The following day started early, before the sun rose, not that anyone could tell underground. Joshua ran Nyx through obstacle courses, clocking his time and marking down scores on a sheet of paper. He seemed to take delight in testing him with weaponry and seemed pleased, praising Nyx’s father on teaching him well. Nyx pretended to be thrilled by the praise, but further limited himself. He didn't want any extra scrutiny. He was disappointed that Joshua made no mention of the heavenly Chi room, and when asked quickly changed the subject.
On the second day, Nyx continued to go through the training that the academy vaunted. Array patterns in the morning, then combat practice with Gregor and his instructors who remained keen on ignoring Nyx and his team. Matt seemed less standoffish during the training but still refused to speak.
Nyx gave pointers here and there when he didn’t think it would bruise an ego. He didn’t see Dean and Benjamin at the practice and learned they were on a different schedule reserved for ranking teams. That evening he pretended to cultivate and learn to cycle his Chi.
He had some time to kill before his the evening sparring and decided he would ask Joshua about the Chi again. The man had become a ghost.
Nyx banged on the office door for the fifth time, the brass knocker ringing out with a dull thud in the silence of the hallway.
“Hello Nyx, still looking for Joshua?” came a deep silky soft voice from behind him.
Nyx was too startled to react. It had been a long time since anyone had snuck up on him. He turned to see it was the old man Flint, master of Air. He was scarecrow thin, his hair and beard appearing even more sparse under the yellow lighting in the passage. His silvery hair stuck up at all angles, and he wore a uniform at least one size too big for him, though he didn’t seem the least bit bothered.
Nyx Composed himself, running his fingers through his hair playing the innocent student. “Yes, I need his help with something. You don’t know where he is by any chance do you?”
Flint squinted up at Nyx with milky eyes. “Do you play Go by any chance? I need an opponent.”
Nyx didn’t miss the fact that his question had been ignored. He racked his brain but couldn’t remember a game on Earth by that name. “Do you mean monopoly?”
“No, my boy,” said Flint with a chuckle, “come with me I will teach you, maybe one day you will become a challenge. Give an old man some entertainment for a while. What do you say?”
Contrary to Flint's haggard appearance, he kept his office tidy. He had a well made if plain desk, and in the sitting area were two plush armchairs faced a table with a game board built into it.
Flint took a seat rubbing his hands together in excitement with the vigor of someone half his age. “This is Go.” He said indicating the board and piles of small black and white oblate spheroid game pieces that rested in depressions on either side. “Those game pieces are called stones. Go is the oldest game this world still plays for a reason. It is simple but, in many ways, more challenging to master than chess.”
Nyx realized he knew the game, but never played himself. He said as much to Flint who readily filled him in on the rules. True to his word, the game was simple, but after losing handily, Nyx learned its simplicity belied a much more sophisticated stratagem. Nyx found he enjoyed the game and agreed to play a second.
“Master Flint, could you tell me where Joshua is?” asked Nyx breaking a moment of contemplative silence.
Flint didn’t look up from the board as he placed a black piece. “Desperate for the heavenly Chi I see. Wonder what use a Mutt has for Chi of that nature?”
Nyx watched the board looking for the trap he knew Flint was setting. “It is a personal matter. I hope you understand.”
Flint looked at Nyx tilting his head and waved a hand over the game board. “Imagine you have placed a stone that is destined to become a sacrifice in the greater scheme of the game. Would you waste unnecessary resources to protect it?”
Nyx shrugged. “That depends on if it will further pull my opponent into the trap.”
“Assume it will not, what would you do with that piece?”
Nyx scratched his head. “I guess I would cut it loose… Wait, are you saying I have been cut loose?”
“No of course not,” said Flint, after pausing just a little too long. “Are you a mindless piece on a Go board, moved at another’s whim?” he sighed wistfully. “Life, now that is the ultimate game. Every piece being moved and moving of its own accord. The true masters can see these pieces and move them, almost as if they were actually sitting lifeless on a board.”
Nyx narrowed his eyes. “So, whose game are you playing?”
“Now, that is the right question, but you should also know, no real player ever reveals his hand; in the end, we are all players in the greatest game, the game of life, whether we like it or not.” He placed a piece on the board between them and reached out his bony hand to shake Nyx’s. “You played well for your first time.”
“It’s not over yet.” He still had several white pieces left on the board.
Flint didn’t argue and placed two of his black stones conclusively showing how Nyx had forfeited position, allowing his pieces to be surrounded with his last move. He ushered Nyx from the room.
“Please feel free to come by and play again sometime,” said Flint, his neck peeking out of the crack in his partially closed door like some strange turtle. Nyx was about to thank him, but he had already retracted his head and shut the door. Now alone in the discomforting quiet of the tunnels, Nyx wandered through the passages and couldn’t help but wonder how much of Flint's eccentricity was an act. If Joshua really intended to deny him access to the Chi he had to find another way in.
Nyx realized he must have been walking for a long time when he saw the stone pillars in the shape of a man and woman reading open books up ahead. The carvings created the entryway to the Tomes. Inside was a vast space filled with books on cultivating, array patterns, and cycling techniques. He checked the time and realized he was late for evening sword practice. He groaned then jogged off not wanting to give Gregor an excuse to criticize him.
When Nyx arrived for the practice, the first thing he noticed was Joshua talking with Gregor as they observed the training cadets. Nyx was about to go over to him when he decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to do it with Gregor around.
The instructors had them sparring that day. Nyx paired off against Matt first. They had a tentative match, Nyx wasn’t sure how Matt would react if he lost so limited himself more than usual. Matt seemed to sense this and would try to lull Nyx into complacency, then catch him off guard with a mighty blow. It kept him on his toes, not giving him a chance to let his mind wander as he did with the others.
When he was up against Dan, they went at it with a vengeance. Well Dan did, it was one of the few places that he thrived. In classes with cultivating or array patterns Dan seemed to tune out, but when training, especially sparring, he would fight with his all.
Nyx grinned as they exchanged a series of blows and allowed a glancing thrust to graze him. Dan’s face contorted as he concentrated on passing Nyx’s guard. Every now and again Nyx allowed him small victories. A bruise on his thigh and shoulder were mostly healed from their last bout.
Nyx ducked, and Dan’s practice sword connected with the wood of a tree above his head, shaking free a flurry of fake leaves. Out of danger, Nyx spun low, foot connecting with the soft flesh of Dan’s stomach. The breath whooshed from his lungs as he fell backward, but the fight did not leave his eyes.
“Stop, one of you will get injured if you continue sparring at that pace,” said the instructor watching them with his crossed arms. The man was young with a full head of auburn hair and lean physique, Nyx thought he couldn’t be older than Twenty-six.
Nyx rose and dusted off his legs without comment, eyeing the mark in the tree where Dan’s sword had connected. It was one of the larger environments, mimicking a forest filled with well-made imitations of deciduous trees. His mind was still stuck on what Flint had implied; he must have been telling him the truth. He refused to wait any longer for the inevitable denial of his access to heavenly Chi. He ignored the instructor who was yelling at him to get back into the circle and walked over to Joshua. His patience was at an end.
Nyx tone was cold. “I can see it in your eyes. You won’t give me the access I asked for.” It seemed so clear to him now, the guilt was written on Joshua’s face, in the way he wouldn’t meet his gaze.
Nyx nodded slowly and pointed at Garry who awkwardly stood at the side fidgeting his mop of red hair in his eyes. “Garry, would you come with me please.”
Garry reacted to the clear command in Nyx's voice. "Yes, sir!"
It was time to take his own advice. Time to make his own luck. With shoulders back head high, Nyx walked from the training area towards the dorms followed by Garry. He could feel many eyes monitor their progress.
Joshua yelled after him. "You would abandon your team after speaking so much of loyalty? I expected more. The tournament is in one month, I expect you to be here and complete.” He turned to the others who stood around after witnessing the scene. “Everyone get back to work!" Movement answered the words. A few remained to stare after Nyx and Garry. The occasional clank of wood on wood became audible.
Nyx shut the door to his dorm living area behind him. Everyone else was still at practice. "I need you to do something for me. I noticed you have some interesting programs on your computer. Personally, I have limited computer experience, so I need you to hack this facility.”
Garry's eyes widened, making him look like a skinny owl. For the first time, he looked Nyx in the eye. "Why would I do that for you?"
"Because I need access to the locked cultivation room. I need it now. I am willing to pay you ten grand, make it worth your while." Nyx's manner turned dangerous. "If you don’t, you will not be leaving this room."
Garry's eyes widened as Nyx let some of the demonic Chi spread. An ominous aura radiated out. There was a warning in Nyx’s posture.
Seeing Garry frozen, Nyx continued, "don’t worry I would never harm my 'friends'. Are we friends?"
Garry's adam's apple rose and fell as he gulped. "Mhm, friends. I ah… want the money in bitcoin."
Nyx relaxed his expression and nodded. "I'll let you deal with transferring the money over to bitcoin then send it to yourself."
Garry's whole persona changed as he logged on his computer, he was in his element now. Nyx was just able to follow along as he activated his computers encryption and ran the remote access Trojan he had logged into the facilities main computer frame. Garry's fingers flew over the keyboard, and boxes opened and closed on his monitors. No wonder he was so efficient with array patterns. Nyx was impressed.
"Access granted, though it will still appear as if you are restricted."
Nyx nodded handing Garry debit card. "Go ahead and get yourself the bitcoin. Be careful though. I think someone is tracking my purchases on there."
Garry grabbed the card turning back to the screens. "Information is easy to access with the right know how. I have one more request though. I want to go with you to the room and see what's so special about it for myself."
Nyx relaxed at hearing the request expecting much worse. "I don’t see a problem with that. I assume it goes without saying that we never mention this to anyone. Ever."
Garry's face blanched before returning to normal, he scratched his hair nervously. "Well... Uh, I'm just as liable as you... maybe more so." He looked sheepishly up at Nyx and pulled a deck of playing cards from a box that was sitting on his desk. “Want to see a magic trick? The others won’t let me test my card tricks on them anymore.”
Nyx shrugged, "go for it, we have some time to kill anyway."
Garry had a silly smile plastered on his face as he began to shuffle the deck of cards, “Cool! This is my lucky deck. I take it with me everywhere. Now pick a card.”
Nyx scratched his head and pulled out a Queen of hearts.
“Now memorize it and place it anywhere in the deck.”
Nyx did as asked, and for a while, he pretended to be astonished every time Garry guessed his card right. The childlike glee on his face made Nyx smile himself.
It was time. The apartment was dark, and Nyx’s roommate’s steady breathing indicated they were fast asleep. Earlier on arriving back from the days practice Garry and Dan had tried to question Nyx about what had happened, but he just waved it off. Garry had stayed in his room and left his headset on, ignoring the questions.
Nyx stood up from the couch and stretched pushing back his arms. He had taken a nap in preparation for tonight. At Garry's door, he gave it a gentle tap then slipped inside. Garry was still focused on the computer screens as Nyx snuck up behind him putting his hand on Garry's shoulder and covered his mouth. Garry turned his head, wide-eyed, as Nyx's hand muffled a shout.
Putting a finger to his lips, Nyx nodded his head towards the door, "Its time," he whispered.
Garry took off his headphones and got up, in the process bumping his leg on the desk. Nyx winced, and Garry mouthed 'sorry.'
Once outside Nyx’s footsteps were dead silent on the cobblestones, but next to him, footfalls echoed. He swore Garry would wake the whole place.
Quietly Nyx asked, “Are you even trying?"
"I'm doing my best."
Nyx cast his senses out, tuned for any movement or disturbance in the environment. Nothing. Fortunately, nobody was out. Nyx led Garry through the central cavern hugging the shadows created by the various combat environments and obstacle courses. The deeper tunnels leading to the cultivation rooms were silent. They made it into the darkness of the narrow hall outside the locked room without incident.
"I'm going in. You, my friend, are going to get your quick peek then be the lookout. If anyone comes, play dumb and delay. I will be in for some time."
"Alright, I can do that."
Nyx swiped his key card. He held his breath. There was a soft 'Click,' and a green light flashed on the card reader. He pulled the door open briefly holding it for Garry. The heavenly Chi in the air glowed like a faint white mist. It was not thick, but it would be more than enough to match his demonic Chi.
Soft blue light lit the room from above illuminating a pedestal in its middle. Delicate bands of gold leaf twined around it, swirling up in an ever-tightening spiral. On top of the ornate stand rested a pitch black stone the size of a car tire.
That explained the Heavenly Chi. A soul stone was one of the few materials that contained elements of Aether. It was a critical component that could be refined into spacial devices and used to craft divine artifacts. It could also hold the soul of a cultivator and create a permanent formation array.
A glistening black plaque inlaid with a gold script read, 'In memory of Hugh de Payens who gave his soul for our future.'
A formation inside the soulstone was drawing the heavenly Chi. Now he understood why this room was under lock and key. Even in the higher realms, these permanent arrays were rare. Nyx shook his head bewildered, the stone alone was worth a fortune.
"It’s time, leave me be and don’t interrupt no matter what," said Nyx, attention focused on the Heavenly Chi. Garry didn’t protest and left the room letting the door swing shut with a click.
Sitting cross-legged in front of the pedestal, Nyx closed his eyes and began to cultivate drawing in the Heavenly Chi, cycling it through his meridians in an intricate pattern. It would run through key meridians a total of seven times before he would finally draw it into his core.
As it traveled, he could feel his body purifying. When he had cultivated the demon Chi, it has strengthened him through pain. This Chi felt like the most fantastic massage. It pulled out impurities like a masseuse would loosen a sore muscle.
A disgusting smell accosted his nose as the impurities exited his pores. The black sticky goo clung to his skin and smelled like death. He ignored it and continued.
An hour later Nyx had cultivated most of the Heavenly Chi inside the room. He was tempted to empty it entirely but didn't want his presence here to be so obvious. A much more considerable amount of demonic Chi circled the Heavenly in his core like a lopsided yin and yang. The opposites repulsed each other like two ends of a magnet.
Nyx took a deep breath, and using the immense pressure of his soul, he took hold of an equal amount of demonic to match the heavenly and began to force them together. He gritted his teeth, agony coursed through all his nerves but he couldn't stop now. He molded the two, repeatedly folding them together. He was not sure how long it took, but when he finished, his core glowed white like molten metal.
It was done, he relaxed and took a deep breath. A state of calm returned to his mind. For now, the pain was manageable. Annoying, but manageable.
Then he felt a dull ache start building near his diaphragm. It spread across Nyx's entire body filling him with sudden weakness. Sweat covered every inch of his skin and hands trembling out of control. A bolt of energy coursed through him, coming from his core. He cried out in pain, falling back on the ground body jerking as he lost control of his limbs. It was only a jolt, but the agony was as painful as any experience he could remember. His nerve endings all tingled, and his breathing became heavy and labored.
This was not what he had expected. The demonic and Heavenly Chi had been merged. The result. This was not elastic, no, this was Chaos. The two combined in his core to create a storm. A cold and hot front colliding. The resulting Chi wreathed with black and white lightning, streaks crackling through it. The larger mass of remaining Demonic Chi seemed to cower away from the crackling energy.
Standing, he prepared himself mentally. He pulled the new Chi from his core, forcing himself to the limit. Faint flickers of black and white lightning coursed through him and his eyes flashed intermittently black and white. He moved, and his body blurred, then collapsed in a heap as pain coursed through him.
He sensed something from the chaos. It was unbridled energy that did not want to be controlled. He could tell it had only responded of its own accord, rather than anything he had done. The shock had been a demonstration and warning. This power, he was in awe. He came in with expectations, but now he was shaken. If he could learn to control the Chaos.
After being zapped by the storm of Chi in his core, it seemed to settle down some. Grime stuck to him all over, the way he imagined it would feel to go without showering for a month. Disgusting. If anyone ran into him, they would think he had gone for a swim in a sewer. Breathing deeply, Nyx sat with his arms wrapped around his legs in silence as he waited for his heartbeat to normalize.
Once satisfied, he did a backward summersault and landed on his feet.
Nyx exited the Heavenly Chi room and slowly closed the door behind him. It didn’t make a noise besides the slight click when the automatic lock fell into place.
Garry turned around plugging his nose, he had been playing with a deck of cards but shoved them into his pocket. He whispered, "What is that god awful smell?"
Nyx raised his arms in a demonstration. "Let's get back I need a shower, any trouble?"
Still plugging his nose Garry shook his head, "Nah, nothing," his eyes shifted around as he peeked around the corner.