Book I

Chapter IV: First Test...

Everything's...in place.

This was Mallymkun's first thought on the White Rabbit's home.

It was a quaint, tidy place. The absurdly geometric house was two stories, made of pale red bricks and with a white wooden roof and a blue wooden door, on which was a plaque. Before the door and porch was a path of polished gray stones, and surrounding was a neat lawn, with two trees and a carrot patch on one side. Cucumber frames surrounded the house, and the whole thing was surrounded by a wooden fence.

She entered and headed to the back yard.

Near an old shed, she saw Bill the Lizard sharpening his sword with a grindstone. Beside him stood the White Rabbit.

The Rabbit was looking at his watch. Noticing Mally, he tapped the gecko on the shoulder. Bill took one look at the dormouse and smiled that cold, toothy smile of his before standing up. The Rabbit snapped his watch shut, nodded, and hopped quickly back into his house.

"You're early," hissed the lizard.

"Fashionably."

Besides, there's nothing else for me to do...

"Are you prepared?"

Mally whipped out the weapon she had chosen: a wooden needle she'd found on the ground at the festival. It wasn't the sharpest, or the lightest, choice for a sword, but she hoped it would satisfy the swordsman.

The lizard shrugged.

"That works. Now, here's how this works: inside this shed is an assortment of dummies I use for practice. I will let them out, you will dispatch them. The number of dummies you defeat will be the variable by which I decide whether to begin teaching again or not."

"How high is the minimum?"

The lizard smiled wider.

"Won't say. Good luck."

He slammed his fist against the shed.

The door fell over, and Mallymkun jumped back, as a large, automated dummy, twice as large as she was, moving by means of a small engine and three wheels, popped out. Its arms clumsily swung a pair of long, deadly knives as it rattled towards her rapidly.

Mally jumped up, dodging a knife, and jabbed her needle through the dummy's head. It fell over instantly.

Two more approached: one wielding a spear, the other an axe. Jumping out of the spear's path, she climbed up onto the dummy with the axe, stabbing at the arm holding the weapon. The dummy dropped the axe, and Mally jumped off as the spear-wielding one lunged at her and ended up impaling the axe-dummy. A needle through its neck soon disposed of it.

Three more: each carried a mace. Mally moved away as one mace slammed down in an arc, and tossed her needle into the dummy's "ribcage." It stuck, and the dummy fell down. Jumping and rolling to avoid the other two maces, she leapt up onto the fallen dummy and pulled her needle out. As one of the remaining dummies swung at her, she jumped onto its arm and stabbed its shoulder, and then jammed the needle to one side, causing the limb to fall off, before kicking herself down, knocking the dummy down in the process. The remaining dummy was easily taken out by a stab to the neck.

Now came four more dummies, three holding a sword, one holding a scythe. Mally took out the scythe-wielding dummy before it could make a move with a jab in very center of its head, where a nose might have been. One of the sword wielding dummies lunged, and she parried the blow before stabbing the back of its hand, causing it to drop its weapon, and then stabbed it in the head, just as she had the scythe-carrier. The other two swung down their weapons...and completely missed. With a slight chuckle, the dormouse jabbed one in the center, felling it with ease, and then scratched the fingers and wrist of the remaining sword wielder to make it drop its blade, then ran the needle all the way through its chest.

It took a moment for her to pull it out...giving the next dummy that came up an opening. The dummy held a crobar for a weapon, and batted the dormouse away clumsily. Mallymkun let out a short, painful squeak as she flew across the yard. The dummy approached, preparing to smash her as she sat up, unsteadily, still winded and in unbelievable pain from the blow, trying to find where she'd dropped her needle...

The dummy fell in half.

Saber held in both claws, Billnor Creole stood over the fallen dormouse, eyeing the destroyed dummy before turning to her.

"I bet that hurt."

Mally nodded in response, her teeth clenched.

Bill chuckled.

"Well, let me tell you this: you just faced eleven mechanical practice dummies...dummies used by me. All my students of the past have faced these same eleven dummies. Out of eleven dummies, you killed ten."

He paused.

"So...I passed?"

"Well, let me put it to you this way: do you want to know how many dummies my past pupils – pupils who are now guards and military officers – defeated on their first attempt? All of them got the same number down."

"...And that number was...?"

Bill smirked and held up a fist.

"Zero."

There was a silence.

"For someone who I take it has had no formal training," Bill went on, idly flipping his saber in his claws, "Your skills are, to put it bluntly, absolutely stunning. Have you ever lost a fight? I can tell you've been in at least one..."

"I've been in several, actually. And the only time I did lose, my attacker let me go."

And I don't really understand why...

Bill grinned wider, eyes narrowing slightly. He held up his saber.

"En garde."

Mally jumped up, grabbing her needle, and thrusted at the gecko...

Where did he go?

WHAP!

Something slammed onto the top of her head.

A saber hilt.

She whipped around, her needle connecting with the letter-opener blade. The reptilian smile before her was taunting and wide.

She slashed and lunged, trying to scratch or stab her opponent, who blocked every move she made with "inhuman" grace and ease.

Then, suddenly, her needle was gone, and a saber point was at her throat.

"Time against dummies: five minutes. Time against me: five seconds."

The lizard smirked.

"Your skills are stunning...but crude. Your power is great...but flawed."

"But, still, I've never lost a fight..."

"Yes, except to an old, supposedly slow in the late afternoons and early mornings, and admittedly out of his prime gecko swordsman, just now."

Mally raised an eyebrow.

"With all due respect, considering positions, I'd say you're anything but past your prime, sir."

"Bill, please. And thank you, but if you think I'm good with a blade now, you should have seen me twenty years ago."

Mally couldn't hold back the smile that played over her lips.

"That's scary...Bill."

The lizard grinned wider, a brief, strange light in his eyes...then frowned slightly, sheathing his sword, the light leaving his eyes quickly.

"I'm going to teach you, Mallymkun. But not today. Come back tomorrow, at the same time. Every day, we'll train, unless I say otherwise. Tomorrow will be your first real lesson, and I will explain the rules."

"Yes, Bill."

Bill smiled.

"If it makes you feel better about your loss, know that I, too, have never lost a fight."

"Well, I think I've just learned that there is always a first time."

Bill laughed.

"I've always known...my first time simply hasn't arrived yet. Anyway, you're talented. That, alone, qualifies you. It's your emotions that you need to work on: they are both your fuel and your apocalypse. Your skill is tainted with rage and blind fury...but is empowered by determination."

Another pause.

"Our lessons will work on that. Starting tomorrow. You may go."

Mally nodded, smiling slightly, picked up her needle, and left.

As she exited the gate, a sudden revelation caused her to scowl.

Good news: he's teaching me. Bad news: father comes home tonight.

This will be tricky...