Something hard and fast swept my legs out from under me and I shifted into a roll as I hit the ground, righting myself again quickly. The last thing any close range fighter wants is to be taken to the ground. I felt a disturbance in the air directly behind me and moved my head just in time to avoid a blow to the back of the skull, simultaneously kicking out backwards, but by the time the kick would have connected my assailant had already gone.
He re-appeared a moment later just to the right of me and I turned hard, setting up a perfect hook punch- it was, without a doubt, what I called a go-home punch- a knockout shot. But at the very last second my fist went straight into his jaw, the rest of my body following closely behind. I passed through him like a ghost, momentum driving me forward, and once he had my back he solidified again and slammed his elbow into the base of my skull. Black stars danced before my eyes. I knew he had gone easy on me, but even so, I couldn't catch myself a second time and before I could blink he had me pinned to the ground beneath him, my face pressed against the cool dirt. There was only one thing that could possibly make the situation worse.
Of course, the moment I thought of it, I felt his arms wrapping around my neck in the choke hold that we both knew was impossible to break. He released me almost instantly, however, and relinquished his hold on my back. He took a few steps away and stared at me critically. "That wasn't as bad as your last half hour, but still not good enough. You cannot allow me to take you to the ground like that, do you understand?"
I pushed myself up to a sitting position, gasping for air, and noted how every muscle in my body ached at the slightest movement. When I thought about it, I hurt all over whether or not I moved, it was just that moving made it worse. "Yes," I managed in between labored breaths. Niccolo showed no signs of expending any effort at all. You wouldn't think that he had been more or less tearing me apart in half-hour intervals for the past several hours. I, on the other hand, imagined I looked just as horrid as I felt. The fact that I had grown quite used to it didn't make it any less exhausting.
"Good. Now get up." He ordered after waiting another moment for me to try and catch some much-needed breath.
"Fair. And if you're not back here in that time..." He didn't have to say anything else. I dragged myself to my feet and started running laps- five minutes to run, then we'd spar for another half hour. At the end of the day he would heal me, but until then I would just suffer through it. I was reminded of what my favorite ballet teacher had always told me- 'Suffer, it's good for you.' And it was. but that didn't mean I didn't hate every minute of it. It was a weird kind of hate, though- not even hate really, just numb. And somehow I craved it.
I never got to finish that run- about halfway through Niccolo appeared in front of me again. "Slight change of plan," he explained as he laid his hand on my shoulder to heal me, "You're going to work instead." He saw the question in my eyes and answered it before I could speak. "The detectives have just figured something out. Signs of something called 'rising darkness' are popping up everywhere. They think there's a group behind it, and they want you to start looking up their list of suspects."
In a split second I went from running through an obscure forested park to strolling through the streets of Manhattan towards the Sanctuary. Niccolo had gone, but I knew he was still watching. He was always watching. The strangest thing was that it never scared me. I was used to having him there- like a shadow. If you were to wake up one day and stand in the sun without casting one, it would be weird. Wrong. I took the steps down into the Sanctuary trying to count how many times he had saved my life, and comparing it to how many times he had almost killed me. The latter won out.
Rosa Evergreen headed straight for me the moment I came into her line of sight. "Would you like some tea?" She offered shyly, "I made your favorite kind."
"Really? I thought we were out- you went all the way back to Teavana?"
"Oh, it was no trouble, really, I-"
"How bad is it?"
"Um, I'm sorry, what?"
I let out a sigh. "Look, I know something's up, ok? The nearest Teavana is pretty far away for the City, and you rarely ever leave the desk. Something bad has got to be happening- you don't have to hide it."
"...I'm not exactly sure," She finally gave in, "And I don't think the detectives are so sure either. But whatever's going on, it's global. Bigger than anything you've ever taken on before."
"Right then. I think I'll have that tea. And could you please supersaturate it with sugar?"
"Of course! It's my pleasure. I'll only be a moment."
"Thanks again, Rosa- you're a lifesaver!" Her cheeks reddened slightly as she trotted away. I took a deep breath, then strided on to the briefing room. Life can be hard, but it's exciting, and I always have loved a challenge.