Summary: In the days shortly after they first met, Velandra and Venyra stood uncertain of the other. For these two great forces, kindness was a stranger. Yet, their strength alone spoke a language they could understand.
  Ever since reaching the lands of Nerzin, Venyra found its myriad peoples bewildering. They were quick to open their doors and play the part of host, even to a stranger like her. Friendly, at least on the surface. An undercurrent of expectation always followed afterward. ‘We did something for you, do something for us’; or so she learned in the Pits.   That much made sense on its own. Sometimes it worked out for her, sometimes it was just a bother. It made the so-called ‘Heavenly Palace’ she’d been brought to all the more confusing. The people of the palace gave her much, as much on their own as because Velandra ordained it. They seemed quite glad to be of her company, and even actively sought her out for some reason.   Yet, not once had anything been asked of her in return.   It grated on her, day after day of nothing to do.   “The path ahead leads to the great sovereign,” the servant declared, bowing toward Venyra.   “Hmm. Yeah.”   Her guide seemed unwilling to go further, so Venyra headed onward alone. A clean, elegantly crafted brick walkway stretched ahead. Waist-high, pale-brown wooden fences lined the edges, guiding her along. On the other side awaited grass, flowers, and other plants growing with wild abandon. Tall, lonesome trees stretched like high towers, hefting aloft bulbous, domed canopies over the land.   Though it wasn’t a draconic way of decorating, Venyra enjoyed some of the sights. Instead of intricate and complex details, the simplicity of everything proved easy on her eyes. It seemed as if wild nature itself had been brought along, but stripped of its deadly predators. Colorful and expansive flowers were a lot more interesting when there wasn’t a pair of jaws behind them.   Tiny, crystal-winged butterflies fluttered around in the air, while buzzing armor bees vacuumed their way through the flowers. She even saw a few spider webs, ones covered in many smaller spiders than the larger, solitary mothers. Statues of people or animals, both small and grand, stuck out in odd places, sitting beside footpaths people evidently used.   Her apparent destination stood out quite jarringly amidst the garden of wild nature.   A huge, square platform of white stone had been laid out, the boundaries cleared quite far of any gardens. Shallow grooves divided the slab, creating a precisely even grid. Two seating areas sat on opposite sides of the platform, quaint enough for a dozen people each. A small, nearby hut with an oversized roof housed various weapons, armors, and other tools Venyra largely recognized. A training grounds, is it? she thought.   Some things never changed, no matter where she went.   Stopping beside the platform, Venyra glanced at a nearby servant before curiously regarding an even stranger sight. Blazing black orbs—those spheres—hovered in the air, wobbling without rhythm. Velandra herself, dressed in simple white and silver-lined training robes, was walking on them. When she stepped forward, all but doomed to slip off and fall, Venyra perked up interestedly. Then, somehow, Velandra just kept walking. Her whole being pivoted around the center point of the orb underneath her, completely ignoring the world’s common sense.   Venyra blinked. If it’d been wind magic she would have understood; she’d fought and dealt with that plenty of times. But, nothing of the sort was happening. In fact, Velandra’s hair wasn’t even falling down. Anyone who was upside down would have their hair fall down, right? The anaxial wasn’t sure if that was true anymore. “What are you doing?” she asked, her gravelly voice breaking the pleasant air.   Velandra, standing perpendicular to the ground, looked over. “Ah, so you came seeking this sovereign,” she remarked, sounding pleased for some reason. “How have you found your accommodations?”   “They’re, uh—a lot. What did you want me to do for them?”   “… Do what for them?”   The two of them stared at one another, Velandra’s careful visage creaking toward confusion. Or so Venyra assumed; the human kept her face so tightly controlled it proved hard to read her intentions. “You’re giving me a room and food. What do you want me to do?”   “Nothing?” Velandra’s brows creased into something between irritation and perplexity.   Venyra huffed and threw her hands up. “You’re giving me all that for nothing?”   “… It is proper to provide for one’s guest, is it not?” Velandra asked as much as stated. “It would be dishonorable of me to not offer such hospitality in the first place.”   Hospitality? She recognized some meaning, but Venyra simply found it strange to hear all the same. “It’s bad for you to not give stuff away to someone you don’t know?”   “That is our way: to offer to one’s guests a home’s comforts, in food, rest, and good company.”   “For free?” Venyra questioned dubiously.   “Perhaps. Nothing is truly ‘free’.” Velandra turned and walked over the sphere, righting herself up normally. “In doing so, I’d personally gain honor. Those who worked and gave me those goods, too, earn recognition. You could say it’s all an elaborate form of trading.”   “Yeah.” Favors for favors, no matter how pretty the words. It made sense.   “But—“ Velandra looked upward, gazing at the cloudless blue sky, “—that is not what it is fundamentally about. Merchants seek trades that favor them, but hospitality is often a trade one loses when doing.”   “Why do it then?”   “For honor. To help others. To do some good, however small, in our world. Sometimes it is not the end result that matters, but the journey toward it.”   It was a thought Venyra knew had some meaning behind it, but that hardly mattered to her. She shrugged gruffly. “Fine, I guess. So what are you doing now?”   “Hm? Oh, this?” Velandra looked down at the floating sphere she stood upon.   “Yeah.”   “A passing thought came to mind, and I wished to practice. I am uncertain what to call it yet.” Velandra waved her hands in elegant motions, and the many other spheres floating in the air wobbled toward her. She walked down through the air, as if stepping upon invisible stairs, dark purple magic shining under her shoes like woven-together threads. For something that should’ve been some kind of flight, Velandra never quite moved that way. Venyra ever found it intriguing; no dragon she fought could do anything similar.   Velandra curled her fingers, commanding the spheres together. They collided like water droplets, merging into one single, larger sphere. The human clapped her hands with the sphere in between them, and it winked out of existence. “Now, it sounds to me as if you are displeased with my hospitality?”   “Err? Well. No.” Venyra scratched at her cheek, making an audible sound of her nails against her rock-like scale-skin. “But there’s nothing for me to do.”   “Is there something I could provide for your training?”   “Training?”   The two stared at each other, both on completely different wavelengths.   “My personal guard is quite capable, I should assure you,” Velandra went on. “They are nowhere near your strength, but they are well enough to train with.”   “What is ‘training’?”   “Oh! Yes. It is to practice your own fighting style.” Velandra swept her hand through the air, imitating an attack. “To improve yourself through diligent exercise.”   “I don’t train,” Venyra scoffed.   “You—don’t?” Velandra asked slowly. “Not at all?”   “No.”   “How in the world did you become so powerful then?”   “I killed a lot of people.”   Blinking incredulously, the most genuine surprise overcame Velandra’s face. Beneath shock and disbelief, some sort of scrutiny lurked; a careful, thoughtful dissection. It reminded Venyra of the older dragons back in the Pits, somehow.   Velandra folded her arms together, holding up a hand to her chin. Her glowing eyes narrowed, as if faced with a puzzle. “Why did you?”   “They made me.””   “’They’?”   “The Nyra. The ‘real’ dragons,” Venyra clarified, her words dripping with acid.   “If it is …” Velandra trailed off, obviously weighing her words. “If it is not too rude of me to ask, what happened?”   “Feh.” Venyra rolled her shoulders, gazing at the ground wearily. What’s done is done, but, I guess this counts as a favor? Since she gave me all this already … ehh. It didn’t seem like a worthwhile exchange, but so be it. Letting out a huff, Venyra set her hands on her hips and regarded the human dispassionately. “They put me and my father in their Slave Pits when I was born. Forced us to work to death. When that didn’t work, the matriarch took a liking to me. Made me go out and kill the people she didn’t like, or she’d kill my father. Anyway, she got bored of that one day and tried killing us. So, I killed them all first.”   “I—see. It must not have been easy.”   “Most of them were.”   A ghost of a smirk flew by on Velandra’s face while she nodded. “As presumptuous as it may sound, I believe you have true heavenly talent, then. To be able to fight me so convincingly without training is remarkable beyond any words.”   Venyra squinted her eyes, not sure how that ‘compliment’ actually worked. Velandra, however, extended her hand out in offering.   “Might I convince you to take up training? It would only benefit yourself to do so.”   “How?” Venyra asked skeptically.   “It—hmm. Perhaps a practical demonstration would be better. Come, join me here.”   Since it sounded intriguing enough, Venyra would go along with. The platform itself was about thigh-high, which made getting onto it a little cumbersome. Velandra, however, looked bemused for some reason.   “The stairs are over … no, nevermind.” She coughed into her hand, while waving her other one in a circle. A new sphere wobbled into existence from nowhere, shining like a black sun as it grew to the size of her head.. “While I am not one trained for physical fighting, I do know the important fundamentals. Let us start with the simplicity of punching.”   “Punching what?” Venyra asked wearily, because a human daring to take one of her punches would be a death sentence.   “This helper here—“ Velandra bounced her hand, making the sphere bounce as well, “—we will measure how far you can punch it.”   “… Pretty far?” It didn’t seem like much, but then again, Velandra used such spheres in their battle. Although Venyra recalled they were more for magic than anything else. Could something that wobbly looking even take a punch?   The human stepped aside, folding one arm behind her back. She beckoned to the floating sphere and said, “Give it a try. One solid punch, as strong as you like.”   Venyra, appearing dubious, soon stood in front of the awaiting sphere. Out of concern for her rather nice red silk dress, she rolled the sleeves up to her elbows. The fact something so thin and flimsy didn’t tear apart instantly really was miraculous. I shouldn’t use fire, she mused, flexing her right hand’s fingers. Rotating her wrist, then her arm, she warmed up her relaxed muscles. Where do I even hit this thing?   That purple outline stood out quite sharply in the air. There wasn’t any way not to notice it or its pitch black center. No reflections, no figure, no shape of any kind—it seemed like solid darkness in broad daylight. Venyra squared up and gave a few practice punches to get ready. “It won’t break those trees or anything, right?” she asked, glancing at Velandra.   “No.”   “Alright.”   Heaving her arm back, Venyra stepped forward, twisted, and lunged in a full body-powered punch, slamming her fist right into the sphere. For a brief moment, her fist and the sphere met in the strangest of sensations. Soft, ephemeral, and yet solid and water-like? Was she hitting a cloud or something? Hardly any resistance actually impeded her, and she instinctively pulled her punch back half-way through. The sphere, however, launched forward.   It flew the length of several whole tile sections across the platform, then slowed to a stop.   Venyra stared, blinking owlishly at the sight. Even for a sloppy hit, the sphere should’ve gone much farther.   “Your raw strength continues to astound me,” Velandra remarked in an even tone.   Venyra’s eyebrow twitched while the rest of her face scowled. “That was a warm up. I’ll hit it farther.”   “You have sent it further than anyone else I have tested. But, very well, try a second one.”   Another sphere wobbled into existence, its dark presence pushing out the daylight around it. At Velandra’s beckoning wave, Venyra squared up once more. She struck with a focused punch, meeting that same strange tangible emptiness again. The sphere flew backwards, landing almost right beside the other one. In terms of measure, it’d just barely passed by the first sphere.   Venyra squinted, her rough face radiating an unpleasant energy. That would’ve broken dragon scale, she thought, glancing at her completely unaffected fist. What is that thing made of?   “The purpose of this test is one to determine how to apply force, not just utilize it,” Velandra said, stepping around to Venyra’s side. “If I might touch your arm?”   “Uh? Sure?” Venyra affirmed wearily. It would be when Velandra lifted up that same arm Venyra punched with, the anaxial noticed something even stranger. All sorts of hands had bothered her over her life, but rarely any human—and none of them without gloves of some kind. The firm, yet strangely soft, feeling of Velandra’s touch made her skin prickle with a flash of volcanic light.   Something that made Velandra pause and look at Venyra in question.   “N-nevermind that. What about my arm?” Venyra demanded.   “You over emphasize your arm to the exclusion of your body. The power of the fist is not found solely in the arm, it comes from everything,” Velandra said, gesturing up from Venyra’s feet to her arm. “It travels from everywhere to here, here, and finally here.” She tapped along Venyra’s shoulder, forearm, and then knuckles.   That finger on her scale-skin, especially how it dragged along to her knuckles, proved uncomfortably distracting. “You just punch, and punch harder when you need to,” Venyra retorted gruffly.   “Elegantly succinct,” Velandra remarked with an obviously dry tone. “Have you considered the means by which ‘punching harder’ can even work?”   “Obviously, but what do you mean?”   “It is simple. Here, gently land your fist into my hand, as if you were punching a wall.”   The whole situation felt increasingly bizarre to her, but Venyra decided to try anyway. She simply moved her fist into Velandra’s strangely soft palm in a gentle ‘pap’ of a hit. Are all humans like this? Is that why they wear gloves? Venyra wondered incredulously.   “Did you notice it?” Velandra inquired.   “How soft your hand is?”   “What?”   “What?”   The two of them stared at one another, Venyra’s incredulity to Velandra’s surprise and, perhaps, tiny embarrassment. A ghost of red threatened her fair cheeks, but the human simply ‘ahem’d’ and stood up straighter. “No. Did you notice how your punch moves?”   “Oh. Uhh, sure. It hit?”   “... Perhaps I should demonstrate this another way.” Velandra stepped back, creating a little space between them. She turned to present her profile to Venyra, then set herself into a fighting stance. A simple one with spaced legs and held up hands in a defensive position. “To begin with, our bodies are legacies passed down to us by our parents. No one, no matter how talented, can be perfect at something. They must train for it.”   Velandra threw out some rather pathetic looking punches. No shoulders movement, no torso follow up, just elbow extensions really. “We start off weak and meager, a shadow of the idea we want to be. Maybe life teaches us something, for better or worse.”   Then, to Venyra’s surprise, something in Velandra’s aura changed. Some imperceptible thing that made the anaxial’s instincts perk up. Velandra once more threw out punches, but these ones carried purpose and intent. The shoulders followed, the torso powered them, and her whole body went into each fist that snapped out.   “We struggle, and we learn. By overcoming failures, we are empowered by our successes. For many, this is where they stop, and where you currently are. If you would go further beyond, to realms we only dare to imagine, then …”   Venyra felt as if a warrior suddenly stood before her. An air of keen focus, steadily controlled breathing, and eyes hardened with utmost concentration. Velandra stepped forward lightly, moving with her hands with each punch. Jabs, hooks, twirling uppercuts, and more each feeding into each other. All of it came together in a union of motion that maintained not only strength, but momentum.   She went even faster. The very air itself broke before Velandra’s speeding fists, leaving misty trails in her wake. Not a hint of drag nor slowness ever showed; only a smooth, unrelentingly perfect execution of moves. Venyra had never seen a person move so—could it be called graceful? Unreal?   And somehow, Venyra found a meaning in every motion. Not something she could name, but something she felt in her own muscles and bones. A way to move she couldn't quite imagine before, but it all suddenly made sense.   In split moments, Velandra crossed several tiles worth of distance before stopping. Easing up, she turned to regard Venyra, the anaxial's fiery-golden eyes quite literally lit up. “I see that piqued your interest,” Velandra remarked amusedly.   “How did you move like that?”   “When the mind, body, and intent align together—” Velandra tapped her head, chest, and then her fist, “—all the power we draw upon is delivered perfectly. A harmony of our whole being that can only be obtained through training.”   “Hmm. Make me one of those orbs to punch again.”   Velandra curled her fingers in a beckon, and a third sphere of darkness wobbled into existence. Venyra paid the human no more mind then, coming to regard her target seriously. She squared up before it as she did the other two, but moved her feet a bit differently. There was something to Velandra’s motions that intrigued her.   It inspired her to try things a little bit differently.   Venyra reached forward, throwing a few test punches to warm up. Bring everything together, is it? she mused, conscious of every part of herself. If I haven’t been doing that, then …   She didn’t even have a cohesive idea on what to do; only some driving force to try doing it. Venyra drew back, and once more struck forward with her fist, slamming into the darkness. It launched forward, sailing through the air and even passing by the other two. When it stopped, it was about two whole tile sections further away than the others.   “As simple as that, you have found one of your many flaws,” Velandra quipped, standing beside Venyra.   Her good mood at making progress soured almost immediately. “What do you mean ‘many’?” she hissed back.   “The body is a complicated thing,” Velandra returned coolly, “Address one problem, and two more might replace it. You learned quite quickly, however.”   “You make it sound like I’m an idiot.”   Velandra appeared caught off guard by that, tilting her head in surprise. “That is not what I mean at all. I apologize if that is what it sounds like.”   “If you’re not trying to lie,” she said, looking over at the human again. “Then why did the third one go farther?”   Velandra’s face tightened into something of regal offense. “My time is too precious to waste on lying,” she replied coolly. “The answer is simply the difference in what proper training can do. After a certain point, it is not about how much power you have, it is how you use it that matters.”   “Even you?” Venyra asked dubiously. Considering all the craziness that happened in their first fight, Velandra had plenty of power. Far more than Nyranawl ever did, that was for certain.   “Even me, yes.” Velandra held up a hand, another one of her spheres wobbling into existence. It was much smaller, about pebble sized. “As a child, I struggled to even make this much. But, day after day, I trained, again and again. Eventually—“ the sphere wobbled and grew in size as she spoke, “—I could do more. As I surmounted one challenge, two more appeared.”   “Yeah, that’s how it goes. How is training any different?”   “Fighting others is, itself, a teacher. You learn quickly to survive the fight. But, fighting blindly means if you meet someone who is superior one day, you lose and so you die. This method can even teach bad habits which may, ironically, kill you later on.” Velandra waved her hands curtly, causing all the spheres to evaporate away. “Training not only allows you to catch these flaws, but improve further. To find out more without risking your life, so that you become an even better fighter.”   “Ehh …” Venyra grumbled, unconvinced.   “Shall I demonstrate?”   “By punching another one of those orbs?”   “No,” Velandra said solemnly, a smile spreading across her purple-painted lips. “I shall punch you.”   “Me?” Venyra pointed to herself, then toward Velandra. “You? A mage?”   “Is that an issue?”   “What kind of punch can a mage do?”   “Allow me to broaden your horizons.”   Venyra half-heartedly shrugged, bemused by the idea. It’ll be magic of some kind, right? she wondered, watching as Velandra took up a position. Not too close, not too far, either. For a mage, such a range would’ve been quite fatal to fight from. Even if some sort of spell flew out, Venyra could dodge or simply endure the attack to land a fatal blow. Which would defeat the point of the ‘training’ Velandra talked up so much.   The strange stance the human took up caught Venyra’s notice. One leg forward, one back, with one arm up for striking, while the other stayed at the chest for defense. That part made sense, but why Velandra shifted her weight around was strange. Rather than grounding herself solidly as those in Aerthen did, she seemed airy and unsettled. As if a simple tap would knock her off balance.   At least she looks serious doing it? Venyra mused.   “I will aim for your shoulder,” Velandra said, her hands tightening into fists. “You may try blocking me as well. Either will be convincing.”   “If you say so,” Venyra returned, holding her hands up in preparation. Unlike Velandra’s distinct stance, Venyra simply braced on her back foot, and kept a pivot-ready posture. The two stood at the ready, staring at each other.   Velandra’s whole body tensed. "Now then, prepare yourself!”   The air around her shimmered as strands of dark purple light wove into existence. In flowing streams they intertwined around Velandra’s forearms, the oddest combination of water and fire Venyra had ever seen. Reversing the position of her arms, the magic around Velandra flowed in waves of misty fog, then she lunged forward. Venyra perked up instantly on instinctual reaction.   She’s fast, the anaxial thought, shifting her arms to intercept. Venyra struck to block the incoming fist aimed at her shoulder, but Velandra’s own hand swerved to the side. In a quick fake out, she cut latterly into Venyra’s wrist, knocking aside the anaxial’s arm with surprising strength. Sheer surprise overcame Venyra for just a moment before she shifted her weight, striking with her other hand at Velandra’s exposed opening.   But, in that moment, she’d been too slow. Velandra’s defensively held hand bolted out in a straight punch, slamming into Venyra’s shoulder like a crashing river. The blow staggered Venyra enough that Velandra easily swept underneath the incoming fist, dodging the retaliation entirely.   Fiery golden eyes widening, Venyra found herself more surprised than anything. Her shoulder stung, and she had to brace to avoid being knocked back; something much more than most others could achieve. No, what disconcerted her the most was how easily her own fists had been brushed aside. She might as well have not defended at all. “You said you were a mage,” she remarked with an accusatory tone.   “I am.”   “Mages can’t punch that strong.”   “And what idiot said that?”   Venyra frowned. “The idiot mages I fought. Not one of them could throw a punch, much less one that hurt. Why can you?”   For as smug as Velandra seemed, another thought obviously bothered her. Standing in the same poise as earlier, her arms continued to glow with her distinctive magic. “That is troubling to hear. Are the mages of Aerthen so poorly trained?”   “I guess?”   “Hm. Be that as it may, magic is not so limited. The idea of ‘rules’ or ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are all limitations.”   “’Limitations’?”   “When we are children, there is only so much we can do. As we grow, that changes, and ‘rules’ we once believed in are not so true after all.” Velandra shifted her arms, reversing offense and defense again. “Mana is the heart of everything. The infinite possibilities we can achieve come through it. Mana does not fail us, we fail mana. Take my hands, for instance. You can see my mana manifesting outside, but it is happening on the inside as well.”   “Like my fire does for me?” Venyra mused, scratching her chin.   “Simplistic, but yes. My muscles, my bones, my tendons—everything is suffused with more mana such that I can strike with power, and endure it as well. Even though I am not as physically powerful as you, I can achieve the same results through a different means.”   “If you can do that, why don’t other mages then? Or at least Aerthen’s?”   “Training,” Velandra said. “The body and mind become honed toward what they have learned. Whether a mage, a martial warrior, or something else, we are all constrained by how we have trained. My specialty isn’t in martial fighting, nor the usage of physical magic. It takes great concentration and even more mana than normal to fight this way. In other words, I have to think about every punch I do, you do not. If I were to fight you in earnest, your speed and innate awareness would surpass mine. You should eventually defeat me because of that split-second difference.”   “You say that, but if I rushed a mage thinking they can’t punch me, you’d win based on surprise,” Venyra retorted.   Velandra’s brows popped upward, and a moment later she half-nodded. Easing up from her posture, the magic upon her arms gradually seeped away into the surrounding air. “Perhaps. It is a great risk to take all the same. You could simply endure or evade my attack, leaving me trapped.”   “Eh, probably.”   “As to why mages in Aerthen do not do it … hm, there are many reasons. They do not have the time, they regard it as pointless, and so on. There is a steep cost for going against what you have learned. While it is not impossible to do, it is quite valid to question if it is worth doing. We in these lands—that which you call Nerzin—believe in honing both body and magic. A strong, healthy body allows for even greater potential.” Velandra flourished her hand, gesturing at her own figure. “The training I do is to strengthen myself for that purpose. That is why I can fight in hand-to-hand, but I should not win against a warrior with sophisticated martial training.”   “… If you have enough magic does that even matter? Can’t you just crush them anyway?”   “Well, yes. I speak purely on a level of technical skill, not factual reality.”   Something about that dry, matter-of-fact way of speaking tickled Venyra. She chuckled heartily, embers spitting out from between her lips as everything really set in. Velandra’s arrogance, compared to dealing with the Nyra, seemed utterly adorable. The dim but distinct ache in her shoulder, however, reminded her just how serious the human could be.   Yet, to Venyra, it all seemed so quaint.   Strange, too; how someone could be so arrogant and pleasant to be around.   “That ‘body’ and ‘magic’ training you said,” Venyra asked. “Is that why everyone here fights by shouting out those weird names?”   “… ‘Weird names’?” Velandra echoed, one eyebrow popping upward.   “Uh …” Venyra scratched audibly at her chin. “There was one … [Ten Steps to Death]? Oh, and [Swooping Leaf Blade].”   “That—“ Velandra held a hand to her face, shaking her head with an abysmal look. “There is a reason for that, but I cannot say if they did it properly.”   “What do you mean?”   “I am not sure how much you are familiar with, so I will start with the basic principle.” The human straightened up, folding one arm behind her back while holding out her other hand. “While we can train our bodies to instinctively use magical arts, or even simply just magical power, actual magic is somewhat different.”   “Yeah, that just sounds like mages casting their spells,” Venyra remarked. “You know, shouting [Fireball] and making one of those big fiery explosions.”   “Correct. One of the main reasons for doing so is to make complex magics much easier to control. Like this—“ Velandra waved her hand, and the air shimmered before her. Streams of purple colored mist and water gathered from out of nowhere, flowing in a luminescent tide as they formed into a sheet of water. “Complex magic demands much in order to be done. Imagination, design, practice, focused intent …”   One-by-one, Velandra added another sheet of magical water, creating an odd looking stack of floating sheets in the air. “… mana capacity, mana conveyance, mana cohesion, mana integrity …”   “Uhh …” Venyra wasn’t sure what to say as the stack of sheets soon went over twenty. “Does it really take that much?”   “If you wish to be a mage, or anyone who does magic properly, yes.” Bringing both hands forward, Velandra swept them through the watery sheets. In a flourishing twirl she spun around, casting the water out in a great splash. Just before it hit Venyra, it suddenly broke apart into streams again. Then, it started to transform: birds, people, trocks, and more suddenly took shape. Little watery dolls that imitated life in running away, dancing, wrestling, and more.   She’d never seen anything quite like it before. Venyra tried snatching one of the watery trocks out of the air, but the watery figure sizzled immediately as it met her hand. Watery streams slipped between her fingers, leaving a harmless trail of steam behind. Soon enough the display came to an end as the different parts reached the platform’s edge, where it simply fell onto the dirt.   “But, once you have done so, there is almost nothing left to limit your magic.”   Venyra looked down at her dry hand, a trickling of curiosity in her mind. She’d never had much of a talent for it, even the simple stuff the others did back in the Pit. But, what if I could do it too? she couldn’t help wondering.   Velandra clapped her hands and folded them together again, drawing Venyra’s attention. “As to those imbeciles who shouted out those names …” She wrinkled her nose with obvious distaste. “While they may have done so as a form of magic, it is often more to intimidate or declare their greatness.”   “Really?”   “Martial forms often go unspoken. Many martial artists, warriors, and everyone else carry great pride in their schools and training. Unreasonably so, sometimes. They shout out their different techniques and martial forms to show how great they are.”   “… Ah.” That made a lot more sense than anything else Velandra had mentioned. The ones she all fought hadn’t done much except the shouting. Few of them did any real magic, or at least the interesting kind Velandra had just shown off.   “If you are not convinced to try training now, perhaps some sparring will enlighten you?” Velandra offered, holding out a hand symbolically. Her eyes, however, shone with an unspoken challenge.   “A spar, huh?” Venyra tilted her head, stretching her neck. At the same time, she rolled her shoulders, loosening them up. “What’s the rules?”   “No attacking the head. Hands, forearms, and feet are our weapons. Anywhere else is a valid hit. Get hit ten times, you lose.”   “You know even a slight hit from me will break a human’s bones, right?”   “I am a sovereign of the Heavens,” Velandra said with a certain self-confidence that assumed her own truth. “If that much could trouble me, I would be undeserving.”   “You said it. Alright then.”    For her part, Bafin Xiaomei simply stood by the training platform, arms folded across her front. Their ‘esteemed guest’ suddenly interrupting her report to the Heavenly Sovereign had been rather surprising. Given the matter was of no serious import, she kept her peace. A guest of such a caliber deserved some regard, even if she remained unconvinced of the anaxial’s worth.   A residual feeling that started to ebb as Xiaomei watched the two ‘spar’.   On one side, the Heavenly Sovereign moved like flowing tides, and struck with the fury of falling mountains. A grace, methodology, and particular attention to movement that spoke plainly of her martial training. Xiaomei even recognized some of the sequential stances, such as the Swooping Wings and Ascending Crescent. Even fundamental and simple martial arts like that were powerfully devastating when used by the Sovereign.   On the other hand, Venyra’s talents were … something. She had the experience of a fighter but not the training. Her motions were curt, meant to deal with imminent problems, and relied too much on overbearing strength. It truly seemed an ill-fated matchup, and one that exemplified the value of one’s growth and training. No, what astonished Xiaomei to see was how quick Venyra adapted.   Ordinarily, changing one’s martial form to something unfamiliar was exceedingly dangerous and stupid. Under the extreme pressure of combat, the body would be liable to make a fatal mistake. Venyra quite visibly changed with every blow Sovereign Velandra landed; trying to learn new counters, as well as means of attack and defense. That she not only kept pace, but soon learned to put the sovereign on the defensive was, in itself, remarkable.   Their rich mana saturated the surrounding air, flowing in tides or erupting in consuming flares. A tapestry of ethereal presences that came together as two storms might in the sky. Reds and purples intermixed, punctuated by blistering oranges and abyssal blacks. Venyra’s aura radiated a wildness so typical of fire, yet so rooted in her own unyielding posture. A stark contrast to Sovereign Velandra’s meticulousness and overbearing presence, self-assured in her own overwhelming power.   They collided as two unstoppable forces, and Xiaomei could never tell which would come out victorious.   Perhaps someone of her demure status couldn’t truly understand great people like them. The Heavenly Sovereign ever remained inscrutable, but to her surprise, Venyra was just as much the same. My eyes are not as reliable as I believed, Xiaomei thought sardonically.   She saw, nonetheless, something even more surprising. Fierce as Sovereign Velandra’s visage may be, her smiles like daggers and her warm regard scathingly cold, Xiaomei learned to recognize her true expressions. She couldn’t remember the last time she saw such a gleeful look of pure fun. A look that Venyra quite possibly mirrored, though Xiaomei wasn’t entirely certain. The air filled with their intensity; a taste of their overwhelming presences.   But, not a hint of anger or rage, only the enjoyment of their ‘spar’.   A thought came to Xiaomei then, something that made her brows furrow. She straightened her back, and giving a polite bow that no one acknowledged, made her way from the training grounds. The kitchens would need to quickly string together an afternoon meal for the sovereign and her ‘esteemed guest’.   She’d seen no end of ladies, fine madams, and beauties flocking to the Heavenly Palace, trying to catch the sovereign’s eye. They hid behind convention and lying faces, each of them covetous in some vile manner. The anaxial was, by comparison, refreshingly unambiguous.   I shall determine your worth then, Venyra, Xiaomei mused, already planning what sort of ‘interesting encounters’ she could orchestrate. Perhaps she is what might finally earn our sovereign’s unwavering attention?


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