Nyx slammed shut his fifth book. What had begun as a promising start had turned into an accounting of obscure herbs and their uses. The only thing in the text that was even mildly interesting was the mention of a White Lotus flower, found only in the Tibetan mountains. It was said to absorb ridiculous amounts of heavenly Chi. “Good thing I’m in Tibet,” he muttered sarcastically under his breath.
“What was that?” asked Dan, in the act of balancing his chair on its two hind legs, his own book left forgotten in front of him on the stout wooden table. Around them, other cadets were bent over their own tables spread through the space between towering bookshelves. The dark wood shelves rose all the way to the ceiling, a full thirty feet, stuffed with books and manuscripts of every shape and size imaginable.
The Tomes had a heavy feeling, like they were buried inside some ancient catacomb. Nyx supposed that was exactly where they were. He breathed deeply, filling his nose with the smell of stale air and old books. “Nothing, just talking to myself. Aren’t you going to keep searching?”
Dan grinned and reached beside him, gripping his brother’s shoulder. “Thing is, both Gabe and I are Earth Elementalists, so technically by reading, I’m just wasting effort. Once Gabe finds his new cultivation method I can just copy him.”
Gabe was bent over the table studiously sifting through the pages of a thick book with a dark leather binding. He shrugged off his brother’s arm, and Dan almost lost his balance, chair thumped back to rest on all four feet. Nyx winced. “Keep it down would ya. We don’t want to get kicked out.”
Dan made faces at Nyx but didn’t say anything else, soon focused on picking something from beneath his nails.
Nyx lamented the fact that none of his teammates had the element fire. If they did, he would have easily been able to give them access to techniques of his devising, ones not seen on Earth. He felt a tapping on his shoulder and turned to find Garry standing there holding a thick book gilded with fine lines of silver spiraling along its spine. He didn’t say anything just continuing to regard Nyx with a look of triumph, his bright red eyebrows high on his forehead.
“Yes?” asked Nyx, “did you find something?”
Garry nodded vigorously without meeting Nyx’s eyes, talking in a whisper. “Found this stashed behind several thick volumes, someone must have hidden it away.”
Dan crossed his arms, “go on, show us the technique already.”
Gabe flushed and laid the book between the four of them, flopping it open to a page with the word ‘caeli’ spelled in ornate silver lettering. Under the title was a detailed picture of the human body with a spider web of directional lines crisscrossing through it.
“Air, caeli is Latin for air,” said Garry, forgetting to whisper in his excitement.
Nyx nodded, engrossed in following the meridian lines that were mapped out on the books page. The technique would be a significant improvement for Garry. It would open new pathways and widen the ones he had already created through his meridians. After learning and practicing this cultivation technique, Garry would be able to utilize his Chi both more efficiently and effectively when applying cycling techniques.
“Is there anything in here for Earth?” asked Gabe, hopefully.
Garry shook his head remembering to keep his voice down this time. “Just that one technique for air. Sorry.”
“Could you show me where you found this?” asked Nyx hoping there might be others.
"Sure," said Garry, leading them to a quiet section of the Tomes. They spend several hours checking every nook and cranny, but the book Garry found appeared to be one of a kind. Nyx called it a night with a sigh, having to remind himself it was a partial victory.
The following day Nyx returned to the tomes with the others when they had free time, but again they found nothing. They were all starting to grow irritable; Dan had begun to show up late or not at all in the hunt for books.
It happened twice. Fortunately, nobody else was around. Once, while deep in the Tomes, as Nyx searched in a dark alcove for the techniques they needed. He had just pulled an old ratty looking manuscript down from a high shelf when he felt the storm brew and soon was gasping for air from the ground. He waited, sitting on the floor in the aftermath to recover.
The second time it occurred was at night in his room while he was probing at the chaos, trying to understand it. The others came running when they heard his scream. He told them it was only a night terror. Dan grumbled and threatening him to, "keep it down next time," in a groggy voice before going back to bed.
By the time Nyx walked into evening sparring practice he was biting his nails in frustration. They had now spent two fruitless days of searching the Tomes, and he was about as close to solving his issue with the Chaos as they were finding the right book. Only Garry had managed to find a cultivation technique that was adequate. Gabe still searched, doing the work for Dan who was regularly ‘distracted’.
Maybe they needed to go deeper in the Tomes. The books they needed might be hidden away in the dark recesses of the restricted sections. He had assumed it would be a simple matter finding the techniques they needed, but that didn’t seem the case.
Nyx walked onto the green turf in the central cavern, weaving his way through other cadets to a small open space. He lowered into his daily stretches, prepared for another tedious set of bouts. As usual, he planned to hold back just enough to make it appear competitive.
“What’s Benjamin doing here?” asked Gabe sidestepping a group of cadets to join Nyx. He pointed off to a far section of the combat circles.
Nyx had to crane his neck to see past the group of trainees blocking his line of sight. Sure enough, Benjamin, tall with his long auburn hair tied back behind his head in a man bun, was talking with Gregor.
“Nothing good I’m sure,” said Nyx as he watched them slowly walking over in their direction.
“What’s going on, you people are ghosts recently,” asked Matt as he joined them with Marisa. Garry followed behind them with his head on a swivel, seeming intrigued by the other teams all around.
“Been in the Tomes, researching for a class,” said Gabe with a strait face and convincingly enough that Nyx had to reassess his opinion of him.
Dan joined them, a pep in his step. He always seemed to come alive when it was time to spar. He immediately joined them stretching, and playfully punching his brother on the arm. “I can feel it. You won’t so much as scratch me today. Get ready to take a beating.”
Nyx missed Gabe’s response as the cadets in front of them suddenly separated with grumbles of annoyance, making space. Gregor and Benjamin walked through, up to Nyx’s team. Everyone remained silent as they waited to hear what was happening.
Gregor cleared his voice, and when he spoke, it was louder than necessary, a show for the other trainees. “Did something to piss off Joshua have you? Hasn’t been hovering over you like a hen for a while now. But don’t worry he asked me to take special care of you.” He looked down his nose at Nyxs team gathered around him. “I couldn’t help but notice that your teammates give you little real practice. Joshua tasked me with making sure you are progressing, and that is what I will do. Benjamin here is on my son’s team, the team Joshua so graciously offered you to join,” he said in a tone indicating what he thought of that arrangement. “I brought him here today to help you out.”
Dan jumped to his feet, his anger blazing, fists clenched. “Benjamin will have to come through me first before getting a shot at any of my friends.”
“It’s fine Dan, let me give him a match," said Nyx.
As Nyx focused on his opponent, the students circling them seemed to bleed into the recess of his mind.
They began with a flurry of exchanges as Benjamin attacked, confident in his abilities. He was fast and tenacious with good fighting sense. Nyx had to admit grudging respect and understood how he could be considered one of the best.
Nyx flicked his blade down knocking away a bold attack, and riposted with a lightning-fast strike that connected solidly against Benjamin’s side. Sure to raise a welt. Benjamin’s eyes widened marginally, and when they narrowed back into focus, his stance and style became cautious as he tested Nyx’s defense.
It only took Nyx a minute to get Benjamin’s timing down. He was fast with sure strikes, but he tended to favor his left side and leave a momentary opening when he attacked high. He watched his opponent coil for another high slash.
Nyx waited, ready to sidestep. It was a thing of timing. If he waited too long, he would have no option but to take the hit, doing his best to roll with it. If he reacted too early, Benjamin would have time to anticipate his counterstroke. Just as Nyx shifted on the balls of his feet, pain lanced up from his core, pulsing through his body. He was left immobile, teeth clenched, as his muscles spasmed. He couldn’t move or cry out as the blunted edge of the hardwood sword closed on his head. He thought he heard a dull thud as the world went black.
When Nyx came awake, he was greeted by a pounding headache and sharp white light. He squinted, instinctively raising his hand to shield his eyes and give them time to adjust. It took him a second to orient himself, and realize he was back in the medical room, on the same white linen as the last time. The first thought that came into his head was that he had been knocked unconscious by a blow he should have easily evaded.
The scraping of metal over trays and rushed conversations were taking place all around. Cadets along with two teachers, all in a white version of the grey uniforms, circled a man lying on a medical table. Last time he had been here it had been only him. To see that so many others had been near while he was unconscious left him feeling uncomfortable.
Nyx jerked his head back as a wet cloth dabbed his temple.
“Stay still, its leaking fluids again. I’m Vanessa by the way,” said a flaxen-haired girl from beside him, sitting on the edge of his bed. The dimples in her cheek showed when she smiled reassuringly at him, a small bowl of water and cloth in her hands.
Nyx delicately probed the side of his head and could feel a nice sized welt had formed, just above his ear. He looked at his hand. It was moist with clear fluid. He took a closer look at the girl tending to him, realizing it was Benjamin’s sister. “Go ahead,” he said now that he knew she was administering to him. “So, what are people saying about what happened?”
Vanessa dipped the cloth in the bowl of warm water. She regarded him for a moment, as she dabbed at his head. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Benjamin is one of the best cadets here when it comes to fighting.” She scowled, “but he could have gone easier on you.”
Although he felt a pang of hurt to his pride, Nyx was relieved that nobody seemed to have realized the reality of what had happened.
“What about you? What are you doing in the infirmity instead of at classes?”
She laughed, a sound like crystals clinking. “What? You think everyone in this place specializes in breaking things? No, some cadets learn alchemy to prepare pills and other delicacies. Some are dedicated to researching and monitoring the Tomes for the masters, while others dedicate themselves to the forging of weapons, though they keep that under tight wraps. Then there are cadets like me who specialize in learning to fix meat heads, like you, who foolishly decided to pick fights or get hurt training. What were you thinking going against my brother? He hates you and, you should have guessed, is quite adept when it comes to brutalizing others.”
Nyx ignored the question, nodding toward the man who seemed to be in the middle of some surgery. “What happened to him?”
Vanessa grimaced. “He isn’t a student. Graduates sometimes stop by here from time to time. He was injured by a demon and is lucky to have been found, though I doubt he will ever be the same again.”
Nyx watched as one of the medical staff took a device that looked like a miniature blowtorch to the man’s skin. He didn’t so much as twitch, even though Nyx could smell burning skin.
“Cauterizing the wound. Usually, they would stitch it, but his is a rather extreme circumstance, and the glue isn’t holding.”
Nyx nodded as they both watched the procedure. “How long was I out?”
“Just the one day, less than I thought considering the head trauma.”
A day wasted. Nyx pushed back the thin sheet covering him and jumped up from the cot. He was still wearing his clothes from the sparring match and looked at Vanessa raising an eyebrow.
She blushed. “Don’t even think that. I would never peek. Here, take this with you at least.”
Nyx accepted the cloth she was holding out to him and thanked her before leaving and heading back to his dorm.
When he got back, he found Dan, Gabe, and Garry waiting around thier form living area. Dan was the first up, and in a show of rare emotion, gave Nyx a bear hug as if trying to crush his ribs. “What took you so long? I was starting to think there might be some permanent damage to that ugly mug of yours.”
“Turns out this mug of mine had quite a thick skull. No permanent damage, just a rattled brain.”
Nyx finally freed himself and Gabe gave him a more reserved ‘bro hug', clasping hands and patting each other on the back. Even Garry came up to him, seeming unsure how to go about hugging, so Nyx took the initiative rather than have him wait around awkwardly any longer.
Gabe smiled broadly. “You should have seen it. Dan went ballistic after Benjamin knocked you out. He rushed forward, and I swear he would have killed someone if members of the watching teams hadn’t jumped on him, pinning him down.”
Dan was shifting awkwardly, clearly not sure what to think of the praise. “It’s not like I did anything other than get us kicked out of practice for the rest of the day. Told me to get my head straight before I came back.”
Nyx smiled a tight smile. “You wouldn’t believe who was the one to look after me while I was injured.” He paused, “Benjamin’s sister Vanessa.”
This time Dan frowned. “You’re playing with fire getting close to that one. Even I am not so stupid, you already have seen what her brother is willing to do to you just out of annoyance. Now imagine if he thought you were after his little sister.”
Nyx sighed. “I am not perusing her, in fact, I have zero interest. I just thought it was a funny sort of justice is all.”
Dan nodded knowingly. “Of course, zero interest. Anyways, look at this.” He picked up a thick but plain looking book from the kitchen table and shoved it into Nyx’s face.
“You took it from the Tomes? If Trudy finds out…”
“I know,” responded Dan still thrusting the open book at Nyx.
Nyx took a moment to read through the open pages. At the bottom of the second one, there was a detailed picture very much resembling the one Garry had found three days before. There were differences that Nyx saw, probably having to do with this technique involving Earth Chi rather than Air. “This is good, very good. Where did you say you found it?”
Dan puffed out his chest, “I didn’t, and weren’t you just badgering me yesterday about not pulling my weight?”
“So, the restricted section then. Did anyone see you go in there?”
Dan sheepishly scratched the back of his head, looking somewhere off to the side, “no, I was careful. What about it, we were going to have to go there eventually anyway. There aren’t any good techniques in the open sections.”
Nyx allowed himself a smug smile. “I wasn’t going to reprimand you. Before I got ‘injured’ I was going to suggest we do the same thing. Good work.”
Nyx was able to take one more day away from classes while he recovered. During the day he spent almost all his time focused in meditation. He watched, and occasionally probed at the oscillating chaos in his core, but when the others returned for the night, he continued to teach them to utilize their Chi to strengthen their swords. Then he would wait for them to sleep, and slip away and cultivate heavenly Chi.
Once Nyx joined classes again he only had one more incident with the chaos that he deemed a tentative success. It was during a cultivation lecture in which he was largely a pariah due to his Mutt status. He had been surrounded by other cadets when he felt the influx of energy about to wreak havoc inside him. He focused inward and managed at the last instant to direct the energy into his hands, releasing it into the underside of his desk.
At the end of the period when he inspected the table, there was two handprints buried three inches deep into the bottom of the metal surface.
After the incident with the Chaos, he spent the following evening trying to advise where he could to help his team understand their new cultivation techniques. It turned out to be a daunting task, and they only had one day to spare before they would go hunting demons. Fortunately, the effects of the cultivation techniques would take some time to show and didn’t have much of an impact on the coming trip.
“Dan, stop trying to force it, you need to be its guide, gently, help it travel through your meridians in the pattern we practiced. Watch how your brother is doing it.”
Nyx sighed, “It’s been three days, maybe you should have chosen fire as your element.”
Dan growled at him, face straining as he tried to concentrate. “Shut it.”
An uncoiling in his core was the only warning Nyx got before a surge of energy coursed through him. His body jerked uncontrollably, the power lighting his nerve endings on fire.
Gabe came into focus above him, wiping a brown curl from his eyes, face pinched with concern. "You alright? I think it's happening more often now."
Nyx pulled himself back up in his chair. He had had no warning to prepare this time. The episode had only lasted for a second, but it felt much longer. He waved off the concern while wiping sweat from his brow. The first time it had transpired around them, he had told the seizures were from a childhood illness.
Nyx looked at returned Dan and Gabe’s concerned looks. Only Garry hadn’t been distracted by his outburst, sitting still, soul in the Aether as he formed thick shields of natural Chi around the brothers. He had learned to utilize the array pattern at an astonishing pace.
Nyx frown deepened. While facing a demon, all it would take was one shock through his system, and he would be dead. For some reason, he still couldn't direct the flow of his Chi. When he had first learned fire, it had been much easier.
“I’ll be right back,” he said walking to his room, he had an idea sparked by the advice he had given Dan.
Nyx had been attempting to control his Chi the same way he had controlled fire in the higher plane. Fire was whimsical and would spread wildly if not directed under an iron fist. It acted like a curious butterfly that blew with the wind. His method for controlling fire did not work with the Chaos, so far attempting to impose his will had caused it to rebel against him.
He sat cross-legged in his room and delved into his core, he tried a different approach, treating the Chi like a wild stallion. Gently he coaxed the mass of flickering power, he didn't seek to control it but rather become its guide. The energy began to whirl much more peacefully. He wasn't sure how long he sat focused inward, but even when his opened eyes, at best, he now had a tentative relationship with his Chi. If he was lucky, he might be able to stop the buildups before he was zapped.
With the truce, he felt fingers of chaos claw at the door leading to his violent past. the chaos broiled eagerly when The barier cracked open leaking black smoke. He slammed the door shut, stopping the images of death and torture. A fear crawled its way up from the pit of his stomach, burning inside him like a lingering coal. The deepest part of his being refused to let his dark side free, no matter what.
Nyx waited in his room for the others to fall asleep. He was satisfied that Dan, Gabe, and Garry were ready to face a demon. Dan still struggled with his cultivation technique but had taken up enforcing his blade with ease. The others were similarly competent though Nyx was most impressed with Garry and his ability with the array pattern.
Grabbing a pair of shorts and tee-shirt he made his way to the door when he sensed the others steady heartbeats, indicating they were asleep. The lights were dim as he slipped through the order’s halls, shadows moving along the wall with his passage. The darkened lights in the central training cavern were far from reaching the ground, leaving the place in semidarkness.
The patter of footfalls gave Nyx warning, he hid in the shadow of a weapons rack and waited as the steady thumping of shoes on cobblestone grew faint down another passage. Careful not to make a noise, he left the shadow and continued through the near dark.
It had almost been a week, and most nights after he finished training with his roommates, he left to cultivate heavenly Chi. He was now at the edge of reaching the second level of Basic cultivation. After the third level, he would enter the Shaping stage, at which Elementalists could manifest their energy outside their bodies.
The reader clicked when Nyx swiped his badge in front. Inside the room, the heavenly Chi had recuperated from when he had last used it. Faint white mist circled, glowing with soft light and began to pool around him. Stripping down, Nyx sat cross-legged in front of the pedestal that held the soul stone. With eyes closed, he began to cultivate, drawing in the heavenly Chi, running it through his meridians.
Time passed as Nyx focused all his attention on cultivating. Three forms of Chi circled his core. The heavenly Chi built up over a period of days was finally enough to match the demonic already there. Preparing mentally for the pain, he began to mold the demonic and heavenly together. Teeth gritted he continued merging the two, till only the chaos remained. The volume of chaotic Chi swelled and began to swirl as one mass, pressing with overwhelming force at the edges of his core.
A crack reverberated in the silence as Nyx's core expanded, lines of power shot out and traveled through his body. All his muscles and organs strained, pushed to their limit, and then torn apart. Slowly he felt his energy move through his body, knitting back together torn muscle fibers, ligaments and organs till the pain was only a lingering memory.
There was no longer any heavenly or demonic Chi in his core, only a mass of crackling Chaos. Breathing heavily, he waited for his heartbeat to calm down, feeling the stickiness of grime and sweat that clung to him. He had reached the second level of basic. Nyx felt his heart beating powerfully, and he could feel the strength in his hands doubled as he clenched them. He flexed, and corded muscles stood out across his body. His natural ability, unaided by Chi, was now duplicated.
Picking his clothes up off the floor, Nyx slipped on his pants and left the room, the door closing behind him. Although he was filthy, he felt outstanding. As he walked through the central cavern beside a weapons rack, Nyx brushed his hand over rows of practice swords, the feel of the rough wood beckoned him.
He came to a stop, hand resting on the hilt of a hand and a half sword. Though made from layered bamboo, it was a similar design to the one he favored in the higher realm; a double-edged blade, tapered to an elegant point. He reverently pulled it from the rack, then slipped off his shirt tossing it onto the ground. A patchwork of silvery scars undulated across his fair skin, fainter now than they had been before his breakthrough. For the first time since coming to earth, Nyx let himself Loose.
The wooden sword came alive in his hands, spinning with grace speed and power. The sound of the blade whipping through the air further relaxed his mind as his body twisted, flipped, turned at impossible angles with maddening accuracy and speed. At one point he grabbed a second sword off a rack, and it joined the first, becoming a cyclone tearing through the air. Soon a sheen of sweat covered his bare chest lightly reflecting the dim lights far above.
For a time, all Nyx was aware of was the feeling of his body moving, every muscle as is contracted and extended with relaxed power. He flowed through the various combat circles and environments, a wraith alone in the dark. A tear rolled down his cheek as he let himself dwell on his friends he had left to an uncertain fate in the higher realms.
When he came to a stop, his breath heavy with his heaving chest, the world came crashing back in around him. It had been a brief respite from his problems. His senses once again expanded out, and he was alarmed to notice someone standing in the dark watching him intently. He didn’t let his surprise show as he made for the person, silently kicking himself for allowing his hold on the world to falter.