Kirin ran. Using the tooth of the battlement as a stepping stone, he launched himself at Ren. Steel clanged and metal sparked, and his muscles strained against his master’s parry. Today, Ren would lose and Kirin would prove himself worthy of the title of Devari.
Ren smiled through the mesh of their swords, his peppered beard rustling. “You’ve got a gleam in your eyes today, my young apprentice. I like that.” Then his eyes, the color of Cloudfell’s pale blue waters, narrowed. “What have you got up your sleeve?”
“Me? Nothing,” Kirin lied through his clenched teeth.
Ren returned a flat stare. “You are perhaps the world’s worst liar, you know that right?”
Kirin growled in response, still straining to hold Ren’s parry. He felt sweat dripping down his own brow in the hot sun, stinging his eyes. Opposite him, Ren was irritatingly cool. The cursing man hadn’t even broken a sweat. He could have been out for a dicing stroll, not locked in combat.
“I think it’s admirable, really. One of your better qualities,” Ren continued, taunting him, and leaned into the parry.
Kirin pressed back, pushing into his master’s sword, metal gnash- ing, and grinned. “I’m going to win today. You know that, don’t you?” A flicker of amusement ghosted across his master’s face. “Is that so?”
Ren pushed harder, and Kirin lost ground. “One piece of advice, my boy: gloat after victory. Never before.” Then Ren swung and Kirin leapt back, barely dodging the man’s blade.
Seven hells, Kirin thought, it moved like the wind. Kirin eyed his master from a dozen paces away, trying to catch his breath.
They were alone on the ramparts. The fog of dawn still clung, the sun barely cresting the horizon. Despite the chill in the air, Ren was bare-chested, wearing only a pair of frayed pants. His frame had been tanned dark by the unforgiving sun; like the dark clay left to dry, crack and harden in famed Farbian earthenware. A long scar ran diagonally across Ren’s chest. A few more white lines marred his shoulders and arms. There was not a scrap of fat on him. Only his Komai braid showed his age. Black and streaked with white, the braid hung over his shoulder — its length denoting his high rank.
Standing in the dawning light Ren, leader of the Devari, and famed blademaster of Farbs, looked like something out of the stories.
For a dozen years Kirin had trained under Ren. Ren had chosen Kirin when he was only six summers in age. Out of a thousand young boys clamoring to be a Devari, he had been selected. Yet, even with an arbiter for a grandfather and a blademaster as a mentor, Kirin felt a failure.
Kirin, the boy who had been given everything, meant to rise above all the rest, was... overwhelmingly ordinary. With all that promise draped on his shoulders, Kirin felt like he was never enough. Weaker than most, clumsier with the blade, and slower to learn the complicated forms that all Devari knew. Only his ki, his power of empa- thy, showed promise. Even that was temperamental and wild as a spark-storm.
But today would be different.
Kirin’s grip tightened on his blade until it shook. Unbeknownst to his master, Kirin had been practicing day and night with the ki, learning to temper its wild nature. It was the one quality Devari most coveted, and his ki was strong, if only he could focus. If he could do that, Kirin could predict his master’s moves before they happened.
Today was that day. Kirin would win and prove himself worthy.
Kirin raced forward, ducking, dodging and slicing Ren’s blade, then clashing once more in a parry. “Again?” Ren asked, holding steel to steel. “This didn’t work out well for you last time, my young apprentice. You should know never to do the same thing twice.”
Kirin ignored him. This is it, he thought. This is my chance. While they locked swords, Kirin reached out with the ki. The ki was an invis- ible tendril, a feeler that sifted into Ren’s head, searching for a crack in his master’s armor. As soon as he touched Ren’s mind, he felt a wall, waiting like a centaur at the entrance to a maze. He feared Ren’s mind. That same wall always waited, impenetrable as once-Yronia, fortress of metal. Normally, Kirin would retreat at this point. But this is what he had trained for, and he attacked.
Ren’s eyes tapered through their crossed swords, as if he sensed Kirin was up to something. Kirin, however, kept his ki small, like a ferreting mouse, when —
He sensed it. A small crevice in the back of Ren’s mind. He pressed forward, slipping into the cleft in his thoughts and —
FEAR. Powerful and unyielding the emotion washed over Kirin. It punched the air from his lungs and his stomach churned as if were about to vomit. He felt it all as if it were his own fear.
Before him, Ren flexed, pressing against the parry and Kirin was flung backwards. Distracted from the fear, Kirin instinctively rolled to absorb the fall, then lay panting. His mind felt aflame. The fear. Light and heavens, it had been so powerful. It all happened so quickly. Perhaps a few breaths, no more. Kirin gained his feet shakily. “What was that?”
Ren arched a brow. “What was what?”
“I... sensed something. What’re you hiding?” Kirin asked. “It felt... dark.” Ren glowered. “You used the ki on me?” Those pale blue eyes
became daggers. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“I... I was only looking to sense your next move, I didn’t mean to
pry. Besides, you always say to use all the tools at my disposal.” Kirin rubbed his neck self-consciously as Ren’s gaze continued to bore into him. Devari weren’t supposed to use their ki against one another. The invasion was an affront.
“My thoughts are my own.” Slowly, Ren’s dark expression softened, dropping his mantle as Leader of the Devari, and becoming the friend and mentor he knew. “Relax, boy. I’m impressed. You’ve gotten better. Much better. Training sessions with Forgha and Maerus? Those two,” he gave his wry smirk, “they have been hounding to see you beat me! Ha! Tell me, are they here? With the antics those two get up to, I wouldn’t doubt if half the Devari are hiding nearby, waiting to see the outcome of this battle,” he said, looking about the empty ramparts. “Well, am I right?”
But Kirin wasn’t deterred by Ren’s attempt to divert his line of ques- tioning. “Ren, what’re you hiding? What was that feeling?” Kirin asked again. He shivered, and despite the rising desert heat, he wanted to throw on a heavy woolen cloak. Clutching his chest, Kirin whispered, “It felt... old. Ancient even. It felt like death.” Those words. Ancient.
Death. They seemed to click together like missing puzzle pieces, fitting just right with the rumors that had been circulating through the city. “It’s true then, isn’t it? They’re back...”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t try to protect me. They’re back, aren’t they?”
Ren sighed then turned, putting his hands on the rampart’s stone
crenelation. He gazed out over the bailey’s walls. Over the courtyards where neophytes trained below, tossing magical balls of fire, water, or one of the other six elements. Guards clanged, sparring in the first bouts of the day. “False Returns come and go like the desert winds, Kirin. As Devari, we are to be above such superstitions.”
“But you’ve heard something, haven’t you?”
“Rumors are rumors, Kirin.”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
Ren turned on him. “And you’re avoiding their name. Say their
name, lad. Only a fool fears a name.”
Kirin stammered, “I can’t... No one can. We’re not allowed to.”
“Then I’ll say it for you.”
“Don’t — ”
“ — Ronin,” Ren said.
Kirin’s breath caught. He peered around. The rampart was empty, and he breathed a sigh. They were alone. Yet to speak their name aloud was a crime punishable by death. The offense mostly went overlooked nowadays. It had been a thousand years since the supposed ‘death’ of the legends who nearly broke the world. Now only backwater towns or supremely righteous cities like Covai or Taer still enforced the archaic decree. Still, its utterance coincided with strange occurrences. Men went missing. Women had stillbirths. Food spoiled. Many equated it to superstition, to happenstance, but Kirin wasn’t so sure. He had heard a fruit seller say the word once loudly in a crowded marketplace, and the next day his wares had turned up rotten, larvae spilling out of dark eldermelons and limfuns. Still the fruit-seller had scoffed, repeating the forbidden word. The next week, the man had been found dead in the heart of the bazaar. No visible wound. Just dead. As if struck down. Kirin could still remember the stink of his body, foul and putrid as if it had been rotting in the hot sun, the swarm of black flies covering him from head to toe
Master’s words snapped his trance, returning him to the moment, but his stomach still curdled from the memory, “It’s only you and me up here, Kirin. And as for your question, I’ve outlasted a hundred false returns, each one more absurd than the last. Though a false return is nothing to smile about. Each causes its share of chaos. I’ve seen hang- ings, riots, even full-scale wars at the hands of a false return.”
“I’m not asking about rumors,” Kirin persisted. “Though I have heard them all... whispers that the elven prophet is on her deathbed, that the Patriarch is to decree this coming as a True Return, that Ester and Meneleas are shutting their doors to outsiders completely.”
“Esterians have always been a foolish, superstitious lot, and Menel- ians follow on their heels like trotting dogs,” Ren said contemptuously. “And I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but the Patriarch has uttered no such thing.”
Kirin continued undaunted. “All of Farhaven’s magical creatures are fleeing to their sanctuaries, Ren. The whole Citadel is in an uproar. Things I’d have to be blind to miss. I’m not asking if something is happening. I know something is happening. I’m asking what you think.”
Ren turned away. He was silent so long Kirin didn’t think he was going to answer. At last, he spoke in a troubled voice, “This time, some- thing does seem different. I feel there is a deadly sliver of truth within the rumors. After two thousand years, I fear the Return has come.”
The Return... The phrase alone was terrifying. Demigods that had almost destroyed the world. “Two thousand years the Ronin have been gone from this world. Why now?”
“I don’t know,” Ren said quietly.
“The Gates separate Farhaven from Daerval and the Ronin have never crossed the Gates, right, Ren?”
Ren put his hand on Kirin’s shoulder. “Farhaven is safe, lad. Don’t you worry. Come now, the day is young and we’ve much training to do. You do still want to become a Devari, do you not?”
“More than anything.”
“Well then, come and hit me already. Prove your mettle.”
Kirin charged with a fierce cry. After a flurry of strikes, feints, parries,
and evasions, Kirin risked it. He knew the only way he would win is if he could sense his master’s lightning fast moves before they came.
So he reached out with the ki once more. Again, he was met with an emotionless wall, but he searched, hunting for that same crack when —
He found it. He entered Ren’s mind. The overwhelming fear that would buckle any normal man waited, but he went beyond that, into the man’s limbs. He sensed it. Block, parry, riposte. It was a dance that Ren knew to his soul and was performing instinctually. But now, Kirin could anticipate the man’s dance.
As Ren stepped forward, Kirin felt the man’s muscles tense, readying for another cut. With one arm, Ren sliced. Yet this time, Kirin knew exactly where the blade was coming and he ducked beneath it. Just enough. Slipping the dulled training sword so slightly he felt it clip- ping hairs on the top of his head. With the extra time it afforded, his sword was already moving, and he sliced for Ren’s now exposed legs. Elation lanced through him. Ren had lost. He would pull the training sword in a moment and proclaim victory.
Abruptly, Kirin saw Ren’s other hand. The hand not touching the blade. His master had only had one hand on his sword. Why? No... He realized, watching as Ren’s other hand smacked a block of stone
on the rampart’s wall.
Immediately, a sphere of dark purple appeared from thin air, hover-
ing between them. The liquid darkness swiftly expanded. It touched Kirin’s outstretched arm and he recoiled, but it was no use. His muscles twitched as if suffocated in stone. The darkness slid over him like a second skin.
The world turned black as night. Kirin felt weightless, falling.