Like clockwork, he awoke before the sun had risen. Damn PROXY and his commitment to routine.
Ah, PROXY. Wonder how he's doing.
Was he back in hibernation, joining his Master in whatever death was left for droids, never to reawaken? Or was he watching over Rean even now, a silent guardian?
…yeah, like that would ever happen. If he were to return to Erebonia, it would likely be only to attempt to kill him in his sleep, just to test whether or not Rean kept up with his training.
Well, then. Shower, and then drills. He could skip the meditation for this morning, given how much of an itch he'd worked up from not having done proper combat practice for the first time in eight years.
He felt a little silly, emerging from his room with the helmet already on his head, wearing his night-clothes and carrying both his toiletries and the usual training attire he would change into. Thankfully, this early, no one should be awake, even Fie. He could –
"Good morning to you, Master Galen!"
"Gah!" he jumped, startled, as Sharon somehow eluded his senses once more. It was only on focusing hard that he realised that yes, she was still visible to the Force. She stood to the side, smiling innocently, as though it wasn't still currently well before dawn, and that no maid, no matter how industrious they were, should be awake at this ungodly time.
"Stop doing that!"
"Doing what, Master Galen?"
"You know what? Never mind." He sighed, walking toward the toilet. Sharon continued following him. "Forget why you're awake; why are you following me to the bathroom?"
"I was wondering if you would require assistance in washing your –"
"No." At this point, he wondered if Sharon's façade was just being kept up for her personal amusement. Though they thought him an old fart in his thirties or forties, he was very much a seventeen-year-old boy completely isolated from civilisation for more than half his life, and no amount of meditation over the Jedi code could control his biological responses to that sort of provocation.
Hell, if even Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Master in all but title, could succumb to temptation that plagued all organics as he had with Padme Amidala, there was no way Rean could fully subdue his body's hormones.
"Very well, then. I shall have a meal ready for you after you finish with your shower. Know that I am most willing to wash up any stains if you see any need to –"
Ignore ignore ignore. Hurriedly, he sped off to the toilet, slamming the door shut. He made sure to take the extra time needed in the shower to calm his mind down.
When he was finally finished with his shower, it was Galen Marek that emerged from the bathroom, not Rean Schwarzer. Double checking that helmet, vambraces, shoulder-guards, robes and lightsabers were on his person, he made his way down the stairs.
…only to come face to face with a venerable feast spread before him on the table.
"Why, Sharon," he groaned. "Why?"
"I heard from Master Elliot yesterday about how famished you were back in Heimdallr. I took the liberty of ensuring that you are well-fed during your stay in the Class VII dormitory."
"Is this all really necessary?"
"It would reflect poorly on the Reinford name if one of Lady Alisa's guests was not treated to the best of my ability." She bowed. "Please, accept this offer of breakfast. Unless it is not to your liking?"
She smiled serenely, hands clasped in front of her. Damn Sharon. Somehow, she knew all the right buttons to push.
Just who was this person masquerading as a maid?
Mentally, he swore never to allow Sara, Sharon, Olivert and PROXY to meet. The greater galaxy would implode upon itself.
He exposed the lower half of his helmet, then took his first mouthful of food –
Sharon knew how much he enjoyed the food. He glared at her. "I don't know whether to hate or love you."
"Such a relationship is most prohibited among –"
"Definitely the former, now." He resolved not to make conversation for the rest of the meal. That way lay madness.
When he was done, he was surprised by just how much he'd eaten. PROXY would have berated him for such gluttony.
"I am glad you enjoy the meal, Master Galen. Please allow me to wash up."
"Are you sure?" He frowned. There were quite a lot of plates that he'd singlehandedly cleared, and using the Force to telekinetically clean them was a fairly trivial task.
Of course, Jedi and Sith alike would frown upon using the divine power of the Force for something so frivolous as simple chores.
"Go ahead, Master Galen," she confirmed. "I am only most happy to serve."
"If you're sure, then." He nodded at her gratefully, then left the dormitory. Sara had made mention of an academy field somewhere within Thors, and he was determined to get in some quality practice with the forms.
He made his way over to the academy field, pausing only briefly to admire the sight of the gates to Thors Military Academy proper. Sara had informed him he would have a meeting with Principal Vandyck later in the day to discuss arrangements for the near future, and he presumed he would have time to unleash his childhood excitement over the thought of stepping into Thors when the time came.
He placed himself in the middle of the field, stretching his senses in the Force, feeling the sheer sense of life stirring all around him. He lost himself in the Force, moving as it willed, sinking into the motions of the lightsaber forms.
Shii-Cho. Freedom of movement.
Makashi. Elegance, poise, control.
Soresu. An impenetrable fortress.
Ataru. Relentless and unceasing.
Shien. Tempered aggression.
He was about to begin transitioning into the movements of Form VI, about an hour after he began practice, when he was suddenly acutely aware of a second person joining him in the field. A bright beacon within the Force, he didn't even need to turn to look to know who it was.
"You're here early," he spoke without so much as turning to Elise, as he twirled a single vibroblade, the other still untouched. Single saber variants first, then double sabers after.
"Thought I should get some training in," she responded, lightly stretching before unsheathing her tachi. "The mess in Heimdallr only showed that I need to improve further."
There was an almost zealous determination in her now, but he was worried it might be too much for her. Striving to protect others as she'd professed to that night in the guild was one thing, willingly sacrificing her life for others was another.
"You still have years ahead of you," he said, taking a temporary reprieve from training. Under his helmet, a sheen of sweat had built up, but he was hardly about to remove it just so he could wipe it off. "For someone only fifteen years old, you've already achieved a lot."
"Fie's fifteen too," she argued.
"Both of you are formidable fighters for your age. There's no need to rush things."
"I know," she said, focusing on the air in front of her momentarily, before drawing her sword in a fast strike. Rean studied her form closely. There were openings, certainly, but master Ka-fai had clearly trained her well.
"I know," she repeated, slightly frustrated. "It's just… I need to get stronger. After Heimdallr, and that talk about Rean over dinner, I just…"
She trailed off. He understood that almost paradoxical mix of drive and loss. It was what sustained him all those years on the moon, training for the day when he'd finally be able to see his family again.
Funny how things turned out. Here he was now, in front of his sister, yet in all respects a complete stranger, powerless to help the one he wanted to most.
What had all his training even been for?
He observed her movements closely as she proceeded through the drills of the Eight Leaves school of swordsmanship. He didn't know much about the style beyond what he'd eavesdropped from when master Ka-fai had visited Father, but he did know that it drew influences from a variety of different eastern styles, distilling their qualities in a manner that balanced their strengths and weaknesses.
As he studied Elise now, he could see some essence of that philosophy shining through. Her movements were well-controlled, without a heavy emphasis on either defense or offense. At the same time, there was no mistaking the deadliness at its heart.
"Which style is that?" he couldn't refrain from asking. The legendary swordsman's style was something he'd always wondered about, and he wanted to know about how it compared to the ways of the lightsaber.
"This is the second form of the Eight Leaves," Elise replied between forceful exhalations as her blade sliced through the air. "Gale."
He could certainly see why it had that name. "Fast and precise strikes with sweeping movements, while still maintaining control and not compromising on balance. Excellent at taking down multiple targets."
In a way, it was almost like Niman, with how much it emphasised on balance without overcommitment. Even within Niman there were many variant styles; Cin Drallig's take on it with heavy influences from Makashi was vastly different from Starkiller's preferred version that drew on his mastery of Shien.
"You saw through all that so fast?" she asked, surprised.
"One of my forms works in a similar way," he admitted. He needed to analyse his opponents quickly, since PROXY had literally hundreds of modules each with their own unique styles at his disposal. Still, he could sense that there was something else that Elise still hadn't demonstrated. "Would you mind showing me it in action?"
For a moment she didn't speak, eyes closed in concentration, then –
She dashed through the air, slashing at imaginary targets, then returned to the original spot she stood in all in an instant, before sheathing her tachi once more. In that moment, he felt the Force surge through her, empowering her as though with a burst of Force Speed.
"Was that a craft?"
"Yeah," she panted. "I'm still trying to iron out the kinks."
"Hmm," he hummed in consideration for a moment. "Let me try something…" He couldn't quite replicate the exact workings of her form, but…
He gave a few experimental swings of his blade, feeling out how he wanted his own adaptation of Elise's demonstration to work. At its core, speed, precision and an ability to deal with multiple targets were its purposes.
Lightsaber combat didn't factor in the art of rapid blade-drawing in its use, and so he couldn't copy his sister's exact movements. What he could do to boost his speed and reach, though, was to make use of the sole advantage he had over those of Erebonia.
A deep understanding of the Force.
He drew on the Force, letting its energies diffuse every fiber of his being, picturing the variation of a technique he'd performed thousands of times over.
Then, in a flash, he struck, chaining the signature pushing slash that was a staple of Form Six multiple times, sending gales of Force energy at his chosen imaginary opponents. The air shimmered just a slight tinge of blue as they passed, a torrent of leaves swept along in their wake.
"You copied my technique," Elise half-accused, half-stated. "That was Gale."
"It was inspired by your form, but I adapted it from a sequence I learnt before," he corrected. "More importantly, though – I think I might be able to help you improve your own technique, and mine as well."
The frown that creased her face deepened for a moment as she processed the words, before her eyes widened with realisation, already preparing her blade as she stood before him in a ready stance.
It seemed that Rean could help his sister, after all.
And so it was that they began sparring, Niman against Gale; brother against sister. Elise had demanded for him not to hold back, but there was no way he could simply go through with that.
Instead, he mimicked PROXY as best he could, pushing her to her very limits without immediately ending the fight. There really wasn't much benefit to her learning if he simply disarmed her with a sun djem right from the get-go, beyond heightening her already profound sense of frustration.
It was only the ringing of the bell that broke them out of their intense spar, Elise's face flushed red with sweat while Rean hadn't been pushed just quite as far. For the duration of their battle, she had felt at peace for the first time since he'd met her in the flesh in Heimdallr, her soul no longer weighed down by the mess of emotions that had built up, focused entirely only on facing Galen Marek in combat.
In some ways, it was almost reminiscent of those bygone halcyon days back in Ymir.
"Good fight," he said, catching his breath as he secured his vibroblade onto his back.
"Same to you," she panted. "I still wish you didn't hold back, though."
"You could tell?"
She snorted, a stark contrast to the girl he'd known ages ago. Time had truly changed them both. "You managed to beat G and the Zoro-Agruga singlehandedly. There's no chance that you weren't holding back in our spar."
"Fair enough," he acquiesed. "I hope it was fruitful, though."
"Very," she affirmed. Her eyes gazed into empty space, as she reflected over their short duel. "You highlighted the flaw in my guard during the first engagement, and showed me how the form could be changed and adapted for a more single-target focus. There are some elements of your take on Gale that I might incorporate into my own form, actually."
"Glad to help." He smiled fondly, as she grew more thoughtful and yet excited with each word she spoke. "I hope to spar with you again soon."
"You can count on it." She smiled brightly, nodding slightly toward him. His heart wrenched, a bittersweet sensation, as look alone almost made him want to blurt out the secret he'd been keeping from her. "Next time, I'll make sure you don't hold back."
She'd always been the type to think things over and act cautiously, acting as the perfect foil to a younger Rean's foolhardy nature. Now, that thoughtfulness was being channeled into a different aspect, analyzing her mistakes and allowing meaningful reflection.
"Oi!" Suddenly, Sara appeared from the corner of the field, a meat skewer held in one hand as she snacked in it, looking at the pair of them. Startled, Elise stumbled backward.
Sara took a moment to take a bite of what he assumed was her breakfast, swallowing purposefully before continuing, a strange gleam in her eyes. "Galen! I thought I told you not to fraternise with my students? I know little Elise is a real catch, but I'll have you know that she's only fifteen and –"
"- you've already gotten her all hot and bothered." She wiggled her brows, gesturing to Elise's face. Was it his imagination, or was it now becoming redder than it'd been?
Wait, no – this was not territory he wanted to venture in. Teasing him over the other students was one thing, but Elise was his sister, damn it!
Sara's smirk widened at her student's obvious discomfort. "In fact, you've distracted her so much that she's now late for class."
"Late for –" Elise blurted our, then withdrew her ARCUS to check the time, before letting loose an expletive. Who knew that his sister could have developed such a vile tongue? "Sorry Galen, got to go, bye!"
With that, she dashed off toward the direction of the main school complex.
"…I can assure you, Sara, we were only sparring."
"Sparring. Riiiiiiight," Sara drawled, although her tone made it clear that she was just trying to get a rise out of him. "Pretty sure my star student isn't going to be late for class because of sparring."
"Why are you here, anyway?" He tried changing the subject. "Aren't you meant to be their teacher?"
"Pssh, those kids can study a little on their own. A hungry instructor's an angry instructor." She waved the skewer around, small fragments of food flaking off. "It's been, what, almost five months now? No need to break the nice routine we've set up."
"… did Elise even realise that?"
"Ehh, she'll figure it out once she gets to class and they all start grumbling about me being late again," she said nonchalantly, eating the last of her breakfast. "Such impatient kids, really. Anyway, since you're here, you should know that old Vandyck's free to see you any time today."
Excellent. Perhaps he would soon be able to start making preparations for what he would do to make sense of the Force vision.
"Thanks for the update," he said. "I'll see him immediately."
"No rush, no rush," she waved him off, then tilted her head curiously to one side. "In all seriousness, though: when did you and Elise get so chummy? She took a whole month before finally training regularly with Laura. Before that, she was a secretive, antisocial, grumbly mess. Maybe worse than Fie, even."
"Really?" That was news to him. Elise had been shy as a child, but he didn't get that impression from her since his return.
"Mmhmm," she hummed. "She's loads better now, of course, but I could barely get her to talk at the beginning! Me! Can you believe that?"
"Bah, you're no fun," she grumbled. "Fact stays the same though. She trusts you, and you better not do anything to hurt her."
Her tone took on a warning quality toward the end. Seemed like Elise had a little guardian angel of her own, although he would never verbally associate Sara with an angel.
She took a moment longer to stare searchingly at him. Satisfied, she broke away, burping loudly. "Alright, then! Time to get some knowledge down the brains of those students of mine!"
Without a further word, she strolled toward the school complex.
Well, he'd better get a move on, too. Slowly, he trailed behind her, making his way through the main building to where Principal Vandyck's office was situated.
"Galen Marek, I presume," Principal Vandyck greeted. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I heard from Instructor Valestein how you saved the lives of some of our students and foiled the plans of the Imperial Liberation Front. You have my thanks."
"It was my pleasure," Rean said to the heavily built man, who despite his whitened hair and thick beard and mustache still gave off a sense of youthful power. He'd heard of the principal in the past, how he'd been a former general that turned to educating the younger generation after his military days were over.
Excitement at meeting an idol of his could wait. Best get on with the real reason why he was meeting the principal. "I assume that Sara also mentioned why I have requested to tag along to Trista?"
"Straight to business, then?" He chuckled. "Instructor Valestein did say you were the serious type."
"Did she, now?" Gossiping about him, was she?
"I believe her exact words were 'fun to tease'," he quoted dryly. "Congratulations. I believe you've garnered her attention for some time, if what she's told me about your bike is true."
"Thanks for the warning."
"On to matters, then. Sara has mentioned that you were keen on making use of the resources available within the academy, as well as Trista, to find out more about Erebonia."
"That is correct," he said. "My knowledge of the empire and the other powers of Zemuria has been rusty, of late. I hope to remedy that deficiency."
"You must come from some ways off, if you are unaware of recent events happening in Erebonia."
Was he probing into Rean's background? He tried to read the man, but Vandyck remained utterly emotionless, sitting in his chair serenely as he waited for Rean's response.
"Do not fret," Vandyck calmly reassured him. "If you do not wish to speak of it, I won't pry. I've certainly dealt with a fair many people with a past they were initially unwilling to reveal."
He chuckled lightly. Was this some sort of inside joke Rean wasn't privy to?
"Ah, but I digress," he continued saying. "If you wish to make use of our facilities here, you are more than welcome to do so. So long as you do not intend harm of any of her students, Thors' doors shall forever remain open to any of her friends."
"That's very generous of you. Thank you."
"There is a matter that has come to my attention, however," Vandyck began after a moment's pause. "Sara has informed me that you lack the mira to find a place of your own."
"It shouldn't remain a problem for too long. Once I am settled down here, I intend to hunt nearby monsters for septium."
"Were you anyone else, I would strongly advise against that course of action, lest your hubris and overconfidence lead to your death." The principal smiled faintly. "Sara and Prince Olivert have spoken favourably of you, however. The prince was particularly adamant that you remain in Trista even if, I quote, you chose to 'break the hearts of the fair maidens of Trista by having relations with a bike'."
Rean sighed heavily. Even far away from the capital, the prince still found ways to reinforce his views that Erebonians had collectively lost all sanity. "I can assure you, that will not happen."
Not just because he wasn't in the least bit attracted to his master's hoverbike, but also simply due to the fact that pursuing a relationship was the last thing he wanted at this moment. He just didn't have the time for such frivolous matters.
Yes, he was painfully aware that he had been isolated from all civilisation for half his life, but he had more important matters on his mind now. There was some sort of impending catastrophe about to befall some as-yet unknown location that may or may not be within Erebonia, and Elise was somehow going to be caught within the crossfire.
"I assumed as much. Olivert can be quite difficult to deal with at times –"
"Really? Didn't notice," Rean muttered under his breath.
"- but he has a mind far sharper than many think him to possess. In fact, he graduated as the top of this academy just short of eight years ago now."
Huh. Rean supposed that despite the flippant attitude the prince presented, there was a certain wit and a keen mind buried within.
"In fact, he has put in a request regarding the handling of your current situation, and one I am carefully considering."
"Oh?" Rean piqued up, intrigued.
"Indeed," Vandyck said, then rose to stand from his chair. Now, at his full height, Rean could see why he was every bit the renowned military general respected by friend and foe alike. "Walk with me."
He strode over to the door to his office, opening it, then beckoned for Rean to follow. Seeing no other alternative, he did as he was bidden, curious as to where Vandyck was driving this conversation.
They made their way through the corridors of the academy, already bustling with activity in the quiet hours of the morning. Classes were in full swing, latecomers hurriedly dashing to their classrooms, pausing momentarily in fear when they came across the principal chancing upon their tardiness. It was only after he waved them on that they could heave a sigh of relief.
"Students do tend to be somewhat tardy after the celebrations in the festival," Vandyck explained. "Besides, I can hardly fault them for being late, when the noble students haven't yet returned to the academy."
"It gets busier than this?" As things were, he could hear teachers going about their respective lessons across many of the classrooms they passed by.
"Oh, yes," the principal replied. "Some of them have chosen to remain, but most of classes I and II have elected so escape the summer heat."
That seemed as good an opportunity to ask the question he'd been wondering about. "Speaking of classes – do the numbers mean anything?"
"Tradition has dictated that noble students are placed in classes I and II, while commoners are allocated to classes III, IV and V," he said, walking slowly. "Class VII is a more recent initiative to help bridge the gap between the upper and lower classes."
"The students have mentioned that to me," he said. Then, curious, he asked, "What about class VI?"
Vandyck stopped, turned to look at him, and sighed heavily. "There is no class VI."
"…Olivert?" There was only one man who could have concocted something so pointlessly ridiculous, was in a sufficiently high position to influence the school's decisions, and had a track record of a poor sense of humour.
"Indeed," Vandyck said tiredly. Rean got the sense that the venerable retired general knew far better than most how much the prince could test one's patience. "Let us not dwell on the matter any longer."
Rean nodded, and they continued walking once more. He was led down the staircase, and it seemed that Vandyck was intending to bring him out of the main complex. Near the door, however, they chanced upon a man with faintly red-pink hair, wearing thick spectacles who brightened up immediately after seeing the pair.
"Ah! Principal Vandyck! Lovely to see you, as always!"
The words came as a rapid flowing stream, brimming with enthusiasm and energy. He looked at Rean, faltered for a moment, then smiled widely. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure of meeting yet, good sir! Thomas Lysander, at your service." He bowed with a flourish.
"Galen Marek," Rean introduced. "I'm –"
"Ah! You must be the one that my dear colleague Sara mentioned yesterday!" He looked at Vandyck for confirmation. "How splendid! She mentioned that you came from far to the east! I hope we will be able to exchange stories some time, no?"
Colleague, huh? The man seemed to a little of a blabbermouth and perhaps more than a little carefree, but he exuded an educated air. He could sense that despite his friendly and harmless demeanor, the man was powerful. If nothing else, he at least seemed more qualified than Sara to teach. "What exactly do you teach?"
"How rude of me!" He gasped. "I apologise. I educate the fine young minds of this academy in the fields of literature and history."
"History, you say?" That caught his attention. History was something he was sorely lacking in, and if he was going to make sense of his vision it would be his first port of call. "I was hoping to learn a little more about Erebonia and her neighbours some time. Would you mind –"
Suddenly, he was profoundly aware of how the instructor's eyes seemed as though to dilate even behind the thick glass of his lenses, breathing heavily. He stepped forward, making to clutch at Rean's hand, but Rean hurriedly retreated.
"Oh boy," he heard Vandyck sigh heavily.
"At last!" Instructor Thomas' voice took on a near-manic quality, wavering in excitement. "Someone interested in history! Fret not, Galen Marek! We shall soon be able to bring you up to speed!" He paced around, eyes glazed over, and Rean was beginning to think he'd made a very big mistake.
"Oh, but where to start, where to start indeed…" Thomas muttered under his breath, as though no longer aware of those around him. "Perhaps the Hundred Day War? But no, no, that wouldn't do, we would need to cover the geopolitical situation between Liberl and Erebonia first; so maybe then the very beginning with Dreichels' War of the Lions? But perhaps that's a little too far back, I'm sure you already know all about the legendary emperor's exploits, no matter how far away you come from, after all –"
Vandyck tried coughing politely once during his staff member's impromptu monologue, but failed to obtain any response. Failing that, he resorted to clearing his throat loudly. It was only then that the instructor finally paused, looking at the principal with confusion.
"Apologies, Instructor Thomas," Vandyck said, sounding only mildly sorry. "I was hoping to bring Mister Marek here for a tour of the school grounds."
Was that all? He meant no disrespect – Thors was every bit he'd imagined it to be and more – but why was he hiding the proposal that Olivert suggested behind such secrecy? Why couldn't he just discuss the matter with Rean directly?
"Oh, but of course!" Thomas said, a knowing gleam in his eyes. His head bobbed rapidly as he nodded at Rean. "Do enjoy your stay here in the academy, Mister Marek. I look forward to seeing you again very soon, and perhaps swapping tales of –"
"Instructor." Vandyck cut him off.
With a final apologetic glance at the pair, Thomas headed toward the staff room. The principal glanced at Rean, beginning to explain just what in the Force's name had happened.
"Instructor Thomas can be a little overbearing, at times," he explained. "His passion for history may sometimes be a little too much for some of his students. Nevertheless, he is the premier expert in all matters pertaining to the history and culture of Erebonia and beyond."
If Rean was being honest? Between being accosted by Olivert or Thomas, he would readily choose the latter. At least the instructor seemed to be oblivious about the effect he had on others.
"It's no trouble, really. I might take him up on his offer to learn more about Erebonia."
"A wise decision," Vandyck said, putting that topic to a close. He gestured at the door. "Shall we?"
Rean nodded, and they continued their tour of the academy grounds once more.
He was shown around to the gymnasium, watching briefly as a class engaged in swimming lessons (apparently a highlight for those who stayed in the academy over summer). With classes in session, the training room for the fencing club was empty, but he was told that it was particularly popular among the upper-class students.
Next came the student council building. There wasn't much of a point showing him inside, since the various clubs operating within weren't gathering during the school day, and Vandyck had just briefly mentioned that there was where he could purchase supplies if ever necessary. Likewise, the auditorium was closed off, and he was told that it was only ever really used for formal assemblies or events.
The engineering building had caught his interest. After listening to PROXY's whining and grumbling about how backwards Erebonian society was, he had come to develop a slight interest in understanding orbal technology, a field that had never really caught his eye as a child. Now, though, with a keen understanding of the inner workings of his lightsabers, at least a passing knowledge for maintenance of his hoverbike, and some theoretical background understanding of technology seen in the days of the Galactic Republic where PROXY had managed to find time to fit lessons in, he wanted to know just how orbal technology compared with what he was used to during his training with PROXY.
Of course, that was lower in his priority list when compared to his primary goal of obtaining information that could guide his next steps.
He was next shown to the library, and he was immediately taken by the sheer number of books within it. It had only two floors, but shelves upon shelves of books were stacked neatly within, a couple of students already taking the opportunity to study between their classes. A brief glance at the directory revealed that their catalogue ranged from instructional manuals on swordplay and more obscure combat crafts, to highly academic fields such as orbal theory, and more importantly, a record of all the major events in Erebonian recent history.
"There will be time to return later," Vandyck chided lightly, when Rean had been about to sit down and peruse a few books whose titles caught his eye. "For now, there is something else I wish to show you."
Reluctantly, he set down the copy of Orbal Revolution and You, following Vandyck out of the library. Principal Vandyck was leading him to what he recognised as the academy field, but now that there was a chance Rean wanted to ask something that had been bothering him throughout the tour.
"What is that over there?" He pointed to a distant corner of the school grounds that the principal had skipped over during the tour. To his senses in the Force, it felt off somehow, chaotic and yet orderly, a swirling mess of energy coalescing and dispersing.
The closest thing he could think of that it may be was a Force Nexus, but such places of power were exceedingly rare, and even Starkiller was unclear as to how they could be formed. Some theorised that the Dark Side nexus of Korriban was created as a direct result of the congregation of the Sith there, while others argued that the Sith came to Korriban precisely because of its potency and overwhelming connection with the Dark Side.
This didn't feel quite the same as Starkiller had described, though. It felt neither light nor dark, and instead more of a whirlpool of power, swirling and condensing within, light and dark mixed in equal measure to give the peculiar sensation of a location where the Force flowed freely.
"Oh?" Vandyck sounded surprised, but his expression betrayed none of his thoughts. "That is the old schoolhouse. It's been abandoned for quite some time, and only recently used for Class VII's initiation test. Is there something wrong?"
He was probing, Rean could tell. He could lie and say that he was just curious, or…
"It's hard to explain," he began to say. "It pricks at my senses, for lack of a better description."
He was toeing a dangerous line, but aside from simply blurting out everything he knew of the Force or outright denying that anything felt wrong, he didn't have many other options. He needed Vandyck's trust, at least for now, until he could think of a better plan.
"Interesting," Vandyck mused, then straightened his posture. How that was even possible for the stern military man, Rean had no clue. "Class VII's investigation into the schoolhouse has uncovered some strange mysteries. The complex seems to change each time they enter, and new monsters appear within with each passing month."
"Monsters?" That didn't quite make sense with his former theory. Force nexuses could attract and morph the local wildlife, but he seemed to be suggesting that monsters were being created within.
"Unfortunately, I know scarcely more than you do," Vandyck said. "Class VII investigates the schoolhouse each month during their free day, led by young Miss Schwarzer. If anyone would know any further information regarding its mysteries, I believe it would be her."
…Elise was investigating this oddity in the Force?
"I'll ask her. Thank you."
"If your curiosity is sated for now, then, shall we proceed?"
Rean nodded. Vandyck proceeded toward the academy field proper, overlooking the vast grounds, where coincidence of all coincidences, class VII was engaging in what he assumed was combat class, led by none other than instructor Sara. They'd been divided into pairs, sparring in two on two battles.
Elliot and Gaius were paired up against Emma and Machias, while Alisa and Jusis were facing off against Laura and Fie. Elise seemed to have unfortunately drawn the short straw, sparring against an enthused Sara, who was expertly dodging all of his sister's strikes, much to her obvious annoyance.
Seemed like Sara's instructor title wasn't just for show, no matter how much her behaviour suggested otherwise. She was definitely no stranger to combat.
"Class VII," Vandyck said quietly to him, observing their lesson just beside Rean. "An experimental project of sorts, but one that shows great promise."
Rean nodded. He could sense the strong bonds being forged between the students, trust, passion and love flowing freely between them as they fought. Some connections were stronger than others, but they were there all the same.
He didn't know much about Erebonian society, but even as a child he knew of the divide between nobles and commoners. To have achieved this much with a single batch of students was commendable.
"They're good students. You should be proud."
"We are. In the four months they have been here, they have exceeded our expectations time and time again."
Silently, they continued watching the class progress in their spars. Elliot and Gaius were fighting at an easy pace, each complementing the strengths of the other perfectly. Their opponents were no slouches either, building distance from their foes and counterattacking at a distance.
As Emma fought, he could curiously sense a particularly strong connection with the Force possessed by her. It flared with each craft she used, within the blades of light she summoned and the healing powers she used to tend to Machias' injuries.
Was she aware of the ways of the Force? It didn't fully make sense, since she didn't seem to be using it to bolster her own physical abilities as Jedi and Sith did. Still, there were fringe groups like the Witches of Dathomir that exclusively made use of more metaphysical manifestations of Force powers, passed down within their tribes as spells. Was this the case here? Or was it something else entirely?
He shook his head. Something to consider for another time. Elise was still being handily beaten by Sara who was clearly holding back, and he winced as she was sent flying aside once more by her instructor's backhand. It seemed that Sara, like his own instructor, believed in tough love.
The remaining pair was far more curious, though. Judging from their individual skills alone, Jusis and Alisa, while no doubt well-trained in their own right, paled in comparison to a Fie and Laura who were in a league of their own. The movements of the latter pair were well-honed, with nary a wasted motion, and he recognised them as ones earned through sheer instinct forged by practical combat.
It was why he couldn't initially fathom why they were losing.
Fie and Laura were, for lack of a better term, out of sync. Their individual skill clashed, obstructing and interfering with one another. The pair seemed as though they couldn't decide on a common course of action, dividing their focus, and allowing a more coordinated Jusis and Alisa to dominate the flow of the fight.
"You've noticed it too?" Vandyck asked, not letting his eyes off the spar.
"They don't gel together well," he agreed. They were clearly frustrated with themselves, aware of the fact that they should, by all metrics, be winning this fight.
"It doesn't make sense," Rean said slowly. "Laura and Fie should work almost perfectly with each other's abilities, at least in theory."
"Oh?" Vandyck finally turned toward him. "Could you explain?"
He didn't reply immediately, taking a moment longer to study their individual forms. Laura fought with a style similar to his own Djem So, favouring powerful strikes that revealed her opponents' weaknesses. It was built on a foundation of attack and counter-attack, and was a form that triumphed through dominance and perseverance.
Fie danced around her opponents, never stopping for a moment, and it didn't take much thinking to liken that to the form of Ataru. The dynamic maneuverability of Form IV was its greatest strength, harrying at opponents from a dozen different angles at once, its relentless offense the source of its defense.
Together, the styles should mix together well. It was why Starkiller made extensive use of both forms IV and V in his variant of Jar'Kai, combining their respective strengths to obscure their own weaknesses.
"Laura's form is well-balanced, relying on power-strikes without sacrificing on defense," he finally reasoned, facing the principal. "She shouldn't have any trouble holding off against Jusis and Alisa on her own, since their own styles favour probing and revealing an opponent' weaknesses. As long as she doesn't overcommit in her attacks, she can continue the battle indefinitely."
He gestured at Fie, who was now attempting to find an opening to strike at Alisa firing arrows in the backlines, but was blocked from a clear path by her own teammate. "Fie, on the other hand, excels at precision strikes. She can circle around to dispatch a foe, and then retreat behind the safety net created by Laura," he said, then extended his observations. "And they know that that's how it should work in theory, which is exactly why they feel so frustrated that it isn't working."
They were agitated, and he didn't need his Force-senses to deduce that. It strained on their connection and teamwork, and in so doing only fed into further lack of coordination and more frustration; a vicious cycle.
"Well-observed, Galen Marek," Vandyck said, an eyebrow raised. "I'm impressed. Yes, Sara has mentioned that the pair behave awkwardly around each other, and are profoundly aware of how it affects them in battle."
Rean didn't further the conversation immediately, continuing to study the battle. Laura was duking it out with Jusis, and yet constantly had to keep an eye for ranged support by Alisa, while Fie never got a clear opening to advance.
Fie's weapons were an intriguing choice, able to be used as knives in close combat or as guns as a ranged option. It was perfect for both support and precision attacks that could cripple critical targets, but in this battle it simply wasn't working out. Likewise, Laura's form excelled at formal duels, overpowering a single foe, but with Alisa's continued interference she simply couldn't break past Jusis' guard.
It was almost as though they were being set up for failure. It was a poor matchup for a pair that couldn't efficiently coordinate their attacks.
"I'm not sure if this is the best way to remedy that," he said slowly.
That caught Vandyck's attention. "What do you mean?" he asked without hesitation.
"Jusis and Alisa are a bad matchup for them right now, and they won't let Laura and Fie have a chance to develop any sense of teamwork," he explained his reasoning, still watching their battle. Unnoticed by Rean, Vandyck's attention was fully focused on him. "Jusis and Alisa fight almost the way Laura and Fie should, oddly enough. Jusis forms a defensive wall for Alisa to freely support him from afar. Fie should be doing something similar with Laura, relying on the defense she creates, dipping in and out of the fight."
He paused, thinking further. What they needed was –
"What do you suggest, then?"
"For starters, they should be up against a single opponent. Fie's trying too hard to target Alisa in the back lines right now, as would be expected in the field, but frankly speaking their coordination isn't at that level yet. Failure now only sets them up for more failure."
"An interesting observation," Vandyck said, agreeing. "Perhaps we should request for the pair to swap with Miss Schwarzer?"
The pair, up against Sara? It would be an improvement to what was happening now, but –
"No," he said, perhaps a little too forcefully. Vandyck paused from where he'd been about to intervene on the lesson.
"Oh?" He sounded surprised.
Rean hurriedly continued his explanation. "Sara fights like Fie. She's too mobile for Laura to pin down, and her fighting style is only going to worsen their coordination. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to propose that Sara will just place Laura between Fie and herself, and there'd be no improvement over the present situation."
Adepts in Djem So and Ataru up against an Ataru master didn't much advance their own training in battle. When he'd been attempting to replicate Starkiller's style that was built off those two forms, squaring off against PROXY's Qui-Gon Jinn and Aayla Secura modules that were heavily based on Ataru had only slowed his own development. What those dynamic and offensive styles needed was the chance to evolve by being pitted up against an impenetrable wall, refining the techniques within them.
It had been Obi-Wan's Soresu that ultimately allowed him to proficiently make use of the Aggression and Perseverance forms, after all. It was the old adage of the unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, thereby paradoxically strengthening both. He could never break through PROXY's guard, but that didn't mean that he didn't learn through repeated failure.
"That is… astute, Mister Marek. I hadn't considered that aspect before," Vandyck said, processing his reasoning. "What do you propose, then?"
"If you don't mind, Principal Vandyck, I would like to try something that might help," he said, although with some uncertainty. "I'm not sure if it will work, but I can try being their opponent."
"Please. After what I've heard about your exploits in Heimdallr, I'm curious to see your skills in action myself."
With that, he stepped forward to join the class and Rean trailed behind him. Vandyck clapped his hands loudly, and all fighting drew to a close as they turned toward the interruption.
"Hey Vandyck!" Sara greeted, not at all showing any signs of having been sparring with Elise. "I see you've brought Galen with you, too!"
"Principal Vandyck," several of the students greeted much more respectfully.
"I apologise for the interruption to your lesson, Instructor Valestein; class VII," Vandyck began. "Mister Marek and I have been observing you all in action. I would like to offer my praises at your progress. You have all accomplished much over the past four months."
"T- thank you!"
"You're too kind, sir!" Some of the students seemed abashed at being praised by the principal.
"Sheesh, any more and you'll spoil the kids," Sara said cheekily. "I'm guessing there's more to this, Vandyck?"
"Mister Marek has a most interesting proposal," he gestured toward Rean, and he took it as a sign to step forward. "I would like to ask if Laura Arseid and Fie Claussell would be willing to face off against him in place of Alisa Reinford and Jusis Albarea."
"Us?" Two voices asked in unison, momentarily surprised.
"Um, I'm not sure if –" Machias, bless his soul, tried to intervene, but Sara cut in before he could.
"Oi! What'd I tell you about preying on my students?" Sara mock-snapped. Then, she grinned, walking off to join the rest of the class by the sidelines before he could even retort. "Go ahead. I'm interested in seeing what's got my lovely students so worked up back in Heimdallr, anyway."
With that decided, the students and staff cleared the field, leaving only Laura and Fie within. Rean placed one of his vibroblades on the ground by the sidelines with the observing students, before moving to join the pair in the centre.
All around, he could sense curiosity, uncertainty and anticipation radiating from the students. No doubt they had been aware of how their classmates' lack of coordination was harming their class as a whole. There was a dim hope within that Rean could pull off a miracle here.
Well, he hoped he wouldn't disappoint.
Laura and Fie already had their weapons at the ready. The former first bowed respectfully once Rean entered his position on the field. "It's my pleasure to face you in combat, Galen. I look forward to learning from you."
"Laura Arseid, of the Arseid School of Swordsmanship." She introduced herself formally, then took on a stance, hilt held low with both hands, with the blade angled diagonally upward. A perfect balance of offense and defense.
"Galen Marek. This form is known as Soresu." Rean fell into a stance of his own, the blade in his right hand, held parallel to the ground, pointing forward at eye level. His left hand was extended forward, with the weight of his body focused on his right foot planted firmly behind his left. It was the classic opening position of the Resilience Form, and he had emulated it from studying PROXY's imitation of its foremost master, the legendary Obi-Wan Kenobi who had revolutionised the form.
If she was surprised that the form was vastly different from what he'd shown in Heimdallr, she didn't offer any comment. He turned slightly toward Fie, waiting for her input.
With that, she launched her attack.
Time to demonstrate why Soresu was the ultimate defensive form.
The first volley of bullets was deflected easily, no different from blocking blaster fire as PROXY had drilled him to do. Laura tried to capitalise on the opening, but he simply stepped aside, keeping his blade close to his body to parry and follow-ups.
Tight movements and full control over the blade. That was the core of Soresu. It had next to no offensive abilities beyond seizing on an enemy overextending, and was thus disfavoured among some practitioners of the lightsaber, but in this battle it served its purpose.
Laura and Fie could freely attack him, while he fended off their assault with minimal movement and a near impenetrable guard. It gave them the opportunity they needed to find a rhythm in combat, without being overly artificial.
He fell into the rhythm of things, moving and blocking, only striking when it was obvious that he had the opportunity to do so without risking counterattack. It was the philosophy of Form III, wearing out an opponent until they finally broke or until reinforcements arrived.
As he did so, he could feel the nascent Force bond between the pair vibrate and oscillate as they fought. It was evolving; surging and waning in tandem with them. With each coordinated assault, it strengthened, and with each interference on the other's part, it diminished slightly. Its presence could let him read their movements to guide his own form, but more than that, it gave him the chance to assist beyond merely being a target.
With that, he pushed his own presence within the Force into their developing bond, guiding and assisting it to become nurtured. It was a very limited form of the Force ability known as battle meditation, that had in the past allowed for the linking and coordination of entire fleets of flagships as a single entity in battle. He couldn't replicate that power on quite so grand a scale, but he could at least attempt to synchronise the chaotic waves in the Force that flowed out of phase with one another within them.
He simply let go, and allowed the Force to guide him in a way that best allowed their coordination to flourish.