Nothing in the world has as much power as the sword. Sometimes I stab a man, and I watch him, until his eyes lose their shine.
— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON
Born among the white, snow-edged peaks of the Rin Mountain range, the wind descended from its birthplace and howled into a large courtyard without fountains or columned walkways where Erik stood opposite Númi. Cool drafts rippled Erik’s silk robe and kick-started the dance of dust devils in the space between the two men. The Lightbenders, who had gathered in a circle around, Erik and Númi did not seem affected by the wind’s chill.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Erik hedged, slowly drawing his sword. “You just finished a match. I would not want to take advantage of your weakened state.”
“For someone like you. . . .” Númi shrugged as if that explained everything. He met Erik’s eyes and he flashed him another thin smile. His voice was cold, dark and dripping with sarcasm. “I think I will be able to manage, my prince.”
Erik shivered at the sound of laughter that escaped from some of the mouths of the watching Lightbenders. He flexed his fingers on the hilt of the sword he held and sought the inner void by closing his eyes and inhaling deeply through his nose. A sense of rushing filled his head, and he felt himself flow inwards, down a dark inner tunnel of glittering night.
He jerked as he became aware of his Ethereal Body drifting through a starless void, surrounded by a translucent bubble large enough for him to extend both arms without touching either side. Tiny jolts of energy pelted the outside of the transparent bubble. At first, they sparked with the power of soft raindrops, but soon the jolts turned violent, hitting with the force of fist-sized hail. The bubble rippled and groaned from the onslaught.
Erik felt himself weaken. Every strike stole some little portion of his vitality. He understood that the assault was a manifestation of his inner turmoil. If it continued for much longer he would lose his connection with his Ethereal Body sooner rather than later.
I can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen. How? He shook his head in frustration. Find your center, he told himself.
Cold soaked into Erik. He looked up at the luminous crackling jolts as numbness crept along his limbs. Something close to panic took hold of him then. How could his limbs grow numb? His Ethereal Body was not real; it was just a joining of spirit and consciousness clothed in the guise of human flesh. That should not be possible.
Stubbornly he fought, struggling against the cold that seeped deeper within. He steadied his mind and focused on the emptiness surrounding him. He found an element of calm in the blissful repose of nothingness. There was something beautiful about the blackness. Where others might have felt horror, he felt a sick fascination. It was always the same; the void gave birth to a perverse yearning, a need to explore things unknown. The bombardment slowed and then finally ceased. The violent noise of the onslaught was replaced by the quiet of the endless dark. His raging emotions drained out like air out of a balloon. He could still feel them, but they were placed at a distance.
A gentle smile touched Erik’s lips and a feeling of warmth trickled through him as he transformed his Ethereal Body into a ball of swelling gold and silver light. Slowly, ever so slowly, the luminous ball fed on the darkness, growing fat from its gluttony. The outwards expansion seemed to take an eternity until it devoured everything. Until its brilliance was too great to be contained by the void. Suddenly the radiance burst forth from his mind, and he felt himself quickly spreading out in all directions.
Awareness of the world returned to Erik through the tactile knowledge of his surroundings that was most like his sense of touch, but different in a way he could not quite define. He trapped the specks of glimmering prana that existed in the air and the earth within his growing net of consciousness.
There were a number of ways Cultivators measured strength among themselves, but one of the most important was something they called range. A Cultivator’s range was fixed at birth and determined how far he could spread his spirit into the world without his mind unraveling. The larger a Cultivator’s range, the more prana he could ensnare.
Erik had long lamented the size of his range. With a range of only sixty meters, he had the privilege of being one of the weakest Cultivators on record. He mentally prepared himself for the pain that was to come as he neared his limit, but it never came. His spirit pushed beyond the sixty-meter mark with ease.
Impossible! Erik felt stunned. This can’t be happening.
But it was. His spirit encompassed ever more territory, easily crossing one hundred meters, and then three hundred meters, and five hundred meters. He could suddenly feel the soldiers who walked on top of ramparts and stood guard in towers. They felt like human-shaped furnaces of fire and ice, all except for the Lightbenders who currently held the inner void. They felt like holes in reality. He knew them only by their absence.
A range of a hundred meters was considered average; crossing four hundred meters put Erik squarely among the ranks of the elite. He felt drunk on the feeling of euphoria. He pictured a look of approval on his father’s face. A slight nod of the head would be enough, he had long ago decided. Just a single nod would let him know he was worthy to take his place.
How far can I reach? He wondered as his spirit stretched farther afield. The whole of Hjörtur? No, he decided, that was still too small. A foreign sense of pride began bubbling forth. He felt exalted; he was a supreme being of power, and nothing was out of his grasp. I can encompass the world! His spirit boiled as it swelled into almost every crevice of Hjörtur. He felt more alive than he ever had before.
Pain flared white and hot at his core, bringing an end to his outward expansion. He found his limit and it was not the world. It was far less than that. His spirit had not even managed to encompass all of Hjörtur. He estimated his new maximum range as a little over a thousand meters, almost seventeen multitudes greater than his previous limit.
Erik drew his consciousness back inward, dragging along every speck of prana he had ensnared. All over Hjörtur, people stopped at the sudden chill in the air. Power filled Erik, setting his mind aflame with a feeling of glorious might. At the center of the void, he reformed his Ethereal Body and his translucent bubble. Golden liquid-like prana filled the interior of the bubble, reaching past Erik’s head sparkling with an otherworldly ambience.
Suddenly the bubble shook in the turbulence. Erik gasped in shock. The liquid prana roiled and he came face to face with the Celestial Dragon’s hideous visage, looking at him from outside the bubble. Its skin was like that of a lizard patterned in black and gold scales. White whiskers hung like long withered branches about its face, framing its elongated jaw in such a way as to make it seem even more gruesome and wicked than it already was. Its eyes were solid black but for a band of gold that encircled the darkness and from which sprouted twisted bolts of red.
The Celestial Dragon gave voice to its fury with an earth-crushing roar. It launched itself at Erik, ripping into his transparent bubble with its sword-like teeth. The bubble broke apart into infinitesimal pieces.
Back in the courtyard, Erik’s eyes widened in terror. He dropped down to one knee. His heart boomed in his ears, drowning out the sound of everything else. Inside his chest, his organs ruptured from the violent suddenness of losing his inner void, painting his lips in scarlet droplets.
Númi’s lips curled in amusement, “Something wrong, my prince?” He could not keep the contempt he felt for Erik from tainting his voice. Only moments had passed since Erik first reached for his inner void.
Prana leaked out of Erik’s body like smoke slipping through his fingers. He tried to hold it all in, but could not. Cultivators could not hold prana inside of themselves without the aid of their inner void and something told Erik that the Celestial Dragon would always be there waiting to attack him inside his inner void. Without prana he could not safely channel the Four Aspects of the Abyss. That meant he would fail the Grand Assessment and he would never truly join the ranks of the peerage. Erik pictured life as a commoner. No one will address me as “my prince” ever again. That thought filled him with terror.
Looking up at Númi, Erik never hated someone so much as he did in that moment. Númi became the personification for every imagined slight, for everyone who had ever laughed at him or did him wrong. Erik clenched his jaw, belly incensed with rage. His nostrils flared and his hand tightened on the hilt of his long sword. All he could hear was his blood snarling in his eardrums. He launched himself to his feet, swinging his sword at Númi. The world seemed to lurch around Erik. The air turned thick, tugging at his flesh as he attempted to drive his sword onward. It was like all the air in the world had turned to sap.
They think I’m weak! They think I’m undeserving of the greatness of my last name. Rumors said he spent his younger years chasing women and reading books, not practicing the sword like a true Cultivator should. Well, I will show them all just how weak I am!
As slow as Erik was moving, Númi seemed to be moving even slower. It took him what felt like seconds to react to Erik’s attack. Turning Erik’s blows at the last possible instant, Númi was forced back, stumbling under the force of Erik’s strike. Surprise slowly flickered across Númi’s face before disappearing behind a mask of blankness.
Erik did not let the fury he felt control him. Instead, he used it to his advantage, letting the rage propel his sword towards Númi’s face without giving him even a moment to catch his breath. Erik’s thrust changed mid-motion into a swinging slash aimed at his chest.
Wincing in pain, Númi barely blocked Erik’s swinging slash and then used the momentum to spin away. His gray topknot whirled behind him shifting slowly as if being pushed by a strong, yet slow, breeze.
The story of Erik’s incompetence was a fiction created by himself and Asbjörn. After his mother was murdered with poison, Erik came to the conclusion that he was safer if those around him underestimated his abilities. Out in public, he played the part of an inept princeling that was more interested in deflowering young maidens than he was in the Way of the Sword. Yet in private, hidden from view of the world, he had spent countless hours relentlessly practicing the sword with Asbjörn. He had never truly mastered the weapon, but he had become a lot better than most thought.
As good as Erik had been with the sword before, he had never been this good. Whatever happened to him yesterday gave him a kind of enhanced muscle control he could have only dreamed of. His body responded to his thoughts in a way that it had never before. The sword felt alive in his hands. It was a part of him, an extension of his will. He chased Númi across the hard packed earth of the courtyard, slashing and thrusting with the eternal slowness of a falling leaf. He could feel a burning sensation spread throughout his limbs as he pushed himself to his limits. The world resisted his attempt to move faster. Muscles in his arms and legs tore and bones came close to breaking. His body was never meant to operate at the speed that he was now moving at.
Within the crawling frame of time, the ripped muscles healed, allowing Erik to continue pushing his body past what should be possible. Momentum was on his side. Every time their swords clashed against each other, Númi was forced to retreat.
The blank-faced men watching the fight stood straighter, almost as if they were surprised at what they were witnessing. There was no longer an air of disdain about them.
Númi’s expression changed; chinks began to appear in his façade of control. Lightbenders were faster and stronger than ordinary mortals. They used prana to push their bodies beyond what was possible for most. But Erik was faster and stronger still, all without the aid of prana.
Abruptly, the Lightbender dodged a sword slash by leaping backward, reaching twice the height as Erik was tall. The wind rose again, carrying the surprised gasp of a sentry watching the fight from a tower. Erik watched Númi’s body back flip in the air then drift toward the ground. Erik could see the individual strands of gray sweat slicked hair that clung to Númi’s chest.
That was stupid. The thought fluttered through Erik’s brain, weakening the white fury, and as if Númi could read Erik’s mind, his eyes widened in dread. With his feet off the ground, Númi lost his ability to avoid Erik’s attacks. It was the kind of mistake a raw recruit would make, which just showed the amount of pressure that Erik had put the Lightbender under.
Erik charged forward, pushing his body beyond its limits. A roaring crack filled his ears as the bones in his arms shattered with the force and speed of him bringing his sword into position. He could feel the broken bones in his arms repair themselves with each step forward, draining him of something vital. His new abilities were not free, they cost him something he could not quite define. All he knew was that a part of him had been burnt away to power his speed and healing. The sword in his hand reached ahead, glittering under the sun with an ominous grandeur.
The Lightbender seemed to lazily fall towards the dirt, but there was nothing soft or gentle about the sword that slashed—ever so slowly, it seemed to Erik—across Númi’s chest before his feet could touch the ground. His ribs cracked as the blade pierced his skin, leaving a neat line across his chest. He grunted, rolling sideways with a puff of dust blowing leisurely into the air and then blinked out of existence. But first, the air around him seemed to ripple like the surface of a pond and then he was gone.
The world resumed its normal rhythm as Erik paused with his sword lifted in the air to one side. A wave of weariness washed over him with such force that he almost collapsed to his knees. Erik did his best not to panic as his eyes frantically searched for signs of Númi. He tried to calm himself by thinking that he had seen this same trick performed many times before, but it did not help. Lightbenders could bend light and sound waves around themselves, turning invisible at a moment’s notice. When they did, smell and touch were almost the only two ways to detect their presence.
A burning sensation at the back of Erik’s eyes made him shut his eyelids against the sudden pain. When his eyes blinked open, the world had assumed the properties of a waking dream. Colors were twisted and pulsating. The sky had turned from deep blue into a pinkish purple hue and the leaves on a nearby tree looked as white as fresh snow. Most importantly, Númi was once again visible in Erik’s new distorted vision. He was angling himself for an attack at Erik’s back.
This is how the Celestial Dragon sees the world, Erik mused.
Moving by instinct, Erik spun around and slashed downwards, turning the sword that was thrusting towards his back. Númi blinked into existence as the swords clashed against each other, and then disappeared again after they separated. Erik was doing something that was supposed to be impossible. With his naked eyes, he could perceive a vague orange outline where the light bent around Númi and his sword.
Erik grinned; his whole body was bursting with verve. For three long seconds, the swift clang-click-clang of metal swords clashing filled the courtyard. Erik pushed himself faster and faster. His sword became a silver blur.
With a shout, Númi reappeared, stumbling back, falling onto his knees. His sword lay in his severed hand, twitching in the dirt in front of him. Blood squirted out of the place where his hand used to be attached to his arm.
Erik watched the blood arch in the air then land on the dirt with a sick fascination. The red looked vibrant and beautiful. It awoke something in him. A want. A Hunger.
Pain lanced through Númi’s body, twisting his facial features into a look of horror. Disbelief filled his blue eyes as he met Erik’s sinister gaze. He opened his mouth, “My hand… you—”
Erik drove his sword forward, performing kissing-the-button, a derogatory term for a harassing sword thrust aimed at the opponent’s mouth. The blade entered Númi’s orifice and then exited by slashing through the side of his jaw.
Númi fell backwards, staring up at the sky, drowning in pools of his own blood. Fat tears leaked from his eyes. The courtyard stilled except for the sound of his gasping.
“Would anyone else like a lesson in etiquette?” When no one responded, Erik lifted his gaze from Númi and studied the Lightbenders that stood in a circle around him. “Answer me!” His blood burned like forgotten oil in a pan. He wanted someone else to step forward. He needed an outlet for the rest of his aggression.