1. Fragments of the Dark God
Water. Lightning. Wind. Fire. Four points on the outer circle, the elements of the Storm.
Stone. Metal. Wood. Three points on the inner circle, the elements of the Earth.
Light. Dark. Rival points in the center, the elements of the Soul.
Each and every person is born with a connection to one of these elements. Whether they are aware of it or not, this connection pulls at them, tries to mold their behavior to its form. Those born of the Water element tend to be calm and controlling, for instance, while those born to Fire have a tendency for violence and rashness.
And those born to the Dark … they are possessed of a malice and greed that, left unchecked, will consume all around them.
With discipline and training, anyone can learn to pull back on their element, take command of it and bend it to their will. Bolts of lightning, earthquakes, hurricane force winds. The power these Elementalists can be both great and terrible. Fortunately, the secrets to commanding the elements are only known by a few.
Unfortunately, some of those were on the other side.
He could almost make them out as he floated in the void. If he could only get a little closer he might be able to learn something about them, but control was hard when you didn’t have a body. In this place you just sort of drifted as the streams of the nine elements flowed around you. Here and there the flows came together to form the shapes of familiar objects, and always in the distance what appeared to be a city, a reflection of the material world.
With experience, he had learned how to make out patterns in the elemental flows. As Elementalists tapped into their power they became reflected here. The more careless the use of their power the stronger their reflection. At times he could even make out faces and locations. This time all he could see were outlines.
More concerning was the waves of darkness radiating around them, pulsing and growing, threatening to consume all else. Slithering tendrils reached out around it, feeling and groping for the shattered remnants of its former power. The fragments of the dark god.
The darkness was growing, year after year, just as it had throughout his whole life, and his master’s before him. The time was nearly upon them now. The dark tendrils reached every direction until the end of sight. In response, the fragments lit up like stars in the sky, filling with power and the yearning to be made whole once again.
A confrontation was coming.
Ryu came back to consciousness in his physical body. As always, his first perception was of the aching of his joints and the mild discomfort of his back. It was a harsh reminder of his advanced age, as was the wave of exhaustion that washed over him. He had prepared his whole life for the upcoming confrontation, but now that it was finally coming he was too old to be a part of it. He would have to rely on the next generation.
Speaking of which, where was Arthur?
Ryu sighed and rose to go search for his wayward student. The discomfort in his back forced him to walk with a slight hunch. He recognized that he become a far cry from the handsome hero he had once considered himself. His sandy hair had gone gray, his physique had become pudgy despite his best efforts to maintain his body. If only the darkness had made its move a couple of decades sooner.
He shuffled out of the wooden farmhouse he had converted into his school and scanned the surrounding fields for his student. When his students were younger he had tried to instill a sense of hardwork by making them work the fields. They had never managed to grow anything edible. Now the fields were nothing more than an expanse of dirt and weeds. At the edge of the fields were some apple trees that, by some miracle, continued to survive as everything else around them did not. As he expected, he could just make out the shape of Arthur resting in his favorite spot beneath the shade of the tallest tree.
Arthur had his wide-brimmed straw hat pulled down over his face and he was breathing slowly. Despite all of Ryu’s warnings about how soon he would need to be ready, the young man was somehow still relaxed enough to take a mid-afternoon nap. Ryu cleared his throat loudly. When that wasn’t enough to wake his student he kicked him roughly in his side. He sputtered awake suddenly and was quickly on his feet.
“Master!” Arthur exclaimed, his easy smile quickly finding its usual place. “I didn’t notice you there. I was busy … connecting with the void.”
“Really? Well, that must be an advanced technique, seeing the void while fast asleep.”
The smile did not waver. “Well, I might have dozed off there, just a bit, at the end.”
Arthur was tall, a good half a foot taller than Ryu when standing upright. His jet black hair spilled out from under his straw hat to rest on his shoulders. Other than that, he was completely … average. An athletic but not extraordinary build, a face that wouldn’t stand out in a crowd, dull eyes. Nothing about him would suggest that the fate of the world may one day fall squarely on his shoulders.
Ryu tried to put on his best stern expression. “What about your exercises?”
“I did them already.”
Ryu doubted it. “And your studies?”
Arthur faltered for a moment. “I was getting to them. I was thinking I might wait for Ai to get back to help me.”
Ai, Ryu’s other student, was off doing some recon on a potential elementalist Ryu had seen in the void. She wouldn’t be back for some time, a fact that Arthur knew well.
Ryu shook his head. “If you spent half as much time studying as she does, you wouldn’t need the help.”
“Or maybe I’m struggling because I am missing real world experience.” Arthur leaned back against the tree and folded his arms. “You’re always sending Ai off and I’m always stuck here. All that travel’s probably why she’s learned so much.”
“Because I can’t even send you into town on an errand without you getting distracted. Last time Ai had to come drag you back when you spent hours at the arcade.”
“It was a game about fighting. Should count as training.”
Ryu sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Let’s just get to practice, shall we?”
Arthur eagerly followed his master to the training area behind the farmhouse. Practicing with his Light element was the most exciting part of the day. Perhaps Ryu would let him conjure the dragon again today. Sure, last time he had blown a hole in the side of the farmhouse that had taken a month to patch up, but he had learned a lot about control since then.
As they walked Ryu was muttering under his breath, no doubt ideas on how to get Arthur to take his duties more seriously. Arthur wasn’t too concerned about it. He had been raised by Ryu since childhood and knew the old man well enough to know that despite the stern act he liked to put on he was really just a big teddy bear. When he wasn’t lecturing he was spoiling his two students with gifts and praise. Besides, as far as Arthur was concerned he did take his responsibilities seriously. He knew he was going to have to fight, someday soon, and he knew the stakes. But he had been preparing almost his entire life for that day. The occasional nap wouldn’t make him any more or less ready.
The training area was simply a large cleared space covered in soft packed dirt. Arthur put his hat on the edge of the marking post and entered into its center. Without waiting for Ryu’s instruction he opened up his senses to the flowing of the Light around him. Flowing through him. Claiming him. According to Ryu, being born with a connection to the Light element makes you more committed to justice and helping others. Arthur was less concerned about that at the moment than the tingling sensation of power at his fingertips. The Light was his, ready to be molded and shaped by his command.
“Run through the basic forms,” Ryu commanded.
Arthur grimaced. There was so much power at his call now, dozens if not hundreds of times more than when he first learned to feel the flows. He could do so much more than the sparkly light shows the basic forms produced.
“Come on, Master. If I’m going to be fighting the bad guys soon, shouldn’t I be practicing my combat abilities? I’ve been brainstorming some new sword forms I’d like to try out.”
Ryu sighed in defeat. “Very well. Conjure up that sword of yours.”
Arthur grinned as he held one hand forward, palm flat and parallel to the ground. The Light flowed through him and collected there, then formed a path between himself and the ground. More and more of it gathered along that path and the solid form of a sword began to take to form. Forming a basic weapon out of his element had been Ryu’s suggestion, as it took less energy to maintain a solid form than to calling on the Light for each individual attack. The sword had been Arthur’s idea. Long and sleek, with interlocking dragons running along the golden hilt, he thought it looked quite impressive. The fact that it glowed and was partly translucent certainly helped.
The first few times conjuring the sword had been difficult and exhausting, as trying to create any kind of specific and detailed form with his element tended to be. His power had grown used to this form now, taking the shape and forming the fine details with little input from Arthur. He began to close his hand around the newly completed hilt.
THWACK! Suddenly something hit him hard in the chest and sent him stumbling back. He lost concentration on his sword and it faded into thin air. He looked stunned at his master, who had, with a speed that defied his age, rushed up to him and struck him in the chest with a fist that felt as hard as brick.
“Do you think your enemies will simply stand around and wait for you to have a weapon in your hand?” Ryu lectured. “The point of running through the basics so often was to increase the speed you connect with the Light, but you are right. Time is running short. This will be faster. You’ll practice conjuring your sword while under attack.”
Ryu dropped into a well-practiced stance, ready to strike. Suddenly, Arthur was regretting his decision to practice with his sword. Still, he was not one to be defeated so easily. Ignoring the pain from what was sure to be a bruise on his chest, Arthur again began to focus on forming the sword.
By the end of the day, Arthur was battered, bruised, and exhausted, but he had succeeded at conjuring the sword two times before being struck. Ryu couldn’t help but be impressed with his student’s advancement. It would have taken anyone else months to reduce their conjuring time by that much. Of course, Arthur was no average Elementalist.
Within him was one of the Fragments of the Dark God. It filled him with its power, increasing his connection to his element and the speed at which it would respond to his commands. In a few short years Arthur could become more powerful that Ryu ever was despite a lifetime of training.
If he could survive that long against those who would try and take that Fragment from him.
Or worse, if the power of the Fragment corrupted him and turned him to the side of their enemies. Ryu could only hope he had done enough to prepare Arthur, both in body and soul.
Otherwise, all could be lost.
In a dark pit, deep beneath the surface of the Earth, depths that would kill a normal mortal, they gathered. They had each come on their own power and with their own motives. They did not know one another and looked at those around them with distrust. The only thing that kept this from turning into an instant bloodbath was respect, and fear, of the one who had called them here.
One of them had conjured flames along the wall to provide some illumination but their host had ensured their faces would remain cloaked in shadow. The effect of the jostling light of the flames being beaten back by these shadowy visages was an unsettling one, but the woman who introduced herself simply as Aer refused to be intimidated.
This far underground the heat was unbearable and the fire was not making it any better. She had command of a cool gust of wind which she cloaked herself in but even that only made it barely tolerable. Around her she noticed signs of the others performing similar tricks with their respective elements to survive the harshness of this chamber. She could not tell if one of them was responsible for the presence of so much breathable air. Another Wind Elementalist meant competition.
Their host gathered them together. He kept himself cloaked in shadows, so cloaked that it was hard to even be sure that it was a he, but there was no questioning his authority. They had all received the same message, delivered in such a way that it resonated to their very core. For Aer the wind itself had seemed to be the messenger, a gust of wind that had screamed into her ears like she was standing in the heart of a hurricane.
It is time. Follow my shadow.
There had never been any doubt what the message had meant. It was time for the followers of the Dark God to make ready for his return. To piece together the Fragments of his being so he could rule once again, and they could rule beneath him.
For Aer it meant it was finally time she could prove herself.
Their host seemed to pick up her line of thought. As soon as he had everyone together in a semicircle opposite of him he singled her out, outstretching a shadowy finger in her direction.
“You are eager to be the first on the battlefield,” he said in an off-puttingly neutral tone.
She didn’t deny it. “I’ve waited long enough. As soon as I know where to strike, I’ll fly.”
There was a dry sound which might have been laughter. “Then let us find you a target.”
Something about the way he said it made Aer lose her confidence.
The image was clearer than it had ever been before. A short boy with red hair and freckled skin. He was far to the west. A school not far from the coast. And the shadowy tendrils were reaching for him. Almost had him.
Ryu forced himself from the void and jumped to his feet. “Arthur!”
To his surprise, Arthur was actually right where he was supposed to be, at a desk not far away studying from an old English textbook. “I’m a fast reader, but not that fast. Give me another fifteen minutes.”
“It is time.”
“You can’t possibly be planning to quiz me already.” He paused when he got a good look at Ryu’s face. His master was sweating and seemed more worried than … well, than Arthur had ever seen before. Worst than when Arthur had once contemplated running away from his duties and had spent a week on the road before returning with his tail between his legs. At that time Arthur had thought he had seen the worst that stress could do to the old man. He had been wrong.
Arthur’s stomach sank as he realized what ‘time’ it was. “You can’t be serious. Now? Wait, where’s Ai? We need to wait for her to come back.”
Ryu shook his head. “I’ll send a message for her to return at once but our enemies are already moving. If we don’t intercept them they will take this Fragment for the master. But, perhaps if we can move faster, we can rescue this boy before they reach him.” Ryu’s face was frozen. Despite preparing for this for so long, despite knowing it was coming, it was not easy to send one of your students into danger. “Try not fight if you can avoid it. Grab the boy and return. Once Ai is back we can plan for a real confrontation.”
“Grab the kid and run for my life,” Arthur said with a nod. He had never imagined running from a fight before, but now that the fight was upon him it suddenly sounded like sage advice. “Got it.”
“We will need to move fast.” Ryu reached out and put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “I know you have limited experience with the void, but I will do the navigating. Just focus on keeping your mind and body together.”
Arthur wasn’t too worried about this part. He had practiced being guided through the void before. Though they had never gone far, distance in the material world was apparently not a factor in the time it took, usually less than a minute. He only had to keep his mind focused that long.
“I’m ready,” he said, hoping his fake confidence would turn real soon enough.
Ryu nodded. “Good luck, Arthur. And be safe.”
And then Arthur was in the void, hurtling towards his destination.
Towards his first confrontation with the darkness.