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Prologue – A Mother’s Farewell



A young woman ran like the wind through the dark trees of Neverend. She was a faint blur in the night, with tears running down her cheeks, and her long white dress was ripped and tattered. Strung over one shoulder was a carved wooden bow, and on her back she wore a large leather rucksack, carefully padded with blankets, for it held two infants within.

         Fear grew in her heart as weariness sank in. In all her life, she had never felt death upon her as it was now, and the true terror of it was devouring her hope. Doubt hacked at her like a lunatic with a cleaver, yet each moment she felt she could handle no more, the cries of her two infants revived her courage, and she did not give up.  

         “You will live, my children. This I promise you.” Her words were a whisper left amongst the trees. The rain was beating like the pounding of her heart, but she could not feel it. She could no longer hear the sound of her bare feet slapping icy puddles. The cries of the soldiers pursuing her seemed to fade away with each passing step. She knew she would soon reach the Edge.

She knew in her heart that it was there that Death would finally find her.

         “We thought we could change it, yet—” As she spoke, her voice drifted into the dark, where it would keep her words forever; the last and only remnants that would be kept by Éién itself. This was the realm of Soria, after all.

Droplets of water ran down her face, and she could no longer tell if it were the rain or her tears. She thought of the children’s father, then glanced at a red bandana wrapped around her wrist. As she did, her foot caught one of the snake-like roots hidden in the dark, and down she went.

Twisting on pure instinct and turning her babies to her chest, she felt her back slam into one of the exposed roots. Pain wailed through her, though the anguish of her waning body was like her cry within the storm; existent, but imperceivable before the might of it all.  

         Despite the ever-approaching soldiers and the whisper of death in her ear, she faintly smiled as her gaze found the eyes of her two baby boys. Pushing away both the fear and the doubt, she stood up and refastened the rucksack to her back. A fire unlike any other fueled her that night — the love of a mother.

Willing herself one leaden foot at a time, she ran on, pushing the limits of her own impossibility. But the toll was there, and slowly, she was losing strength. Her body was painted in cuts and bruises. She could smell her own blood, the loss of it sapping her consciousness.

She wanted to cry. She wanted to scream and wither away. She wanted to give up. A thousand despairing thoughts ran through her in every moment, yet she did not stop. Which was the right way to go? Maybe there wasn’t one. Had there ever been? Was it her choices that had brought her here, or the fated pressure of a world too cruel?

Beneath it all, there was really one true thing left: there was only the fear of watching her own children murdered before her eyes. So, she pressed on, despite it all, further and further into the darkness of the forest.

Finally breaking free of the trees, she ran out beneath the light of two moons. She slipped as the ground changed from dirt to wet, smooth stone, and cried out in pain as one of the rocks slit open the bottom of her foot to the bone. Tumbling to the ground, she looked up to find herself upon a high precipice, looking out at blank, black skies, as far as the eyes could see.

Standing slowly, she found herself at a cliff’s edge, yet not just any cliff. It was the end of their world; the furthest place in existence from civilization, known only as the Edge. There was nothing beyond it, and nothing below it. Only dark, starless sky. The cold wind of night felt like death’s soft touch upon her cheek. 

High above, the clouds parted, and the rain grew calm. She had known from the beginning how her story would end. Pulling the sack carefully off her back, she placed it on the ground, then did the same with her wooden bow, which she held for a brief moment in her hands, before setting it down, respectfully.

Despite her exhaustion, she could not help but feel love as she looked at her sons. They were the very essence of all that made life beautiful. One of the boys was calmly smiling, his eyes shining beneath the night sky. She ran her fingers through his soft silver hair, and took in the sight of his eyes, a startling blue that reminded her of summer skies and better times.   

“Caim,” she said, and the name itself gave her courage. She rested her hand on his cheek, then pulled two silver chains out of her pocket. With still, yet bloodied hands, she fastened one chain around his neck. “In the old language,” she whispered. “Your name means protector. And the gods know this world needs one,” she grasped his little finger as her tears fell. “Be brave, my son. And always look out for your brother, as his spirit will likely be as wild as your mother’s.”

Beside him his brother started crying, his eyes and hands balled up tight, as he could sense his mother’s suffering. His hair, dark as a moonless night, was the same color as hers. A drip of blood fell from his mother’s face and onto the boy’s cheek, and he opened his eyes; they were sharp and strong, fiercely green with a tint of gold.   

“Storm,” she spoke, and she could feel the fortitude of his spirit. She took the other chain and fastened it around his neck, then ran her fingers over the engraving. A moment passed in silence.  

“A memento from your father,” she whispered. “Whom just so you know, loved you both more than anything. Remember, little one, that in order to bring change to a world of suffering, the winds must first turn, and when they do, a mighty storm will always follow. You, my son, are that very storm.” She raised her hands to the raining skies, gesturing to all around her.

“A remnant of the great storm sworn, a true force of Éién, that you are. Both of you were born on a day as tragic as it is beautiful. Your love for one another, and your spirit, will give you the potential to do anything you can imagine, perhaps even bring forth the greatest change this world has ever known, if you so wish. But remember, you mustn’t give in to fate, no matter how enticing its shape. No matter what, you must always follow your hearts.”

She was quiet for a moment, remembering a life long since passed.  

“When I met your father, I knew what would happen, yet I loved him all the same.” A tear traced down her cheek. “I made my choices, and I don’t regret them. I see that now. In this world, good comes from bad as often as bad comes from good. We can only follow our hearts, or be swept away by the fear of it all.” She smiled proudly, taking them both in her eyes. Caim’s hand touched her own, and she felt in him everything she truly loved in the world. He smiled.  

“This is the very strength you must never let go of. To smile, even in the dark.” She took both of their little hands and kissed them gently, feeling the tears flowing, and there was nothing but love in her heart. No one knows how long this moment lasted for her, but it has been spoken that just before one dies, time slows.

The young woman took to silent awe as the world around her changed. She watched the falling rain around her slow to a crawl, as if commanded by the hand of Time herself, and she knew the gods were with her.

“Caim . . . Storm . . .” They both looked up at her as though she were the stars themselves.  

“I know we haven’t been with each other very long, but the small time we did have I cherish more than anything. I know that I’ve put you through a lot already, but I want each of you to promise me something, so please, listen to the last words of your mother.” She wiped her eyes, trying to hold back the tears.

“If there is one thing I could wish for in life, it would be to watch you two grow. I won’t be able to be there when you speak your first word, hold your first sword, or make your first friend. Throughout your life, you will have to make many mistakes in order to learn, and sometimes this will be difficult and frustrating. But always remember that the clever can often learn from the mistakes of others, so travel with a keen eye, as your father always says.”  

“Make sure you eat lots and lots of food, because if you are anything like him, you’ll be needing your energy. Always remember that it is the simple things in life we must cherish. Don’t forget to get as much sleep as you can, even when you’re having fun . . . I know you two will be needing it. Lastly, don’t be afraid to make friends, good ones, no matter where they come from, even if it’s just a few that will look out for you, as you look out for them.” 

         She wiped her bloody fingers on her dress before softly poking Storm in the stomach. She could feel his strength as he grabbed the tip of her finger. Turning to Caim, she pinched him gently on the nose and watched him smile. One of the slow falling raindrops landed on his cheek, and he laughed like only a child could. She smiled lovingly, before noticing Storm looking up at her, his eyes strangely questioning. There was a subtle wisdom in his look, as if he understood more than meets the eye.   

         “You seem to be in question, my little Storm,” she said, letting out a coy grin. “It is a wonderful gift to have, you know, an inquisitive nature. Especially in a world that is not what it seems. It will do you well in your days to come.”

“And as for your brother . . .” She saw Caim’s eyes following a little black moth as it flew beneath the moons, before it touched down gently upon his nose.

“Your brother has his own gifts,” she said, then took each of their tiny hands in her own.  

         “Although these words may aid you but little now, as they are nothing more than a mother’s last kiss, know that, perchance, at a different time, and in a different place, my voice may be but a light for you in the dark. So, hear this, my sons. Fate and destiny have always been sworn and everlasting enemies, and in every choice made, one prevails over the other. Remember that to resist one’s fate is to find the strength to follow one’s destiny. And to follow one’s destiny is the courage to trust your inner voice, to listen to that which cannot be heard, only felt. Never close your hearts to it, as others have, or I fear all will be lost. Remember this, above all, my boys.”

         The little black moth was still resting on Caim’s nose, who was smiling despite. Reaching down, she let the moth crawl onto her finger as she heard rustling from the forest. The sounds told her the soldiers were nearing. She could feel their movements in the earth she knelt upon. But more than anything, she could sense the vengeful presence that was leading them towards her. The moth flew from her finger as she turned to look through an opening in the trees, staring past them and into the dark, watching and waiting for what was to come.      


         A dozen soldiers with bows on their backs moved swiftly through the rain and the dark. Creatures tucked away into their little holes as they swept past. The soldiers weren’t trying to move quietly, or in any way mask their presence. Their pitch-black armor caught the light of the moons, and a single flash of lightning illuminated their faces. They were all young women. Strong, silent, and fueled by one binding purpose.

         One of the soldiers came to a stop, her eyes entranced by something. She reached out, holding up her palm as a leaf floated down from a tree. The more she stared at the falling leaf, the more she could not understand what was happening. It was falling completely in slow motion; it’s subtle shifting sway slowed to the speed of a crawl, and it took nearly two full breaths to fall only a few inches and land on her palm.

         A hand fell on her shoulder, awakening her from the trance. She turned to face their leader, a stoic woman with long starlit hair and a single black eyepatch over her left eye. She was the only one without a bow. A dark longsword hung from her hip. 

         “Come, Arya,” said the leader in a soft but commanding tone. “Fate calls us.”

         “Lady Scylla, something else is here with the girl,” whispered Arya. She looked up at the sky, then at the forest surrounding them. The other soldiers had all come to a stop as well, each of their eyes captured by the slowly falling leaves around them. Even the rain had become nearly still.

         “Whether there is something here with her or not,” said Scylla, who turned and faced the darkness. “She will still die. The Great Laws of Soria are absolute. And we have sworn an oath to uphold them. No matter the enemy, no matter the force, the justice of Soria will never falter.”

         It wasn’t long before the soldiers emerged from the last lining of trees and onto the cold, sharp rocks of the Edge. The rain returned to normal, and an icy breeze swept past their faces as they encountered the one they had been hunting. Each of them pulled their bows off their shoulders and notched their arrows, staring down the sights at their one helpless mark.

         A shift in the clouds cast a single ray of moonlight down upon the cliff, illuminating a young woman with her hands clasped together in prayer, and her two sons, who looked longingly into the light as if it were the embrace of their own mother. The clouds passed, the light faded, and the shadows of the present were all that remained.  

         “Young Rose.” Scylla’s voice snapped open the girl’s eyes.

The leader of the soldiers rested her hand on the pommel of her longsword and continued. “You are hereby accused of treason for willingly and knowingly breaking the Law of Blood. You have betrayed the people of Soria, and brought nothing but shame upon yourself. You will have no trial, and have been sentenced to a hasty execution.”

         Rose unclasped her hands, her back still to the soldiers. The wind lifted her long hair out behind her. She cast one last look up at the stars and moons, then whispered something inaudible.

         “You pray meaninglessly,” the voice of Scylla teased. “And know full well that after your death, the two half-bloods will be killed as well. There will be no pardon. There will be no trial. They will not exist, as they should have never existed in the first place.”

         “You will not lay a finger on them!” Rose’s voice was sharp as it cut the air like a whip. She could hear the bowstrings tense within the hands of the soldiers.

         Scylla laughed. “She is but a curseborn girl, yet you flinch upon hearing her voice? My soldiers, whatever will I do with you? She is nothing but prey for the hunt. Nothing more.”

Rose could hear the amusement in her tone. It was the voice of someone who enjoyed the torment of others. Turning around to face them, Rose’s eyes radiated her steadfast will. Before her stood a dozen soldiers, poised to kill. Out in front of them all stood the lady in command. She wore elegant black armor that was smeared with blood.

         “Lady Scylla,” Rose said, taking a deep breath as she took in the sight of their world’s most famous heroine. “I suppose I should be honored, but I just can’t help but feel otherwise. It’s a shame. I had always looked up to you.”

         Scylla let a grin curl her lips. “Honored? I am but a soldier, and you are naught but a traitor. I am here to make sure that you are the last person to ever break one of the Great Laws of our world. You have twelve arrows aimed at your heart, young Rose. You deserve to die. If you didn’t, then why would you be begging the gods for their mercy?” 

The moonlight shifted, revealing a smear of blood through Scylla’s hair.

         “Don’t lie to yourself,” Rose said through clenched teeth. “You loved him. This is personal.”

         Scylla met Rose’s gaze with a look of deep disdain. “You know not of what you speak.”

         “He told me about you, once,” Rose said, finding her resolve. “But you’ve killed him . . . haven’t you?”

There was a fragileness in Rose’s heart that echoed into her voice, and with each word spoken, she felt herself stepping out further onto a barely frozen lake, each movement cracking and shifting the ice beneath her.

         “It is you who killed him,” Scylla said dryly. “Though I may have his blood on my hands, it is you who led him to the executioner. You should have left him alone. You should have known your place.”

         Rose’s face remained calm. “Your perspectives are an illusion that conveniently hide who you truly are from those around you, yet most unfortunately, from yourself. Always a wonder to find the most intelligent, the most ignorant.”

         “And what would a curseborn girl know of intelligence and perspective, I wonder?”

“Intelligence is being humble enough to learn from anyone or anything.”

One of the soldiers snickered, but Rose held her ground. “And perspective is a reflection of what we are,” Rose caught Scylla’s eye. “But not always what makes us who we are. It’s a shame there are many in this world who would believe otherwise, and in doing so, let their minds create illusions that paint themselves virtuous, like yourself.”

“I wonder what kind of perspective makes someone a traitor to their own people,” Scylla answered plainly. “It must have been your intention then, too, that coerced and poisoned his better judgement.”

“You know better than anyone that there is no one in the world who could have told him what to do, who could have manipulated him. Look at how you failed, if you need any proof. I only loved him, and I will never feel remorse because of that.”

         “Ah, the lies we tell,” said Scylla with a condescending grin. “Yes. It was his choice. He chose to betray his country. He chose to walk the path of revolution where only one possible fate awaited. But never forget that there are two types of people in this world, my dear Rose. There are those to whom fate smiles, and there are those to whom fate condemns.”

         “And there are those who are not afraid to follow their hearts,” Rose said, looking down at her sons. “Destiny will see to it that they will walk a different path. I leave this world knowing that you cannot harm them. The light of Vale has shined upon them. It is now beyond you.”  

         Scylla laughed. “Is it now? Is it not the Lady Vale herself who condones each and every Great Law? You are delusional from loss of blood and fear of death. Do you think they will survive this night and escape the judgement of Soria unscathed? Their fate will be the same as yours, and their deaths will be painful, that I promise. I will make sure you watch those half-bloods die, so you can exist soullessly in an eternity of regret as your penance. That, curseborn girl, is the only thing you will leave this world with.” 

“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” Rose said, lifting her bow from the ground. “They are the first of their kind. They have the spirit of the old and the blood of the new. It is they who will restore this world to its former glory. It is their chosen path. The tip of your sharpest spear is dull before the might of their hearts. I have seen it.”

“It is clear you see nothing but delusions.”

         “Fear not, my children,” said Rose, hearing the two boys begin to cry. “We do not give up in this family. It just isn’t in our blood. No matter what dangers lie ahead. Hope is like the sun; one can close their eyes to it, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still there burning, so embrace it with all—”

         “Enough,” Scylla snapped. “This ends now.”  

         Rose gave her sons one last smile before picking up her bow, then reaching up to her hair and pulling out a long black strand. Focusing her thoughts, little crystals of energy and light materialized down her forearm and over her hand. That energy twisted over the single black hair, transforming it into a sleek black arrow.

         Rose notched the arrow to her bow and pointed it straight at Scylla. “You may be stronger than me in every single way. You may have me outnumbered and completely outclassed. But you underestimate the strength of my will. It is a strength you will never understand. Unconditional love is the most powerful force there is. It has the power to sway gods, manifest destiny, and never die. It is because of this love that you have no power to harm our sons.”

         As Rose was speaking, she noticed the cracking of the cliff’s edge around her feet, and knew that her time was nearly at an end.

         “Farewell, my sons, and know this . . . Your father and I will always love you!”

         Rose’s love manifested itself in the form of energy, blossoming forth from her body. Several of the soldiers’ eyes widened at the sight. The aura of Rose’s resolve lifted up and around her, guarding her, until it flowed off her shoulders like a cloak of light and flame.

The cracking of the cliff ran out and around Rose’s feet to the other side. She could feel the ground beneath her becoming unstable, but she remained still, focused and ready. She met Scylla’s eye and held it.  

“Remember this, Scylla,” said Rose. “You did not end my life. I chose to be here.”

“Foolish to the bitter end,” said Scylla. “Kill her.”

Rose’s arrow shot forth like a spear of flame, shooting straight through the twelve arrows fired upon her. Upon firing, she turned and lifted her arms out, protecting her sons as arrows sunk into her one after another.

         Rose felt the edge of the cliff lose stability as the crack grew deeper, and she knew the time had come. The boys looked up at her, their eyes blank and unsure. She felt her body collapsing, her once beautiful white dress, forever stained bloodred. But she did not stop smiling. Despite every doubt telling her that all hope had been lost, she did not give in. She refused to believe that it would end here. Her vision blurred as hope became the only thing remaining.

The voices of the soldiers were fading. Even with her eyes closing, she could see her son’s little hands, reaching out for her. And just before she opened her mouth to say their names one last time, the tip of the cliff collapsed, and the three of them fell deep into the night. 

         Lady Scylla walked to the edge of the cliff, looking down from their floating nation in the sky. Along her cheek was a deep, blood-trickling gash, an unforgettable memento from the one person she most wanted to forget. Her simple eyepatch had been ripped off by the arrow, revealing her hidden eye, black-rimmed and ghostlike, with a pale light in the iris that glowed like flames burning at the end of a dim corridor.

She gazed into the dark for a long while. The fall would be long and agonizing, perhaps even endless. No one knew what rested beneath the lands of Soria. To them, it was only darkness, and always would be.


I – To Whom Fate Smiles


16 CYCLES LATER . . . 


Storm stood atop a floating island in the sky, the dawn wind passing him by. Beyond the distant swirl of quiet clouds, the sun was just peeking her face into existence. He felt the warmth touch his cheeks as it rose higher, and for a long moment, he took in the beauty of a new day.

         Turning his back to the rising sun, Storm walked over to a tree standing not far from the cliff. About thirty paces to the side of him was a quaint wooden cabin, fashioned in a rustic style. Faint traces of smoke rose from its chimney. It was his home, the only home he had ever known.

The little floating island he lived on wasn’t much bigger than the cabin and their one tree. In fact, the cabin itself seemed to take up the majority of it. There was room to run and play, but less so as they had gotten older. Regardless, Storm was content and wished for nothing grander. Who could complain? Being surrounded by the beautiful sky, living on an island that the sun greeted before any other place in all of Soria. And even if he did get a little stir crazy in the small space, all it took was one look north to find Falia, his birthplace: an enormous nation of earth sitting amongst the clouds.

The cliffs infamously known as the Edge were only a rocks throw from where he stood, nestled beyond a blank stretch of dim lit sky. And not far beyond the Edge, he could see the dark trees of Neverend Forest, looming tall and mighty. Needless to say, he, his brother, and his grandfather, were the only ones that lived at the Edge. There wasn’t a town for leagues and leagues. It was peaceful, though sometimes lonely.

Taking off his dark hooded jacket, Storm walked over and hung it on one of the branches of the tree. He wore simple black pants, and shards of black bone, native to all sorians, grew out of the skin over his ribs like an exoskeleton, along with certain parts of his wrists and shoulders. Hanging from his neck was a silver chain that held a rune, and etched onto the surface of it was his name, written in the language of the old.

“One day,” he whispered, gently touching the rune. “I’ll figure out where you came from . . . where we came from.”

Leaning against the tree trunk was a leaden training sword with a wide guard; it was charcoal in color but had no edge to it. With a few deep breaths, Storm lifted the sword off the ground, wincing under its weight. He hadn’t been able to lift the sword at all until he was fourteen cycles old, a triumph that still shined brightly in his memories. 

         A few feet to his right was a thin metal rod sticking out of the ground with a dozen steel rings slipped over the top of it. With the careful ease of someone lifting a heavy object, Storm picked up one of the rings and slid it over the tip of the training sword. It fell down to the guard with a thump, and he felt the weight of the sword rise significantly. Lifting another ring in the same fashion, Storm continued placing them onto his weapon until three of the rings had fallen down to the guard.

         Storm walked to the side of the tree, then took a deep breath and raised the sword above his head. Closing his eyes, he brought the sword down slowly, stopping with it held out in front of him. Feeling the energy of his spirit pass into the training sword, the rings shook slightly, then one at a time separated from the guard and hovered up along the blade as if by magic, until they were evenly spaced apart from one another.

         “See that old man,” Storm felt his pride swell. “Told ya I could do it.”

         Exhaling in one steady movement, he brought the blade down, carefully doing his best to control the weight. Inhaling as he lifted it once again, Storm continued, each slash a perfect balance of breath and movement.

         As the shades passed, Storm’s flow with the sword became more and more fluid. The sun rose higher into the sky, causing beads of sweat to streak down his body. And as his steady movement became more controlled, the speed of his swings began to increase, never sacrificing his form. With each slash, the leaves of the tree began to ripple in his wake, and the dirt at his feet began to swirl and twist as if taking on the essence of the wind itself.

         “Nine-ninety-four,” Storm said, hearing the strain of his aching body through his voice.

“Nine-ninety-five,” he continued, the hilt of the sword drenched in sweat.

         Closing his eyes, Storm felt a presence from the trees of Neverend. Relaxing his muscles, he could see the aura of someone moving toward him. Over the course of his grandfather’s training, he had learned about the nine senses of the sorians, but one had intrigued him far more than the others. It was the ability to see the energy of living things, their life force, or in the words of his old man— their aura.

At first, Storm could only feel the aura when it was close to him, but as the cycles passed, he began to feel it from further and further distances, until he could sense a crystal fly from almost two hundred paces away. It was a technique that was absolutely necessary for hunting within the dangerous Neverend forest, a place ruled by the age-old law, survival of the fittest.  

With his eyes closed, Storm could see and feel the same world, but through a different lens. The aura of living things glowed like flame, much like the one that was approaching from Neverend. Storm opened his eyes and continued his training, just as he felt his old man pass out of the forest.

         The old man walked to the Edge, staring across the blank stretch of sky between himself and the little earthen island their cabin sat upon. He watched Storm’s form, following the twirl of each and every leaf lifted by his grandson’s movements. He could feel the weighted rings held in place firmly by Storm’s spiritual pressure, and the force with which the boy’s motion stirred them. A thin smile curled his lip as he lifted off the ground, and floated across the sky towards their island.

         “Nine-ninety-eight,” Storm said coolly, feeling the presence of the old man touch down nearby. He focused harder, knowing that his grandfather always observed the little things in everything. He could pick out poor technique by the simple sound of it, and he had an uncanny knack for feeling the tension of someone who was pained by fatigue, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual.

         “Nine-ninety-nine,” Storm said, feeling his goal nearly reached.

         The old man stood and watched, saying nothing. His body was lean and muscled, the stature of one who had trained his entire life. His face was expressionless yet soft, and though it might have been hard to see at a glance, he had pride in his grandson’s determination. In one of his hands, he held a bundle of firewood, and slung over one of his shoulders was a long metal box, rectangular in shape; the length of it reaching nearly all the way to his feet.

         “One thousand!” Storm said triumphantly, feeling a smile tug at the corners of his lips. Taking a few deep breaths, he lifted the sword and rested it against his shoulder.

He took in the sight of the old man, with his long black hair and thick beard. Around his waist, he wore a once crimson sash, torn and discolored from cycles of use. Beneath his faded cloak, Storm could see the many tattoos that littered the left side of the old man’s chest. 

         “You lost your focus there for a second, Storm,” Ronin said, placing the bundle of firewood on the ground. “But not bad, for a kid.” 

         Storm ignored him and walked over to the metal rod in the ground, taking off each of the rings and placing them back where they belonged. He tried to appear nonchalant as he lifted them off the sword, but truth be told, he could hardly lift them. Gently resting the training sword back against the tree, he reached up and pulled his jacket down from the branch.

         Storm turned around to see the old man repositioning the bundle of firewood next to the cabin. His eyes caught sight of the metal box slung over his shoulder, and for a brief moment, Storm questioned what it could be. The old man hardly ever brought anything back from the town other than wine.

         “I didn’t lose my focus, Ronin,” Storm finally said. “I was just noticing the difference in the presence of the area. Didn’t you say that swordsmen should not only be focused, but aware?”

         Ronin held back a smile. “I suppose I’ve said something of the sort before.” He looked up at the placement of the sun, wiping a few beads of sweat from his forehead. “Where’s your brother? It’s past noon.”

         Storm rolled his eyes. “Where do you think he is?”

         “Why am I not surprised . . .” Ronin mumbled something else that Storm couldn’t discern.

Storm walked over to the backside of the cabin where two large leather waterskins hung from the side of the wall. The top of each waterskin was carefully attached to bamboo pipes that ran inside the cabin. Connecting to each one was a little wooden fountain head with a lever for turning on, or off. Hanging his jacket on a hook to the left of them, Storm twisted one of the levers and felt a rush of cold water run onto his hands. Splashing his face, Storm placed his hands back under, but the runout of water had slowed to a drip. Sighing, Storm tried the second waterskin.  

         “Oi, we’re out of water again,” Storm called out.

         Ronin turned to see Storm walking around the corner. His hair was wet and hanging down in front of his eyes. He stood shirtless with a look of irritation on his face.

         Ronin shrugged. “Go and wake up your brother then. You two will have to get going if you’re to return with water by nightfall. And judging by the time, you won’t be able to hike all the way to Senyria Lake. You’ll have to do it the hard way.” He did not succeed in holding back a grin.

         Storm pursed his lips. “You know I’ve been training since dawn, right?”

         Ronin carefully placed the long metal box down on the ground. “That was your choice, was it not?”

         “I mean, yeah,” said Storm, “but you said our final swordsmanship test is in a week, so I figured you would expect us to be training as hard as we could.”

         Ronin nodded, his head still turned away. “And we also agreed that it is both of your responsibilities to get water whenever we need it, or has my memory withered?”

         “It just might have at your age,” Storm muttered.

         Ronin looked up. “Hmm, what was that?”

         “Never mind.” His eyes glanced back to the side of the cabin. “I swear we just did this like a week ago,” Storm stated. “I wonder if there’s a leak or something . . .” 

         “Are you concerned you won’t be able to make the climb in your fatigued condition?” Ronin asked, the slightest bit of a grin unmasking itself once again. “Because it seems a bit like you’re too tired to do it.”

“Please, gramps, I can do it. And that being said, I’m pretty sure I could still take you on, even in my fatigued condition,” Storm said, meeting Ronin’s gaze. “Maybe we should just do the final test right now?”

         Ronin laughed. “Always eager. A trait of the bold, which in turn is a trait of the foolish. Well then, let’s see, shall we? A thousand slashes in what, six shades?” He looked over at the grass beneath the tree. “And you didn’t let the rings slip off the end of the sword either?”

         “That’s right,” Storm answered. “A thousand slashes. No slips.”

         “Not bad. But when you get to ten thousand in three shades without dropping the rings, you might have a chance at beating me,” Ronin answered. “Maybe.”

         “We’ll see about that,” Storm said, feeling irritated.

         “We will,” said Ronin, “but not before you wake your brother and fill the waterskins.”

         Storm’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded. After walking over to the draped bamboo doorway of the cabin, Storm kneeled and took off his boots. Pushing past the trickling wooden drapes, he walked into their little home.

         The remnants of a fire burned softly in a stone fireplace. There was a single wooden table, low enough that the three of them could sit on the ground and eat, or read. Hanging from the ceiling was a hammock built of woven grass and rope. Just above the hammock was a little glass doorway in the ceiling that could be used to let fresh air in at night, or to give Ronin easy access to the roof where he liked to sit and drink his wine at sunset.

         It wasn’t long before Storm was staring down at his brother. His arms and legs were sprawled out at his sides, his whitish silver hair disheveled and messy. His bed, like Storm’s, was a woven pad of grass that he could roll up at his leisure. It was placed just before the fire, directly next to his own. Caim’s wool blanket was halfway across the room, and he was snoring with all the peace of a chibeara in hibernation.

         “Oi, Caim—” Storm tried, but there was no answer.

         “Caim—” Storm said a second time, but again, there was no answer.

         “Caim, wake up. We have to go get water, and it’s already past noon. At this rate, we might not even make it back by dark.”

No answer. Just pleasant, undisturbed snoring. Letting out a sigh, Storm walked out of the cabin and returned a few minutes later. In his hand, he held a cup full of the last bit of water from the waterskins.


         Caim arose in a flurry. Instantly, he was on his feet, looking around for who the culprit was.

         “What the heck, Storm!?” Caim yelled. “What was that for!?” His eyes were always bluest when his emotions were high. He was still wearing his clothes from the day before, a long white vest and dark gray breeches. Storm looked down at Caim’s feet to find him wearing only one of his sandals.

         Well, at least, he got something off before he fell asleep, Storm thought.

         “Caim, get ready. We have to get more water before nightfall, and it’s already past noon. Both of the waterskins are empty, so we both have to go. We don’t have time to do the hike to Senyria either.”

         Caim’s eyes went from sharp to bright and joyous. “We get to climb today? It’s about time!” Caim eagerly began searching the room for his missing sandal. “I’ve been drinking as much water as possible so that we can climb again, and today’s the day! What a great day . . .” he began in a terrible singing voice. 

         Storm’s eyes narrowed at his brother’s enthusiasm. “Seriously, I hate you right now. Why would you drink all the water—” Storm shook his head. “You know what? Just get up. We leave within a quarter of the shade. There’s a few loaves of bread on the table if you want them, but we don’t have that much food so try not to eat it all. Otherwise, we’ll have to add hunting to our chore list.” 

         Storm turned around to leave, then stopped. “And don’t eat it all just so we have to go hunting either.” He went to move, then stopped again. “I’m serious, Caim.” Then he left the cabin.

Caim waved his brother away, finding his sandal sitting on top of a bookshelf. “Now how’d you go and get up there?”

Not long after, Caim walked outside the cabin, stretching his arms up and taking in the beauty of the sky. He found Storm lifting one of the waterskins onto his back, strapping it to himself like a backpack.

Storm pointed at the other one laying on the ground and motioned to it. “Let’s go already.”

Caim walked over to his designated waterskin and noticed a sheathed machete leaning against the cabin wall. He grabbed the machete and tossed it to Storm who nodded and clipped it onto his belt.

         “And kick off your sandals or you might lose them,” Storm added, choosing to go barefoot as well.

         Soon enough, Caim and Storm were standing at the precipice of their island, staring across the way at the Edge of Falia. The two of them leapt across the hundred-foot gap with ease, landing softly on the other side. Walking along the side of the cliff, the boys soon found two coiled bundles of rope attached to anchors in the cliff. They each tied themselves in by the waist.

         “I’m going to try the hardest route today,” Caim said, punching his fist into his hand. “Without the safety rope. Today’s the day I become the best climber in all of Soria!”

         Storm looked up at Caim, an uneasy feeling of hesitation coming over him, before looking over the edge of the cliff, with his eyes falling on nothing but open sky. Slowly clenching his fist, he could still feel the acute muscle soreness throughout both of his arms.

         “Let’s feel it out when we’re down there,” said Storm. “Sometimes, the temperature of the rock isn’t right for that kind of climb. Plus, you’ve been sleeping all morning, and I’ve already finished a thousand weighted slashes. I’m kind of burnt out.”

         Caim laughed. “So, what you’re saying is that you don’t think you can do it? It’s going to be a sad day for you when I finish the unclimbable line and you climb the easy one. Guess that’ll prove who’s stronger after all this time.”

         Storm felt his competitive nature warming his blood. “But that also means, if I finish the climb after doing sword training all morning, that I’m stronger than you.”

         “Nope. Doesn’t mean that,” said Caim, stretching down and touching his toes. “I could do that, too. Besides, it’s not the same if you do it with the safety rope.”

         “Whatever,” said Storm. “Are we doing this or not?”

         Caim and Storm grabbed the ends of each of their own ropes. With a careful nod to one another, they walked back about twenty paces from the cliff before stopping and tying the rope around their waists.  

         “All right, Caim, let’s—” Storm started, but Caim was already running. Storm watched as Caim leapt off the cliff with a cry and fell past his line of sight. Storm took a few steady breaths, feeling the sweat beading up in his palms. Shaking away his fear of the six-hundred-foot fall he was about to go through, Storm ran forward and leapt from the edge, arms stretched out wide.

         Storm felt his body soaring through the air. Grasping the rope tightly between his fingers, he felt it tug and pull back at him. The air surged around his body as the floating land in the sky grew further and further away. Twisting himself in the air, Storm turned his body back to face the underside of Falia. Exhilaration swept through him, diminishing his fears, and before he knew it, a huge smile had come over his face as he raced downward, the rope swinging him deep under the earthen mass in the sky. 

         “Yosha!” Caim screamed as he saw Storm swinging toward him. Caim was holding onto one of the rock features on the underside of the massive overhang, his other hand waving out toward his brother as his swing brought him closer and closer. 

         Reaching out his hand, Storm knew he had only one chance to grab the rock, or he would swing back off of it, forcing him to climb back up the rope to the top and do it all over again. A crushing mistake to make, to say the least. The rock face grew bigger and bigger before his eyes as he searched for a suitable hold to grab onto. Bracing himself for the stop, Storm held out his free hand and snagged a jutting flake of stone. His feet touched onto the wall momentarily, but then he lost friction and slipped, sending a surge of anxiety through him.

         Luckily, his hand did not let go. 

         Storm hung there for a long moment by one hand, looking down at the fall beneath him. There was only sky and clouds. Reaching up with his second hand, Storm found another proper hold and grabbed it. The rock was a little cold despite the sun, and he knew the moment he touched it that the conditions were perfect for climbing. Tightening the muscles in his stomach, Storm raised his feet and placed them on the wall. Letting out all the air in his lungs, Storm leaned back, straightening his arms and resting the weight on his tendons.

         “I’m never going to get tired of doing that,” Caim declared, his smile beaming.

They hung from a steep overhanging cliff, deep beneath the Edge where they had jumped, and they could no longer see their little island at all, or even where they had jumped from.

         Storm let one arm hang off the wall as he shook it out, trying to warm up his hands and tendons for the long climb to come. The easy part was finished. Everything would only get harder from there on.

         “All right, we gotta be quick,” Storm said, shaking out his other hand. “Once we fill up these skins, it will only be a matter of time until our muscles give out from climbing under so much extra weight.” For what felt like the first time in a lifetime, Caim agreed.

         “I’m untying the safety,” said Caim, doing just that. His rope swung away from the cliffs, and from then on, he was on his own. Storm watched the rope swing away, feeling his own anxiety surge at the thought. Not only would Caim be free climbing back up a steep cliff, but he wanted to climb the hardest route possible, while carrying more than three times his weight in water, and without the aid of a safety rope.

         “You can keep it if you’re too scared,” said Caim. “But then I’ll win.” He laughed.

         Storm glared at his brother before untying his own rope and letting it swing away.

From then on, there was only one way back up.

Don’t fall.

         Caim and Storm began steadily downclimbing the rock face. Each move was slow and meticulous, perfect in its execution. As they climbed lower and lower, the first of many great hanging roots came into view. Before long they could see hundreds of massive roots, thicker than trees, reaching out from the underside of Falia.

         “When the old man first told me that Falia gets its water from the roots of the Great Tree, I didn’t believe him,” said Storm, eyeing his next move. Caim was a few paces to his side and slightly lower.

         “I believe everything grandpa says,” answered Caim. “But even when he told me, I couldn’t really imagine what he was saying until I actually saw it for the first time.”

         “Yeah,” said Storm, stopping for a moment. He took in the sight of everything around him. The rock face they were on was fairly steep, somewhere between completely horizontal and straight vertical, with their backs completely exposed to the sky. The hanging roots were gnarled and thick, with several massive leaves growing out from the sides of them. Looking for the closest root, Storm set his eyes on one.

         “Come on,” said Storm. “That one isn’t too far.”

         The two brothers downclimbed until they were hanging just next to the root. Looking around for somewhere to jam himself into the rock, Storm was able to place his knee behind a big jut of stone. Locking himself in with his knee and counter pressure from his toe, Storm took both of his hands off the rock and shook them out. 

         “All right,” Storm said to himself. “First things first.”

Caim climbed over to where he was and began taking turns letting each of his arms rest. He watched as Storm pulled off one of the shoulder straps and loosened the top of the waterskin. Holding onto it with one arm, Storm pulled out the machete and cut into the side of the root. As soon as the machete broke through, water began pouring out. Quickly sheathing the machete back to his side, Storm held up the waterskin and waited as it filled with water, taking a few swigs himself as it did.

         “I forgot how heavy these things get,” Storm muttered as the waterskin quickly filled. Feeling the strain in his arm as he held it, Storm waited until it was completely full before he pulled on the tightening string and fastened it.

         “Caim, come and take this one. This knee bar is solid, so there’s no point in losing it.”

Caim climbed down to Storm’s side and pulled one of his arms out of the straps. Grabbing his own waterskin with his free hand, Caim lifted it up and sunk his teeth into the strap, holding it with his mouth. Nodding to Storm, he reached out and took the full one his brother had been holding.

         Slightly wincing under the weight of it, Caim was barely able to slip one of the straps over his shoulder. Just as he reached his free hand back to the rock face, one of his footholds broke, sending a jolt of fear through Storm, who had been watching rather apprehensively.

         Hanging on with one arm under the immense weight, Caim carefully placed his foot back on the wall. Grabbing the wall with his other hand, Caim pulled the other strap over his left shoulder. He reached up to the empty waterskin in his mouth and held it out to his brother who was still locked into the knee bar, both his hands hanging idly at his sides.

         “Careful,” said Storm, looking at the place where Caim’s foothold had broken. “The old man says most of the rock is trustworthy, but there are some sketchy sections.”

         “This is going to be nothing short of awesome,” said Caim, feeling the weight of the waterskin on his back. “I’m going to start climbing back up. You all right from here?” He looked at Storm who simply smiled back at him, waving Caim away.

         “I’ll be fine. With a no-hands rest like this, I can take time even after I’ve filled the second skin.” 

         Caim took a few long, deep breaths as he looked up at the different lines of climbing above him. He hung for the better part of a minute as his eyes scanned the rock face. There were all kinds of routes, and nearly all of them they had climbed, with and without the skins, with the exception of one.

“There it is,” Caim finally said. “That’s the hardest line.”

Storm looked up. Sure enough, it was definitely the hardest climb of the many that ran back up to the Edge. Whereas the route they downclimbed was littered with huge hand holds, good foot placements, and was relatively easy to follow, the line Caim was looking at would push their strength to the brink of their limits. Tiny cracks you could barely get a finger into, footholds no bigger than a fingernail, and even though neither of them would speak of it, the crux of the climb was a devastating move that neither of them had ever done without a rope before.

         Ausangate,” whispered Storm, staring at the climb. “The touching of earth and sky. At least we know it stays true to its name.” He could feel his palms getting clammy just looking at it. “You sure you want to do this? About thirty feet under the crux, the rock around the line becomes desolate, and there’s no downclimbing past that point. There’s only one way up through that one.”

         Caim took a few deep breaths, pounded fists with Storm, and began his ascent. For a minute, Storm sat and watched his brother, his own body hanging nearly upside down on the cliff. His brother moved with the subtle grace of water flowing over rock. There was no jagged movement, no misplacement of his hands or feet, only the tranquil, meditative process of breathing and moving. As much as he hated to admit it, Storm knew that Caim had the upper hand in climbing.

         Heights had never really been his forte.

         Looking around at the empty sky, he pushed the thoughts away. 

         Storm watched as Caim climbed out of sight before turning his attention back to the task at hand. He carefully loosened the top of the waterskin and felt it fill with water. As it filled, he did not think of the climb to come, nor the fact that he was hanging tens of thousands of feet (or however many feet it truly was) above a place that nobody in their world had ever seen. The place beneath Soria was a mystery, known either as the Darkness, or Mortal Aeryx. He didn’t want to be the first one to explore it either. He focused on keeping his breathing steady as he watched the water fill.

         “I wonder how many people have to climb up a thousand-foot cliff every time they need water.” Storm forced a laugh. “We’re the luckiest ones in all of Falia, right, Caim?” He grinned, thinking of his brother and the strange ways in which he thought. Hoisting the heavy waterskin onto his back, Storm looked around for two handholds from which he could unlock his knee. Finding what he was looking for, he set his hands, then placed his right foot carefully into a little crack, and pulled his knee free.

         There was a certain tranquility that came with climbing. The art of holding onto rock with the tips of his fingers, and the incredible focus it took to keep his feet on the wall in the hardest of places was something that had earned Storm’s respect. It wasn’t like fighting someone with a sword or hunting a beast in the forest. There was no defeating the rock. It was a part of nature that did not fight back against him. Perhaps, that’s why climbing was so difficult, because it was always a battle with oneself.

         This inner battle often brought Storm into a state of meditation. There was no adrenaline rush, and if there was, he knew it was only because something was going wrong. His entire existence rested in the few feet of stone that his hands and feet clung to, and while he climbed, he felt as if he were moving within a blink of time, a place where no part of the outer world could reach him.

         Storm did not know how long it was that he climbed before reaching the first good rest point, but by the time he got there and awakened from his momentary trance, all the fatigue that he had been suppressing seemed to hit him on the spot. The weight of the waterskin was easily three times his own bodyweight, which typically would not have been hard for him to climb with, had he been climbing an easier line. But with the added fact that he had trained nearly six shades that morning, he could feel his forearms burning.

         Finding a solid hold to rest on, Storm turned and looked out over the sky. He could barely see the tip of their island above him, and he guessed that he had climbed a good part of the distance to the top. The sun was already in her descent toward the horizon, and he knew that if he didn’t pick up the pace, he would be forced to climb in the dark. It was an unsettling thought, to say the very least.

         But survival had taught him better than to let the mind take over.

         Fear was a necessary aspect of survival. But panic? Well, that was fatal.

         After taking a few minutes to rest each of his arms, Storm began climbing up a thin finger crack. His fingers began to bleed from the sharpness of the stone, but the pain could hardly be felt. The more he climbed, the more his body adapted to what he was putting it through. Although the crack was maybe an inch wide, he could jam his fingers into it in such a way that he wasn’t using his muscles to hold up his body. Each solid finger jam locked his hand into a position that only he could get out of. It was raw commitment at its finest, and not for the weak of heart. He knew, first and foremost, that the climb was not possible if he relied only on his muscle. The only way to get through it was with pure, flawless technique, and unwavering mental fortitude.  

         As he climbed on, Storm began to notice the rock becoming more and more blank. The line of tiny holds above him became increasingly less apparent, and he knew that he was approaching the crux of the climb. Focusing on the intense burn of his forearms and the numbness of his fingers, he reached for a tiny two-finger pocket and felt it snap off the wall. His stomach leaped into his chest as both his feet cut off in suit. Feeling one of his last four fingers slip off, Storm felt the first touch of panic. 

         Hanging off the overhang by three weakening fingers, thoughts of falling rushed into Storm’s mind with all the force of a broken dam. Throwing his other hand up in desperation, he missed the hold, and his body began to swing. The weight of the waterskin seemed to grow tenfold under the pressure, and Storm knew that if he didn’t calm down, he would surely fall. The skies below had never looked so terrifying in all his life.

         Trying to steady his swing, Storm closed his eyes and poured all of his might into focused breathing. Breath would always be their light in the dark, no matter how grim the situation. At least, that was what their grandfather always told them. Feeling his clarity slowly returning, he exhaled and prepared himself.

Storm knew that because of the tininess of the hold he needed to grab, he could not dynamically swing up to it. His accuracy would be too poor, and if he missed one more time, he would likely not have the strength to recover for a third attempt.

Finding his resolve, Storm twisted his hips and was able to get the tip of his right foot on the wall. Pushing into the spec of a foothold with everything he had, Storm reached up with his free hand before realizing that the hold he was going for was only big enough for a single finger. Sinking his middle finger into it, he stabilized his body, and carefully placed his left foot back on the wall.

         At that point, all thoughts vanished from Storm’s mind. His body was on the brink of exhaustion, and even if he could think, he could not have fathomed how he continued to climb. One grueling move at a time, and accompanied by nothing but breath, Storm crawled up the face until one of his hands grasped what felt like the most beautiful chunk of rock he had ever touched, and he nearly choked back his tears. 

         Relaxing as much as he could, Storm shook out his left arm, but no matter how long he rested it, the strength of holding up all his weight from earlier could not be recovered. If it had been anything other than his strong arm, his left, he would have likely fallen.

The blood on his fingers and hands had dried, and for the first time since he had started climbing, he felt the wind comb through his hair. It was cool, and felt like dusk. Turning around slowly, Storm could see the underside of his island, about two hundred feet above, but it did not console him. Beyond his floating home, he could see the sun sinking into the last layer of colored clouds on the horizon, and the light with which he climbed would soon be diminished.

         Anxiety began to flow into him. Why had the old man told him to climb down and get water when he knew he had been training all morning? Why had Caim wanted to do the hardest line on the day he was most worn out, and especially without the safety rope? He found himself clenching his teeth, cursing both the old man and his brother for leading him to this cruel, painful place.

         He screamed at the top of his lungs, trying his best to relieve himself of the pressure. But the anger towards Caim and his grandfather did not go away, it only seemed to get worse. Everything was building, including his doubt—

         “Stop,” he said suddenly, his voice pulling him back to reality. “This isn’t anyone’s fault but your own, Storm. You chose this line. You chose to compete with Caim, even though you were tired, and now you’re trying to blame everyone else for your own weakness.”

         Storm let out a breath. “My weakness . . .” he muttered. “No,” he said angrily. “I refuse to be weak. I refuse to be anything other than strong!” But no matter how hard he tried to boost his own confidence with his words, he knew they were lies. He had never felt weaker in his life, and the realization crushed his spirit.

         “Oi!!!!” A scream echoed across the sky, lifting Storm’s eyes.

         “Oi!! Storm!!!” It was the voice of his brother, screaming out from above. 

“You’re a beast!” Caim roared. “I can’t believe you’re doing that after training all morning! I’m so tired I can barely move, but I made it, and now we’re all waiting for you! You can do it!!!”

         Storm felt the words of his brother light a flame in his heart. The waterskin on his back suddenly felt lighter, and he found himself faintly smiling. For a second, he had forgotten what it felt like to be truly pushed to his limit. It was a terrifying place, but one that he knew he had survived before. Pushing off his feet to the next hold, Storm continued climbing, ignoring the pain that was screaming throughout him.

         As the last bits of light were shedding off the rock face, Storm came upon the crux. Looking up at it, he had never been so intimidated by a climbing move in his life. He had come to two decent hand holds with a high right foot, but the next hold was nearly two body lengths above him. It was absurdly dynamic, the type of move that would involve a leap of faith from one hold to the next. It would be a test of everything he had. Commitment. Strength. Precision. Even the tiniest bit of hesitation would result in a horrifying fall.  

         Everything would have to be perfect. He ran through the move over and over in his head, mentally practicing for his one determining moment. The distinct press of his right foot, then the hard pull of both his arms, and finally the jump. Taking one last chance to shake out of each of his arms, he knew that even if he made the leap, the movement itself would cost his strength dearly. If he stuck it, the end of the climb would be nothing but a final scramble to the summit.

         “Never give up hope,” he whispered, then took his last deep breath.

         Forcing all his focus into the tip of his right toe, Storm began to rock himself in a smooth circular motion. Feeling the moment suddenly upon him, Storm cried out at the top of his lungs, wrenching up off his toes until he felt himself soaring through the air. His entire body was off the wall, but he painfully realized that he hadn’t jumped far enough to get both hands on the hold.

Reaching up with everything, Storm grasped the jut of rock with only three of his fingers. Everything in his body tried to force him to let go, but he would not. He screamed as his legs swung out from beneath him until he was completely horizontal in the air. He could feel his fingers slipping, and at the peak of his swing, he repositioned them in a split-second move that allowed him to get his full grip on the rock. 

         Before he knew it, Storm’s feet had swung back to the wall, and his left hand matched his right. His breathing was calm, and he blinked a couple times before the success of the move finally struck him.

         Leaning back on his arms, Storm roared up to the darkening skies. Feeling the strength of his voice fueling his drive, Storm made his way into the last vertical crack that would lead to the summit. It wasn’t long before the sun had completely set, his eyes no longer a factor in helping him. Straining to see, but relying mostly on instinct, Storm inched his way up the crack one move at a time, until he could no longer distinguish the fact that time was passing at all. The crack began to widen as he got higher, a little at first, but it was a world of difference.

         What felt like an eternity later, Storm felt his weary hand reach up and grasp the top of the cliff. The rock was still warm from the sunset, and nothing could have been more comforting. With the utmost care, Storm placed his left foot on the last good hold beneath him and swung his right foot over the top of the cliff. Digging his heel into solid rock, Storm mantled his body up and onto the ledge where he immediately collapsed, breathing heavily. Rolling out of the straps of the waterskin, Storm could only feel the weight of his smile.

Without any thought of his ascent, Storm laid there on the edge and closed his eyes. He had no idea how much time passed before he felt someone gently shaking his shoulder.

         Wearily opening his eyes, Storm looked up at Caim, who had a look of pure admiration upon his face. Caim kneeled down next to him and waited as Storm continued to lie there, breathing heavily. When his lungs finally calmed, Storm stirred and sat up.

         “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Caim said, looking out over the sky.

         Storm smirked and let out a laugh. “You’re telling me.”

Caim reached out his bloody hand. “Here, I can take the waterskin back. You look like death.” But Storm shook his head and looked over at their cabin. “It’s all right. I want to see this through to the end.”

He reached down and re-strapped the waterskin to his back. Tapping his toes on the ground and feeling out his legs, Storm judged the distance of the jump and the weight of his fatigue. Bracing himself with a steady breath, he took a few steps before leaping across the sky and landing on their island.

Not too far from the tree, Ronin had built a fire and was sitting with his eyes closed next to it. Storm said nothing as he walked around the side of the cabin and reattached the waterskin to its rightful place. Twisting on the water, he soaked his hair and upper body, feeling nothing but gratitude for being alive. Coming back around the corner, he saw Caim sitting down next to Ronin. Tied to a spit above the fire was a huge slab of meat, roasting pleasantly.

         “Caim—” Storm said, throwing on his jacket. “Don’t drink all the water this time. I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I recover enough to do that again. Maybe not ever.” With a sudden feeling of light-headedness, Storm eased himself into a sitting position by the fire. He could feel his hands shaking and tried to calm himself with his breathing.

         Caim laughed, and Ronin opened his eyes.

         “Oh, you’re awake,” Caim said, looking at his grandfather.

         “I’m awake,” said Ronin. He looked at Storm.

“Well done, Storm. How do you feel?” 

         Storm tried to focus on the question, but could not. Looking down at his hands, he opened them slowly before curling them into fists. Trying to think back on the climb, Storm realized he could hardly remember what had happened. Everything that he had done felt like a dream, or fragments of a dream that had already escaped his memory.

         Ronin laughed. “That’s the best answer you could have given me. Let me see your eyes.”

         Storm looked up at Ronin, who smiled after a long moment. “Those are the eyes of someone who is truly alive. What you’re feeling right now is a heightened state of being, one that only comes with being pushed to the absolute brink of your limits. You should be proud, both of you. Few go to that place and return from it. It seems you two might just have the strength to foster the Soul of the Swordsman, after all.”

         “Really? I mean, it was nothing,” said Storm, feeling the warmth of his grandfather’s words. It was a rare moment to have the old man compliment either of them. He held out his hands before the fire. Nothing felt better. 

         Ronin watched as the flames danced. “Enjoy this moment, because what you just fought through is not even close to the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do.” He poked one of the logs with his cane, and the fire crackled. Storm looked up nervously at their grandfather, not being able to imagine something harder than what he just did. Was it even possible? 

Caim looked at their old man skeptically before his expression changed. “Na, grandpa . . . tell us a story!” Storm pushed away Ronin’s ominous statement and rested his arms behind his head. He savored the heat of the flames, feeling the fire as if for the first time.

         “A story,” said Ronin, stroking his beard. “I actually heard quite a good one in town recently, and lucky enough for both of you, it’s about a swordsman.”

         Caim’s eyes brightened, and Storm looked up.

         Ronin poured himself a cup of wine and took a long drink. “It’s called The Tale of Fenrir.”     


II – The Tale of Fenrir


Once, long ago and far from here, there lived a boy, and his name was Fenrir. He loved the simple things in life, from the flowers and the stars to the moons and their light. But there was one thing that Fenrir cared for more deeply than anything else. You see, every so often, there are those born into this world for a sole purpose. For Fenrir, that purpose was swordsmanship.

         From a very young age, Fenrir had shown an acute mastery of the blade that far surpassed his peers. By the time he was sixteen, he had mastered all forms of the sword, and the philosophies of the old had seemingly been passed down to him prophetically. Although young Fenrir was not typically known for his ambitions, he was the only person in history to have declined being knighted by the Empress. However, he did have one dream that spoke to him every night after closing his eyes: he knew he was born to be the greatest swordsman to ever live.

         The dreams spoke to him in the form of visions, playing out in tales that would never repeat themselves. The visions were so real that there were times Fenrir would wake up with the blood of his adversaries still on his hands. It was an odd thing. An unexplainable thing. But it was because of these dreams that Fenrir knew his path. It had been carved out for him in the stars, and he would follow it until the end of time.

         Yet with all the skill that Fenrir possessed, he soon came to find that there were no swords of his equal. Each and every blade he used would turn to rust and eventually crumble into dust. There was no sword that he could find, or have crafted, that could match his will. Because of this, Fenrir decided that he would seek out the Old Lord Masamune, a firstborn blacksmith who had crafted all the swords he had read about in fairy tales.

         Masamune was a legend in himself. Since the beginning of his era, it seemed that he had a similar ambition to Fenrir, except that his purpose was the sole creation of swords. They were as beautiful as the four seasons, sharper than the cruelest word, and strong enough to be wielded by the greatest heroes of old. Fenrir knew that only Masamune himself could craft him the swords he needed to attain his dream.

         And so it was that Fenrir traveled to the small village rumored to be the home of Masamune. It was a quiet place, full of trees and warmth and solitude. In the center of the village, he found Masamune’s shop and, excited over finding it, quickly found his way inside.

         The shop smelled of fire, iron, and steel, a scent that brought a smile to his face. Just there, in the back of the shop, sitting on a wooden bench and hammering away at the makings of a new sword, was a very old man with long hair the color of midnight.

         The old man stopped hammering when he felt Fenrir’s presence and turned his eyes to the young man standing idly in his shop. The moment Fenrir met his eyes, he knew the old man to be Masamune. The fire in his gaze was the like of someone who had seen the world, and they told Fenrir many things. Throughout his life, Fenrir had looked into the eyes of the most dangerous beasts, the grandest of nobility, and master swordsmen from distant lands, but all of them paled in comparison to the eyes of Masamune.

         Fenrir bowed.

         “The answer is no,” Masamune said, turning back to his tempering. 

         Fenrir looked up hesitantly, trying to find the right words. “I haven’t asked for anything yet.”

         A tight smile curved Masamune’s lip. “Just because you have not asked me for anything does not mean that you have not come here to ask me for something. I can tell by your eyes that something fierce has brought you here, which is likely the desire of something. I can tell by your hands that you have been more familiar with a sword than anything else in your life. I can thus judge from the two together that you have sought me out in the hopes that I will make you a sword.”

         “Swords,” Fenrir corrected. “Two to be exact.” He braced himself for the old man’s answer.

         Masamune lifted an eyebrow. “The art of dual swordsmanship is one that requires complete mastery over each hand. It is not something to be taken lightly. It can take some a lifetime just to master the art of one blade, after all. Come back in a thousand cycles, and maybe then we’ll see. But probably not.”

         “I would, by no means, claim myself a master,” Fenrir said, “but if I am to become the greatest swordsman to ever live, I will need something stronger than the swords I have been using so far. Each of them turns to rust with a few uses and, not long after, crumbles to dust. There is no blade that can match the power of my will, and thus is the reason for my seeking you out.”

         Masamune stroked his thick beard. “Well, that is something indeed. It has been a very long time since someone has spoken those words to me. But still, I will not make you your swords. Now please, exit my shop, so I can continue my work.” 

         Despite his frustration, Fenrir knew that it would be rude to argue with the old man. Nodding politely, Fenrir took his leave. That night, when he dreamed, he saw himself holding two of the greatest blades he had ever laid eyes on, and upon waking, knew that he mustn’t give up hope.

         So it was that Fenrir came to Masamune’s shop each and every day, requesting that the old man reconsider his decision. And each and every time, the old man turned Fenrir away, telling the boy that he would never reconsider, and that he chose those whom he made swords for, not the other way around. 

         For twenty-eight days straight, Fenrir returned to Masamune and was rejected every time. But he did not lose hope. He knew that the old man was the only person capable of crafting the swords he needed. Declaring to himself that he would visit the old man a thousand days in a row if he had to, Fenrir set off on the twenty-ninth day to Masamune’s shop.

         On his way, Fenrir came across an old woman sitting on the side of the road. She was thin as a skeleton, her hair was frail and dry, and one look into her eyes revealed that the woman was quite ill. Stopping to offer the woman some of his water, Fenrir asked if there was anything he could do to help.

         “My boy,” said the old woman, her voice weary and tired. “I am plagued by a rare disease, and I fear that there are none who can help me now. I have seen shamans and witchdoctors and healers, but none have known the cause of my illness, nor how to cure it. However—” The old woman struggled to catch her breath. “There was an old shaman by the name of Tor who told me something of importance.”

“What was that?” Fenrir asked.

         “He told me that, although he knows not of what ails me, he had once listened to the stories of a panacea named the Gargantua flower, and that it can cure someone of any illness.”

         “I’ve never heard of it,” Fenrir admitted.

         “Neither had I,” the woman continued, looking down. “But he did tell me what he knew about it. It is a flower that grows once every thousand cycles, and the reason for its name is its unique properties. Apparently, it is half the size of a man and weighs nearly a thousand pounds. Upon hearing the news, I knew that I had no chance in finding one, let alone retrieving one. So, I have set myself on the side of the road, hoping that a passerby has some knowledge of the one thing that could save my life.”

         Fenrir felt pity for the old woman as he looked at her withered and dying body. There was nothing he could say to console her. Perhaps, the shaman who had told her about the panacea had simply just been trying to give her some semblance of hope.

         “If I come across one, I will return it to you,” Fenrir promised. 

         The woman nodded, and soon Fenrir was on his way.

         That day, when Fenrir went into Masamune’s shop, he found the old man in the same state he always did. However, this time, when Fenrir asked the old man if he would reconsider making the swords, Masamune did not simply reject him. He sat there in silence, contemplating something for many long minutes.

         “Why do you return when the answer is clearly no?” Masamune finally asked.

         “My dream is all I have . . .” Fenrir paused, choosing his words carefully. “If I were to give up, I would be giving up a part of myself. This is my destiny . . . and I have already made up my mind. I knew this path wouldn’t be without challenges. Whatever those challenges are, I will best them.”

         “I see,” Masamune muttered. “I know your kind. Stubborn to the end of time itself. So be it then, if not only for the hope that you’ll leave me alone. I will agree to make you your swords in exchange for three items.” 

         Fenrir’s eyes lit up. “Anything.”

         “They will not be easy to obtain,” Masamune added.

         “I will not fail. It is my destiny to become the greatest swordsman to ever live.”

         “Very well,” said Masamune, standing. “The first is the feather of a nowl, the rarest and most expensive item one can purchase in Soria. The second is a fragment of the darkness, only obtainable by traveling to the realm of Mortal Aeryx. And the third I will reveal to you if you are able to bring me back the first two. These are my conditions. Do you accept?”

         Fenrir was still for a moment. “Both of the things you have asked me for are in direct violation with the great laws of Soria. Everyone knows that nowls are celestial creatures, and interaction with them in any way is an extreme offense.” Fenrir took a deep breath. “And traveling to Mortal Aeryx is impossible. Not only is it a breach of the third great Law of Sky, but no one has ever been down there and returned alive.”

         “If it was going to be this easy to deter you,” Masamune said, “I would have offered you these terms the first day you came in. Bringing these items is the only way I will forge your swords. Breaking the laws of Soria will be your risk, not mine.”

         “So be it,” said Fenrir, turning to the door. “I will return with the items you requested.”

Masamune watched as Fenrir took his leave of the shop.

         “We will see,” Masamune murmured, returning to his craft.

         And so, Fenrir set off on the first challenge of Masamune. He gathered every book he could find on nowls, and for three days did not sleep or eat or rest. He read through every single book from cover to cover until he had learned everything there was to know about the mysterious and elusive creatures.

         After closing the last book, Fenrir laid himself down to rest and slept through a fortnight. In his dreams, the nowls hid within the shadows, their gleaming eyes set on him from afar. Yet no matter how hard he tried, he could never close the distance between himself and them.

         Upon waking, Fenrir knew that the only way to catch a nowl would be in the sky. He would have to learn how to fly, an age-old technique of his race that few ever mastered. Knowing that he could not spend the amount of time needed to properly learn, Fenrir climbed to the top of the Great Tree and began meditating at the top.

         He sat with his eyes closed for a time unmeasurable, listening only to the sound of the wind. Finally opening his eyes, Fenrir walked to the edge of the highest branch and without hesitation, stepped off. A dream was a dream, and a dream could not be reached without sacrifice. Falling quickly towards the ground, Fenrir focused on everything around him. It was now or never. He felt the energy of the wind come upon him, and although he could not quite grasp it, he could feel it trying to hold him; he only needed to believe that it could. Just before he hit the water, Fenrir’s descent slowed until he came to a stop, hovering just above the water of Senyria Lake. 

         Turning his eyes to the sky above, Fenrir took off in pursuit of the nowl’s known resting place: the cliffs beneath Vale’s Garden. It was a place that no one had ever seen, save the Empress, yet he was undaunted. Shades turned to days and days to weeks as Fenrir searched for the nowls. Refusing to return empty handed, Fenrir flew higher and higher into the sky until something caught his eye.

         There was a single dark cloud above him, and from within, he could sense the life force of something oddly familiar to that of the Great Tree. Without a second thought, Fenrir flew straight into the cloud. Almost instantaneously, and taking him by much surprise, he passed through into a clear space of sky, as if finding a world within that very cloud. Directly above him emerged a floating island, and perched on the side of the cliffs were hundreds upon hundreds of nowls.

         “Vale’s Garden,” he whispered. “I found it!”

         Feeling his strength rekindle, Fenrir took off towards the cliff. Upon flying closer, he felt the gaze of each and every nowl fall upon him, as though they were weighing his worth. Fenrir glanced around at all the inquisitive eyes and for reasons unbeknownst to himself, began telling the story of how he had come to find them and why. As he finished telling it, one of the nowls took off from the cliff as if accepting his challenge. Fenrir took off after the nowl, and the chase began.

         For what felt like days, Fenrir chased the nowl through the sky and clouds. He chased it all the way back down to Falia and across both of the floating nations. Their chase took them past the castle, over the Great Tree, and to many places he had never seen before. But as the chase continued, Fenrir began to feel his strength dwindling.

Feeling for the first time as if he might fail, Fenrir summoned the entirety of his remaining energy, and the two of them took off in a final sprint. He could feel himself gaining on the nowl and knew the battle would be a final test of endurance. Just as the last remnants of his energy faded, Fenrir knew that he had lost. He came to a stop, staring up at the nowl, who, surprisingly, also came to a halt. After a moment of staring at one another, the nowl took off back toward its home, but as it shot past him, Fenrir saw something falling through the air, arcing back and forth towards him. Reaching out his hand, Fenrir felt the single feather of the nowl fall gently onto his palm. He bowed his eyes to his adversary in respect and sent his words of thanks on the wind.

“Bolt,” Fenrir spoke. “That is your name, for you are quicker than lightning and swifter than the wind. I hereby bow my head to you, my friend, for you are the fastest creature that has ever lived.”

Fenrir returned that night to Masamune’s shop and handed him the feather. Judging by his appearance, Masamune could tell that the swordsman had gone through a grievous effort to obtain it.

“You caught him?” Masamune asked.

Fenrir shook his head. “I could not. But I gave him the chase of a lifetime, and in honor of our bout, he gifted me with his feather. I hope that will suffice.” 

“A single nowl’s feather is worth enough to feed the next ten generations of your family. You understand this, and still, willingly give it up?”

“I do.”  

Masamune took the feather in his hand and was quiet for a moment. “It is because of this, Fenrir, that your swords will be the swiftest of all my creations, and the purest. By handing me this feather, you have given up the desire of wealth. But your trials are not yet over. Now you must travel to Mortal Aeryx, and bring me back a fragment of the darkness.”

Fenrir bowed, then turned and exited the shop.

It wasn’t long before Fenrir was standing before the Edge. Resting his hand on the guard of a sword, he stared down into the unknown darkness beneath him, wondering what it was that he would find in Mortal Aeryx. Lifting his arms out to his sides, Fenrir stepped off the cliff.

It is unclear how long Fenrir fell. Some say days, others, weeks. There are even some who believe Fenrir fell for an entire cycle before he finally passed into the realm of Mortal Aeryx.

It was cold. The air was hard to breathe, and Fenrir felt as if he had stepped into a dismal cloud, a thousand times denser than the ones we know. But most of all, it was dark. The kind of dark one feels when they are afraid and most vulnerable. It was in this heavy, fearful darkness that Fenrir touched down upon Mortal Aeryx.

The ground was not sturdy like the earth he was accustomed to walking on, and it gave him the impression that he was walking on the wind. As he passed cautiously into the pitch-black void, he began to hear whispers.

At first, they were so soft he thought it was only his imagination. But as he walked further and further, the words became clearer, until he stopped and focused only on listening. The whispers spoke to him as if they were a piece of him, deviously trying to work fear into his heart. He closed his eyes as they slithered into his ears, unveiling to him his deep-rooted doubts.   

Feeling suddenly afraid, Fenrir opened his eyes to find a subtle shift in the darkness, and out before him walked something he never could have expected.

It was him, or, at least, it appeared to be.

The figure stood before him, its eyes glowing red in the dark. Where Fenrir’s hair was bright as if starlit, the other form had hair the color of shadow. It spoke to Fenrir, asking him why he had come, despite knowing that he was fearful of what he might find. It told him that someone such as himself could never succeed in what he had set out to accomplish, and that it had seen a future in which he fails. Yet most painful of all were the words about his dreams.

The dark Fenrir grinned wickedly as it told him everything that hid in the shadows of his own heart. It mocked him for believing his dreams could be a prophetic foretelling of his destiny. Instead, it told him that it was only his narcissism trying to convince him that he was meant for something greater. It told him that he was truly meant for only nothing, and that everything he ever did would be in vain, that he was fated to meet only failure.

Fenrir’s doubt continued to grow within. He took in the words of the dark figure, letting them penetrate deep into his soul. Then, despite the cruel words and the fear resting in his heart, he looked himself dead in the eyes.

“No matter how fearful I am,” Fenrir said, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. “I will not let fear or doubt dull my blade. Of all the things that I dread, it is the regret of not giving my all that I fear the most.”

As he pulled his sword forth from its sheathe, the blade revealed itself with a glow of light that sent the winds howling. The darkness twisted and turned, screaming in agony before the fiery glow.

With the dark form of himself roaring in pain, Fenrir leapt forward and struck it down. But as he pulled his sword free of his dark self, its form shifted and changed, revealing itself as something hideous and disgusting. It was a dark creature with sharp teeth and a deformed face. Its claws were like daggers, and down the spine of its back ran hair in the form of slithering shadows.

The creature leapt for Fenrir’s face with a cry of pure disdain, but he was no longer afraid. With newfound quickness, he felled the beast in one swift slash. As the creature’s body began to dematerialize into the darkness surrounding them, Fenrir snapped off one of its claws and placed it in a satchel. As he looked around, dozens of other creatures the like of the first were approaching him. Their whispers returned, and the weight of them tried to bring back the fear that was so heavy on his heart from before. Yet he ignored their attempts to weigh him down, and bearing the burden of their words on his shoulders, he took off into the dark skies.

Fenrir could hear their screams desperately trying to dissuade him, crying out that once he had entered the darkness, there was no return. However, their attempts were fruitless as Fenrir focused on nothing but the hope of his return home. He pierced through the veil of clouds above, leaving the despairing voices to silence.

It was many days after Fenrir’s return to Soria before he returned to Masamune’s shop. The moment the old man saw him, he knew that the swordsman had seen something no other ever had. The shadows of the dark sat heavily upon his shoulders like a cloak, and the light in his eyes had dimmed.

Masamune said nothing as Fenrir walked forward and opened his satchel. Inside, the old man’s eyes fell upon the claw of a beast that could not be of their world. The energy around it was the same as that of the shadow that sat upon the boy’s shoulders, and the old man picked it up with the utmost caution.

“You are brave,” said Masamune. “I have met only a few others in all my life with courage such as your own. I will not ask what you found down there, nor how you came about it, but know this: It is because of your bravery, Fenrir, that your swords will always be the light. No matter how dark your adversary is, nor how evil, these blades will never break or wither or rust, for it is with your courage that they will be tempered.”

Fenrir nodded, unable to bring himself to speak.

The old man looked carefully at the shadows twisting about Fenrir’s shoulders. “It seems you have brought something back with you that plagues your heart. I do not know how you can rid yourself of it, but as long as you bear that weight on your shoulders, even you yourself will not be able to wield these swords, even if you succeed in the final trial.”

Fenrir nodded once again, and Masamune caught his eyes. “You have completed two of my three tasks, Fenrir. And for that, I commend you, but your challenge has but one more piece before it can be complete. Are you ready?”

Fenrir stared back into the old man’s eyes. “Yes.”

“So be it,” Masamune said. “There is a place in this world called the Thousand End Caves. It is in these caves that you must find a fragment of a fallen star. Only with the ore made from this star can your swords be tempered. This is your final challenge.”

“Where can I find it?”

“The only entrance I’ve heard of,” said Masamune, “is in Cataclysm’s Gorge.”

Fenrir nodded before turning and heading for the door.

“You’ll want to bring something to help you find your way out,” added Masamune. “Many have entered, only to get lost in the labyrinth of its passageways.”

Fenrir raised his hand in thanks, and exited Masamune’s shop.

“Good luck, my boy,” whispered Masamune.

So it was that Fenrir found his way down into Cataclysm’s Gorge, and soon found himself staring into the entrance of a deep cavernous pit. As he walked into the cave, he found that there were many different paths to take, and as he continued, he began building waystones to help guide himself back out.

In the depths of the Thousand End Caves, Fenrir soon realized that it was difficult to tell how much time had passed because of the lack of sunlight. There was no sound in the caves other than the faint trickling of water here and there, and after what felt like days of walking to no end, Fenrir sat down against a wall to gather his thoughts.

It was here that he reminisced over everything that he had gone through up until that point. He thought of the chasing of Bolt and how he had leapt from the Great Tree to teach himself how to fly. He thought of everything in his life up until he had met the old blacksmith, and the trials he had faced after.

He had faced himself, though in the cloak of some creature, and had realized that, no matter how much bravado one emanated, there were always feelings of doubt deep within. He realized that he had once believed that his dream would be the hardest thing he would ever face, but he had been wrong. The greatest adversary he would ever meet was one that could never be completely vanquished, for it was the one looking back at him in the mirror. All of these things had brought him down into the caves, seeking the ore of a fallen star, and these things had shaped him into the man he had become.

An overwhelming feeling of gratitude swept through Fenrir in that moment, and before he knew it, tears were streaming down his face. He wept then, sitting there against the wall for a very long time, feeling himself to be one of the luckiest people to ever live.

As he wept, the shadows on his shoulders were wisped away into nothingness until there were no more traces to be seen of it. The fire in his eyes returned, igniting the conviction in his soul. When he finally stood, he smiled, for his spirit felt lighter than it ever had.

Hearing what sounded like one of his waystones crumbling, Fenrir followed the sound down one of the passageways. It wasn’t long before it dead-ended into a cave, and there, sitting against the far end of the wall, was a chunk of shining ore, the like of which he had never seen before.

Fenrir could hardly believe his eyes. The end of his trials had come. He had accomplished what he had set out to do. Yet it was then that his eyes noticed something else in the cave. Something odd. Something unexplainable. For a few feet away from the chunk of glowing ore grew a strange flower half his size, and one that was seemingly made entirely of iron.

Walking over to the flower, Fenrir placed his hand on it to find that it was quite warm, like a stone basking under the sunlight, and he remembered the sick woman he had met sitting on the side of the road long before.

“This is it . . .” he whispered. “The Gargantua flower, the panacea.” He tried to pick it up but realized it was far heavier than he’d thought. Just as he looked back at the shining chunk of ore that he had traveled so far to find; the caverns began to shake. Rocks started to fall from the ceiling as the trembling grew worse and worse.

Fenrir knew that he had to escape, and fast, but he also knew that he could not take both items with him. Relinquishing the hope of meeting his destiny, Fenrir heaved the Gargantua flower out of the ground and took off running out of the cave.

He ran as fast as his legs would take him. The cavern thundered and shook as different passageways crumbled in his wake. Each of his passing waystones collapsed as he ran past them, and without knowing how he had done it, he suddenly found himself back outside the entrance of the caves.

He turned just in time to watch the opening crumble, destroying his sole opportunity of ever completing Masamune’s trial. Shedding a tear and accepting his choice, Fenrir left Cataclysm’s Gorge.

Fenrir returned to that same place he had found the sick woman on the side of the road. There he found her, looking just as hopeless as she had the first time. Kneeling down and gently placing the Gargantua flower in front of the old woman, Fenrir watched her open her eyes.

“T-this . . . This is . . .” The old woman could barely speak.

“Yes,” Fenrir answered, smiling. “It’s the panacea you’ve been looking for. I told you that if I found it, I would return it to you.”

The sick woman wearily stood to her feet, leaning heavily on a wooden cane.

“Congratulations,” she said, her voice changing. Fenrir’s eyes watched in bewilderment as the appearance of the sick woman changed, as if by some magic. Before he knew it, Fenrir was staring into the eyes of Masamune.

“You’ve passed the final trial, Fenrir.” 

Fenrir stood motionless, unable to find the words.

Masamune smiled and placed his hand on Fenrir’s shoulder. “A true swordsman is many things, my boy. Of course, one must be strong and fast and brave, but there are many who exhibit these traits. However, it is seldom I meet the spirit of someone who will sacrifice themselves for another, and you have done just that. You have the true soul of the swordsman.”

“But the Thousand End Caves,” said Fenrir. “They’ve fallen. There is no way to get back to the ore. It is lost forever.”

Masamune looked down at the Gargantua flower. “The shining ore you found in the caves is a rarity native to our world. It would have made fine swords, but not the ones that you are seeking. You see, when that star fell long ago to our world, traces of it blossomed into what you see before you, the Gargantua flower. This, is the true ore.”

Leaning down, Masamune pulled a hammer from his belt. Knocking off one of the iron petals, Masamune held it up for Fenrir to see. On the inside of the flower was the most beautiful-looking ore Fenrir had ever seen.

“You have earned the swords I will craft for you, Fenrir. And it is because of your honesty and loyalty to your word that your swords will never be tainted. They will always cut with the strength of your soul, and they will always be true to your heart. There is no evil that will darken their glow, and no other that will ever be able to wield these swords but you, for it is with these swords that you will one day meet your destiny.”

The Curseborn Saga