Jahangir came out of his reverie, turned around, and looked down. A castanic slayer arched an eyebrow as she looked up and tapped her foot. Jahangir blanched, then clapped his fist over his chest to salute. "Well met! It's an honor to serve with the Vanguards. I'm grateful for the chance to prove myself. My name is-"
The castanic held up a closed hand, the signal for silence, as she shook her head. "Save it, Tiny. I don't care about your name. Not yet. You're not here to serve as a poet, herald, or bureaucrat, so save the fancy words. You're proud, I get it. You're amani. Comes with the territory." She looked Jahangir up and down. "Equipment check. Boots, sword, armor."
Jahangir nodded. The training leathers reeked of old sweat and showed deep cuts and bloodstains. The greatsword, on the other hand, looked new. No notches in the blade's edge, no pits from rust, and the grip was freshly wrapped.
The castanic consulted a scroll, then dropped it with a snort. "Let's keep this simple. You got your boots on, you can walk into battle. I'm Isaura. Do what I say, when I say, how I say. A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood, so let's get going." Isaura turned and walked toward the practice field without another word. Jahangir hefted his greatsword and hurried after her.
"This is the Vanguards, Tiny. We're not infantry. We're reconnaissance and intelligence. The eyes and ears of the Valkyon Federation," Isaura explained over her shoulder. "It takes all kinds to make an army, but slayers make good scouts. We travel light, we hit hard, we're fast on our feet."
Jahangir couldn't argue with that. Isaura only came up to Jahangir's chest, but he practically had to double-time it to keep up with his mentor.
"Despite the greatsword, we're not mindless reapers who cut down foes without thinking. Any fool can swing a slab of metal. It takes skill to use your weapon to its greatest effect." As she spoke, Isaura casually unslung her own blade, then leaped into the air, coming down in a strike that would have knocked more than a few foes off their feet. "You have to choose your moment, when to follow up-" Isaura pivoted on one foot and swung the blade in a whirling strike, "-and when to focus your power!" The final strike would have eviscerated anything in its way.
Isaura's economical, focused movements led from one into the next. Jahangir tried to follow her lead, but his own attacks lacked Isaura's grace. He felt foolish and clumsy.
"In the Vanguards, we work with warriors. Lancers and berserkers have a hard time keeping up with us in the field, so you'll learn to follow warriors through their little dance, and do them one better. They grab something's attention, we tear it up from behind. Just like our twin-bladed cousins, we have to dodge out of trouble, rather than depend on a layer of metal between us and our enemies. The only thing leather armor does is keep our corpses in one piece for the recovery detail. I mean, think about it. It's not like it kept the original owner alive."
Jahangir chuckled. He liked this feisty veteran.
"So why are you here?" Isaura stared up at him.
"I am here to serve the needs of the-"
"I'm not some scribe from the Velika Guardian or the Castanica Chronicle. Speak plainly. I'm a soldier, just like you. I'm a slayer, just like you. Do you know how many old slayers there are?"
Jahangir's eyes darted around as he looked for a clue.
"Don't bother. It's damned few." Isaura spun the amani around. "Look over there, Tiny." Warriors and archers jogged around the compound, mystics, priests, and sorcerers miserably stumbling behind. "This is a recon outfit. The Vanguards are the first to fight, the tip of the spear. Slayers, however, are more than scouts-we're heavy hitters. When things go bad, we stand to. When it's time to retreat, we're the last to go. We fight, and die, that others may live." Isaura's voice dropped. "If you're here for the wrong reasons, you'll get someone else killed. Nobody cares if you die-you're still a keener with a spanking new blade. But if the mystic or priest buys the farm because you're playing hero, we're just pieces of meat waiting to fall. Now, why are you here?"
Jahangir stood quietly , eyes closed tightly as he gathered his thoughts. Isaura waited, which surprised him. "I'm here because the sky isn't meant to be black-green. I'm here because children shouldn't grow up in fear. I'm here because I've seen the wastelands along the argon front. The lives and dreams of so many are simply gone." Jahangir's eyes opened and narrowed as he bared his fangs. "Not again, not if I can help it," he snarled.
Isaura stared at him for a moment, then barked out a laugh. "Not bad, Tiny. You'll do." She grinned, then snarled, "Attack! Attack!"
Jahangir leaped forward, copying Isaura's movements, marveling at her speed. Her attacks seemed to chain together, fast and graceful and deadly. His own blade felt unbalanced, his swings too wide, his dodges too slow. Still, he ran through the forms again and again, while Isaura snarled out critiques. His blade was too high, his stance too narrow, his blade was too low-the list of faults seemed endless.
"That'll do. Drink this." Jahangir caught the flying waterskin and drained it.
"You're not bad, Tiny. Better than most keeners we see. You learn quickly. I like that. Remember, mind and body are one. If your will is powerful, your body can do amazing things. If your body is weak, your mind will be weak. You'll weary sooner. You'll lose that burning spark all slayers must nurture. You want to protect people? Great. That's your spark. Never let it go out, and let it fuel you when the odds are against you. Harness that power, Tiny. Savor it." Isaura quickly drained her own waterskin, then cast it aside. "All right, that's enough dawdling. Let's go again, and I want to hear that blade whistling through the air!"
"Wait, please!" Jahangir cocked his head, studied Isaura carefully. "Why are you a slayer?"
Isaura stared at her weapon for a long moment, her face a stony mask. She idly ran her finger along the greatsword's edge. "Because I used to have a daughter."