Wintersteel – Will Wight

TİMAİAS ADAMA HAD BEEN a guest of the Heaven’s Glory School for almost three months. They were a collection of backwards savages who had forgotten nearly everything about the sacred arts. It was astonishing, really, how ignorant they were. But they let him inside the labyrinth. He marched over scripted tiled floors, past endless rows of polished wooden cabinets. This had once been a storage hall for the belongings of lesser researchers and staff, but every one of the cabinets was empty. Not because the people of Sacred Valley had looted the place; one step into this place would strike a Jade dead sure as the sun rose in the east. The sacred instruments that had filled this hall had been destroyed by time and by this valley’s “curse.” The curse that had drawn him here in the first place. He breathed heavily as he walked. Not only was his madra down to a bare silver trickle inside him, but even his soulfire-infused flesh had been drained of power. His pool of soulfire had run entirely dry, and his willpower was so weak that he could exert almost none of his authority as a Sage. He hadn’t been out of breath in years. His chest heaved and sweat rolled down his face, but he savored the novel sensation. It was a reminder of what his life had been like when he was pushing for Sage.

What Yerin felt like now. He longed for that feeling again, sometimes. The thrill of running from wolves and knowing that if he flagged for a second, they’d tear him to pieces. For decades, wolves had run from him. His spirit was so exhausted that he didn’t sense danger until the hostile techniques were almost on him. He turned to fight, his wintersteel blade already bare and ringing like a bell. Two skeletal spirits of gray-white hunger madra pulled themselves up out of the floor. They gaped at him with unnaturally wide jaws and eye sockets lit by dull fire. They weren’t true spirits, but techniques launched by this prison’s lone inhabitant. Sword aura slashed at the two ghouls, weak as a kitten’s claws.

The madra forming their bodies shook like he’d waved a stick through fog, but they didn’t dissolve. The Sword Sage’s eye twitched. Ruler techniques weren’t ideal against spiritual opponents, but suitability mattered very little in the face of overwhelming power. He should have been able to disperse these two with the twitch of his big toe. He was glad Yerin wasn’t around to see this. She’d lose all faith in him as a master. The hunger techniques had clawed their way completely to the surface now. They were gaunt, transparent figures of gray-white madra with spindly feet and bony arms that dangled down all the way to the tiles. Their jaws hung down to their ribs, and they gave off such an impression of inexhaustible, ravaging need that it made Adama hungry. He’d faced a lot of that while exploring this labyrinth.

The techniques moved quickly…by the standards of Sacred Valley. A Heaven’s Glory elder who somehow made it into the labyrinth would have been struck down before he sensed danger. Adama slashed his sword and returned it to its sheath in one smooth motion. A Rippling Sword technique flashed out, the silver crescent slicing through both skeletons. The madra tore the spiritual entities in half where the aura had failed, and they collapsed into rising motes of essence in an instant. His Rippling Sword was pathetically weak after his time in the labyrinth, perhaps weaker even than Yerin’s. He extended his spiritual perception, though doing so in here was like pushing through thick mud. More techniques were on the way. He picked up his step, jogging down the hall. How long had it been since he felt the physical toll of simply running? Sages should vacation here.

It might remind them what it was like to be mortal. By the time he reached the doorway, a dozen of the ghoulish techniques rushed down the hallway after him. For no reason in particular, he turned to give them a wave. “Half a shade too slow,” he told them. He didn’t know if Subject One was watching, but if it was, it deserved a little taunting for putting him through this. With an effort of will, he opened the door. Or he tried to. The huge stone panel, carved with the images of the four Dreadgods, failed to move. He hadn’t focused enough, his thoughts not coming together, so he couldn’t invoke his authority. Sweat ran faster down his face, and he pushed on the door with both hands, sharpening his mind to a point.

This would be far too embarrassing a place to die. “Open,” the Sage of the Endless Sword commanded, and the door obeyed. It swung open on soundless hinges, leaving him leaning on nothing and stumbling out. With trembling arms, he slammed the heavy door shut behind him. Some fingers of hunger madra had come so close that they were crushed by the scripted door. Adama heaved a breath, slumping back against the carving. All thoughts of vacationing in Sacred Valley vanished. This had been too close of a cut. Bleed and bury the people who made this maze. Now he was more exhausted than it was normally possible for him to be, and he still had to deal with a bunch of Jades.

The two Heaven’s Glory Jades peeked in at him from the entrance of the mausoleumlike structure they called the Ancestor’s Tomb. When they saw the door was shut, they scurried inside to attend to him. He had warned them early on not to be close to him when he opened the door, lest they be struck dead by the hunger madra within. They couldn’t open the door themselves, so they had only his word to go on, but they’d trusted him. So far. He almost looked forward to the day when they tested him, because he’d told them the absolute truth. From the inside pocket of his outer robe, he pulled his badge. The locals grew uncomfortable when they saw him without one. The badge hung on a shadesilk ribbon, like most of those worn in Sacred Valley. His badge was plated in white metal the exact color of his blade, though its border and the sword symbol in the center remained bronze.

Wintersteel was too expensive to make into an entire badge, but it was also the symbol of a true Sage. As long as the people of Sacred Valley respected these ancient traditions, so would he. The two elders, one a gray-haired woman wearing a Jade scepter badge and another a man with a hammer badge and a mutilated arm, saluted with fists pressed together as they reached him. “I regret that your expedition was no more productive this time, honored Sage,” Elder Anses said. Adama had a hard time keeping his contempt hidden from these inept children. They had no idea what a Sage was, only a few vague stories passed down about the title. They thought he was a Gold, and they worshiped him for it. He stopped leaning against the door and straightened his back, controlling his breathing. He still had command over his body, and he wasn’t willing to show any lapse of control to Heaven’s Glory. “Empty hands for me, I’m afraid,” the Sword Sage said.

There were other labyrinth entrances in the Valley, and some of them were safe for Jades. At least in the outer rooms. Therefore, everyone who lived here knew that valuable treasures could be found inside. He had been forced to promise a share of anything he recovered to Heaven’s Glory in exchange for access. So, of course, he hid everything he found in the labyrinth inside his private void space. Anses and the other elder eyed him as though they suspected him of tucking constructs into his robes, but they respected his power even now. He had shown them only the smallest glimpse of his abilities, and that had been enough for them to treat him like a warrior descended from the heavens. His pity for them matched his contempt. If not for that, and for the fact that he was too lazy to wash his own clothes and prepare his own meals, he would have punished them long ago for trying to poison him. Right on cue, the woman produced a stoppered clay bottle from her robes.

“Apologies, honored guest, but we have used our lacking skills to prepare a recovery elixir for you. Please taste it yourself and share some small measure of your wisdom with us.” Wordlessly, Adama took the bottle from her. He didn’t remember her name. Frankly, he had made it a point to forget the names of every Heaven’s Glory elder. Anses had only stuck in his mind because of the man’s mangled arm. Oh, and he remembered Whitehall, the old man trapped in a boy’s body. That was a bizarre case Adama wouldn’t have minded researching further, had he not been in Sacred Valley for a more important purpose. Moving his gaze from one elder’s eyes to the other’s, he gulped the “medicine” down. He never looked away from them as he finished, tossed the bottle back, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Like a cool drink of spring water,” he said. “My thanks.” Elder Anses shifted in place and his partner struggled not to move her gaze, but they both thanked him and asked for pointers in refining a new version of the elixir. He told them to add mint. The elixir was poisoned. They had been slipping him poison almost since his first day here. Sleeping drafts mostly, but there had been some meant to inhibit his spirit, some to paralyze him, some to meddle with his memories, a handful of others. They were always mixed cleverly, he had to admit. Almost undetectable to the tongue or to the spiritual sense, when combined with his medicine or his meals. Every time, they watched his reaction.

At first, they could have blamed a mistake. “Oh no, we added too much Nimblethorn.” But when he never said a word, they grew bolder. They knew he had treasures, and the longer he stayed with them, the better they understood that he wasn’t going to share. If he brought up nothing from the labyrinth, they knew his sword was valuable, and they knew he was carrying herbs and seeds and elixirs they had never seen before. They wanted to rob him, but the joke was on them. Nothing they brewed here could seriously affect a body thrice reborn in soulfire. If the heavens shone on them and one of their concoctions worked, he carried no void key. As a Sage skilled in spatial manipulation, he stored everything but his sword in a pocket accessible only by his authority. If they put him to sleep and rifled through his robes, they might take his sword, but they could never bring out its power.

And realistically, they couldn’t do him any harm no matter how weakened he was. There was only one being inside a thousand miles capable of being his opponent, and that was a Dreadgod. The two Jades flattered him for a while as they led him through the snow that surrounded the Ancestor’s Tomb and back to the Heaven’s Glory School. It was late at night, so the bright ring of light madra condensed around their mountain shone like a pale sun, and their rainstone buildings gleamed as though wet. Once again, his pity grew to balance his irritation about the poison. They thought this pathetic collection of stone huts was a school of the sacred arts. How would they react if he showed them his memory of the Frozen Blade School? People like this didn’t deserve his contempt. He reminded himself of that for the ten thousandth time. They were just…ignorant. Isolated.

When he and Yerin left, the natives would live out their short lives in relative contentment. Their condition wasn’t their fault, but it was hard to remain charitable when they kept trying to rob him. The house that Heaven’s Glory had given him was close to the Ancestor’s Tomb, and at least they hadn’t skimped on space. It was a wide three-storied construction of rainstone with its own network of constructs to regulate light and water. The basement had been reinforced into a decent training room, though of course it was only appropriate for Yerin. The elders walked him up to the doorstep, and the woman cleared her throat. “It was an honor to serve you today, Sage of Swords.” That wasn’t exactly his title, but Adama had never cared much for titles anyway. “If we could learn from you tomorrow morning, it would be our good fortune.” He choked down a groan.

Every time he came out of the labyrinth, it took him longer to recover. All he wanted to do tomorrow was sleep. But he had to show strength. He gave them a single nod. “Not a hair after dawn,” he said. “Don’t be late.” Only a few hours away. That should be enough to make them think he didn’t care about his rest. He could always catch up on his sleep afterwards. Anses looked relieved, bowing to him again.

“Thank you, honored Sage.” Adama gestured them away and opened his front door. Before he stepped inside, he waved two fingers down the entry. Yerin’s Forger technique, the invisible blade that she’d left hanging in the doorframe, crumbled like half-melted ice at his touch. The Hidden Sword wasn’t a major part of his Path, but it was invaluable for practicing Forging and sword resonance. She had been slacking on her Forger training. Although it was rare as stars at midday for her to slack on anything. She just didn’t see the point of the Forger technique, which he understood. He could let it go for the moment. When he walked inside and down to the basement, he found Yerin sparring against the training dummy he’d left for her.

She glared out from under her straight-cut hair, holding her sword in both hands. She waited with utter stillness, letting the puppet make the first move. Her opponent was made entirely of dead matter, looking like a stitched-together Remnant of silver, gray, black, and rusty red. Adama didn’t consider himself much of a Soulsmith, so it had been a headache to assemble the puppet from the meager Remnants of sword, earth, or force madra he could find in the Valley. The scripts etched into its body of solidified madra kept the dummy from moving except when activated, and then only in the few patterns he had allowed. Though his limbs felt like dishrags wrung dry, Adama folded his arms and watched. A few breaths later, the puppet moved. It drew a training sword at its side and struck at Yerin, who deflected it with a blade that shone with the Flowing Sword technique. They traded a few moves, both emanating the spiritual pressure of Jades. He had no complaints with her movements.

She had clearly mastered these basic forms, and her madra control had improved in leaps and bounds. It wasn’t so long ago that her techniques destabilized the second her mental state did, but her Flowing Sword was steady as the moon. He did detect some impatience, though. One strike was a little too firm, another step a shade too eager. She didn’t like being cooped up in the basement. Since they’d come to Heaven’s Glory, he had allowed her to interact with the Valley natives only at his side, and only while veiled as an Iron. He was thinking of relaxing that restriction soon. For one thing, the spiritual perception of the Jades here was pathetic. He could barely call them Jades at all. They would never be able to see through her veil, so she could hide easily.

More importantly, while he had initially expected the elders to try to get to him through Yerin, none had. Not one had attempted anything. They knew his apprentice was here in the house, and that he took her out sometimes to fight Remnants or train against Irons, but they had shown no interest in her. They hadn’t asked her so much as her name. It was bizarre. Over these last weeks, he had come to figure out that it came down to the strange, twisted view they had of honor. None of them wanted the Sword Sage to think they were interested in a lowly apprentice for any reason, because that would…lower their standards in his eyes, for some reason? He didn’t understand it, but he wasn’t here for cultural research. If the Jades thought Yerin was beneath them, so much the better. No one would discover their reason for being here and Yerin would be that much safer. Not that any of these half-baked Jades could touch Yerin’s shadow.

Every cut on her skin and the edges of her robe was from her own Endless Sword; the only threats to Yerin in Sacred Valley were contained in her own body. At the thought, he focused his perception on her uninvited guest. The Blood Shadow was bound into a rope and tied around her waist like a belt, making a wide bow behind her. Ordinarily it should be stirring, restless, trying to tempt her into relying on its power or waiting for a gap in her control to feed on blood essence. He felt almost nothing from it now. It was sleeping to conserve power, held down by the same curse as the rest of the Valley. As long as she stayed here, she wouldn’t be bothered by the parasite sleeping in her soul. For that reason, this was the safest place in the world for Yerin. The puppet-construct’s motions jumbled for a second as the wills of its various Remnant parts clashed, and Yerin took advantage. Two motions, and she separated its head from its neck and one arm from its shoulder.

Silver sparks sprayed into the air like blood, and the nested scripts at the center of the puppet registered the damage as a defeat. The construct powered down, curling in on itself like a dying spider, preserving energy so that the Sword Sage wouldn’t have to spend so much effort rebuilding it later. Yerin shone like a lamp uncovered. She turned to him, beaming but trying to hide it. “Cleanest win so far,” she said, staying casual. “Smoother than butter.” She dispersed the Flowing Sword and slid her weapon back into its sheath. Adama gave her some lazy applause. “Cheers and celebration for you.” He was proud of how far she’d come, but flowery praise wasn’t his way.

Still, Yerin drew herself up like he’d handed her a crown. She thumbed a line of blood running down her cheek. “Seems to me like I can walk around by myself now.” He started to brush her off as he had before, but he cut himself off and turned the idea over in his mind. What would the right lesson be? She didn’t know anything about Sacred Valley’s nature, or its history, or the years of research he’d done to find his way here. She certainly didn’t know why they’d really come. The “curse” of Sacred Valley wasn’t any kind of curse at all. It was perhaps the largest and most elaborate script formation ever created by mankind, spanning hundreds of miles and buried deep within the earth. That formation generated a suppression field that weakened everything that crossed its boundaries. At first, he had believed it was a security measure to keep Monarchs out.

Now, he was growing certain that it was primarily intended to keep the labyrinth’s lone inhabitant starving. The father of the Dreadgods. Subject One. He was here to find a cure for Yerin…but not just a cure. He wanted a way to separate the Blood Shadow from her with no spiritual damage at all. That was a degree of magnitude more difficult than just removing it, but he couldn’t risk any damage to his apprentice. This was the birthplace of the Bleeding Phoenix, and he had filled his void space with enough ancient research notes and experimental materials that he was sure he was closing in on an answer. He was becoming certain that he could do it. There was a way to pull the Blood Shadow out of her without taking a chunk of her soul with it. He only needed a few more weeks.

With the suppression field working on her parasite, they had plenty of time. However, he couldn’t keep her sealed in a jar. If he stifled her growth, that would defeat the entire point of this project. “You’ve got me,” he said at last. “Your chains are off.” She gave him a fierce grin. “You going to burn my ear if I draw swords on some Jade?” “All right, then, not all your chains.” Her face fell. “Keep your Iron veil on tight and your perception to yourself. Don’t tell them anything but your name.

And don’t eat anything they give you.” Instantly she turned suspicious. “Master, did they try to poison you?” “Did more than try,” he said, patting his stomach. Yerin’s knuckles whitened on the hilt of her sword. “Whoa there, rein it in. Do I look shaky to you?” She looked him up and down and her grip tightened. Her eyebrows drew together, and his spirit shivered slightly as she moved her perception through him. “You look like you’ve been dragged over ten miles of rocky road,” she replied. He waved his hand through the air. “Bad question.

That’s my own training, not them.” She still didn’t look convinced, so he sighed and reached into his outer robe. He withdrew a gold badge that he’d commissioned. Like his own, this one was carved with the emblem of a sword.


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