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Kirin ran. Using the tooth of the battlement as a stepping-stone, he launched himself. Bellowing a fierce cry, his sword arced and he struck with all his weight and might, landing on Ren in Water Upon the Rocks. The two swords clashed and the sharp clang of metal rent the morning air. Every muscle in Kirin’s body tensed and strained as sword ground against sword. His face was a mere handbreadth from Ren’s grizzled features. The swords sparked and the man’s cold green eyes peered through the gritting steel.
Ren’s thin lips curved into a smile, making his peppered beard rustle. “Keep that up and you’ll have my title before long,” he boasted dryly.
Eyeing the man through the mesh of their swords, Kirin smirked. “It’s all yours,” he replied, teeth bared. Immediately, he regretted sparing the morsel of concentration, realizing his mistake as his pressure waned.
With a burst of power Ren’s heavy biceps flexed. Kirin was blown back like a gust of wind, feet scraping along the gray stone. Without thought, Kirin threw down a leather boot to the ground in a Low Moon stance as he tossed a hand to the rampart’s wall. His palms scraped the stone merlons and he skidded to a stop. Half kneeling, Kirin had no time to think as he heard a fierce cry. He looked up to see Ren’s sword hurtling towards his face. With a breath, he pressed against the ground and vaulted backwards, diving beneath the blade’s tip.
Landing on the balls of his feet, Kirin peered through his disheveled brown hair.
Ren rose to his full, impressive height. Despite the chill in the air, the man was bare-chested, wearing only a pair of frayed brown pants with leather strings. His frame was tanned dark from the unforgiving sun. A long scar ran diagonally across his chest, and a few more white lines marred his shoulders and arms. There was not a scrap of fat on him. Standing in the dawning light, Kirin squinted at the man who appeared like a golden god. Ren stood in High Moon. It was a stance most could learn but few could ever master.
Kirin rose to his feet, “You tricked me.”
Ren broke High Moon, resting his sword tip to the stone and leaned on its pommel as if lounging. The man was beginning to lose his hair, pate wearing thin and reflecting the early morning sun, but what was left was plaited back into a komai tail, a black and gray braid of traditional Devari code, but far longer in accordance to his rank. “Don’t listen to me then, or, better yet, don’t talk back. Besides, you should know my tools by now—tools which a blademaster should always have at his disposal.”
Kirin grumbled. “Tools? They are clearly tricks and you know it.” He glanced at his hands and saw peeled callous, raw and pink, like a shaved beet. “And why do I always seem to get hurt around you?”
Ren shrugged innocently, “Not sure. I don’t get hurt.”
Kirin went inside his own mind, feeling a subtle shift and the sudden movement of others. He was acutely aware of his surroundings. More ramparts, crenulated towers, and scaled rooftops encompassed him. The movement was the guard changing, as hundreds of fresh bodies were beginning their first patrol of the day. Kirin expanded his awareness further. Sharpening his senses at will was a Devari skill harnessed over years of intense training.
Kirin embraced the Leaf, an image that granted him focus. Suddenly, his veins chilled. He stood inside the soldiers’ cold limbs, felt their stiff joints, and heavy lids from recently shed dreams. And as they moved, slowly, awakening to the early dawn, they excused the other tired souls to small cots or the hard sacks of the barracks for deep slumber. With a breath, he retreated from the guard’s bodies, flowing back into his own.
What I wouldn’t do for a soft pillow. Kirin envied them, but deep down, he did not envy their softness, or at least, he would not trade for it. Brushing the dirt from his black tunic and brown pants, Kirin regained his feet and raised his sword.
Ren, however, was faraway. Something weighed heavily on his master’s features today. There were shadows in the man’s eyes and a weight upon his broad back.
“Is it true?” Kirin asked.
“Rumors are rumors, Kirin. You know you shouldn’t concern yourself with prophecy. It is of no concern for a Devari.”
Kirin knew the man was avoiding the question. “But I want to know. Is it true that they are back?”
Ren turned. “Say their name lad. Only a fool fears a name.”
“Then I’ll say it for you.”
“Ronin,” Ren said, interrupting him.
Kirin’s breath caught and he looked behind. The rampart was empty and he breathed a sigh. Though he knew the guards would not disturb Devari training and they were safe from prying ears, to speak their name aloud was a crime punishable by death.
Ren rested his rough palms on the stone and looked out over the bailey’s walls, into the tan desert. “It’s only you and me up here, Kirin, relax. 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 pandemonium. I’ve seen hangings, riots, even full-scale wars at the hands of a false return.”
The man was holding something back. “Yet I’m not asking about rumors. Though I have heard them all… whispers that the elvin prophet is on her deathbed, that the Patriarch is to decree this coming as a true return, that Taer and Maldon are shutting their doors to outsiders completely.”
“Taerians have always been a foolish, superstitious lot, and Maldians follow on their heels like a trotting dog,“ 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 safe sanctuaries. The whole Citadel is in an uproar. Things I’d have to be blind to miss. I’m not asking if something is happening, Ren. 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. He spoke, “This time, something seems different. I feel there is a deadly sliver of truth within the rumors. After two-thousand years, I fear the Return has come.”
The words hit Kirin like a slap.
The Return… The phrase alone was even more terrifying than Ren’s fear. But the feeling of dread in the Citadel of late had been palpable, nothing short of the Return seemed likely.
“Farhaven is safe,” Kirin said, but it felt like a question. He continued. “The Gates separate Farhaven from Daerval and the enemy has never crossed the Gates, right Ren?”
“Farhaven is safe, lad,” Ren said. “Don’t you worry.”
Kirin looked out over the Citadel’s curtain wall in thought. He saw the courtyards filled with sculpted shrubbery. The baileys were filled with winding stone paths, training dummies, and rows of haystacks for targets. Even this early, guards and Reavers were beginning to move along the grassy grounds to train. The morning bell tolled loudly, announcing the calling of Neophytes to their daily duties. Out over the Citadel, its field of towers, three heavily fortified keeps, and the rest of the enclosed grounds was something else entirely.
The sun beat back the mist, revealing pockets of the land and city below.
From this high, he saw dirt streets swarmed with people like colored ants. The city looked massive from up here. To Kirin, it appeared as an awning that covered the land and just beyond, into the dunes of the renowned Reliahs Desert. It was the great desert city of Farbs, the human kingdom, and capitol of Farhaven. It was beautiful. Often Kirin wished he could leave the walls and walk among the people. Yet such a thing was not possible for a Devari.
“Wake up!” Ren bellowed. Kirin turned and was glad to sees the years had shed from Ren’s face. His master’s stance shifted, switching from High Moon to Low Moon, one leg sweeping back, pressed oddly close to the rampart’s wall. It left the other foot far forward, his weight planted on the heavy front foot, and Kirin saw his opening, but kept his face blank. “So are you going to sight-see, or for once are you going to actually hit…”
Kirin didn’t let Ren finish. He charged with a fierce cry, sword raised into the air. Heron in the Reeds. Ren smiled as if he were waiting for it. Kirin watched Ren’s blade flicker upright into Full Moon guard, covering his head. Instead of giving the man what he expected, in the last moment Kirin threw up his hand and gathered his meager power. Using the element of Moon, he summoned a blanket of darkness and flung it before him like a black shield. It was a weak and dismal spell, but it was enough. Kirin’s cry pitched. He dove through the shield. Ren’s sword appeared from nowhere—he parried the blow like a brick wall and slashed. But Kirin continued, rolling beneath the man’s blade. As he landed, he twisted into Fisher in the Shallows, lashing at Ren’s legs only a breath away and ready to pull the blow in victory. With no time to act, Ren had lost and elation lanced through Kirin.
Abruptly, his master pivoted on his front foot. He smacked something on the wall. It was something Kirin hadn’t noticed, hidden by the man’s back foot. Kirin’s skin pricked. He tried to move but he was stuck, suspended as if frozen in time.
A sphere of dark purple appeared from thin air, hovering between him and Ren. The liquid darkness swiftly expanded. It touched his outstretched arm. Kirin recoiled, but it was no use, his muscles twitched as if suffocated in stone. The darkness swiftly slid over him like a second skin.
The world turned black as night, and Kirin was weightless and falling.