How fitting that I'm writing this in autumn...
Chapter 7 – Summer’s End
September 1, 2252. 9. Owl King’s Academy – Main Gate. Professor Black has come to greet the Academy’s “special guests”.
“Arthur! Marko!” Professor Black shouted, as she ran towards the main gates. Seeing her stumbling down the hill, Grinnington chuckled, and turned to Marko.
“Oh man, I never thought I’d see Black of all people in heels,” he smirked. Marko, however, was unimpressed, and simply stood, silent. Irked, Grinnington simply snorted, deciding to focus his attention back to Black, who was perilously close to falling over her own feet. She almost made it down without incident, however she collapsed directly in front of Grinnington and Marko’s feet. She let out a whimper, before straightening her glasses. Marko extended his hand to her, helping her back to her feet.
“Oh, thanks Marko.” Black said, dusting herself off.
“Ho ho… I suppose some things never change, even after all this time, Black” Grinnington smirked, revelling in the professor’s signature clumsiness.
“Still as snarky as ever I see, Arthur.” Black retorted.
“Would I be me if I weren’t?” Grinnington replied.
Black sighed. “I suppose not. Anyway. I’ve come to give you a quick tour of the Academy. You’d be surprised how much has changed since you left.”
“Don’t you have students to teach?” Grinnington asked.
“I’d usually be with my fourth-years in the morning, but they’re all out on placement.” Black explained. “So unfortunately, I’ll be spending the morning looking after you.”
“My, my, Rebecca. Marko isn’t THAT unpleasant to be around.” Grinnington replied smugly. Marko sighed, refusing to dignify Grinnington’s quip with a response.
“Oh, Marko. Professors Braveheart and Kazuko wanted to grab lunch with you before the afternoon assembly.” Black said.
“Sure. What time?” Marko asked.
“12. They said they’d meet you at their office.”
“Tell them I’ll be there.” Marko replied, walking off.
“Marko? Where are you going?” Black asked.
“Hotel. I’m gonna take a nap.”
Black sighed. “Ugh. Looks like I’m stuck with you after all, Grinnington.”
9. Kingsguard Academy – Training Facility.
As the buzzer sounded, Chirch and Rose stopped fighting. Both catching their breath, they headed to the bench at the side of the room to rehydrate and recuperate.
“I don’t think I’ve been this tired in a while…” Chirch said. “You barely gave me room to breathe.”
Rose, seemingly lost in thought, wiped the sweat from her face with her towel. “We’ll take a five minute break. After that, speed drills. Did you bring your bow and arrows?”
“Of course.” Chirch replied. Concerned for her partner, she sighed. “You know, Rose…”
“Don’t say it.” Rose snapped back impatiently. “I don’t have any time left. Recruitment week starts today, and…”
“I know, I know. Your fight with Zak Niklaus is tomorrow. That’s what we’ve been working towards for the past month.”
Rose stood up to stretch. “Sorry. I’m just a little tense today, that’s all. It’s game day, after all.”
Chirch thought for a moment. “Maybe we should call it a morning, then. I want breakfast.”
Before Rose could protest, Chirch had packed up her things and headed for the showers. Shaking her head, a knowing smile on her face, she had no choice but to follow. As she followed Chirch down the hallway, a familiar voice called out to her.
“Are you sure you should be wrapping up your morning session so early?”
Rose’s demeanour changed immediately. “Watching my training sessions again, Zak? People might think you’re actually worried you could lose.”
Niklaus chuckled. “Oh? You’re not the only one who’s been training, remember. You won’t close the gap that easily, you know. Especially if you’re half-assing it so close to our rematch.”
“I assure you, I haven’t half assed anything.” Rose replied assertively. “Come tomorrow evening, you’ll see that.”
“I look forward to it.” Niklaus replied, a wry smile on his face as he headed off to train.
1. Owl King’s Academy – Main Hall. The students are gathered for an assembly.
XO and Tsubaki snuck into the back of the hall amidst the noise of chattering students. Looking up at the stage, they saw a tall and rather skinny-looking man with brown hair attempting to make conversation with another man, roughly the height of a middle school student with a flashy black undercut and a blank expression.
“Man, who would have thought those two would be on the Kingsguard’s Elite… They’re the least intimidating looking guys I’ve seen in a long time.” XO joked.
Tsubaki, lost in thought, didn’t reply. XO looked at her curiously.
“Tsubaki? You okay?”
“... Oh! Y-yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“You’re not paying attention to me at all, are you.” XO grumbled.
As the Academy’s director stepped up to the lectern, the noise in the hall quietened.
“Excuse me, boys and girls,” Director Stickman announced, the room falling silent on the sound of his voice. “As you know, today is the start of Recruitment Week, where all students from first to third year will have chance to enter the Kingsguard early by impressing the recruiters, hand-picked by the Owl King himself. The recruiters will be watching classes, talking to staff, and will be having dedicated sessions where they will field questions from students interested in early recruitment, as well as those of you in fourth year who are expected to graduate this summer. This assembly will be a chance for the recruiters to introduce themselves. First up, Commander Arthur Grinnington, the current head of the Kingsguard’s Engineering Faculty.”
Director Stickman stood aside as Grinnington strode confidently up to the microphone.
“Greetings, students. As the Director said, I am Arthur Grinnington, head of Kingsguard Engineering. The grumpy looking fellow sitting behind me is my fellow Elite and a Captain of the Kingsguard soldier division, Marko de Polaris.” Grinnington gestured towards a very indifferent-looking Marko. “Now, you might be asking yourselves, “Are my chances of being recruited gone? I mean, these guys are some of the finest the Kingsguard has to offer!” The answer is simple. If you’re ready, we’ll choose you. But how do you know if you’re ready? Well, that’s simple. We’ll recruit you! Ho ho ho.”
The room was deathly silent as Grinnington waited for laughs. When he didn’t get any, he cleared his throat and carried on.
“Anyway, you shouldn’t be intimidated by how brilliant I am. Engineers and machinists especially, take this week as an opportunity to learn from the best. As for the soldiers, if you can get that idiot to say more than three words to you, you’ll be lucky.”
His parting shots fired, Grinnington took his seat. Director Stickman approached the lectern once again.
“Thank you for that riveting speech, Commander Grinnington. Captain de Polaris, do you have anything to add?”
Marko nodded, and took centre stage. Seemingly readying himself for a captivating, motivational speech, the students in the hall directed all their attention towards him.
“Good luck to all of you.”
As he went to take his seat, the tension in the room dissipated. Is that really all he had to say?
“Well, thank you, Captain de Polaris. You’ve all been sent the recruiters’ schedules by e-mail. If you wish to book a 1-to-1 session with one of the recruiters, please go through my secretary. You’re all dismissed.”
10. Kingsguard Academy – Training Facility.
“Imagine he’s right in front of you.”
Rose closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She was still slightly tired from her evening training with Chirch, but she knew she wouldn’t sleep well until she’d done everything she could.
“Remember the last time you fought.”
Ten months earlier. Rose vs. Niklaus.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Rose asked. “Your injury’s only just healed.”
“Heh. The only chance you’d have of beating me is if you fought me injured.” Niklaus replied mockingly.
“We’ll see about that.” Rose replied, fire in her belly.
“Big words. Let’s see if you can keep up with this speed.”
Visualising each of Niklaus’ attacks, Rose weaved elegantly around them, evading each one. However, as she went to launch her counter, Niklaus hit her cleanly in the stomach, exposing the hole in her guard.
Even in image training, she was second best. Unlike the situation ten months ago, however, she could see each of his attacks clearly. And unlike ten months ago, she could react to them before they landed. Resetting, she ran the simulation in her mind once more. Once again, she had no problem avoiding each of his attacks; however, the moment she chose to counter she was once again stopped in her tracks. What was the problem?
Ten months ago.
Rose picked herself up from the floor, her entire body sore from the fight she’d just had. As she extended a hand to her opponent, Niklaus turned his back to her.
“Honestly? You weren’t even a challenge.”
As Niklaus walked away, Rose was stunned into silence. Even though he’d won, he seemed angry at her. Was she really so weak that their fight had pissed him off? After the months of training alone every night, polishing her movements, preparing for every possible move he could throw at her, he brushed her off as if he were killing a mosquito? Hanging her head, she slumped to the floor. Sitting with her head in her hands, all she could do was cry tears of frustration. Maybe she wasn’t cut out for the life of a soldier after all…
“You’ll get him next time.”
Whose voice was that?
“I mean, he’s suuuuper fast, but you can keep up. It’s you, after all.”
Recognising the voice, Rose laughed to herself. “I don’t know if you just saw that, but I got my ass handed to me.”
“That’s only because you didn’t fight like you normally do. If you fight your way, you can beat him. Easy.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence, Chirch.”
Rose opened her eyes. The tension she’d been feeling all day had left both body and mind. She realised that she could sit and worry all day about Niklaus. How much faster he’d gotten. How much stronger he’d become. How many new ways he had to break her guard. However, none of that worrying would get her any closer to her goal. The only thing she could do is take the fight to him. If it meant she won, then great. If it still isn’t enough, then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. The only thing she could do tomorrow, is take the fight to him. Compared to the Rose of ten months ago, she was now a completely different fighter and person. Her mind calmed, she decided to run the simulation one last time. Closing her eyes, she visualised Niklaus standing opposite her.
“It won’t be as easy this time.”
September 2. 6. Kingsguard Soldier Academy – Outdoor Training Area.
As Chirch and Rose finished their warmup, Chirch breathed a sigh of relief.
“You know, I was kinda worried about you when we finished training last night. You had this angsty look on your face. Kinda like this.” Chirch mimicked Rose’s pained expressions from the day before. Rose cringed a little. Did she really look like that?
“But today you’re back to normal. Just in time, as well. I guess your solo training went well, then?”
Rose smiled. “You could say that, yes.”
As the pair spoke, Rose’s opponent for the day arrived.
“Shiira Em Rose. I trust you won’t waste my time this time.”
“I wouldn’t have challenged you if things were going to go exactly the same as last time.” Rose replied confidently.
“Let’s hope you’re not all talk.” Niklaus replied, equally confident.
“Do you need me to referee for you?” Chirch asked.
“We’ll be fine.” Niklaus answered.
As Chirch made her way to the bleachers, Rose and Niklaus had their final faceoff.
“Same rules as last time okay with you?” Rose asked.
“Last one standing wins. That’s fine with me.” Niklaus replied.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The pair then walked away from each other until they were roughly ten metres apart. They turned to face each other, and bowed.
A few minutes earlier. Somwhere in the Kingsguard Soldier Academy.
“Ugh. I can’t believe you made me watch a bunch of meatheads swing swords at each other for a whole afternoon. Can we please just call it a day?” Grinnington moaned.
“I told you not to come.” Marko answered, his patience wearing thin. “But for some reason, you insist on following me.”
“I’m trying to understand the art of hand-to-hand fighting.” Grinnington announced. “For my project.”
“I know.” Marko replied.
“Then have some patience with me! It’s not my fault I was blessed with genius mathematical and scientific intellect, and zero physical intelligence! Whilst you see a mental chess game being played out with sword and shield, all I see is a bunch of sweaty muscleheads being sweaty and muscular! I simply do not understand! And I understand a lot of things!”
Marko sighed. “And you used to be a machina pilot as well. I don’t know how you managed.”
“Not just any machina pilot. The best the Academy has ever seen! My genius in the machina is only outshone by my wizardry in the lab, after all. Besides. Machina combat is easy. It’s all calculation.”
“I guarantee you, you’re the only one who sees it that way.” Marko replied.
As the pair walked through the Academy grounds, they saw two students who looked as if they were about to fight.
“Hey, Grinnington. You ready to give it one more go?”
“… Very well. I guess watching one more couldn’t hurt.”
Marko and Grinnington walked over to the outdoor training area, where Rose and Niklaus were about to start fighting. As the pair faced each other down, Grinnington noticed a young girl sitting alone on the bleachers.
“Hey, Marko. Isn’t that…”
As the pair stared, Chirch noticed them. Remembering their faces from yesterday’s assembly, she froze, her heart pounding. Why were the two recruiters here?
“Look, Grinnington. You scared her.” Marko said. If his tone of voice had any expressiveness to it, one might even say he was joking.
“Me?! It’s obviously you that scared her! With your angry face and heavy aura.” Grinnington retorted. However, Marko wasn’t standing around to listen; he walked over to Chirch. Grinnington, worried that he’d frighten the poor girl even more, ran after him.
“So. Who’s fighting?” Marko asked Chirch.
“I…. uh… My name’s Diana Chirch! It’s an honour to meet you, sir!”
Marko hesitated for a second. “… Ah. That’s right. I should probably introduce myself. I’m Marko. That idiot there is Grinnington.”
“You can’t introduce me to her as “that idiot”, Marko. That’s not fair.” Grinnington replied.
“Actually, I shouldn’t have asked you who was fighting. I already know.” Marko continued, ignoring Grinnington. “Shiira Em Rose. Class 3-1. Currently second in the Soldier Academy’s power rankings. Daughter of Kingsguard General Rio Em Rose. And… Zak Zaklaus, Class 4-2. The Academy’s top ranked soldier for the past two years. Missed recruitment week in his third year due to a muscle tear. I recognise them from the files Braveheart made me read.”
“… Zak Zaklaus?” Chirch thought. Maybe the Captain hadn’t read those files carefully enough.
“Oh. It looks like they’re about to start.”
As Marko spoke, the fight between Rose and Niklaus began. Rose, wanting to start on the front foot, immediately charged for Niklaus. Parrying her first attack, Niklaus smirked.
“Looks like it won’t be like last time, after all.”
Exchanging a series of high-speed sword attacks, the pair danced around the training arena, going blow for blow. The audience of three could feel the shockwaves from each sword clash as the Academy’s two strongest soldiers duked it out. As Chirch watched, she did her best to contain her cheers.
“So? Who’s winning?” Grinnington asked. Chirch and Marko both looked at him, bemused.
“… Oh. Forget I asked.”
“What do you think, Chirch?” Marko asked.
“Oh, me? I, uhh…” Chirch watched the pair’s movements closely. “Well, I’m biased since I’ve been training with Rose this whole time. But… at the moment, they look completely even. Neither one has taken a hit yet, and it’s not like one’s pushing the other back.”
As Chirch spoke, Rose ducked underneath one of Niklaus’ swings and stepped inside. Throwing a venomous front kick, she forced Niklaus to leap backwards. Anticipating his response, she followed up by springing towards him, punching him square in the stomach with a powerful left hand. Niklaus let out an audible grunt as Rose’s fist sent him backwards. Taking a moment to breathe, he couldn’t help but smile wryly.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Rose replied.
“Neither have you. Let’s see if you can keep up with this speed.”
The smile quickly disappearing from his face, Niklaus charged back in, upping the tempo of their match. Rose gritted her teeth as she parried his first swing. She could feel the shock in her wrist. However, she couldn’t let that faze her; parrying was her best option if she wanted to get back in the fight. As Niklaus steadily upped the tempo, Rose found herself less and less able to follow Niklaus’ movements with her eyes. She was almost surprised that she could keep up.
“Damn… he really is fast.” Chirch mumbled, concerned for her friend.
“Oh, oh… the boy is starting to swing faster. Right?” Grinnington asked Marko.
“Yes, Grinnington. But the girl is keeping up. Just.”
“So does that mean the boy wins?”
“There’s more to a fight than brute strength.” Marko replied.
As Rose parried yet another series of aggressive Niklaus swings, she realised she had to step back. The shock she was absorbing with each parry was beginning to make her wrist weaken; if she let things continue, she’d end up taking some nasty hits. She needed to create an opening. But how? She wasn’t used to fighting at this high tempo.
“Thinking so much will slow you down.” Niklaus said tauntingly. Shifting into top gear, he threw his full power behind his next swing, blowing a hole in Rose’s defence. His opponent wide open for the first time, he sheathed his blade on his back and launched a spinning side kick at top speed, one hand still on the handle of his sword. Rose, taken aback by Niklaus’ raw power, just managed to block the kick with her right leg. However, the force of the kick caused her to fall. Rose took a moment to catch her breath and check her wrist before standing back up.
“Well, I suppose that’s one hit each.” Niklaus announced, taking his sword out of its sheath. “You won’t be landing any more, though.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Rose replied confidently. “I’ve finally figured you out, Zak Niklaus.”
“A bold statement. Let’s see if you can back it up.”
Charging in once again, Niklaus launched his first, powerful swing at Rose, which she evaded. He swung again; she dodged again. Attacking her at full throttle, he put all his might behind each swing, hoping to catch his opponent out. His opponent, however, continued to weave past each of his attacks.
“Whoah…. I didn’t realise Rose could move that fast.” Chirch said, in awe of her training partner.
“She probably didn’t, either.” Marko interjected.
“Huh?” Chirch and Grinnington replied simultaneously.
“Hmm… Let me explain it this way, then. Grinnington. Do you play piano?” Marko asked.
“I had a few lessons as a child. Why?” Grinnington replied.
“When you had to learn a new piece, how did you do it?”
“Well, one section at a time. I’d look at what one hand was doing, then the other. And then I’d slowly put both hands together. And if I gave it enough time, I could play the thing at full speed. What does that have to do with this, though?”
“I’ll let you work that part out for yourself.” Marko answered.
“… Oh! I get it!” Chirch replied, the dots connecting in her head. “But that means…”
Marko nodded. “And it looks like Rose gets it too.”
As Niklaus chased Rose around the arena, unable to land a hit, he began to grow frustrated. Could she really be as fast as him? Was she faster? With each passing combination, he could feel the lactic acid building up in his muscles. Rose, sensing her opponent was tiring, took a slightly longer backstep, creating distance. Anticipating his next swing, she quickly unsheathed her sword and parried, this time pushing back slightly. As the pair clashed blades, Rose felt her confidence grow.
“Looks like I’ll be landing a few more hits after all.”
Flustered, Niklaus lost his focus for a moment. In that moment, Rose pushed back at full strength, opening his guard for the first time. Stepping in, Rose hit him with a powerful right elbow to the stomach, followed by a leg sweep. As Niklaus landed hard on his back, she stepped back, catching her breath.
“Honestly? That wasn’t even a challenge.”
Niklaus, looking up at the sky, laughed.
“You haven’t seen anything yet, Shiira em Rose.”
Niklaus stood up and adopted a fighting stance, seemingly readying his blade to strike. As Rose waited for him to approach, he began to ready up his ultimate attack. A steely focus in his eyes, he was ready to pounce.
Swinging his sword, Niklaus released a powerful air slash at Rose. Unable to react, Rose could only watch as his attack closed in on her, sending her flying backwards. The fight now over, Niklaus sheathed his blade.
“It looks like I take round two as well, Shiira.”