Korr set his stance.
Feet firm, solid.
His hands swept before him, his left wrist flipping his fist upward and locking it at his side, and his right circling before him to settle, ready, waiting, with his palm forward and his finger pointed upward. He imagined his feet sinking deep into the stone floor of the Academy courtyard and his arms reaching outward to touch the pillars that framed this space. Three long carved wooden dragons curved around each pillar. Honor. Service. Discipline.
They each climbed upward, struggling to grow as an example to the disciples, until the pillars connected to the roof of the buildings surrounding the yard.
Check your tension. Breathe. Focus.
He pulled his sight back, then set his eyes straight ahead, looking past his fingertip. In his view, one of his fellow disciples made himself ready. In contrast to Korr, his stance was motion, fluid, like the wind. His feet were light on the floor and his arms waved, constant and slow, in front of him. In Korr’s peripheral vision he saw two more fellow disciples, one to his right, setting the stance of the monkey, and another, to his left, spinning a long smooth staff until she snapped it into place pointed down toward her own outstretched foot.
Behind them stood his master, leaning on a craggy wooden cane. His old and wrinkled face was harsh and stoic, a long white beard hanging off his chin as if it were sinking roots deep into the earth below. Parith, Eddiwarth, and Illariel stood as honored guests on either side of the master.
When Korr and his friends had arrived at the Academy the day before, the other disciples had bustled around him in welcome and met the party. The sight of Ari among them had, at first, frightened the disciples. Still, they quickly summoned the master, who eagerly embraced Korr. The master then further surprised them all by having a chittering, clapping, and stomping conversation with the spider.
The studies of the afternoon were dismissed and everyone enjoyed meeting the travelling party and hearing of Korr’s quest. The others of his cohort were especially excited. They had all returned from their quests months before, and had all done their tests and received their advancement marks.
They and all of the other disciples of the Academy quietly stood at the edges of the courtyard. Everyone’s eyes were set on Korr.
It was Korr’s time of testing, his chance to prove himself before the master. Am I worthy of advancement? Can I show my strength? How much have I learned in the time I was gone. It was nearly a year. Most of the others returned from their quests in a matter of months.
He studied his opponents. How much have they learned while I was in Emberfire?
Maybe I should use fire stance. That might be more adaptable. He shifted his feet, sliding them into the new place. No. Stone stance is more defensive. He started to move back, but before he could he noticed a s;ight motion of the master’s head, a quiet nod, almost imperceptible. The other disciples saw it, too, and stepped in.
The first attack came as a high fast kick from the right. Korr jerked his arm to quickly block it. He shifted back and dropped his other hand to stop the staff swinging low from the left. He spun to the right, still shifting backward and blocking strikes.
Quick! Back to the stance. Focus! Breathe!
A punch landed hard into his side, stealing his breath. It drove him further away and shifted him off-balance. The center disciple breezed in, spinning and sweeping. Korr tried to follow his hands as they flowed and barely managed to block and avoid two fast attacks before falling into the far line of disciples at the edge of the courtyard.
The master quickly tapped his cane on the ground. It was quiet, but everyone recognized the signal to pause.
Korr righted himself with the help of the watching disciples around him. He breathed hard for a moment with his hands on his knees. Raising his head up, he looked into the hopeful but concerned faces of his friends. Parith stood with his arms crossed, giving an even gaze and a reassuring nod. Illariel’s hands were clamped tight into Parith’s arm in an anxious death grip. She jumped and danced on her tiptoes. Eddiwarth looked tense and uncertain, but trying not to intervene. He clapped his hands together. Maybe it was a show of support, or perhaps a way to just shake out his own tension.
Korr dropped his head again. I don’t deserve advancement. I should just step down now.
I must at least finish the test. Perhaps I just need more time, more study. Korr lifted up straight and walked to his place in the center of the courtyard, then set himself into the stone stance, feet firm, arms strong.
The other disciples moved again into their places, their stances. Once again the master nodded.
Korr feinted to the left, forcing the girl into a quick defensive response before he lept to the right and drove a strike at the disciple there. His opponent swept it aside with a smooth stroke and countered with an undercut. Korr blocked the attack and they each stepped back momentarily.
A wave of motion to Korr’s left drew him to shield himself from another incoming strike, this one higher up, like the wind blowing in at his head. He yanked his neck back and his opponent’s flowing hand barely missed his cheek. The move shifted his balance, however, and the staff of the third disciple struck the back of his right leg and swept it up. A solid punch from the man on the right hit his chest and Korr dropped over, landing with his back on the hard stone floor with a loud grunt.
The opposing disciples stepped back, dropped their stances and bowed to Korr then turned to bow to the master. The one on the left stepped over to Korr and offered her hand to help him up.
Korr lay on his back and closed his eyes. After all this, I fail. I’ve been nearly killed twice. I’ve fought through elves, drakes, and dragons. And now I fail.
He opened his eyes to see the girl’s smiling face and outstretched hand.
I’ve fought dragons.
He reached up to her. Another of the disciples in the test stepped up beside her. “You fought well, Korr.” He said.
No. I didn’t. When I fought the elves I fought well. When I fought the dragons I fought well. When I fought for my friends I fought well.
This is not over. I am not done. The master has not yet signaled.
He sucked in a breath and surged his will. It burned in his gut. He reached up for her hand, but grabbed her wrist instead, pulling her down toward him. He raised his foot to her midline and rolled back, tossing her over him. They both tumbled away, each easily rolling back to their feet.
Korr landed in a solid stance and immediately shifted to the right. His focus was sharp, and the world was suddenly more clear.
I am Korr, Dragonfighter.