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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
The golden dragon-hilted longsword in Asbjörn’s dark hand felt like a block of ice. Despite the sun blazing overhead, the large inner courtyard was suddenly cold enough to make him shiver, and only years of practice kept his teeth from chattering. The chill had nothing to do with the wind blowing down from the snow-covered peaks of the Rin Mountains and everything to do with the prana being siphoned from the air. His white robe offered no protection, and neither did Hjörtur’s black stone ramparts and walls; the former stronghold of the Sorcerer-Kings was both ponderous and ancient, but it could not protect from what was already inside.
Pudgy Baron Sophus stood across from Asbjörn, the source of the sudden chill. Clothed in a ragged looking red robe, frayed at the edges, he clutched a longsword in his sweaty hands while sweat dripped down his chubby chin. And like most people on the island of Daði, he was shades lighter than Asbjörn.
“What is your range?” Asbjörn asked.
Sophus licked his lips nervously. “Two hundred meters, or there about.” He kept his gaze firmly directed at the dirt at his feet, glancing up every couple seconds.
Much too timid for one so large, Asbjorn thought.
Asbjörn nodded. A range of two hundred meters was nothing to scoff at, but it could not compare to his own range of five hundred meters. Then again few Fallnir Menn—or Cultivators as they were known this side of the Howling Sea—had a range so great. The larger one’s range, the more prana they could ensnare to reach into the Abyss and power their Esoteric Techniques. “And your level of cultivation?”
“First Stöðin, Second Stratum,” Sophus said, and his eyes twinkled with a hint of pride. “I. . .” Less confident. “I hope to earn the right to become a Viscount during this year’s Grand Assessment . . . or at the very least win a title to some land. Prince Erik already gave me permission to travel with his entourage; so you will be seeing more of me I’m afraid.”
For the ten thousandth time, Asbjörn marveled at the strangeness of Vindurian society. Everything was upside down compared to what he had grown up with on the Mainland. Here, Cultivators were considered more than just walking volcanoes. Here, they ruled as kings and nobles!
“Proceed.” Asbjörn lifted his longsword, slid his legs apart, turning sideways. A charcoal-colored dragon-hilted shortsword also hung from the sash tied around his waist.
“Don’t you want to ensnare—”
“There is no need. Proceed.”
Sophus hesitated, and then shouted, “The Red Rose Blooms.”
A warning. The name of an Esoteric Sword Technique. Asbjörn appreciated the sentiment behind the act; this was a friendly exchange of pointers after all.
Sophus whirled his longsword, jabbing it in Asbjörn’s direction. A rosebud blossomed into reality mere inches from the tip of the blade; it shot forward, roaring, glowing crimson with opening petals made of fire. The size of a fist, it warped the air with its searing heat. Almost looking bored, Asbjörn thrust his blade into the heart of the Esoteric Creation and turned it. The flames splintered into shards of ivory light and shattered into smaller and smaller pieces until they vanished.
Asbjörn peered at Sophus over the edge of his blade. His gray eyes did not waver, his aged hands held fast. In his calm breaths he took note of the greed that flashed through the Baron’s blue eyes as he gazed at the dragon-hilted longsword. Like the shortsword at Asbjörn’s side, it was made of Tár Guðs, a precious metal valued for both its ability to amplify a Cultivator’s power and its ability to render their Esoteric Creations null. Few but princes and kings could afford to own such a blade. Much less two.
“Again!” Asbjörn smiled, but the hold on his rage began to weaken. His rage was always there, just below the surface, seething, bubbling, ready to explode forth at a moment’s notice. He remembered a time when it was not this way. A time before his soul was stained with blood.
“My Lords,” a woman said.
Asbjörn and Sophus lowered their weapons and turned at the same time. A liveried woman regarded them, pale hands folded in front of her dress.
She curtsied. “Pardon me. Baron Sophus, the Viscount requires your attention.”
“But—” Sophus began.
Asbjörn forestalled him with a raised hand. “It’s all right, go. We will pick up where we left off, tomorrow.” For an instant, Sophus eyes grew unfocused, and his head tilted back; Asbjörn’s hand tightened on his longsword. “Sophus . . . are you well?”
Sophus blinked, eyes growing clear again. He nodded and put away his blade, falling in behind the servant. Asbjörn sensed the woman’s terror, it was in the way she almost ran as she led the Baron away. Asbjörn did not blame her, Sophus’s behavior worried him just as much; use of the Abyss was hard on the minds of Cultivators.
“Now that was anticlimactic,” came another voice.
Asbjörn fought back a groan, and turned.
Ypse, a short, stocky, middle-aged man with a patchy red and black beard and yellow eyes, sat at a small wooden table some meters away. He wore a bright green coat that partly hid the ornate slave collar around his neck. Smiling, he waved Asbjörn over. “Join me for a drink, would you?”
Asbjörn approached Ypse reluctantly. Two towering soldiers loomed behind the Sorcerer’s chair. They were more prison wardens than guards, dressed in conical helmets and golden surcoats over plate-and-mail armor, with longswords at their sides. The black flame on their surcoats marked them as Punishers, an order of soldiers tasked with safeguarding the Sorcerers that Vindur kept as slaves.
Ypse poured himself a bowl of wine. “I was surprised to see you out here. I thought you would be out hunting with the Prince.” 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 appeared to be smiling at him as if the Sorcerer knew something he did not. 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. They had almost destroyed the world! The Third Apocalypse and the monstrosities that now plagued every nation could all be laid at their feet. They should all be killed. Every last one of them!
“There comes a point when a boy must step into the wilderness on his own,” Asbjörn said after a moment. “It’s how he becomes a man.”
Ypse snorted, yellow eyes alight with mischief. “You sound like a father talking about his much-beloved son.” He tugged at the end of his beard.
“You’re different today. You seem. . . .” Asbjörn allowed his voice to trail off.
“Cheerful?” Ypse asked. “Is that the word you were searching for?”
“Sure, let’s go with that.”
Ypse laughed, and took a sip of his wine. “I am in a good mood. I suppose that I’m even celebrating, but don’t ask what because 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 sooner be friends with a dead goat.
Ypse smiled. “Good. Good,” he said, bubbling over with a sense of mirth. “I think this too is worthy of celebration. A thousand years after the Third Breaking of the World, a Cultivator and a Sorcerer are friends. The Eternal Father’s ways are truly marvelous, are they not?” He raised his bowl to Asbjörn in tribute and drank.
The muscles in Asbjörn’s jaw twitched. Breathe, he told himself. He’s not insulting you on purpose. Are you sure? Slowly, he returned Ypse’s gesture by taking a single sip of his wine before setting his bowl back onto the table.
A roar shook the firmament and earth. Startled, Asbjörn looked up and saw a comet sailing overhead, trailing luminous gas. He leaped to his feet. His pulse quickened. He watched the fiery ball descend, deaf to the shouts and screams ringing out all over the citadel.
“It’s headed for the forest, I think,” Ypse muttered, inches from Asbjörn’s right ear.
Asbjörn took two quick steps away, uncomfortable with Ypse in such close proximity. Hesitant, he exhaled, becoming one with the air that poured out of his nostrils. The flesh forgotten, he became the earth beneath his sandaled feet, he became the sound of the leaves rustling on the branches of the oak tree. He was a net cast out in every direction, entrapping the globes of prana that lay scattered through the world like a downpour of fiery droplets.
Pain blazed in Asbjörn, and inwardly he cried out. Fire seared his mind as he reached the limits of his range. Breathless, he struggled to draw his consciousness back inward, reeling in all the prana he had ensnared. Light filled him. Mingled waves of spirit and prana rushed into his inner void where they formed his Ethereal Body. It was almost an exact copy of his physical frame, sitting cross-legged, flesh leaking white light, surrounded by a transparent shield.
He drifted through his inner void, calling to the Abyss, a realm of chaos and discord, where the Eternal Father had imprisoned the Dark One and the Death Gods during the First Age. He sought the Four Aspects—Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—to power his Esoteric Sword Techniques.
It was like a whisper at the edge of his hearing, a half-remembered tune. Suddenly, the song of the Abyss came to him, the dread voices of a million wailing souls. He saw it in his inner void, floating below him, a massive roiling vortex of glittering gold and green, with blue and red echoes. The shield around him rippled like the surface of a clear pond.
Well, a voice in his head said, it’s happening again, isn’t it?
No, he told it. He will be fine. I trained him myself.
Ypse stumbled back, shivering, teeth chattering. “What are you—”
Asbjörn bent his knees, thrust his longsword into the air, and furious jets of air exploded beneath his sandals, launching him upwards; the eruption blew Ypse off his feet and flung the table into the two armored soldiers, smashing wood against metal. Panic shouts turned into groans of pain.
Uncertainty and anxiety worked their way around Asbjörn’s heart, pulsing and tightening with every palpitation the higher he climbed. Not fear at what he had done, but fear at where the comet might land. Fear for Erik.
Asbjörn’s Esoteric Sword Technique, Grasshopper of the Stars, took him skyward. Eventually his velocity stalled, and he formed an invisible platform under his feet with a simple working of Air. Sixty meters above the ground, white robe flapping in the icy breeze, the whole of Hjörtur laid out below him, the ancient architecture that usually dwarfed him looked smaller from the air. Huge square banners etched with the symbol of the Royal House of Ito, a red and a blue phoenix joined in a circle, whipped in the wind atop of the towers and battlements below.
Within seconds the comet pierced the forest at the foot of the mountain range, spewing chunks of charred wood, flame and soot into the air. The sky shook with a light thud; the fury was too distant to be truly felt. Asbjörn’s breath caught in his throat.
Eternal Father, please protect him!
Erik Ito, the third son of King Vilhelm, stumbled, sandaled feet trudging across what sounded like shattered glass. At first, he could not see. When he finally could, he stared in shock at the ebony and gold scaled dragon, with eyes of solid black encircled by a band of yellow. The size of a small mountain, the monster swatted at the two black-coated men who danced around its feet, slashing it with swords. White whiskers hung from the dragon’s elongated jaw like long withered branches, and bright red blood spilled from the glittering bone protruding from its chest. Each scarlet drop caught fire the moment it met the air.
For the life of him, Erik could not recall how he had come to be here. In this place. Then it all came rushing back: the hunting party he led into the Northern Reaches, their battle with the Jade Spider, and his decision to investigate the crash site of the comet. If he had known all of what this morning would entail, he would have stayed in bed. Perhaps spend the day trying to mend the divide with Hanna, but it was too late for that now. Perhaps it would always be too late.
Time creeped forward, and he glanced down at the longsword in his hand. His flesh looked inflamed and blistered, and hundreds of cuts riddled his once elegant green robe from the shards of glass embedded in his skin. He knew of every little slash as hairline fractures on the outside of his inner void; they burned, but the pain was a distant thing compared to the prominence of the massive vortex churning beneath his Ethereal Body. Wounds like that could kill, or leave him a husk of what he had once been, but it did not matter. Not now.
Erik hung balanced on a knife’s edge, between the boundary of the known and the unknown, two paths opening before him. Run or fight. If he continued to battle, defeat was almost a certainty; he had already lost half of his warriors in a handful of seconds. Every instinct urged him to flee!
I’m sorry, he thought, not understanding who the apology was directed to. He would not run. He would not! Asbjörn always said he was too headstrong and impulsive, yet that was not it. He understood the consequence of his actions, not in every case, but certainly in this one. Back in the Vetur, the capital city of Vindur, he had spent years cultivating the image of a playboy to help protect himself from his brothers’ plots. His exile to the citadel of Hjörtur had been a chance for him to re-brand himself, a necessary step in his plan to ascend to the throne. But it was more than that, he was afraid . . . afraid that if he ran now that none of it would have been an act. That everything they whispered about him would be true. He would rather die than have that be the case.
A wave of renewed energy surged into Erik’s tired limbs, and he firmed his wobbly legs, raising his longsword into the air. Muted sounds came roaring back along with the stench of the white smoke swirling around the crater. He ducked his head, narrowly avoiding the severed head flying towards him. A shower of crimson droplets splattered the back of his neck and hair.
His longsword flickered and twirled as he performed Leaves on the Breeze. A single flow of the Aspect of Air rose from the Abyss, rendered obedient by his Tár Guðs blade; the liquid-prana splashing around his Ethereal Body burned to power his Esoteric Sword Technique, further draining his reservoir. Creation fought back against what was being done, but he persevered. A dozen invisible, razor sharp leaves made of Air wavered in and out of existence, then they solidified, whistling towards the dragon. They slammed harmlessly against the creature’s scales as it ripped apart the last black-coat man.
“Fuck,” Erik lamented, blood leaking from the nicks on his face. The monster turned towards him, black and gold eyes radiating menace. His legs trembled, and fear crawled down his throat and into his chest. I will not die cowering like a child. I will not!
Erik dropped to his knees and slammed his longsword into the earth, draining every last drop of prana he had within, attacking with The Earth Entwines. Illusionary vines of Earth erupted from the dirt, wrapping themselves around the dragon, flickering like candlelight. He groaned, jaws clenched, fighting against what seemed like a raging river; if his concentration slipped for even a second, he would be swept away, burned to ash. By force of will, he made his Esoteric Creation stabilize. The dragon roared, encased in giant vines of Earth that resisted its efforts to free itself.
Erik stood, laughing in disbelief. It worked! It was the largest Esoteric Technique he had ever performed. A gust of wind caressed his ruined robe, and his knees trembled. He gulped and steadied himself.
The vines snapped like pieces of twine, and the monster exploded forward, maw gaping.
Inexplicably, the abomination heeded his call. It halted meters from him, towering above him surrounded by choking plumes of ash and smoke.
Erik coughed. “I can’t die here! Do you understand? I sacrificed too much to get this far!” He gripped his thigh with an aching hand, desperate for a way out of this nightmare. “I will be the next king of Vindur. Me, not either of my brothers. Me! For my mother. For my sister.”
The massive creature exhaled, flailing Erik’s robe with its heated breath. It might have been a judge, listening to the testimony of the accused for all the emotion its hideous visage showed.
“But before I can become king, I have to return Vetur to attend the Grand Assessment. It’s the only way to become Prince of the Blood. My party leaves in three weeks.” Even with the terror surging through him, the wounds on his flesh stung and throbbed, cutting across his thoughts. “So you . . . so you see, I can’t die here. My plan won’t allow it.”
Erik blinked, and the monster was upon him. Teeth tore through his spine and punctured into his chest. His skull ruptured like an over-sized grape.
Asbjörn led a group of ten grim-faced warriors down the mountain trail into the forest. Bald except for topknots bound with red and blue silk, they walked with the casual swagger of men well acquainted with violence. And wore black coats and breeches, with longswords at their waists. Lightbenders, they were called in Daði. Men who fought with the strength of ten. Long-lived warriors bound by a strict code of honor. Across the Howling Sea, they were known as the Twice Born and ruled as nobles, but here they served willingly.
Asbjörn moved through the gloom of the forest interior, uneasy with the worry that gnawed at his stomach. Erik was his student—no! Erik was much more than that, he was his son. Perhaps not of his blood, but of his spirit. Asbjörn had helped raise the boy into a young man. If something happened to him . . . he did not know what he would do.
He looked away from the Lightbenders tracking the hunting party on the ground up at the young boy on the back of a giant White Crane searching from the sky, barely seen through the gaps in between branches. Normally, he would never accept help from one of Ypse’s abominations, but the Air Scouts had been one of Erik’s ideas. And the White Crane enabled them to cover more ground, even as distasteful as it was.
Air thick with the smell of burnt pine and flesh choked them the moment the impact site came into view. All around the upturned earth, trees had been vaporized and scorched into white stumps. He had hoped that the tracks they were following would lead somewhere else.
Anywhere but here, he thought. His heart rose into his throat. His hand tightened on the hilt of his longsword.
Near the edge of the crater, he discovered the body of a black-coated man skewered on a jagged tree stump, next to a patch of dirt melted into glass. His eyes scoured his surroundings. Blood, human intestines, and severed limbs littered the ground.
He’s dead, the voice said with glee.
NO, he yelled at it. The Abyss within churned chaotically.
Asbjörn staggered forward, stumbling from dismembered body part to dismembered body part. No! NO! Under the smell of burnt wood and smoke, the wind carried with it the foul smell of sweet rotting meat, excrement, and memories. The squad of Lightbenders spread out around him, weapons drawn and eyes alert for any sign of danger.
Eternal Father, please . . . not again!
Hot tears blurred Asbjörn’s vision. Hot nails hammered into his chest, he could not breathe without gasping. He could not breathe!
Why must you take them all from me? All the ones I love? I’ve already lost one son, I can’t lose another. I can’t!
“Cultivator!” a top-knotted soldier yelled, peering into the crater.
Asbjörn rushed over, heart racing, renewed hope surging. He skidded to a stop beside the warrior and looked down. Naked, Prince Erik Ito lay on his back, half out of the murky brown water trickling in from an underground stream. With sandy brown hair and youthful face sprinkled with hints of a mustache, he conveyed the frail sense of someone raised in a palace: the unblemished skin of a pampered prince. He looked nothing like a Cultivator should, having none of the warlike bearings of his father. Dirty water had soiled his woundless body.
Asbjörn jumped down, splashing even more muck onto Erik’s skin. He pressed two fingers to the Prince’s swollen throat.
NO! He dropped to his knees.
The Lightbenders stood like silent sentinels all around the rim of the crater, fixed in tragic reveries. More tears leaked from Asbjörn’s eyes. Sorrow tore his heart. Sorrow like molten claws.
Dead. Dead. Dead, sang the voice.
“No,” Asbjörn whispered, giving way to rage, his second, wicked heart. He drew from the Abyss and exchanged the prana he held within his Ethereal Body for the use of its power. Earth, Fire, and Air mixed without the aid of an Esoteric Sword Technique. “NO!”
The very earth trembled and thrashed in a twin song to his hurt, sending the black-coated warriors tumbling into and around the crater. Lightning exploded in the clear sky above, turning the air into liquid fire, and Ypse’s boy on the White Crane fled.
“Take me too!” He begged the heavens, thrusting his sword upwards. For an instant, his gray eyes glittered with motes of red, and his world quivered, convulsing; he was a child again, in agony.
A jagged lance of blinding light struck down, connecting the tip of Asbjörn’s blade to the liquid fire in the sky. It lasted a moment, a blink of an eyelid and ended with Asbjörn slamming into the wall of the crater. He struggled to get up, gasping, groaning as his vision and consciousness left him.
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