Five figured with hoods drawn close, leaving their faces in shadow, stopped at the edge of a drop-off. Their cloaks flapped in the frigid wind speckled with white, gazes drawn toward the enormous crater in front of them. The air was thick with swirling energy mixing in with the dancing snowflakes fluttering in the wind. A seemingly middle-aged man pulled back his cowl revealing grey hair, he stooped down grabbing a chunk of burnt flesh – it had long since frozen solid. He dropped it back into the snow and walked forward with the smooth steps of a dancer to peer over the lip of the depression. Pieces of jagged rock, capped with snow, dotted the slope. An ancient temple had once stood there but had been torn apart by an explosion.
The figures swept forward with unnatural grace. Their eyes widened at the destruction and hesitantly watched their leader beside them. His teeth were bared, black eyes pits filled with rage. The crystal had been utterly destroyed. Two bodies lay still where they had been placed in the snow nearby. Black metal shackles covered in runes blocked them from accessing their Chi.
"Does he know?" asked the woman standing at his left shoulder as she pulled back her hood. She had long blond hair, currently tied in a bun. Her face was young, but her eyes held wisdom that only came with having lived many lifetimes.
"Impossible," he muttered, voice low and dangerous. "We must find another."
He stooped down, a silver ring in the shape of a raven glinted on his index finger as he pinched a shard of black crystal from the snow. Even such a small sliver seemed to suck at the light; it was all that remained of the artifact. His rage deepened, and a shadow moved across the sun. He couldn’t afford for this to go wrong, too much planning had gone into it.
Nyx yawned deeply as he tried to rub the sleep from his eyes. Gabe, who had graciously woken him up for his early meeting with the council, led him through a series of tunnels that he noted were near Joshua’s office. Soon they came to a stop and Gabe rapped his knuckle on a pair of arched wooden doors, easily twice his height – the noise echoed hollowly with the sound of aged oak.
“Good luck,” he said, giving Nyx a supportive pat on the back before covering his own mouth to yawn. “Meet you at the mess for breakfast.”
Nyx waited for a short while and was about to knock again when the doors creaked open though nobody was on the other side. He could sense bands of air Chi manipulated by someone in the room. So they wanted to impress him, he hid a smile – unfortunately it wouldn’t work on him.
“Welcome, Nyx. Please come forward,” called Joshua from the room, with the tenor of a natural speaker.
Nyx walked into the dimly lit space, stopping on a spiraling circle of tile where a light above shone more brightly. Five tables rose in front of him on a tiered strip of floor, behind which five people stared down at him. He felt that the austerity of the room and stern looks were meant to unnerve him – this time he let himself smile.
“Cocky brat. Just like his father,” coughed a bear of a man into his hand. He had neatly trimmed blond hair and looked to be in his forties, though guessing a cultivator’s age was a tricky task. Nyx took an instant dislike to him and returned a stare that would make most people feel as small and insignificant as an insect.
“We talked about this. Civility Gregor,” admonished Joshua, raising an eyebrow at the blond man who grunted in response. Joshua looked down at Nyx once again from his table in the center of the five. “Well, you have met our Master of arms Gregor, don’t take his remarks personally, he is somewhat known for his temper. Ever a source of motivation for the cadets.”
Joshua then introduced Nyx to the other council members. There was Trudy, the Master of Tomes, a senior woman with white hair who smiled politely down with watery eyes. She was in charge of the archives taught array patterns. Flint, the Master of Air, was a wisp of a man with a patchy steel grey beard and thinning hair. He winked when Joshua introduced him. The last introduced was Tims, Master of Water, and youngest member of the council. He had the build of an athlete, tanned skin with curly toffee-colored hair. He seemed decidedly uncomfortable, watching the other council members, especially Gregor, for cues as to how he should act. Nyx almost wanted to laugh when the man attempted to adopt Gregor's glare.
Each of the council members specialized in a different element: Tims water, Joshua fire, Gregor earth, and Flint air. He wasn’t sure what Trudy’s element was, but he was informed she was in charge of Array patterns.
“This is a fairly straightforward matter,” said Joshua, “As chancellor, I have made the executive decision to have you adopted into the Order early. It was impossible to induct you as a current student, but I was able to find a loophole in the commons. It is not unprecedented that a Cadet be accepted shortly before their four-year cycle would begin.”
Joshua gazed down at Nyx, stroking his chin. “I have given it some thought. If you join the team I choose, it will be a simple matter for you to gain access to heavenly Chi.”
At mention of the Chi, Gregor immediately began whispering in an angry tone to Tims beside him. The way they glanced at Nyx told him they were not happy with his knowledge of the subject. Gregor cleared his throat looking at Joshua. “What are you doing chancellor? He is just a pup, most definitely isn’t worthy of the heavenly Chi, let alone joining my son's team. I object. As a mutt, let alone late joining so late in the cycle, he belongs with the talentless.”
Nyx almost wanted to accept Joshua’s offer just to wipe the smug look off that man’s face. He shook his head. “I can’t. I owe the brothers and will not abandon them.”
Loyalty is an admirable trait,” said Joshua, his eyes glassing over in memory for a moment before clearing. “But it can only get you so far.”
“No, in this I think you are wrong. I have made my decision and plan on joining Dan and Gabe’s team.”
Joshua nodded and seemed to have aged, his voice was cold. “You have just made getting access to heavenly Chi much more difficult. Since you are on Dan and Gabe’s team, I expect you to join them for class with Master Trudy.” He waved his hand indicating the senior woman with curly white hair. “You are dismissed.”
The atmosphere became oppressive with a sense of foreboding. Even Flint was glaring down at him, somehow seeming sad. As he left the room, only the Arms Master was grinning darkly. Nyx felt an urge to smack the smile from his face, but settled for lightly slamming the arched doors behind him.
Nyx's stomach grumbled, still digesting his breakfast. The aftertaste of runny eggs and hash browns from the buffet had him licking the inside of his teeth to clean them. After grabbing a quick breakfast, he had rushed to his first ‘class’ in which he had been sitting at the back quietly while the other cadets took notes. The elderly woman from the council was the instructor. The room was all white, but unlike the harsh fluorescent light in the medical office, this room contained a calming Zen-like feel.
Trudy’s wrinkled hand pointed to a pattern she had drawn on a whiteboard that the cadets in the class had been working to memorize. It was a simple pattern that the students should be able to visualize on a three-dimensional plane.
Trudy bustled to the various tables taking glances at the students’ progress. She nodded to herself and returned to the front. "Array patterns are different than cultivating. It takes an agile mind to hold the pattern in the Aether. Formation arrays manipulate the natural Chi in an environment but are dependent on the kinds available."
Dan, sitting to Nyx’s left, was doodling with a pencil on his pad of paper. He had only taken notes for about five minutes before giving up and losing interest. Trudy paused in her lecturing and hobbled forward bopping Dan on his head. Dan jumped in his seat then rubbed his head, drawing a few giggles. He glared at the council woman’s back making faces but continued his doodling.
“As I was saying, I want you to focus on nothing, no attachment." She looked around for emphasis. "Separate your consciousness, your soul, from your body. To create an array pattern, your soul must enter the Aether. Focus on the pattern you have memorized. Good. Now map it out, feed it with your soul’s strength.”
Nyx had managed to find that nothingness, to separate his soul long ago when he left Earth the first time. In the higher realms, he had taken it a step further. Only true masters could keep a link to their bodies while mapping patterns in the Aether.
Chi began to move inside the room, shaping into balls of energy. A weak pattern. Garry was much better at this than the others, a natural. The others struggled to hold the formation and keep the natural Chi together.
The teacher's eyes narrowed as she looked at Nyx, he had been asked to sit out and observe, "Never attempt this without instruction, one mistake with the array, and it could have dire consequences, your soul could fracture. As your core strengthens, you will learn to create complex arrays. The more complex, the longer it takes to draw the necessary Chi."
Perspiration covered the faces in the room and one by one they released their arrays. Nyx sat observing; he did not need to practice.
"That’s all for today.”
The class filled with the sound of chatter and ruffling paper as students stashed their belongings in bags and headed from the classroom. Dan who had slipped into the class late, hair a mess, now lit a cigarette and popped his feet on a desk clearly in no hurry. Nyx followed Gabe and Garry through the tunnels making for the central cavern and their next lesson.
When Nyx stepped out from under the tunnel, it took a moment to get oriented. The air was hot and muggy, filled with the sound of wooden weapons thumping together. On the right side of the central cavern young men and a scattering of women in uniform trained under instruction. The musky smell of sweat permeated the air even though vents kept it cycling out. Dan and Nyx were among the few students out of uniform. Joshua had sent him a few pairs of the grey clothing the previous night, but he opted against wearing them. Cadets eyed him, probably wondering who the new kid was, but once they saw the pin identifying him as a mutt, they seemed to lose interest. He scratched his chest where it rubbed uncomfortably clipped to his shirt.
It was only a short while later that Dan walked into the cavern and had a whispered conversation with Gabe. Grinning as he strode over to Nyx and gave him a hearty slap on the back. “Welcome to the team. I bet Gabe you were going to ditch us, guess I owe him twenty dollars now no thanks to you.”
Nyx smiled, “It’s my goal to disappoint. So who is our team leader?”
“That would be me,” said Gabe puffing out his chest in a show of mock importance.
Matt had his arm around Marisa as he joined them. He used his free hand to push back a lock of blond hair and rolled his eyes at Gabe’s impression. “Don’t get cocky, you’re only lead thanks to my laziness.”
“I don’t think it’s him who has a problem with cockiness,” said Marisa pushing of his arm and playfully punching him in the chest.
Nyx looked around at the groups of students spread through the vast space. He noticed they were organized in units of six practicing forms as instructors marked by bands of green, walked around helping here and there. The rest waited by an angry looking Gregor.
In Nyx’s experience, there was a balance between learning correct technique and combat experience. Combat was by far the most valuable. Nyx had learned techniques and how to implement them in real situations, against diverse body types and strengths.
Nyx felt a sense of foreboding as he watched Benjamin, his hair tied back with a cord, and a tall man with short tawny blond hair walk towards him. They were laughing and seemed to be in a good mood. Nyx stiffened when Benjamin grabbed him by the shoulders in the manner of greeting an old friend. “Nyx! Good to see you again.”
Nyx frowned in confusion pushing himself free of the embrace. The hands tightened enough to leave a bruise before he was free, but Benjamin showed no sign, expression remaining pleasant.
The blond man gazed around at the different members of Nyx’s team before seeing Matt. “Matt!” he said, and Nyx almost believed they must be old friends. “Come talk with us for a moment! I have some information that might interest you.”
Matt Shrugged acting nonchalant as he followed them a short distance away. As much as he tried to hide it, the added pep to Matt’s steps and his unusually straight posture gave away how he felt from their attention.
“Who is that?” asked Nyx.
Gabe was frowning. He had been with Nyx the last time they met Benjamin. “The blond one is Dean, the Master of Arms boy. You know Benjamin.”
“How’s he know Benjamin?” asked Dan.
Nyx continued to watch Matt while Gabe told his brother what had happened. At first, Matt seemed jovial, a smile plastered on his face, but as their conversation continued he smiled less and less and soon was gritting his teeth in anger. Benjamin looked Nyx’s way and winked then walked off with Dean back to where Gregor was waiting. Matt practically stomped his way back to their group.
“What did they want?” asked Gabe.
Matt ignored him going right up to Nyx and shoving him in the chest. The only reason Nyx managed to keep his feet was from years of training as he rolled with the push and lowered into a fighting stance, “What the hell was that for?”
“Think you are better than us do you, been telling everyone that our team is garbage? Lying and telling everyone you got accepted into the top team? Without that lucky toss, you would have been the one on your back yesterday.”
“Stop, obviously they were lying to you,” said Gabe, but Matt didn’t pay him any mind.
Nyx was tempted to try reasoning with him, but if there was one thing he hated, it was blaming luck for a failure. Nyx narrowed his eyes. “Luck? Luck never comes into it. Every action leads toward an outcome. 'Luck' was created by those who run from challenges. What are you?”
Matt suddenly went eerily calm and walked over to a thick wooden rack and grabbed a practice sword. “Let’s see if you believe that when you are bruised and bloody.”
On seeing the conflict, three groups of six paused their training and turned to watch. There was a glint in Matt's eyes now that a small crowd had gathered. Dan folded his arms stepping back along with the Gabe, Garry, and Marisa.
Nyx shrugged, grabbing a practice sword of his own. He spun the weapon in his hand – it was a poorly balanced thing. The handle was rough with splinters and nicks dotting the would-be blade. Nyx let all the tension out of his muscles.
His keen hearing picked up someone whisper, their voice filled with disgust, “Look, the new guy is a Mutt.”
“Why would they accept a Mutt so late?”
Opinions were like reeds; they swayed with the changing of the wind. Nyx was centered but didn't bring his sword to bear, holding it down by his side. Matt circled him and began probing with strikes, searching for weakness. Nyx swayed with the incoming attacks avoiding them easily. Matt, getting frustrated increased the tempo. Nyx was a shadow; no swing was even close, his movement was unpredictable, footwork masterful. Years of practice and constant battles had honed his abilities.
Matt might have some talent, but it was rough and un-honed. There were telegraphs to his movement. Gregor stood nearby with Dean and Benjamin, his thick arms crossed, bulging with muscle. He had been instructing but stopped to watch seeing the students he was mentoring distracted. Blinded by ego Matt could not sense the gap between them. The people around began to murmur, growing bored with the lack of action.
Giving no indication of intent, Nyx slipped a thrust. He snapped out his sword aiming for the base of Matt's 'blade.' With a crack of wood on wood, the sword flew from Matt's hand, landing with a thud on the ground.
Matt’s eyes glinted dangerously, blond hair matted with sweat as he cursed his luck under his breath.
Nyx shook his head, Matt was too proud, believing he couldn’t lose for any other reason. Nyx hated when people refused to face reality. He knew it was petty, but he wanted to force Matt to face his flaws.
"When this is over you will accept that I am right. There is no ‘luck.'"
Matt didn’t respond as he retrieved his sword, frown deepening.
Nyx watched the Chi spread through Matt’s body as he enforced himself, increasing his speed and strength drastically. Matt came in full force, his sword stirring the air as he relentlessly pursued Nyx around the circle. Nyx stayed relaxed, tensing up would slow him, and he wouldn’t be able to keep up without using Chi of his own.
After a short time, Matt’s movements became erratic; his eyes narrowed with visible frustration. Nyx waited, deflecting the strikes he wasn't fast enough to dodge. Matt overextended with a thrust and Nyx slipped past the sword, hooking Matt's foot with his own, pulling him off balance. Matt wobbled then did a quick juggling with his feet to find his center of gravity again.
"That is enough!" Joshua's voice boomed interrupting the fight.
Nyx stopped moving and used his sword to tap Matt's kidney, just as he found his balance. He Leaned forward whispering in Matt’s ear, "you make your own luck," then stepped away, ready to re-engage if Matt continued his assault. Before Matt could do anything more, Joshua had covered the distance coming between them. The onlookers slowly began chattering again, turning back to their practice now that the excitement was over. He noticed two people give him a nod of new respect. He ignored all of it.”
The rest of the practice Joshua watched his group. Nyx made a concerted effort to keep his skill hidden, not wanting to cause any more ripples. Everyone trained in relative silence, but Nyx was glad when he had a quiet conversation with Gabe and Dan and was able to explain it was all lies. If Gabe hadn't been there during his first encounter with Benjamin, Nyx didn't think they would have believed him.
Nyx wolfed down his dinner, he had heaped tons of sweet potato, steamed broccoli, and chicken thighs onto his plate from the buffet. Matt was sitting across from him with Marisa who was trying to make small talk. Matt didn’t seem interested and just focused on his meal, giving Nyx the evil eye whenever their gazes crossed. Nyx had tried to apologize and mend the rift between them, but Matt had just grunted notcomittally. Dan assured him it would pass, saying he had ample experience on this matter.
They had showered and cleaned up, Nyx and Dan again the only ones still out of uniform. He had no plans to become beholden to an organization after what he had seen in the higher realm. Around them Nyx listened to the conversations of the cadets eating at the various tables spread through the dining space; the main topic of discussion seemed to be focused around the upcoming tournament.
“So, what is the purpose of this tournament that everyone is talking about?” asked Nyx interrupting the conversations at the table.
Gabe waited for a moment but when nobody else tried to explain he took it on himself. “It’s a big deal, happens once every four years. The competing teams are promoted from this facility to begin their training at a higher level. The event in this cavern, an array pattern that collects natural Chi over the four-year intermission creates the environment in which we will all compete.”
Nyx knew it would take many years to create a potent array on earth with the scarce Chi available. It would take a powerful cultivator or object to create the kind of array Gabe spoke.
“So where will the participants go after?”
Dan was halfheartedly picking at the food spread across his plate his gold chain locket swaying around his neck. “Think they would tell us? All they say is we will be moved to other cities for further training. The winners get special forms of condensed energy too boost their cultivation, and a select few stay behind becoming instructors for the next Cycle.”
Nyx nodded and went back to listening to the buzz of surrounding conversations.