.”
I tried to speak, failed, and when I tried again my voice came out as a hoarse rasp. “I need more.”
“I know,” she said, suddenly sounding tired. “I know.” Releasing my wrists, she rose to stand over me. “And that will hurt you more than help you in the end, I fear.”
“Then why help me?” I asked, coughing as I reluctantly allowed her to help me to my feet. “If you think it’s such a bad idea, why would you help me with this?”
“Because you might live longer with what I can teach you.” The norn settled back down on her log seat, looking into the fire intently enough that I had difficulty finding my own seat. “I know that if I don’t, you’ll go looking for these things elsewhere, and I do not trust where that ambition of yours might lead you.”
“I just want to be stronger.” I said, and she barked a short, harsh laugh.
“Stronger than what? It’s not yourself you’re trying to surpass – that would be admirable.” Elsif was shaking her head. “You want to be better than those around you, not better than yourself of yesterday, and that is well and good while your opponents are those you can surpass, but this is different.” I pulled my cloak back around me, shivering as once again the adrenaline trickled away, wanting this part of the conversation to just be over. I wanted to train. I wanted to make progress. I didn’t want this tirade. “Do you remember your reaction the first time I humbled you, or the first time that you and Galmond fought?” Neither were memories I was particularly fond of, so I’d avoided dwelling on them, but now they both came back like a tide of bile. “Do you remember what you did?”
I gritted my teeth, refusing to give her the satisfaction of an answer. She knew it well enough what I had done and how little good it had done me, so all of this was just window dressing to drive her point -whatever that was- home. “You trained. You threw yourself into your training like no-one I had ever known.” There was a faintly nostalgic tone to her voice now, and she looked at me for a long moment, as if studying my face. “That was the reason I decided to train you myself.”
“You never told me that.” I said. “I always assumed you’d been ordered to.” Elsif had been visiting the Whispers training facility when she’d seen me sparring with other initiates and demanded a duel of her own. The fight had been brief, but two weeks later a messenger had appeared at my home with orders to present myself to the norn as her private student.
“This is different.” Elsif seemingly ignored my response, poking at the now dying fire with a stick. “There is something more at play here, Daughter of Varr. I don’t know whether you know it yourself and are lying about it or whether it’s something you yourself are unaware of, but this is different.”
“You’re not making any sense,” I said, “I just need more power. I faced something stronger than I, so I need to grow stronger than it. It’s not that complicated.”
“Do you know what a lich is?” Elsif asked.
“I… yes, of course.” I answered, taken aback by the sudden shift in tone. I had studied the history of The Flameseeker Prophecies, the defeat of the Lich Lord, and the devastation that Palawa Joko – the undead lord of Elona – had wreaked from his throne in The Desolation. “You’re not suggesting that Tatianna is-”
“No, no not quite. Not yet at any rate.” She cut me off, “But perhaps she is not far from becoming one. Some necromancers can, with training, assume an aspect of a lich and physically transform their bodies to perform feats of fantastic strength, but they cannot maintain this level of power for long and must revert to their true state and recover for a time. Your Tatianna, who seems to be entirely self-taught, can apparently not only assume this form at will but also maintain it for hours at the time. With no formal training, she has displayed abilities that transcend all expectations.”
“Moravel and Halleston took her down.”
“After, as I read, she had nearly been killed by a grenade, decimated a horde of pirates, been further wounded by her own crew, and then fought you and Agent Galmond.” Elsif shook her head.“Whatever she is, my dearest, she is not like fighting me or anything you have encountered so far. She may not be like something any of us have fought before.” I was about to respond, but Elsif raised her hand and shook her head. “This is a fine point to end the evening, Kaede.” She kicked snow on the fire and nodded her head towards the lodge. “Come.” Abrupt, as always, she rose to her feet. “We both need our rest for the morrow.”
I mused on Elsif’s words as I lay in my furs, trying to sleep as the wind first whispered then began to howl along the roof. The entire lodge creaked and groaned in the night, reminding me more of a ship than any terrestrial structure. Elsif’s light snoring, barely an arm’s length away, did little to lull me into any kind of restful mindset.
My mind refused to be still.
Was Tatianna truly beyond me? Was she a monster, something I couldn’t stand against as a mortal thing of flesh and blood, regardless of how much stronger I became? Was there no magic, no weapon I could bring to bear against her that would let me stand over her as she had stood over me?
Elsif didn’t know everything. I knew that, but I could remember the impossible power of Tatianna’s transformed state. I remembered her ripping through Levaunt’s crew, or her slaughter of the pirate himself. I remembered her shrugging off blows that would have killed a bear. Baen and Coalpaw had wounded her, lightly, after an exhausting battle, but I had no doubt that if the necromancer had truly been trying then both the charr and my partner would have been rent into bloody pieces.
Had she been born with this power? Graced with some charmed birth that had given her such natural potential that she stood head and shoulders above the rest?
It wasn’t fair.