Chapter 140: Over The Edge
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The Grateful One’s spine cracked as she bent backwards and turned, ducking under a furious slash from not-Needle before twisting back around again with an impossible, sinuous grace. Impossible for a Coreless, at least. The sharp crack caused the more experienced disciple to stagger in surprise, her emotions shifting toward [concern]. There was another loud crack immediately afterwards as the offset bones reset themselves when the once-corrupted finished the motion, pulled back into place by the constant healing that the nearby [Little Guardian’s Focus] gave.

Just as gracefully, the once-corrupted reached out and tapped the-female-who-was-not-Needle’s side with her long darkwood fang, baring her teeth widely.

“I got you, I finally got you!” she said, bouncing on her feet. I could almost taste her [excitement] on the tip of my tongue; it mixed with the [excitement] that surrounded me, almost making me sleepy in the sheer warmth that it gave off.

My eyes flicked away for a moment when the tiny Coreless that were keeping me company let out their loud cheers again, joining the once-corrupted in her excitement. For the past while, not-Needle had been teaching The Grateful One how to fight. I approved of that; the Great Core’s Coreless needed to be strong.

The two had danced in and out of battle, swinging carved pieces of darkwood at one another. It had been clear from the start that The Grateful One didn’t have any experience; her motions were an odd mix of perfect and completely wrong. She stepped gracefully, but in the wrong direction. She swung with unnatural precision, and completely failed to realize that not-Needle had wanted her to do so.

If The Grateful One had been raw - overly raw - perfection of motion, the-female-who-was-not-Needle was motion itself. It was different, seeing it from an outside view. Most times that not-Needle had fought, my length had been clasped across her shoulder; with that, it had been impossible to miss how fast she was.

From a new perspective, it had been impossible to miss how good she was. Practiced. Lethal - though fortunately for The Grateful One, she had been stopping short of that. Again and again, not-Needle’s fang of carved darkwood had been pressed against The Grateful One’s flesh, only for the two to reset and try again.

Yet, despite her losses, the once-corrupted had started to quickly get better, her already-graceful motions becoming more efficient as she copied not-Needle’s. It had been a wonder to watch.

Eventually, the tiny Coreless had found their way to us, drawn by the scent-taste of battle - or maybe just bored. Either way, I welcomed them with quiet hisses and allowed their fingers to brush across my scale-flesh. It didn’t take much effort on my part, and I was always willing to help secure the loyalties of the Great Core’s littlest disciples. It helped that they were fairly cute, the tiny Coreless around me letting out squeals of [joy] as I absentmindedly entertained them with little illusions and flashes of light.

“What just happened?” the-female-who-was-not-Needle finally asked, her voice managing to carry over the ever-present squeals. I caught a trace of [concern] in her [Little Guardian’s Totem]. “That didn’t sound good.”

“I finally figured out how to turn my pain off! It was pretty hard, actually. There’s a lot of tiny pieces involved. And then I think my spine broke a little when I bent too far,” the once-corrupted replied, still baring her teeth wide. “Pretty cool, right?”

Not-Needle just stared at her. “Elara, you shouldn’t be snapping your spine in training.”

“Why not? The Little Guardian’s healing can fix it, and there’s no pain if I don’t let there be,” the once-corrupted said, her mouth turning down slightly. “Besides, you’re making it sound worse than it was. It didn’t snap, it just...cracked a little bit. And now it’s fine. See?”

The once-corrupted twisted around and then bent herself backwards, the motions as oddly graceful as they had been ever since she nearly died. I found myself mirroring the movements, my scale-covered length twisting and turning. I was, of course, far more graceful in my twists and turns than the Coreless - and definitely far more graceful that the few tiny Coreless that tried to mimic me, giggling and jabbering among themselves.

“Okay, just…” the-female-who-was-not-Needle started to say, stopping a moment later to let out a heavy breath. She wiped her brow and muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t catch. “If you learn to fight while hurting yourself like that, you’re going to end up doing it in a real fight and end up dead. As convenient as it is, the Guardian Statue has a range limit - one that doesn’t even cover all of Verdant Grove, let alone outside of it. You shouldn’t rely on it to fix you every time that you do something your body can’t handle. I know that it’s probably tempting; one of the other Seekers back in Orken has a similar body control enhancement, though not as extreme as yours seems to be. I’ve seen him rip his muscles apart by pushing past his body’s limits for a few moments of increased power more than once. I’ve also seen him be forced to spend weeks recovering afterwards each time. It’s not a healthy or safe thing to rely on.”

“But I -” The Grateful One started to say, but not-Needle pushed on. Whatever she was saying, it was causing the once-corrupted to wilt.

“Even without pushing your body past where it should go, you have superb reflexes and dexterity now. I can see the way you’re moving, and how quickly it changed to copy the motions I was doing while we were sparring earlier. You can use that. Learn how to fight the right way. Find the edge between effective and self-harming and stay there. Don’t cripple yourself by getting in the habit of pushing past it. You’re not still…?” she trailed off.

“No,” the once-corrupted answered. “I just want to be able to help. I think that I can, but I won’t be able to get strong fast enough unless I’m willing to face the consequences - and I can turn off the pain. So if the only consequences are a few bad habits, I’ll fix them later. After everything is done,” she said. There was a glint in her eyes, and her expression was hard like ore-flesh. “I want those things out of my city.”

Some of the seriousness of the situation was lost when the tiniest of the Coreless let out a sharp shriek of [joy]. That was my fault; I chose a bad time to place a new illusion in front of her. The presumably-arguing Coreless turned towards me. I hissed, and they turned away again.

“I need this. Let me do this,” The Grateful One intoned, [pleading]. Even to my ears, she sounded desperate - as if whatever she was saying held a great weight.

Not-Needle was quiet for a while, biting at her lower lip in thought. With every passing moment, the once-corrupted seemed to wilt just a little more, her expression falling. Then, finally, the-female-who-was-not-Needle spoke.

“Fine,” she said, letting out another heavy exhale. “I doubt that I can really stop you anyway - it’s not like I could stop you before now. But if you’re going to learn to fight like this, we’re going to do it right. You better have as good a handle on blocking pain as you seem to think you do, because we’re about to find out exactly how long it takes for the Guardian Statue to heal you from every injury that you’re likely to inflict on yourself during a fight. Even if you can’t feel pain, you can still immobilize yourself long enough to be punished for it.”

Not-Needle turned and left, coming back a moment later with another of the once-corrupted in tow. She motioned towards the tiny Coreless clustered around me.

“Can you take the children with you, please? They don’t need to see this next part.”

The tiny Coreless were ushered out of the room, to their immediate [dismay]. I slipped free from their grasps, giving them a parting hiss. If anything, that made their [dismay] worse.

With the little Coreless gone, I slithered back towards the-female-who-was-not-Needle, giving her a hiss. She shook her head lightly and bared her teeth, picking me up and placing me on her shoulder again.

She turned towards the waiting once-corrupted.

“Let’s get started.”



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