Chapter 42 – Training

“Well that was stupid,” Julius muttered to himself when he woke up again.

“Indeed it was.” Oh, Zia was still here. And they were sitting at a desk. Huh.

Julius took a moment to actually look around the room he was now in, which definitely wasn’t the same one as the main area of the church. It was smaller, for one thing, and contained a few beds. One he was in, two across from him, and one on his right side, while Zia was sitting at a desk on his left, writing down something in a book.

“…So, um…where am I?” he asked, sitting up. All his clothes were still on, so that was probably a good thing. Aside from his boots, which were by the bed. 

“You’re still in the upper church, Brother Julius.” They finished writing, put their pun down, and turned towards him, their hands in their lap. “Specifically, you are in our infirmary.”

“Oh. You have an infirmary?” Why was that his first question…

“Indeed. We do deal with blood magic, after all, and it is a…temperamental art. That, and our neophytes often try to see if they can get into the true church after seeing how I open it.” Ah.

“…Sorry about that.”

They chuckled, waving a hand. “There’s no need to worry, Brother Julius. As I said, many of our neophytes try the same thing. Honestly, I’ve started using it as a test to judge a prospect’s temperament. Are they curious or impulsive enough to try the gesture immediately? Are they cautious enough to avoid it, or do they leave it be out of a desire to gain approval? Or stay unnoticed? Would they open it out of genuine interest or treacherous greed?” He couldn’t see their face, but Julius could tell Zia was smiling under their mask. “It’s a very handy way of getting an impression of one’s character.”

“…So, where do I land?” 

“That’s for me to know. I will say, I’m surprised by how quickly you woke up. While the lightning isn’t meant to kill, it is quite strong and knocks out most neophytes for a majority of the day. Yet you’re up in less than an hour.” 

“…I’m used to taking a beating.” 

“I can tell.” 

“So…why exactly is the trap to the ‘true church’ not lethal? That seems like something you want to make sure no one gets into.” 

“Oh, simple: the rest of the traps inside are much more lethal.” 

“Oh.” Yeah, that was fair… “So…is it like a dungeon on the inside?”

“An apt comparison, though one that inherently underestimates the lethality of the true church. Where dungeons are more so created to protect the core, the church is designed to kill those who come inside.” 

“…That seems kinda…not good for the church.” 

“If one is to become an ordained member, then one must be ready to face death. Such is the way of the Blood Church.” 

“…I suppose.” 

Zia nodded, then stood, placing their hands back in their sleeves. “Now, since you seem to be doing well, shall we be off? You did mention you are unsure how to use blood magic, so I was planning on showing you the training hall.” 

“That would be great actually. Thank you,” Julius replied as he got up off the bed and followed them out of the infirmary. 

The halls of the upper church were weird. There weren’t a lot of decorations–most of the Church seemed pretty minimal on decoration–but every so often, Julius would catch sight of what looked like hanging entrails that turned out to be a tapestry or a bleeding skull that turned out to be a lantern. A normal lantern, with iron and glass, not a bleeding skull lantern.

“So am I just imagining things or is this place decorated with body parts?” he eventually asked, trailing a little behind Zia. Easier to see if they made any sudden moves; in the sense that he had no idea where anything was and he didn’t want to get lost, not because he thought they’d try to kill him. That was still an option, but it wasn’t an especially likely one.

“Oh, you can see those already?” Well that was a fun answer. “I wouldn’t say it’s particularly decorated though. Moreso that parts and pieces of the infernal tend to peek into somewhat…thinner areas such as ours.”

“Thinner?”

“In the metaphysical sense, you see.” Not really. “Many people have died violently on this land, Brother Julius, and the Church is a place of worship directly connected to a very powerful god. The wall, or ‘veil’ if you wish to call it that, separating one world from the next tends to be less obstructive in such places.”

“…So…there’s a chance that demons could start leaking into the world from here?”

Zia glanced back at them. “There is a very high chance of that happening in every corner of existence, Brother Julius. Possibility rarely bends to the whims of likelihood.” He had no idea what that meant. “Besides, it’s not a matter of a wall falling and the ‘hordes’ pouring in. Though perhaps we should save talk of walls and gates for the official lesson.”

“Oh, right. Yeah, let’s.” He scratched the back of his head a little awkwardly, then glared at a silently screaming face ripping it way out of the wall as it wept tears of gore, saw it ‘eep’, and then watched as it shrunk back into a painting of a red moon hanging over a bloody lake. “Yeah you better run…”

He was pretty sure Zia just giggled at him, but when he glanced back they were standing as straight as ever. Well, whatever.

The rest of the trip to the training hall went by pretty smoothly, though he was a little surprised to see how active it was when they got in. Though the reason why because clear pretty rapidly.

The room itself was apparently just a floor above the main area of the church and consisted of a huge room with a high vaulted ceiling and plenty of spaced out circles for sparring–probably of the martial arts variety, considering the lack of weapons around–and apparently for meditating, considering there were a few robed monks sitting on their own, usually away from the larger rings more towards the center of the room. 

It was honestly a little impressive; he didn’t think he could stay focused that well with the racket Mira and Seona were making in the central ring.

Cyrus’s daughter had ditched her coat, leaving her in a black, sleeveless top–and Julius immediately noticed how her left arm was a mix of pitch-black metal and bright, iratan-red runes; it didn’t have eyes that he could see, but it definitely confirmed she was Hans’s student–and was putting on a good show against Seona, who was using a bo staff in place of her scythe. 

Seona was actually doing pretty good with it too–a quick twirl spun the bottom of the staff up to Mira’s wrist and deflected another punch aimed for her face, missing her by inches as she backed up fast again–but she clearly had to compensate for the lack of expected weight at the end of her weapon. Using a scythe was different from using a staff and she was obviously having trouble keeping her distance from Mira, who was more than willing to use that tiny advantage to close the difference everytime Seona overswung–she probably should’ve gone for jabs instead, sharp pokes to force her opponent back; maybe he should mention that after?

Mira obviously wasn’t trying to end it fast though, judging by the grin on her face and how her jabs clearly had a lot of pull to them. Seona wasn’t going right for the attack either though, so they’d probably decided on something light–

And then there was a blur of motion as both women darted forward, glowing with demonic energy, and exchanged a series of surprisingly fast and vicious blows and blocks. Mostly blows from Mira and blocks from Seona, though the latter did get in a good sweep to Mira’s legs that–And then Mira used the momentum to grab her by the side of her head and shoulder–

Julius winced as both Mira and Seona smashed hard into the ring, causing a cloud of red dust to poof up.

“No breaking the ring!” Zia called out, sounding more annoyed than worried for either of them. Which was fair, considering one was a half-lich and the other was a dullahan. 

Mira just gave them a thumbs up as she pushed herself up from the floor, patting some dust from her clothes, while Seona…was missing her head again. “Aw shit, sorry! Ugh, shouldn’t’ve grabbed her by the ear…”

Julius watched for a second as Mira looked around the ring with a small frown while Seona’s headless body stood up and started…well, not looking, but…searching? Searching.

“…So is Cyrus still downstairs?” Julius asked as he followed after Zia. He could probably catch up with those two later.

“In the sense that he is below this floor, yes.”

“Oh. Shit, what’d he do to get kicked out?”

“He began flirting with the acolytes assigned as his minders, and so we thought it best to have one of my direct subordinates watch him instead.” Zia glanced back at Julius. “Mister Gerrish then began flirting with them. Suffice to say, we thought it best to simply request he leave our grounds if he is unable to refrain from such activities.”

“…” Julius scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, that’s fair. So did he say where he was going?”

“He did, yes. He stated his intention to go back to the inn he is currently renting a room at. He also requested we allow his daughter to remain to ensure I and my fellow worshippers ‘don’t do anything culty to Jules’.”

…Well, the concern was nice. “And you were fine with that?”

“Bishop Turi did express concern over allowing one of Mister Gerrish’s bloodline to remain among our grounds, but she agreed to avoid flirtation while within the hallowed halls of our church.”

Weirdly prudish for a demon church, but okay. “Hm. So, what now?”

“Now, we sit,” Zia replied as they reached an unoccupied circle off to the side of the room. They stepped right inside, took a cross-legged seat near the center of the ring, and stared expectantly at Julius until he sat down right across from them in the same circle. 

“Okay, I’m here. So again, what now?”

“Now, we focus inward.” 

“…On our magic or…?” 

“Close. What you should focus on is on your blood. Before you can learn to control your blood, you must learn it. How it flows through you and grants you life.” 

Julius raised an eyebrow, but still closed his eyes as he tried to “concentrate on his blood”. 

And of course he had no idea what to do. 

Even when he was young and didn’t understand magic, it was clear to him that magic was something that he could control. Everybody could do it, so he could too. But blood was nothing like that. It was something that was just in him and moved without a care. It didn’t help that he didn’t know much about blood in general. Hell all he really knew was that the heart helped pump it…hm. 

Frowning a bit, Julius tried to focus on his beating heart to see if that would help. Sitting there as he tried to steady his breaths, Julius felt his heart beating in his chest, and, as he focused, he could feel the beating slow down with each calming breath. 

With every beat, the blood moved in and out of his heart, constantly circulating in him to every part of his body. Did he need to be like his heart? Making his blood come and go at his command? If so, how did he do it? 

“What you need to understand, Brother Julius, is that regardless of how strong you may become, you only have so much blood within you. Blood magic is not a means of controlling an opponent, or even creating a weapon out of blood. What it is, however, is being able to control oneself. Even when your bones break and your muscles tear, you have another means to move yourself. Whether you have a gaping wound or lose a limb, your blood will remain within you.

“Should a poison fill your body, you can simply remove the poison. Even if your heart should be pierced, you can keep the blood flowing with will alone. To control your blood is to fight on until the end. Such is the way of Mother Marrow and her Blood Church.”

He considered that, kept his eyes closed. “…Hm. So…there’s no controlling blood like water?”

“They are different elements, are they not? Blood is not the steel of blades or the waters of floods. It is internal. It is you, and you are it. Through blood, we are connected. Through blood, we are laid bare. It ties and binds through sacrifice and oath, but do not expect it to control the unwilling. It grants strength and ferocity, but do not expect it to form your steel.

“There are uses, as there are for all things, but you must be aware of both limitation and restriction. Incapability and taboo.”

“…You’re really fond of repeating yourself.”

He wasn’t sure, but he thought Zia might’ve smirked there, under their mask, out of his sight. “Repetition builds foundation, and I’ve seen too many idiots think they could do silly things like ‘blood tentacles’ and then they bleed out. Yes, we hold power. Yes, we hold connections. No, we’re not about to make it rain blood on the ‘infidels’.

“Now, please, focus. You’ll know when you can see properly.”

See properly. Wasn’t that a fun phrase…

Julius took another breath, centering himself with his heart. The slow, calm pulse that spread through his entire body. Blood, coursing through arteries and returning from veins, pushed with every breath. It was strange. He could almost feel the difference…

Some carried his breath. Some parts of his blood, some tiny pieces, almost impossible to feel, contained and carried every breath he took. They would spread through him, to every part, bringing life, and then returned. Like dutiful couriers on their routes.

He could feel the routes. He could feel how they moved. He could feel how they all tied together, feel their connections. 

His entire body was made of those routes. His body was composed, corded…Routes layered on top of each other. All working in tandem to bring him life.

In him…Blood was Life.

Julius slowly realized he couldn’t hear anything else. Only the beat of his heart and the coursing rivers spreading out from that great, rhythmic spring. 

And when he opened his eyes, he saw a great deal more.

It was as though the world had melted away into blood and darkness. The floor he sat on felt like liquid and the walls had vanished into an expanse of darkness that felt impossibly vast but somehow…comforting at the same time.

And directly across from him, he saw Zia. Really saw them. Saw the energy pulsing through their body, the bloody tinge to the aura emanating from their body like they were burning right in front of him. The other monks around had similar ‘auras’, though theirs were noticeably dimmer than Zia’s. What really stood out though were Seona and Mira.

The two sparring women looked like great plumes of fire in the empty dark, their energies flaring as they continued their spar. Mira’s was odd, but interesting; she seemed almost cobbled together out of mismatched parts. Most of her form was a bright, acidic green, leaking envy and caustic bitterness into the air, but her left arm was a burning, wrathful red and, strangest of all, right near the core of her being–not the actual core, but near it–there was a pulsing purple, somehow radiating pride despite being the smallest part of her.

Seona, on the other hand, was overwhelming. A cold mix of blacks and teals leaked from her skin and burned nearly two feet taller than she actually was. It felt…intimidating. It was hard to describe, but there was a sense of…antithesis to it. Like she was somehow the exact opposite of all living creatures.

“And now, you see.” Oh, right, Zia was still there. 

Julius turned back towards them, away from…whatever the fuck that was. 

“What…is this?” 

“You are seeing things for how they truly are. The energy that resides within all of us, and just how strong it is.” 

“How exactly am I doing this?” 

“For those of the Blood Church, focusing on our blood, or what is beneath, shows us much. I’m certain whoever taught you to control metal must have taught you something similar, no?”

“Yes but…I’ve never experienced this.”

“You can thank Mother Marrow for that. Her blessing on you has made you much more attuned to blood magic.” 

“Is that so…what exactly do I look like?” 

“Magnificent. It’s as if Mother Marrow is with us now.” With a wistful tinge to their voice, they stared at something above Julius. However, when he tried to look up, all he could see was the same bloody tinge as he saw with Zia. 

“Really?” 

“Forgive me, you must not be able to see it properly. But yes, her glory shines through you.” 

“Huh…well what’s next then? Now that I’ve figured this out and all.” 

“Simple. It is now time to begin proper training. The first of which is aiding you in training to move your body through blood alone.” 

“…And how do I do that?” 

“Well, normally we start off small, but from what I’ve heard you’re already quite strong, so I believe it would be apt to throw you in the deep waters, no?” In that brief moment that Zia smiled at him, Julius realized that the other monks were not where they were before. Throwing himself to the side, Julius dodge a strike aimed to the back of his head as he tripped the monk behind him.

Once the guy landed, Julius stood fast and put a foot on his chest, light enough not to crush him but heavy enough to keep him pinned. And maybe knock the wind out of him a little. “What the hell is this?!”

“Training. I did say that was the case.” It was weird seeing Zia’s smile through their mask but that wasn’t the important thing at the moment.

“Trying to beat me with clubs is training?”

“Indeed!” What. “I did say we were skipping ahead. And do remember, Mother Marrow is both the god of blood and war. Action is inherent in her arts, and violence is a good way to get your blood pumping. Which is very necessary for this technique.”

“You didn’t actually explain how that works.”

Zia smiled again. “If I explained, you wouldn’t learn on your own.” …Damn, it felt weird being on the opposite side of the “teacher/student” dynamic again. “Now, simply do what feels natural.”

“…Okay then.”

Julius did give the ‘blood motion’ thing a shot. He really did. But he also wasn’t good with masked church members coming at him with wooden clubs.

Well, that wasn’t exactly right. He was very good at dealing with masked church members coming at him with clubs.

“You didn’t have to tackle me,” Julius, very reasonably, pointed out from under a pile of six bishops, who weren’t really distinguishable from the normal acolytes aside from the fact that they were all ridiculously muscular. He still punched out two of them though, so that was a draw in his book.

“You didn’t have to knock out thirty-seven of our congregation but then here we are,” Zia replied in a mix of annoyance and begrudging respect.

“…Holy shit.” Mira, on the other hand, was definitely impressed. Better than being angry, considering Julius nearly hit her with that one zealot he tossed like a hammer at a festival. 

Hm. What kind of festivals did darklanders have anyway? They wouldn’t do anything like Sunfeast or Arbor Day, but they did have their own gods…Bloodfeast, maybe-

Julius blinked as Zia started snapping their fingers in front of his face. “…I’m not a dog.”

“It works with Brother Archibald.” 

“Oi.” Oh, that explained the wolf smell.

“Apologies. So…I suppose we’ll consider that a mixed success.”

“Then, are you gonna get them off me?” 

“Soon. But first, I should properly explain the training, since you seem completely unaware of how it goes.” Well they didn’t explain anything, so… “As I said, being able to move with even your bones broken and muscles torn is but one of the abilities blood magic grants you. So one of our training methods it to ensure you only have the option to move with blood alone.” 

“…So that’s another way to say you’ll beat me up until I can’t move.” 

“Precisely. There are other methods, but given that this technique is meant to be used when you are in severe pain, it’s best to be done as such.” 

“Right. Any reason why you tried to catch me with my guard down?” 

“Simple. Which gets your blood pumping more, being able to prepare beforehand, or being caught off guard?” 

“Oh…yeah that makes sense.” In a totally insane way, but sure.

“You seem to be taking this quite well, Brother Julius.” 

“I’m used to both taking and giving extreme teaching methods. So I know how it goes.” This was admittedly a step up from just chasing someone though…Or step down? Either one. “Well, you’ve got me now, so get to it.”

“Hm?”

“Your bishops are pinning my arms down. Archie there has a good grasp on my elbow…Actually, would dislocation work better than breaking my limbs here?”

“…Hm. Interesting question.” Zia thought it over. “Dislocation should work.”

“Right. Okay, just get to it before I-”

Ah, crippling pain. How he missed it. Not.

It did give him the motivation to really try to punch out Brother Archie though, so…he’d call that another mixed success.

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