AUTHOR'S NOTES: I apologize that this is late. I will make a note to update this story on the next two Sundays.

The Essence of Villainy

Chapter 3: Minor squabble (2)

After Allen and Irina came across an elderly Brother - and after Irina had ordered the man to carry Allen's things to the kitchens for safekeeping - the two proceeded to the courtyard. Outside the safety of the building's marble walls, the freezing wind of the Northern Claw was free to assault the novice, piercing through his thick, brown robes.

Allen instinctively rubbed his arms. Oh, how he missed the kitchens; its heat and the secret afternoon snacks.

"Do not loiter, Monk."

Allen blinked, then started to wade through the snow that reached up to his knees. Irina followed closely behind, uttering no sign of displeasure at the snowfall even with her relatively thin attire. Small specks of snow occasionally landed on Allen's nose, taunting him to sneeze.

As the two circled around the main building, Allen took a look at the surroundings. Resting in the shadow of the high stone walls were a carpenter's workshop, a spinner's abode, and even a tannery - the last building had been situated further away, what with the abominable smell that would reach its peak during the summer.

Allen took a path leading down, circling around bare mountain face. The main building, affectionately called "The Sanctum" by the monks, loomed far above obscuring the sun. The path that Allen had taken was fringed by the wall, and buildings were less prominent here. Down at the end of the pebble road waited a wide field hedged by the outer wall. The novices there were arrayed in pairs, practicing their throws and holds and trying to pin down their opponent. Upon reaching their objective, the novices would never move on to snap the pinned limb or neck despite having been taught how to do it - this was just practice, even if some students were quite intent on roughhousing each other.

...I don't hear the sound of crunching snow anymore, Allen thought. He turned to look, and saw that Irina had stopped some ways back, hand to her chin as she observed the monks.

A white-clad woman on a white-clad mountain, Allen thought. Now he wasn't an artist, but even he knew that by adding a little bit of red, the scene would make for a good painting. Even if her face has seen better days.

The shouts and groans from the proving grounds grew less pronounced. Some novices were looking up at the new arrivals. And why wouldn't they look at her? Allen thought. A woman in the proving grounds. And in Bastion, no less.

A few novices started whispering to each other like old housewives, but some still wrestled one another. Brother Conrad stood in the distance, his hands crossed and a stern expression to his face. Soon, the older monk began wading into the midst of the novices like a militia sergeant. "Sparring regimen!" he shouted. "Kicks and punches! Stop dawdling around, you novices!"

As Allen observed Brother Conrad, the older monk happened to glance up. There was a sharp edge to his features, an emotion of undecipherable nature. Then it was gone. Conrad went back to kicking the novices' buttocks to "straighten their posture" and all tension seemed to evaporate into thin air.

That is, until Irina walked past Allen, making her way down towards the grounds. Most novices had been overtaken by the thrill of hand-to-hand combat, and would pay Irina no more attention, but Allen suspected that Conrad would take the woman's approach as a personal insult.

Just like he takes every other action, Allen concluded, setting down the path in Irina's wake.

Soon upon reaching the edge of the proving grounds, Irina stopped. Her sandal-wearing feet were buried deep into the snow, yet she wasn't even shivering. "Monk," she said, her eyes transfixed on the sparring novices.

"Yes?" Allen asked, coming to a stop some distance away from her. He wouldn't get caught walking near her again, if he could help it.

"Do you practice martial arts?" Irina asked.

"Yes, well..." Allen said. "Every Brother does... to an extent."

Irina turned to face Allen. "Show me," she said, beckoning to him with her calloused hand.

"Uh, I am not sure if I should..." Allen said. "I mean, you should ask one of the others to spar with you. Brother Conrad-"

"No, Monk. Come at me." Her eyes gauged Allen with determined intent. As the novice still idled, she added, with a tinkle of softness to her eyes, "I can take it, Monk."

Allen sighed. It's true, she might be a fighter… but I don't think I-

He heard the sound of crunching snow, and, looking up, saw Irina dashing at him with a speed marred only by her sandals. As Allen brought his arms up to defend, Irina drew back her clenched right hand.

She's going for a big hit. Allen lowered his guard a bit to defend his solar plexus, but the woman's left-handed palm strike caught him by surprise, connecting with his chest - normally a blow of no concern, the attack sent Allen back reeling. "Guh-"

A solid roundhouse kick connected to his side - an awful, stumbling fall and few breathless seconds later Allen lay in the snow, unsure if he had a few broken ribs. "Anodyne's... sword… what just happened?"

"You just died," Irina said, stalking up to Allen. "T'was a sorry excuse for valor."

Allen shook his head as he got up onto his feet. She's not just some woman. Slowly, he looked up. Irina had turned her back on him and was walking further away. After creating some distance between them, she turned around and took a stance. Before, she hadn't even bothered to.

Allen felt a rush of fear as he adopted a quick fighting stance; his legs further apart and hands closer together. His uneven breaths were creating puffs of vapour in the cold air.

Irina hardly appeared out of breath. "I see you know some basics," she said, nodding. "Your stance is low, your balance probably won't be easily disrupted. I see why you didn't lose lose your balance immediately after my first blow."

Allen gritted his teeth, pain flaring through his chest and side. "Just what kind of warrior uses their palm to hit someone?" he demanded, feeling his temper flaring up with his hurt. "That attack should've felt like a slap – but it was like a pickaxe, or a warhammer."

"If that had been a warhammer, you'd be missing more than your breath," Irina said. "And I see that you lack knowledge of the other disciplines." She lowered her stance, her arms drawing a wider arc around her. "Then again, you are from the North - chill winds have always fashioned brutish people."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"I'll show you when, and how, palms are superior to fists. I never use this style in conjunction with my sword, however. It doesn't go well with armoured gauntlets."

Irina kicked off her sandals, and they landed into the snow nearby - two jutting pieces of wood and leather. Then she dashed, her steps smooth and graceful - like those of a noblewoman, or perhaps a festival dancer. In any case, Allen felt like he had time to react now.

He dashed in, leading with an upper feint. The woman tilted her head - probably to dodge - but Allen changed his momentum at the last moment, putting all of his strength behind a left-handed gut-blow, instead.

A sudden, stinging backhand hit his nose. Disoriented, Allen still managed to finish his strike, connecting with... air. His vision clearing, Allen saw that the woman had crouched extremely low, her hands close to the ground. Allen went for a kick, aiming at her face.

The next instant Irina was extending herself upward, her right palm leading the way just as Allen's kick connected with her left knee. She groaned, but her extending palm strike connected with its intended target: Allen's chin.

His consciousness literally rattling from the blow, Allen didn't even feel his body hit the ground. There was just a profound headache, and then, silence.