The weather in the foothills of Hoelbrak is brisk and cool and damp, the rain from the night before and the temperature now coming together to necessitate scarves for both Norn and Asura. Rain, a towering norn wall of red headed muscle and cool eyes, makes the small blonde asura look even smaller next to her. The norn is dressed in her usual exotic attire -the robe and armor, skin and fierce tattoos showing, the tiger stripes going down her shoulders, arms and chest, her hands inked in bearlike paws- minus the armor she often wore with it. The string of beads and huge teeth she wore is still present. The asura smiles up at her from where she sits by the campfire, green eyes bright. Her ears are atrociously large, and she seems to be debating the merits of the knit cap with ear socks or the one without as she shovels food into her mouth with the enthusiasm of the young and hungry.

 

Their camp is a simple thing, neatly set and looking somewhat longterm, the small tent somewhat more clumsily set than the larger. The fire is under saplings cut and tied against larger trees to make a three walled shelter against the wind, rain, and snow; two long longs of firewood sit next to the remains of breakfast and a fire of warm embers good for cooking. Two backpacks (again large and small) are strung up in a tree as a defense against the creatures that call the norn homeland home. Pines and rocks and snow clinging to shaded edges where the recent cold rain made icy slush of them give the morning air a wild nippiness to it, like something untamed, with the white peaks of the mountains scraping the skyline beyond the trees.

 

It’s a beautiful area, even here, on a gray wet day.

 

Rain eats at her own pace, speaking around bites – “Today, Chiro, we will begin your training.”  Rain sips her tea- “We will start with chores.”   She raises a brow. “I suggest you do not eat too much – but eat well.  You will need your strength.”

 

Training! Chiro grins, bright and wide.

 

“Yes, Shifu.” Feeling virtuous, she tucked into the rest of breakfast with a will, eating her fill but not too much. “Is this gonna be more sword practice or punching or standing on the rock like yesterday or?”

 

“I think we’ll start with hauling water.  And cutting wood.”  Rain is clearly enjoying her ham.

 

Chiro looks up; the drizzle has stopped, but grey clouds remain. She nods. “Well, we’ll warm up fast with that even if it is cold and wet out there! Did you wanna bring in some firewood to dry off while we are out?”

 

Chiro has cleaned her plate by this point and stretched, brushing the bright blonde hair out of her face and eyes as she did. There’s a small norn style braid on the left side of her bowl cut mess of blonde hair. Chiro is dressed simply, a warm but sleeveless outfit, sturdy and simple with some red accents the color of Rain’s hair. It’s clearly meant for physical exercise, and not an asuran style, though it’s tailored for her petite build.

 

“I think we’ll start with the woodcutting – and then we’ll move on from there.”  Rain moves to retrieve her blades and their harness, but leaves the armor behind.  A cloak, and an old wide-brimmed conical hat are good enough, it seems – that, and a long walking stick retrieved from behind the door… and a pair of small hatchets.  Well.  Small for her.

 

She looks to the girl. “Wear your coat.”

 

“Gotcha, Shifu,” Chiro says, already shrugging it on. The sleeves are a bit long but that’s ok. She shoves her feet into the socks and shoes as she half-hops to follow Rain.

 

The shadows of old scars and bruises still mark her, and she still flinches from time to time when Rain moves suddenly. But there’s a bright spirit there that refuses to be diminished. The Inquest couldn’t beat that from her, it seems.

 

“I don’t suppose you have another hat like yours?” She asked, curious. “That’s not a style I’ve ever seen before.” Chiro splashes out into the icy mud, putting up the hood for warmth over her mussy head of blonde hair.

 

“….No. Like my sword, it is… an heirloom.”

 

“Ah well. Fair enough!”

 

The two head up into the hills, taking a different side path to a sheltered stand of alder trees.  There, Rain rather efficiently erects a small lean-to out of a pair of bent saplings and her cloak, stowing a small bag and her blades in its shelter.  Then, she moves into the trees proper – selecting two next to each other… and offering Chiro an axe.  It’s a good size for her – a little light, perhaps, but a good size.  Rain’s ‘copy’ of it is tiny in her massive norn hands.

 

“Watch me.  Do as I do – but for you, two hands, for now. Let me know if it is too heavy.”

 

The norn sets her feet… and one-handed, brings the axe in from the right, at waist height.  She levers it out of the tree, then again – it is a /terrible/ way to use an axe.  Truly awful – but if one imagines the axe were fighting the tree?  It’s a good hit at waist high, power with the hips and shoulders, flowing into a strike.  After five swings?  Rain switches sides.   Never pausing – a stroke per second, inefficiently cutting into the trunk.

 

Chiro follows, taking the axe with only a little hesitation, easily overridden by her eagerness.

 

Shifu would never hurt her for having a weapon, unlike the Inquest, which did not trust mere cleaning staff with anything more complicated than a Mk3 Mop-o-Rama.

 

Still, for a moment she’s quite confused- there’s no woodpile here. But then they get to the trees and realization dawns.

 

It narrows into intense watching as Rain demonstrates.

 

“This isn’t just woodchopping chores, is it, Shifu?” She asks, a smile slowly blooming on her face. “You’re a very efficient person and that’s not an efficient way to cut down a tree.”

 

“Of course not.   Feel your body, Chiro – and feel how you move.  The mechanics of it – how the power comes from your hips, your shoulders – the translation of the axe from right to left, from left to right.  Listen to your body – when the motion binds, when it is free.  Feel your Will, your Chi – feel how your power /flows/ through you.”   Rain is contemplative, “Chi is the center.  The energy that lives below your heart – when you learn to still your thinking, to allow your mind, spirit, and body to become one, you will feel how it moves you.  How it calls to you. ”

 

She glances at the girl. “The Art is everywhere.  In everything.  It is in how you sit, how you breathe, how you move.  It is in the stillness before the storm and the storm – it is in washing dishes or making beds… or painting pictures or arranging flowers.  Whenever the mind and body and spirit are in harmony, that is Art.”

 

The Art is everywhere. Whenever the mind and the body and the spirit are in harmony, that is Art.

 

Her skin rose in goosebumps as her eyes went wide, letting the words sink into her, a quiet fulcrum moment that shifted her view of the world from that point until the end of time. It was the second time Rain had done that. She remembered, in the beginning, when Rain had saved her life:

 

“I will not lie and say it is not useful – but if ‘strength’ were the only prerequisite, why are Asura so valued as warriors within the Vigil?”

 

Rain offered Chiro that dagger – good as a shortsword for her, really – hilt-first. “Strength of mind, of will – focus, training, confidence – these matter far more than simple muscles.   Strength is not the ability to pick up heavy things – it is the will to see them moved.”

 

Chiro blinked.

 

“…Oh,” she said, at the end of an inhaled breath. Something clicked. She looked at Rain with wide, wide green eyes and nine complicated emotions in them. 

 

The first of these, though, was longing. Sudden longing that took her off guard with the strength of it. 

 

I want that. I want the will to see it moved. Strength.

 

There was a moment of silence before she noticed the dagger and had to physically bring her mind back to the moment. “Oh, uh, sorry- I didn’t mean to- to space out. I can do this one too! No worries.” 

 

But the feeling remained. It was… like being awakened. Like seeing color or tasting food for the first time. It lingered under her skin.

 

“Yes, Shifu,” she says, quietly, but not the rote response anymore- there’s a wonder there that she doesn’t try to hide in the least. “How do I know when I’m feeling the.. the strength and Will? Or do I just… know, like the way I knew something would hit hard in the arena with the inquest?” A sudden stop. “Wait, was that Will? Or just a good hit?”

 

“What’s the difference?”  Rain shrugs – and focuses on a branch above her.  A deceptively quick strike shatters the branch, from trunk to tip.   Rain and bark fall around her in equal measure for a moment. “Was that my Will, my strength, or just a good hit?” Her lips quirks, lightly. “Don’t try to run before you walk, little mouse – the first step is mindfulness – and being mindful of yourself is the hardest thing of all.”

 

Chiro starts and yells and actually sucks for cover, expecting the thing to fall on her. When it’s just splinters, and she realizes what happened, her eyes go wide again. Slowly she brushes off bark and wood bits.

 

“Wow. Okay. Okay! Mindfulness. I can do mindfulness. Sorry. I- I don’t mean to ask so many questions but I sort of have a lot and I’ve been wanting more of this forever so. Yeah. Mindfulness first. Feeling my body. Right.”

 

She takes a step forward toward the tree, axe in hand.

 

“Look at it this way, Chiro – if you can talk, you’re not working hard enough.”  That comes with a wink.

 

A wink. She got a wink!

 

Chiro grins, considers the words, pauses. “Oh. Wait- Oh! Okay. Right!”

 

And without further ado, she gets chopping. It actually does keep her quiet; she needs both arms, and while she’s used to hard work, this is different. Her forte seems to be speed and flexibility, but she lacks the endless, relentless endurance of her teacher, not to mention the sheer muscle mass of a norn.

 

For now, anyways. The set of her jaw is pretty clear too.

 

But she’s a good mimic. She eventually tunes out the world, trying to feel her body like Rain said, the bruises and sore places, the way the cold nipped at her nose. After a minute of swinging, she stops, adjusting her grip a second, frowning. The impact was jarring. Maybe holding it better would help smooth things out, like Rain’s form?

 

And that’s when the heavy, scarred hand appears – making an adjustment or two.  Then a nod – and Rain goes back to being an example.

 

Chiro gives her that bright grin again, and gets back to work. The grip helps, and soon she’s swinging eagerly. But her breath starts to come in cold little puffs and her arms begin to ache as she does.

 

When she finds herself slipping in technique, she stops and switches sides, which grants a brief reprieve.

 

….How was Rain still going like she is? She’s not even sweating, but Chiro is thinking of taking off her coat. Farking teachers.

 

Regardless, Rain offers, gruffly – “Stop hitting the tree.  Hit /through/ the tree.  Your wrists will thank you.”

 

“…Through it?” Chiro stops, panting a little, and takes the chance to shake out her arms and shuck off her coat. She goes to toss it into the lean-to, stops, looks at Rain, and folds it neatly instead before she hustles back.

 

“But I’m only taking little chips out of it. Do you mean… aim for the center, not the sides?

 

“When you fought before- did you strike to poke him with stick they gave you, or drive it into your enemy’s chest?”

 

Chiro goes red. “Oh. Well. I wasn’t really… I just wanted- I hit them as hard as I could. They… they would kill me. Or worse, cripple me. And they were so messed up, it was a mercy. But- but I guess through the chest, yeah.”

 

She looks at the tree speculatively.

 

Rain returns to chopping. “When we strike a blow just to hit the edges of a thing… that is all we hit.  But we strike not to hit the edges, but the heart – to put our sword through, to put our fist through – to swing our axe through.”  Rain tilts her head. “Power is not in your muscles – not wholly.  It is in your /will/ – and your will is focused on your perception.  What you wish to happen.  Do you wish to hit the tree, or cut through the tree?”

 

“Cut through the tree,” Chiro answered promptly. “Hitting the edges won’t do much to stop whatever’s trying to kill you.” The young girl eyes the tree again and picks up the axe.

 

WHACK!

 

The hit feels much more solid, bites deeper, and the chunk that flies is a lot thicker than the chips she started with.

 

If it’s a matter of will… I have plenty of will. Too much, honestly. Will is focused on perception and what I want. The strength to see it moved. So…

 

WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! 

 

The new strikes made her arms ache again, but the difference was real, and she smiled.

 

“I think- this feels- better?”

 

“It should.  You’re actually cutting the tree.  That is how the axe wishes to be used.”  Rain nods – “Do not hold so tight – your knuckles are going white.  The axe knows what it needs to do.  You should grip firmly – not as though it is trying to run from you and you need to strangle it to death.”

 

“Do fists know what hey need to- oh wait, talking.” Chiro snaps her mouth shut, faintly pink, and redoubles her attack, holding carefully, not too tight again.

 

And she hits.

 

And hits and hits and hits. Minutes pass. An hour. Chiro starts to flag; but Rain hasn’t stopped either, so neither will she, hanging on and whacking doggedly.

 

Despite the cold, she’s sweating.

 

Rain doesn’t stop until the top part of her tree is cut through – with a shove, she sends it thumping over, in a crash of branches.  It leaves a very tall stump – she grunts, satisfied, and looks over at Chiro’s.   She considers, eyeing the girl, and the tree – “Do you think you can finish it?”

 

Chiro hesitates, pausing. Her arms are shaking… but-

 

She sets her jaw stubbornly.

 

“Yes, Shifu.”

 

She’s a little less than halfway through.

 

Rain rests a hand on Chiro’s shoulder. “Do not promise things you cannot yet keep.  Twenty more strokes – double speed.  And then you stop.”

 

“….Yes, Shifu. I could still try,” she offers. Stubborn kid. It’s beginning to be clear how her spirit survived these last few years, and that might be through sheer pigheadedness.

 

“Forty strokes then.”  Rain shrugs – and moves to start levering her /half tree/ back up to the top of the hill.

 

Chiro stares at that, for a moment, panting.

 

Eternal Alchemy. She’s so strong…

 

Determination renewed, she turns to hacking away, counting the strokes.

 

By ten she’s breathing hard. Twenty hurts. Thirty is sweat dripping down her face and stinging her eyes, arms trembling, haft of the axe sweaty. By thirty five she was gritting her teeth.

 

She almost didn’t make forty, but somehow, did. Chiro didn’t even drop the axe, though it was close. She made herself lower it gently to the ground with trembling arms.

 

Every muscle there was on fire. The rest of the tree creaked, dangerously, then began to topple over to the left.

 

And then Rain is there,  taking the axe from her, and making sure she’s clear of the fall – and nodding. “Well done, Chiro.”

 

She barely has the strength to smile, but nods, breathless, in thanks. “Do- do-“ Nope, can’t talk yet. She has to stop and focus on breathing for a second to get enough oxygen to do so. “Do I need to drag it too or?”

 

“No.  Now  we’ll go for a nice run.  Shall we?  When you’ve got your breath.”

 

Chiro nods. “Well- at least it will- use my legs,” she says, smiling a bit, and sits down right there to try and breathe easier.

 

Whoof! 

 

Very glad I don’t have to drag anything. Except me, later, probably. Man! I wish I was bigger! 

 

It’s a good five to seven minutes later when she stands back up, stretching carefully so she doesn’t cramp. “Where- where are we running?”

 

“Just follow me – and watch your step.  The ground is wet.”

 

Rain sets an easy jog – for her – it’s a good run for Chiro.  Down the path, across a wide, green valley, and around in a long loop.  A mile?  Two?  It’s hard to say, but Rain seems to have the path set, and does keep a weather eye on the girl.  That’s not to say it’s easy – but it is fairly flat, and mostly free of treacherous rocks or other pitfalls.

 

Chiro had to work to keep up, but it turns out she’s good at running; her legs are long (for her small size) and though she’s breathing heavy, she’s grinning as she slaps puddles and hard cold wet earth. Her ears flop wildly.

 

There’s no concept of distance. After a while, she tires of running behind the larger norn and puts on speed to run alongside her so she can see better. She can’t talk, but she shoots Rain a breathless grin.

 

Rain – pleasantly surprised it seems – picks up the pace.  She pushes, just to see – until they’re /both/ flying over the ground, and… though she doesn’t smile?  It’s clear that Rain enjoys this.  More than she’ll likely say.

 

It’s with some regret – as the clouds get darker and rain starts, then gets worse, that she ends up making the turn that brings them both back to that lean-to, and their gear.  She pulls up short, breathing deep – but not heavy.

 

Chiro keeps pace gamely, but it pushes her; still, she’s having too much fun to stop. It’s been so long since she could simply be and even wet and cold and drizzly, this is freedom, or as close as she can remember.

 

She’s gasping when they get back to the lean to, and skids to a stop-

 

And slips.

 

Chiro goes down on flat on her back with an ooof!, betrayed by slick mud, and getting copious amounts of the cold gritty muck all over. She garbles and spits it out of her mouth. “Oh, bleck!”

 

Rain …. snorts.  Covers her face.

 

Oh dear lord – did the queen of ice and muscles almost /laugh/?   It takes her a moment to compose herself, actually.   She covers well, getting her swords out of the lean-to – and Chiro’s coat.

 

Chiro doesn’t notice. She’s too busy getting back on her feet and trying to wipe out her tongue. “No, don’t-“ she says, still gasping for air, legs matching her arms now. “I’ll just- it’ll get all muddy- maybe the rain will- was me off.”

 

“There’s a streambed on the way back – it will be very cold, but – I agree.  No mud on the coat, yet.”  Rain sort of.. picks Chiro up by the scruff, and sets her on the Norn’s incredibly muscled shoulder. “Hold on.”  And then she moves – quickly – in the direction of the path back, and the stream.  It isn’t far – the water is clear-ish, even with the rain, running fast and very, very cold.  Rain considers it – “This… is going to be unkind.”

 

She does set Chiro down, though.

 

Chiro starts and almost jerks away when she’s grabbed by the collar, and only stops when she’s in the air, freezing in place. She only relaxes when she’s on Rain’s shoulder. It happens too fast for it to be very obvious, but…

 

It’s a small, potent tell.

 

When she’s set down she seems to have recovered her normal cheer, though. The stream gets a wince, but there’s not much to do about it. “Well, it won’t be the worst thing I’ve ever been in,” she said, determined and philosophical, if still eyeing it with some trepidation. “Glad we got that firewood…”

 

She dips a toe in and locks her jaw on the yelp that follows. Maybe her previous statement was bravado…

 

“Nothing for it,” she muttered to herself. “Can’t go in the tent muddy.”

 

She backs up, then runs and jumps into the deepest part of the stream, which is over her head.

 

There’s a large splash and a screech, half drowned. ”Et-t-t-ternal Alch-ch-chemy!”

 

Rain is right there on the stream edge – and facepalming. “Your /arms/ are tired, Chiro – and your legs.  Do you honestly think swimming is a good idea?  Hurry and get that mud off – I will /not/ have you getting sick.”

 

What follows is the quickest wash in the history of washes. Chiro splashes out, now looking like a small, blonde, shivering rat but much cleaner. And drenched. The clothes stick to every angle now. “I-I-I-I, I c-c-could t-t-touch the b-b-bottom, m-m-mostly” she says in protest. She’s very pink in her extremities, especially her ears. “C-C-Clean n-n-n-now!”

 

She sloshes. Chiro has traded mud for wet. “I-I-I-If I tried to g-g-g-g-go slow I wouldn’t b-b-b-be able to make myself d-d-d-d-do it. B-b-better t-t-to tackle it h-h-h-head on and g-get it over w-w-w-with.”

 

Rain /sighs/.  And picks the girl up, wraps her – whether she likes it or not – in the Norn’s heavy cloak, and tucks her close for the walk back.  Body heat, fur and a heavy cloak?  Not having to walk?  That’s something.

 

And the Norn is in a /hurry/ – she heads straight for the fire, shielding them both with arm and hat, of all things.  Very practical, those wide hats.

 

Once there, she gets a spare blanket and Chiro is set on it, another going around her shoulders (one much larger- Rain’s?) “Bundle up.”  And then bustles with the fire.

Their camp that night is warm, full of quiet conversation and simple hot soup. It’s the first of many: days of burning muscles and nights full of cold clear skies dotted with stars… and growing affection, as unstoppable and bright as the sunrise over the mountains.

Author Cael
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