The fortification power lent itself to two main applications. In general, practitioners used it for protection. No need for armor if your skin could turn a blade. Most of its wielders used it for that defensive purpose, which resulted in a rarely used ability. That fact confused Athia as a child. Why would anyone who fought not want to master fortification?
Put simply, why learn to take a hit well when you could learn to never be hit at all? That made the reach and pull the mainstay of near all militaries. It kept foes at a distance and kept strikes from connecting with the body. Most others learned the moveskip, as it allowed for both avoidance and retreat. Get good at any of those and you could afford strong armor.
The second main application of fortification rest in a less obvious role, protecting the user from themselves. In Athia’s case, mitigating the strain her own style put on her body. Using momentum largely blunted the effects of extreme force, but there were exceptions. Like her dramatic dive against the Lerian riders which dislocated her shoulder and could have taken her out of the fight.
Athia came to Olstin because Kamil mastered fortification. Among other things. He’d taught her before, but Athia focused too heavily on momentum and reach to really get a handle on it. Learning two abilities took enough time and focus that few could make it to three. Luckily for Athia, she possessed time, motivation, dedication, a good trainer, and talent. A rare combination.
A hefty, branch like reed thwacked her extended hand. She managed to mitigate it with fortification, but her concentration wavered. The quick second strike stung.
Athia yanked her hand back and shook it with a grumble.
Kamil said, “when I learned, I did so by being struck by less hospitable assailants. In many different places.”
“Not helping motivate me,” she muttered. “You’re some sort of unnatural creature when it comes to this stuff.”
Night sat snug around the city, and their little training hall. It might be closer to morning by now, Athia couldn’t be sure. Between brushing up on her unarmed skills and rekindling her fortification ability, she’d neglected to count the hours. Captured light kept it lit without providing heat. Brilliant white sunlight sparkled from crystals, leaving long spots of light down the walls then touched at the center.
She sweat, even in the cold of the open, empty hall. Each breath stung, the frigid air hostile to her hot lungs. It panged at her side in a threatening cramp. But Athia didn’t have time for pain or discomfort.
“We can continue tomorrow,” Kamil said.
“No, I mean yes, but no. I’m leaving in two or three days. Job for Lea. Need to get my practice in before I go.”
“Overworking like this will have stunted results.”
“Better than nothing.”
She held her unharmed hand out and closed her eyes. Fortification, at least how Kamil taught it, correlated to the tensing of muscles. Like a brawler ready to take a shot to the gut. She didn’t have to tense her muscles but doing that helped put the proper sensation in mind to channel the power.
The reed hit her hand, but she hardly felt lit. Like a poke through a shirt. Another strike, again her fortification held. Then the third hit her unprepared, and very frigid, ear.
Athia wretched back, putting a hand to the sting. “Oooow we’re working on my hand!”
“If you want to make the most of this time, then you must fortify your entire body for this. Be ready anywhere and everywhere, force yourself to make it so.”
A groan parted her lips, but she caught it before it passed her nose then turned it into a slow exhale. “Ok.”
She closed her eyes and tensed her body. It resisted her, tired from the exertion and pain of her training. The power came to her beckoning, a sensation like ice forming on her skin, but not cold. It came from somewhere inside her, in the way that you felt a deep breath but couldn’t feel the lungs themselves. A power present and real but fickle and transient until mastered.
Davi, the leader of her little traveling family, was one of the best she’d seen at harnessing that power to improve his own physical ability. She saw him perform superhuman feats before, and Kamil worked Athia through the basics of it, but she never had time to expand on it. And she found it difficult, more difficult than anything else.
Athia considered herself a natural at these sorts of things and had no concerns of her inferiority. Though she questioned whether anyone could match Kamil. Outside of her with a few more years of practice of course. Instead, she just didn’t like the idea of not being able to do something. She’d failed before, but never without recourse, without some way to fix it and improve.
“Very good,” Kamil said.
Athia blinked her eyes open, “huh?”
“You kept good focus and were not disturbed by multiple strikes. That is an excellent improvement.”
Athia pursed her lips to the side and realized minutes passed while she thought. “Oh, great!”
She took moment to sit on the ground and sip water. Kamil took the spot just across from her. He pulled out a book, his book, The Practical Guide to All things Combat by Kirvo Nazari.
And flipped it open to skim. He’d been working on it since Athia was a toddler, a joint project with his father, who Athia never met and doubted was still alive. It went into publication a few years prior, sold well due to Kamil’s reputation, but never caught on like she’d expected. And it didn’t bother him. He still worked away at it, adding more and revising, planning to one day release a new, better edition.
She watched him skim through it and smiled. Growing up on the road, Kamil became her first friend who lasted more than a few weeks. Maybe the only one she still had. Athia joked about him and Lea being her parents, but Lea was an aunt and Kamil her brother. When she was too young to leave alone, he would stay with her and read passages of his book and others to keep her from worrying too much.
“Kamil,” Athia said after a few moments. “Why haven’t you joined the Tricorn? I know they’re begging you to join, and you and Lea are together. Don’t get why.”
Kamil looked up from his book. “Why do you insist we are a couple?”
“Why do you both keep denying it?”
Kamil shut the book on his thumb. “I do not join because I have no interest. It is preferable that my name not be connected to any group or organization. In addition, I find their transition to rulership as being bad for both the nation and their abilities as a military.”
Athia leaned closer, not expecting his answer. Few would speak so openly against the Tricorn’s rule, though few people could make the Tricorn leaders soil themselves with a threat.
“Why do you say that?”
“Watch them while you help on that job, and you will see.”
“Sure, but I want to know a little now too!”
Kamil cleared his throat. “Put simply, there is a misconception on matters of strength. What makes a person or army strong is not what makes a nation strong. The Tricorn are a mighty mercenary company turned mighty army. They are skilled in martial matters, logistics, and discipline. Thus, they believe that to run a good nation is to do so through martial matters, logistics, and discipline.”
“Like a shipwright who thinks he can build a house?”
Athia laid back on the floor, eyes on the ceiling. A powder, made from worthless but reflective stones twinkled overhead, meant to mimic the stars. She watched it as her body wound down from its lengthy workout.
“She really wants me to join. Should I?”
“I do not know.”
“Neither do I, but I still have to decide.”
“You will make the right decision, so long as you don’t rush.”
She closed her eyes. “I appreciate that.”
Sleep crept up from her toes, unconcerned by the cold, hard floor. “I really do.”
Kamil stood and offered her a hand. “Then show it by sleeping in a bed. My guestroom is unoccupied. Sleeping here will be unrestful and hinder your progress.”
She laughed, opening one eye to look at him. “Alright. On one condition.”
“Read me whatever you were working on.”
He nodded and she took his hand.