My way is the Old Way.
— NÚMI MAIDA, TO HIS SON
Númi waited in the hallway outside Viscount Baldur’s office, sitting on top of a cushioned chair. He had already been there for hours, under the guard of two Silver Ranked Lightbenders. They stood on either side of the doorway, watching him like birds of prey. Wrapped in the darkness of his inner void, he could almost feel their gaze like a physical force, feel the wariness and the fear hidden behind their stoic masks.
Ignoring the looks, he stared at the tapestry that hung on the wall across from him, losing himself in the complexity of the colored patterns woven into the hanging textile. For a moment, he could almost pretend that he was not a cripple, that his right hand had not been chopped off the day before. That the pain he felt did not exist. It was a soothing piece of fiction that brought calm to a restless sea.
He forced himself to looked down at his hand, shattering the illusion. I am not one of them! Only the weak needed lies to shelter themselves from the truth. He would not run from what lay before his eyes. His way was the Old Way and the Old Way exalted suffering. Nothing was more holy than the torments of the flesh. Nothing more freeing.
A once white bandage, now stained red with blood, covered the nab at the end of his right arm. Even with his enhanced regenerative abilities the wound had not yet fully healed. That would take more than a day. Much more. And in a strange twist of fate, he could still feel the hand as though Erik’s blade had never removed it. The phantom limb refused to obey his commands, but sent sharp lances of pain traveling down his arm, a constant reminder of what had been lost. Of what had been taken from him.
None of this torment showed on his face. The physical misery he felt was nothing compared to the hurt in his heart. He would gladly trade his other hand if it meant he would get his son back.
A flicker of movement made him look up from his hand. The door opened, and a gray-headed liveried servant stepped out into the hallway. The servant could be no more than fifty years old, but Númi thought of him as ancient even though he was decades older than that. Only Lightbenders, and sometimes the rich, lived to see such an age. Cultivators like Viscount Baldur were the exception that proved the rule. When monsters roamed the world, farming became an occupation fraught with peril, making supplies scarce and survival a challenge for most.
“Sir Númi, Lord Baldur will see you now,” the man said after giving a short bow as etiquette demanded. He seemed a paragon of protocol and moved with a refined grace despite his age.
Númi’s left hand gingerly rose to touch his jaw where Erik’s sword had sliced through his mouth. The mostly healed flesh looked inflamed and stung when his fingers pressed against it. Just an inch lower and the blade would have taken his tongue. Petty that, he thought sarcastically. He had always considered himself a man of action and had never put much stock into words, viewing them as the favorite tool of the weak and the long winded. You could not trust a man who never stopped talking, or so he had always thought.
“Sir Númi, follow me,” the servant added, turning around and walking back the way he came.
For a moment Númi watched the man go, face unreadable in his usual mask of blankness. Then, slowly, he followed, taking note of the fact that the Lightbenders who stood on either side of the doorway now gripped the hilts of their weapons. Even with only one hand they still thought him a threat. He thought of smiling, but could not muster the effort it would take. The things that once brought pleasure no longer held any appeal.
At the center of the large oval shaped room sat a statue of a woman on her knees with her arms stretched out to the heavens. Whether she was praying or begging for mercy was unclear. Brightly colored carpets covered the floor and the space in between each of the room’s three doors were taken up by tall shelves filled with books.
The servant led Númi around the statue and towards a door directly across from the one he just entered. When they reached their destination, he held the door open with a smile and closed it after Númi passed through with a bang. For a second there appeared to be an ominous note hidden in the sound, but Númi brushed it off and stared straight ahead.
Behind a giant mahogany table, Viscount Baldur sat on a cushioned armchair writing a letter with a quill pen made from a molted eagle feather. He never looked up as Númi waited to be acknowledged. Seconds turned into minutes with nothing but the sound of the quill scratching against rough paper to break the silence.
More waiting, he thought with more than a little bitterness. He stood as still as the stone he cooled his heels upon, doing his best not to sulk. He did not waste any time wondering what Baldur was up to; he had experienced this many times before. Nobles had their subordinates wait at their pleasure to reinforce the power they held over them.
By custom, Baldur had very little power over him. He was appointed by the King to lead Prince Erik’s honor guard to the Rin Mountains and fell outside the regular chain of command of Hjörtur. But now that his charge was missing and most likely dead, things were different. Without the Prince here, he became the Viscount’s to direct as he saw fit.
What do you do when you’re faced with an opponent you couldn’t defeat, he asked himself. You submit, you run, or you die. He was not afraid of losing his life. He had been courting death since he was old enough to hold a sword and had almost tasted her embrace many times before this. But dying now would serve no purpose. His only joy in life was taken from him. Now all he had was the Code, and it demanded that he obey.
“Who gave you permission to lead a rescue party out of the sally gate last night?” Baldur suddenly asked without looking up from the table. He dipped his quill into an ivory inkwell and continued to write even as he spoke.
Númi’s fingers twitched before he could stop them. “No one.”
Baldur looked up for the first time, meeting Númi’s blue eyes with a cold stare of his own. For a moment Númi wondered if he could stab his sword into the Viscount’s throat before he could channel the power of the Abyss. Only one thing was sure. Númi would die either way. There was no doubt in his mind that there were at least two Lightbenders hidden from view. And the only way for him to confirm his guess was to turn invisible himself.
“My Lord,” Númi added as if it were an afterthought.
Baldur’s ancient brow wrinkled into a frown. “Do you know what I’m doing right now?” When Númi did not respond, he continued, “I’m writing a letter to his Majesty, the King. In this letter, I explain that his son is dead. This is the second time I’ve had to write this in as many days.”
“Is he?” Númi asked in a voice so cold that it could freeze running magma in its tracks.
Eyes narrowing, the Viscount stared at Númi as though he was trying to peer inside his skull. “Is he what?”
“Is he truly dead?” Númi asked calmly. “From what I understand no body was found.”
Baldur flung up a hand for silence, a tiny bit of his irritation showing on his face. “Don’t. I have heard enough stories and theories for one day. You were much closer to the battle than I was. I know you saw the spears that entered his body.” He shook his head. “This is not why you’re here. You’re here because you put the whole citadel in danger with your reckless actions. Men died last night.”
Númi grunted. “This I know, my Lord” The image of the spear impaling his son flashed through his vision, making his fist tighten in rage. One day I’ll get my revenge for what was done, he promised himself. The vow felt hollow a moment after he made it. It lacked conviction. The one he blamed was outside of his reach. He was convinced that his rescue attempt would have succeeded if not for Erik’s interference. His nails dug into his palm, drawing blood as he thought of gutting the Prince.
“Men who had no need to,” Baldur continued as if Númi never spoke. “Men who had sons and wives. Their loved ones weep for them now. Your son should have been the only one to die last night.”
Númi blinked unsure if he just heard what he thought he heard. After deciding yes, he took a menacing step forward and then paused as he caught sight of the Viscount slight smile. His mind raced furiously. Viscount Baldur had once supported the wrong Ito for the throne. Prince Erik had died while under his protection. Viscount Baldur had many enemies in the capital. Suddenly he saw a pattern; it was so simple he almost kicked himself for missing it until now. Baldur wanted him dead so he could place Erik’s death squarely on his shoulders. He’ll make it seem like I went mad with grief and . . . .
The Viscount’s smile disappeared as Númi took a step back. “You’ll be escorted to a cell where you’ll spend the night. In the morning you’ll receive ten lashes in front of an assembly of soldiers. This shall be your punishment. Questions?”
“None, my Lord,” Númi replied.
Returning his gaze back to the letter, Baldur added, “See yourself out.”
Númi saluted by slamming the stump of his right arm against his chest. Intense and nagging pain bloomed at the end of the limb. Grimacing, he spun on his heels and walked out of the door, once again passing through the room with the statue of the woman on her knees. This time, he did not bother to give it a glance.
In the hallway, the number of Lightbenders had increased by four. They fell in around Númi as he stepped into the corridor, destroying all thoughts of escape, not that he had any to begin with. What were ten lashes to him? The actual punishment within Baldur’s sentence was not the whipping, but the fact that Númi was to be beaten in front of an audience. Númi assumed that the Viscount thought humiliation might break him where pain would not. He was not wrong. The idea needled at his pride.
“This way, sir,” a thin Lightbender said, before turning around. Númi did not know the man’s name, but he was confident that he had seen the knight around the citadel before. In fact, he was not aware any of these people’s names. The Lightbenders that had traveled with Prince Erik had kept themselves separate from the Lightbenders already stationed at Hjörtur. For a moment he bemoaned the arrogance that had caused that decision. Now, when he needed it, he had no existing relationships to pull help from.
It doesn’t matter. He pushed his regret away and followed the thin Lightbender without responding. From the corner of his eyes, he graded the skills of the rest of the knights that traveled with him and found them wanting. He decided if he wanted to get away there was not a thing they could do to stop him.
As though sensing his mood, everyone they passed along the way bowed and quickly found somewhere else to be. He did not blame them it was the only sensible thing to do. Clothed in the emptiness of his inner void, time slipped by and before he knew it they arrived at his new home. He surrendered his weapon to a stocky man in a dirty brown coat, who he thought of as the jailor, and entered a cell through a thick iron bound door with a small iron grill set in it.
The dungeon was larger than he expected, it hard enough room for him to pace back and forth without feeling cramped. It even had a bed and small wooden table, all in all; Númi had slept in worse places.
“There’s an oil lamp on the table in case it gets too dark,” the jailor pointed at the lit lamp that sat on the table. He turned to leave when Númi did not acknowledge him.
Númi sat down on top of the dirty little bed, looking a bit lost. “Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome, sir” the stocky man replied before shutting the door. “I’m sorry for your lost,” he added after bolting the door into place. His voice came through muffled but still understandable.
Númi closed his eyes and forced his breathing into a controlled pattern. Within the cold emptiness inside himself, his Ethereal Body floated surrounded by a clear bubble half-filled with a golden liquid. Strangely, his right hand still existed in this state, but he paid it no mind as he was already aware of this discovery.
As his breathing slowed the golden streaks of light that flashed through the void seemed to draw towards him. They stuck the top of his bubble and transformed into droplets of liquid prana that rained down around him. While this happened, he absorbed prana from the golden pool he sat within through the flesh of his Ethereal Body, allowing the energy to travel along a number of different nadis. The nadis inside his Ethereal Body varied in color, while the majority were silver, they were still plenty of bronze and gold channels.
Suddenly a buzzing sound jolted Númi out of his mediation. A bug flew in through the cell’s only window, a slit in the wall barely broad enough to fit two fingers through. It circled in the air, and then hurried over to the lamp, flying directly into the orange flame. It burned to a crisp and fell onto the table dead.
Soon another winged insect charged into the room and then another. For some reason Númi became captivated, watching the bugs seek their deaths in the flame. Hours passed as he tried to find meaning in their action.
Númi blinked, turning to face the door. It opened, and Asbjörn entered, dressed in a scarlet robe. Númi brow wrinkled. “Is it time?”
“Not quite,” Asbjörn responded. The door slammed shut behind him. “I’m here for another reason altogether.” He took a seat on the empty air, directly across from Númi.
The causal show of power made Númi’s skin prickle. He turned back to stare at the lamp and the bugs that were swirling around it. “I’ve been watching them for hours,” he said. “At first, I was curious. Why do they keep flying into the flame? What do they get out of it? It just seems so pointless.” He gazed at Asbjörn with a serious expression. “I’m not crazy.”
“I never said you were.”
Númi’s eyes once again sought out the lamp. “I’ve seen insects do this before,” he whispered. “But this is my first time really taking note of it. It’s strange the way we can go our whole lives never seeing what is right in front of us.”
“Closeness makes wonders commonplace,” Asbjörn replied sagely. “We all have a tendency to look outside of our circles for revelations, thinking what is near holds little meaning.”
Númi touched his cheek and his fingers came away damp. For a moment he stared at them in surprise. He could not remember the last time he cried. Tears were the currency of the weak.
“To lose a son is no easy thing,” Asbjörn said with a sad knowing smile. “To grieve is not something to be ashamed of.”
“Tell me why? Why do they do it?” Númi asked desperate for an answer.
Asbjörn sighed. “I don’t know. . . . They’re drawn to the flame because it’s their nature. Because they’re just bugs and their too stupid to know any better.”
Númi gave a short bark of laughter. “If they’re stupid what am I? Am I not just like them? To seek the flame, isn’t that what it means to court death?” He wiped his tears away and suddenly look more stable. “Why are you here, Asbjörn?” He asked.
“I plan to lead an expedition in search of Erik. I want you to join my team,” Asbjörn answered.
“Why would I do that? I blame him for the death of my son.”
Asbjörn’s eyes gleamed in the dim lamp light. “I know,” he growled, “that’s why I’m here. What I lead is not a rescue expedition it’s an execution mission. I plan to kill the thing that now wears Erik’s face.”
Stunned, Númi searched his face. There was no doubt Asbjörn meant what he had just said. Númi frowned taking notice of the color of the Cultivator’s robe. This was the first time he had ever seen Asbjörn wear red before. What that meant, he had no idea, but he became certain it signified something significant.
Abruptly there came a knock at the door. “It’s time,” shouted a muffled voice from the other side.