A Cultivator is composed of three aspects: the first he displays to the world, the second he shows to his family, and the last he reveals only to himself.
–ASBJÖRN MAKI, PERSONAL JOURNAL
Time had a way of bending men and their creations into circles.
Like many fortresses constructed before the Third Apocalypse, the citadel of Hjörtur was at once ponderous and ancient. Built into the side of the Rin Mountains, the former stronghold of the Sorcerer-Kings jutted out of the ground like black jade out of an untouched glacier, sheltering the lands to the south from the monstrosities that it had previously helped create.
Asbjörn sat cross-legged with his back against the trunk of a stunted oak in one of Hjörtur’s inner courtyards. Spellbound, he stared at an odd-looking leaf. The gazing soothed his mind, but a shadow of torment lingered in his gray eyes. The reflection of loved ones lost. The glint of a wound never fully healed.
Black spotted when it still should have been green, the foliole twirled in the air as it floated towards the ground. Queasiness settled in his stomach and for a moment he saw the similarities to himself. He too had been exiled from his home and forced adrift. He too was. . . tainted. Then he felt stupid for feeling kinship with a leaf. He shook his bald head. Old age was no excuse to get lost in sentiment.
Suddenly a gust of cool summer wind plastered the white robe that fell from his shoulders to his ankles, jangling the long and short swords secured on the dark sash tied around his middle. The implements of war added an air of danger to his otherwise grandfatherly countenance.
Closing his eyes, Asbjörn touched his dragon-hilted longsword with his ebony hand and reached out in every direction with his mind. As his consciousness advanced outward, he encountered specks of prana, a type of unseen energy, that swam in the air and the earth, and trapped them within his growing awareness. .
Pain blazed in Asbjörn, and a mental howl came from his depths. Fire seared his mind as he encompassed too much territory. Five hundred meters was his limit; if he pushed his spirit beyond that mark, it would unravel like a ball of yarn, leaving behind nothing but an empty husk of flesh for others to discover. Breathless, he drew his consciousness back inward, dragging with him every speck of prana he had ensnared. Light filled him. Mingled waves of spirit and prana rushed into his inner void where they formed his Ethereal Body, an unprecedented melding of spirit and consciousness dressed in the guise of human flesh.
Calmly, Asbjörn drifted through the endless void that existed within himself, surrounded by a transparent bubble, skin blazing with all the prana he had stolen. He relished the strange sensation for a second; it was almost as though a great weight had been removed from his mind. All the emotions that the leaf had stirred faded away. He could still feel them, but only at a distance.
Asbjörn opened his eyes and leapt to his feet with his longsword thrust out in front of him. All was one, and he moved without thought in perfect harmony with his weapon. The slightly curved blade sliced through the air on its way towards the leaf. It gleamed with an aura of danger that proclaimed that it had been baptized in the blood of man and beast alike. The wind rose again, causing the diseased frond to shift to the side, right out of the path of the blade’s point.
I missed. Surprised, he watched the leaf twist in the air next to his stationary weapon. He could honestly not remember the last time that happened.
“I wish you would warn me before you do that,” grunted a displeased voice.
Sheathing his weapon, Asbjörn turned to face the man who had spoken. Ypse sat at a small wooden table ten meters away. His pale hawkish face twisted into a grimace as he shivered from the drop in temperature and tried to rub life back into his fingers. He was a short, stocky middle-aged man with a patchy red and black beard, and like most people on the island of Daði, he was shades lighter than Asbjörn. He wore dark breeches, black boots, and a flamboyantly colored coat that partly hid the ornate slave collar around his neck.
“What’s the difference?” Asbjörn asked. “Foreknowledge wouldn’t make you feel any less cold.” He approached Ypse and glanced at the two quivering soldiers who loomed beside him. They wore conical helmets and golden surcoats over plate-and-mail armor, with long swords at their sides. The black flame on their surcoats marked them as Punishers, an order of soldiers tasked with managing the sorcerers that Vindur, one of the four nations of Daði, kept as slaves.
Ypse poured himself a bowl of wine. “Maybe so, but I think it’s the surprise I hate the most. The cold I can manage.” He gestured to the unoccupied chair. “Sit.” He leaned back against his cushioned chair and seemed to stare at Asbjörn with an air of indulgence.
Asbjörn narrowed his white, bushy brows and took a seat. He disliked the way Ypse always seemed to be smiling at him as if he knew something that he did not. But he fought against his indoctrination for Prince Erik’s sake, yet in his heart of hearts, he knew he would always despise Sorcerers and their ilk.
“You seem. . . .” Asbjörn allowed his voice trail off.
“Cheerful?” Ypse asked. His eyes accumulated the light, glowing golden yellow. The mark of a true Sorcerer. “Is that the word you were searching for?”
“Sure let’s go with that.”
Ypse laughed, taking a sip of his wine. “I am in a cheerful mood. I suppose that I’m even celebrating, but don’t ask what it’s a secret. Can I ask you a question?”
Asbjörn gave a short nod.
“Are we friends?”
Casually, Asbjörn poured himself a bowl of wine and remembered his promise to Erik. “Yes.” No. “I think we are.” I would no more be friends with a whore.
Ypse smiled as if he could read Asbjörn’s thoughts. “Good. Good,” he said, bubbling over with a sense of mirth. “I think this too is worthy of celebration. Who would have thought that a Cultivator—a mainland Cultivator at that—and a Sorcerer such as myself could ever form a friendship? The Eternal Father’s ways are truly marvelous, are they not?” He rose his bowl to Asbjörn in tribute and drank.
The muscles in Asbjörn’s jaw twitched, and he forced himself not to scowl. Breathe, he told himself. He’s not insulting you on purpose. Are you sure? No. Slowly, he returned Ypse’s gesture by taking a single sip of his wine before setting his bowl back onto the table.
“When I was younger I would envision all the distant places I would one day visit,” Ypse continued, wiping the wine that had spilled onto his beard with the back of his sleeve. “Sadly, that never came to pass.” He tapped on his slave collar. “And there are so few books written about life across the Howling Sea. I wonder if you could humor me by answering a few of my questions on the topic?”
Asbjörn gazed into his bowl of wine and pictured a pool of blood. How long had it been since he ran away from his homeland? Ten years? Twenty years? More? No, not so long. He had lost count, but it could not be more than fifteen years.
“I’ll answer two questions,” Asbjörn responded reluctantly. “And only two.”
Ypse paused, seemingly deep in thought. “Is it true that on the mainland Cultivators are not nobles,” he asked. “I still can’t wrap my mind around that idea.”
“Yes, it is true. Across the Howling Sea Cultivators are feared, but not respected. There we are called the Unclean and inhabit the lowest rung of the caste system.”
“Lower than Sorcerers? Ypse inquired.
All mainlanders fantasized about killing Sorcerers. It was a pastime they learned in childhood after hearing tales of the horrors committed by Sorcerer-Kings during the Third Age. They would gaze at their imaginary foes, the way Asbjörn gazed at Ypse now, and picture torrents of blood gushing forth from severed necks.
“No,” Asbjörn finally answered. “Your kind do not exist there. Not for long.”
“The difference between our two cultures took me years to get used to,” Asbjörn explained. “To me, nobles will always be those whom you call Lightbenders. After all these years it still feels strange to watch them bow to me.”
Enlightened, Ypse bowed to Asbjörn in appreciation. “Thank you. Would you like to play a game of liubo?”
“No,” Asbjörn replied, suddenly turning cold.
“Something wrong, my friend?” Ypse asked with a mocking grin. “You’re not still mad about losing to me yesterday, are you?” He turned sideways and winked at the two Punishers who acted as his jailors.
Asbjörn’s expression soured when the Punishers cracked a smile. Like all old men, he slept little. Most nights he would wander the halls of Hjörtur, tormented by past mistakes and personal failings. Exiled or not, he was still a Cultivator of the Third Circle and the former Grandmaster of the Sector of Innovation at the Twin Towers. He still had his pride, and he still had his honor, and he would be damned if he let any of these uneducated islanders see him demoralized.
“Yes, something troubles me,” Asbjörn said.
Ypse took a sip of wine from his bowl and smacked his lips together, “Speak on it and perhaps we can solve it together.” He spoke in a carefree way that invited resentment.
“What does it feel like spending your nights enveloped in the shaggy confines of a cage?”Asbjörn asked. He knew it was wrong. He hated himself for doing it, but he took great pleasure in watching the smile slip from Ypse’s face.
Ypse placed his bowl back down on the mahogany table. “We all sleep in a cage, Asbjörn. . . all of us. We were born in one, and we will die in one. The only difference between you and I is that my cage is made of orichalc and yours is made out of your mind.”
Asbjörn struggled for a moment then he regained his composure. He could feel his hate beat inside him like a second heart. It was so easy for him to slip into fits of rage these days. He detested that fact and understood what it meant. He was losing control. That thought did not incite the same terror it once did, which worried him more than anything else.
Sensing a hint of danger, Ypse tried to smile affably. “Winning isn’t everything,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” Asbjörn whispered sadly. Winning is everything in a world where losing means the death of the ones you love. He continued with his—
Abruptly a thunderous roar slashed across the sky. Startled, Asbjörn looked up and saw a comet weeping and wailing through the air as it plummeted towards the ground, accompanied by a trail of luminous gas. For a moment it looked like a lit torch moving about in a darkened hallway.
All over the citadel, shouts and screams rang out. Asbjörn launched onto his feet and once again drew his sword out of its thin sheath.
“It’s headed for the forest I think,” Ypse muttered inches away from Asbjörn’s right ear.
Asbjörn had not noticed him getting that close. The thought unsettled him for a moment before he pushed it away and grasped for his power from the quiet of his inner void. With the help of prana, like all Cultivators, he could reach into the Abyss, a realm of chaos and discord, where some claimed the Eternal Father had imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods during the First Age. There, he could draw forth the Four Aspects—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air— to power his Esoteric Sword Techniques, which allowed him to break the Laws of Nature.
At first, it was like a whisper at the edge of his hearing, a half-remembered tune that refused to manifest. Then it did, and he wished it had not. The song of the Abyss filled him with dread and stabbed through him with the voices of a million wailing souls. He could suddenly see it in his inner void, floating below him, a massive roiling vortex of glittering gold and green, chased with blue and an ominous red glow. The clear bubble around him rippled like a body of water in the midst of a storm, but it did not shatter.
Well, a voice in his head mocked, it’s happening again, isn’t it? No, he told it. He will be fine. I trained him myself. The voice’s only response was to laugh at him.
Tentacles of dread worked their way around Asbjörn’s heart, pulsing and tightening with every palpitation as he sped towards the nearest rampart. His leather sandals tore through the soft earth next to the columned walkway like the hooves of a raging bull. Approaching the wall, he performed an Esoteric Sword Technique called Grasshopper of the Stars. His white robe bloomed like the petals of lotus flower behind him as he leaped forty meters into the air. He landed with a light thud on the walkway of the rampart, surprising two soldiers who gazed at the heavens in fear.
The sentries gripped wooden spares and wore plate-and-mail armor that made clanking sounds as they stumbled backward on the uncaring stone. The symbol of the Royal House of Ito was etched onto their blue surcoats: two phoenixes joined in a circle with the other’s tail in its mouth.
Asbjörn ignored the sentries, long sword forgotten in his right hand. All his concentration was on the luminous streak sailing overhead. It was heading for the seemingly endless forest that stretched off into the northern horizon where his student, Prince Erik, the third son of the King of Vindur, was currently hunting with a few of his retainers.
Eternal Father, please protect him, Asbjörn thought as he sheathed his blade with an unsteady hand.
The comet crash-landed into the forest with a shower of light and fire that made it look like chaos bewitched. Its rioting fury was too distant to be felt, but dirt and chunks of charred wood could be seen billowing into the air.
By late afternoon, when Prince Erik had still yet to return from the hunt, Asbjörn led a group of ten Lightbenders down the pitted mountain trail into the forest. The grim-faced warriors who surrounded him were bold except for a topknot bound with red and blue silk that hung from their heads. Much like Cultivators, Lightbenders disdained the use of armor. Instead, they wore well-fitting black coats and breeches, with long swords at their waists.
The air in the forest was thick with the smell of burnt pine and smoke. Asbjörn and the Lightbenders tracked the hunting party through the gloom of the forest interior while a young boy searched from the sky on the back of a giant White Crane.
The inner void separated Cultivators and Lightbenders from their emotions, distancing them from themselves, but it did little to quiet the growing unease in the pit of Asbjörn’s stomach. Worry gnawed at him. Prince Erik was his savior; he was the person who gave him hope when he had lost hope in himself. If something happened to him. . . he did not know what he would do.
Near the edge of the crater, he discovered bodies artlessly strewn all over the forest floor in strange patterns. Blood was spattered on every surface. Human intestines hung from the branches of broken trees, and severed heads and arms littered the ground.
He’s dead, the voice said with glee. NO, he yelled at it, causing the Abyss, which he floated above in his inner void, to churn more chaotically. Once again the voice responded with laughter.
Asbjörn moved from dismembered body to dismembered body in a mad panic, searching for Prince Erik. The smell of blood and excrement mixed with the fresh scent of vomit as a Lightbender emptied his stomach behind a tree. The rest of the squad spread out around the clearing with their weapons drawn and their eyes alert for any sign of danger.
Eternal Father, please. . . not again!
Hot tears blurred Asbjörn’s vision. The pain of loss always made him question the point of loving. In his life, he had stood on the edge of the great hole many times. Death was not something he feared—he feared losing those he loved, being left in the world all by himself.
“Cultivator!” a top-knotted soldier yelled, peering over the edge of the freshly made earth basin. Water poured into its dark depths from an underground stream.
Asbjörn rushed over, heart racing, and saw Prince Erik Ito lying on his back, half submerged in murky brown water. He jumped down and landed with a splash, unconcerned about the muddy liquid that stained the bottom of his robe.
Asbjörn did not need to check for a pulse. His senses were heightened with the help of prana, the lack of a heartbeat was deafening to his ears. Prince Erik was dead.
“No,” he whispered, falling to his knees. He looked up at the dour-faced Lightbenders posted like silent sentinels all around the rim of the crater, fixed in tragic reveries. Tears leaked from his eyes. Pain ripped through his heart.
Asbjörn drew from the Abyss and exchanged the prana he held within his Ethereal Body for the use of its power. His body felt inflamed as he channeled three of the Four Aspects of the Abyss, mixing Earth, Fire, and Air without the aid of an Esoteric Sword Technique.
“No!” He shrieked up at the heavens, filled with grief and fury.
The earth trembled and thrashed in a twin song to his hurt, sending the silent sentinels tumbling into and around the crater. Lightning danced in the clear sky above, turning the air into liquid fire, propelling the boy on the White Crane to flee in panic.
“Take me too!” He begged with his sword pointed at the heavens. “Take me too!”
A jagged lance of lightning struck down, connecting the tip of Asbjörn’s sword to the liquid fire in the sky, making his bald head glitter with an unearthly glow. The connection lasted a moment, a blink of an eyelid and ended with Asbjörn slamming back first into the wall of the earth basin.