Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
This is a re-upload of my previous draft, with two additional chapters. I am using a new account so I can focus works specifically on this project. Thanks!
Art by Betsy Lamb
The lone figure nearly escaped decapitation as he leaped out of the storehouse. He had ducked at the right time, that was all. Stumbling to regain his footing, he slammed the wooden doors behind him and scurried off into the tall grass. There’s simply too many of them, his only thought in the darkness of that night. As he pushed through the large strands, he glanced back to the structure.
The doors did little to stop the two flaming projectiles from pursuing him. They were disks of fire about a meter each in diameter. Despite emitting a vicious aura of flame, they did not catch the doors on fire, but singed straight through them. They made a faint whirring sound as they cut through the air. They slowed and stopped for a second, most likely adjusting their direction. Apparently the grass was not enough to conceal their target, for a moment later they were speeding towards the lone figure.
The figure was motionless, strangely calm, and stared at the projectiles with his ever-cold eyes. I can stop them, he assured himself. But is there any other way? The creator of the disks had already emerged into view, along with several other members of the guild. I hadn’t intended to show off my ability this early in the game. It seemed far too early to make his grand debut.
But instinct was taking over. While it would be a shame for him to show off here, it would simply be a waste to die. And so, clutching his wrist, he prepared to counterattack. However, before he could react, the disks faded and fizzled away into nothingness.
The figure could hear cursing in the near distance where the guild members stood. Oh? The figure smirked to himself. Could it be a time limit? It made sense. Those flaming disks were exceptionally powerful; he figured there had to be some sort of downside. The figure turned and sprinted off, not waiting for his enemy to spawn any more. He ran through the darkness for a while without any specific direction in mind. He was just glad that he hadn’t been forced to fight back. It also helped that he was quite used to running at this point.
After what felt like an hour, he collapsed onto the soft ground. He spent a couple glorious, carefree seconds gazing at the stars before intuition picked him up and instructed him to build a fire for himself. He pulled the leather bag off his shoulders, rummaging through everything he was able to grab from the storehouse. Several containers of food, rope, and pieces of wood spilled out onto the ground. Finally, he found the shard of flint and a small steel knife. After properly arranging the wood, he struck the flint with the knife until a spark caught onto the wood. He watched it fiercely, only lowering his shoulders when the flame grew completely.
Now lying on his back, a half-eaten container of food next to him, he couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. He never imagined the Scout’s Guild giving him that much trouble. It was supposed to be a quick in-and-out trip for some provisions, then right back to his journey. Traveling alone seemed to have tempered with his judgement, causing him to keep getting into close calls and tricky situations. Still, I’m not doing too badly. Especially for being alone in a fake world.
Moreover, he thought, just what was that ability back there? He reached over to his leather back and stuck his hand in the smaller pocket. He pulled out a small notebook, covered with fabric and laced with delicate string. He fingered through the pages, hoping that he had it recorded. Aha!
He carefully read the page. Flame Discus. Level 29 Skill. Allows the user to project up to three discus of pure fire, depending on mental capability. Discs will chase after their target as directed by the user, but cannot exist for more than fifteen seconds.
He slammed the book closed. Now it made sense why he was having trouble; for the last few months the highest ability he encountered was a mere 18. Was he getting careless? It was important that he stayed prepared for anything, and that meant studying and learning what to expect. It wasn’t just the Scout’s Guild. He had been popping up all around the Plains, taking supplies. While keeping up with his own survival was important, there was a bigger picture: leaving the guilds on edge, making sure they didn’t feel too secure. All in anticipation for the figure’s first grand appearance. But that appearance would have never happened if he had lost his head back there.
He tucked the notebook into the pocket of his long dark coat, deciding it would be best if he kept it closer. He let out a long, exaggerated sigh as he again laid back, legs crossed. The bangs of his unkempt black hair fell into his eyes, which he brushed away in annoyance. He stared up into the sky, which seemed to stare even harder back at him. The moon was a watchful eye looking straight through him, right into his core, and finding it to be unsettling. He felt the heavens above expecting something dangerous out of him. His eyes grew heavy.
When he awoke, it was not to the brightness of dawn but to noises nearby. The moon still hung high in the sky, and darkness still enveloped the grassy fields. Two voices could be heard in the night.
“...I’m telling you, there’s no way he could’ve gotten far. Nobody escapes the Scouts that easily.” The voice was gruff, definitely a man’s.
“And I’m just being realistic,” replied the second voice, this one female. “Where would he go? Do you think he has a home if he was stealing food from us?”
The man shushed her, and their footsteps grew louder. The light from their torch drew closer and closer to where the lone figure had sprawled on the ground. The figure gritted his teeth, accepting that he would have to take care of them if they came any closer. Of course, he could kill them. But… no, maybe it’s time. It’s just two people… at most I’ll be just a rumor for a while.
Luckily, the darkness cloaked him enough so that the guild members were exceptionally close before they noticed him. Just as the man began to cry out, the figure leapt into the air and broke into a sprint straight at him. It took everything he had to tackle the burly man onto the ground. They wrestled in the grass, the figure desperately attempting to restrain the man’s arms. But it was like trying to hold down an enraged animal, and a quick jab from the man’s knee winded him and left him gasping. The woman grabbed the figure by his arms, not releasing him after repeated kicks.
The large man rose up, clearly angered, and extended his right arm. Particles of light began to gather at his fingertips. With a flash, a long blue spear made of energy appeared in his hand. The figure didn’t need his book to recognize this ability. Nimble Spear. Level 12 Skill. He let out a long, mocking laugh. It was simply too comical seeing a man of such monstrous size holding such an agile weapon.
“The hell you laughin’ at?”
The man came in charging with the spear, evidently in a blind rage. The figure struggled in the woman’s hold, but eventually gave up and sighed. He was proud that he made it this far on his own, but it became clear that he’d need some help. Maybe if I used it just for a second…
He closed his eyes and concentrated. With a flash of yellow and a loud thwoom, he was free of the woman’s grasp and on his own two feet. His ability had disappeared as quickly as he made it appear. The enraged man looked startled but kept charging.
“Bastard! What did you do?”
The figure dodged to the left, the spear only grazing his side. He did not hesitate, and suddenly his fist connected with the man’s face. The large body stumbled to the ground, and the spear faded into the air. He continued throwing several more punches until his knuckles felt blood, deciding it was enough.
The woman, who had flown back a great distance, got up. She lifted both palms in the air, and particles began to form the shape of a rectangle. A white wall of energy, just taller than herself, came into being. Despite looking solid, it was somewhat transparent. The figure squinted. A barrier? Why would…?
Before he could finish the thought, a piece came off of the top right of the wall and flew towards him. He dodged, but two more shards of the wall came out of the sides and flung themselves at him, one of them striking him in the gut. The woman closed her eyes, and the missing chunks in the wall reformed themselves. The pieces that were thrown had disappeared.
The figure recognized this, as well. Weaponized Ward. Level 26 Skill. Creates an energy barrier to be used offensively and defensively. Parts of the barrier can be used as projectiles to the user’s discretion. The figure continued dodging the pieces flying at him. When one pelted him in the leg, however, he realized he had to take action again.
Resigning himself to this, he crossed his arms and faintly smiled. To his right, a bright yellow sphere appeared in an instant. It was about twice the size of his head. Occasional sparks of electricity sprung from it; other than that, it was plainly a yellow ball of energy. He found great amusement looking at the woman’s face, which was awashed in confusion.
“What? Isn’t that…” she seemingly could not find her words. Instead, she fired more chunks of her barrier. The figure stared at them. By giving a simple thought, the hovering sphere swung in an arc, deflecting the first piece to come flying at him. The figure’s eyes darted between each of the following pieces, which were also batted away by the sphere.
“H-how are you doing that?!” the woman yelled, allowing her barrier to drop. She immediately put her hands together, and a combination of particles and mist came forth. A shard of pure ice launched at tremendous speed, accompanied by many others. Oh, she has another ability, the figure thought. That one is a 25, if I’m not mistaken. Shards of ice continued to be shot at gatling speed. Not a single one of them lethal, but certainly dangerous at the rate they were being fired.
The figure moved the sphere to cover his front, blocking the shards as they approached, which immediately melted and faded away. The shots were spread too much, however, and soon his shoulders and sides were struck by nearly a dozen pieces of ice.
The figure closed his eyes and allowed the ball to rotate around him. By picturing himself as the axis, it spun faster and faster until a ring of yellow blur surrounded him. Not a single shard managed to fly past the blur, which continued to gain incredible speed. The air around the figure began to pick up, with winds creating a menacing sound.
After several moments of this, the ice stopped firing. The woman dropped to her knees, clearly exhausted. It was obvious that she had reached her limit, and she hung her head in surrender.
Does she honestly think that I’m not going to kill her after that many attempts at my life? The figure rolled his eyes. He clenched his fist, and the sphere immediately stopped spinning and was held in one place.
The lone figure calmly walked over to the woman. When she looked up, she saw someone who could not be older than eighteen, with pale skin and greyish eyes. Alongside him floated the big yellow sphere, which shouldn’t even exist.
“But that’s…” she began.
“Level 1 Skill.” the figure finished. “And yet, there was nothing you could do once I got going.”
With a quick blur, the ball swung in another arc and slammed her in the head. She crumpled onto the ground once more, barely able to see. She could feel her consciousness fading fast.
“Then… answer me this,” she sputtered. “Who... are you… and why… did you even... need to steal from us?”
The figure crouched and leaned in close. “You can know me as ‘One’. That’s all. And I stole from you because I worked in the shadows, but not anymore. I want you to tell your guild- tell everyone- that I am here, and that no one can escape from One’s fury.”
And so, the woman lay helpless as One’s level 1 skill disappeared and he walked away, the back of his long coat swirling in the wind.
Neal Resborn hated the sun. He painfully wished he could throw off one or two layers onto the dirt road under him, but his sister would just berate him at any opportunity. Not to mention that he would no longer have clothes. To the distance directly before him, the outline of the Merchants’ Fortress came into view; due to the heat, however, its figure wiggled and wavered.
Beams of sunlight shone through the towers of the Fortress. The castle stood tall and overbearing, an impressive feat of cement and stone bricks. Any nearby inhabitant would say that it was the largest structure in this world. The people felt a great strength from the building, an equal sense of protection and fear. As the self-proclaimed supreme authority of the land, the Merchants held an irrefutable power.
At the sides of the fortress hung bright green and gold banners, with their symbol embedded across: a gold coin with a unique design of a bird at the center. Any person who looked at them on this particular day would see a man hovering over one with a rag in hand, fulfilling his sole duty of cleaning them once a week.
Surrounding the castle were magnificent gardens, which greatly contrasted from the ruggedness of the building’s walls. Past the gardens was the rest of the Merchant District, with smaller houses and roads. All of these were contained within a large river that met with itself around the district, forming a sort of moat around it. Three bridges allowed passage in and out.
Neal kept quiet as he trudged forth, constantly reminding himself to keep pace with the rest of his group. Becca Resborn marched in the front, her unusually tall figure and long blonde hair keeping most of the attention towards herself. For this, Neal was at least grateful, for the less eyes on him, the better. He wasn’t fond of his own appearance, his nose just slightly too long and his spiky brown hair never even. At this moment, he literally walked in his sister’s shadow as she carried on like some kind of leader.
“First time we’ve been to the market streets in a while, Neal. Look more excited about it,” Becca called out. “Can’t you act just a bit more like Cayden right now?”
“Yeah, can’t you act like me?” repeated the eight year old Cayden Resborn, who at first had put on a serious face like this was some kind of mission, but lost it to pure excitement once they approached the shops. He looked back at Neal and made about six different faces at him before turning back around at the marketplace.
After a moment or so, Cayden was frowning. “Where are all the level 2 imprints? I thought this blasted place had ‘em.” Neal never understood why his younger brother had grown a fascination with the word “blasted”, but he used it in nearly every conversation nowadays.
Becca just laughed. “They have them, you just gotta wait for more than five seconds.” She put her hand on his head, but he smacked it away and continued pouting. Neal sighed. He was used to his siblings at this point, and this fact was most likely the only reason he was still sane.
His annoyance turned to concern, however, when he looked behind him at Sasha, who quietly followed from the back. She was obviously not a Resborn, for her short dark hair contrasted from the other three and her lighter complexion was mismatched by the others’ tanner skin. Perhaps it was these differences that had drawn Neal to care for her. But more than that, the sixteen year old girl was awfully timid. Despite this, she met Neal’s gaze with a meek smile.
“Is there anything you want to see while we’re here?” Neal asked with a light tone. She seemed to consider his words for a second, then looked around as if deciding what her answer might be.
“Well… you know I’m not very good, but… maybe if they have something small, like a dagger?” Neal nodded. She definitely was still a beginner. Though then again, he had no right to comment.
The four of them continued down the path, until the dirt of the road turned to stone. Now they were in the main market area, with buildings and shops becoming more condensed and the crowds growing exponentially. Plenty of strange clothes and symbols adorned the people walking by. Some were outfitted with spectral armor, others wore long hoods and cloaks.
While some stores sold food and clothes, the vast majority housed a different item: imprints. Signs boasted these new abilities for sale and their level number directly under in gigantic numbers. Every now and then they would pass an “imprinting station”, where long lines of people waited to imprint themselves with whatever they had just purchased.
While most sellers stayed in their shops, some were more engaging.
“Come one, come all! I’ve got a new special utility imprint, straight from the Merchants themselves!”
As Neal walked past the salesman, he noticed a crowd beginning to form. He nudged at Sasha, but she turned her head, uninterested. The man continued shouting. He held out his arm, showing the crowd a small, purple tattoo. It was a couple of intricate shapes close together, which was standard for a mark.
“That’s right, folks! By imprinting just this small mark, you can create an aetherial chair at any time!”
The man leaned back as a purple chair materialized behind him. He sat in it comfortably, and smiled as the crowd gasped and nodded in approval. Neal shrugged, finding it useful but somewhat unnecessary. Are people these days getting lazy?
“Just like most skills, it’s simple! You imprint the ability onto yourself, get the mark, and voila! You can make a chair at any time!”
Becca chuckled. Neal could guess why; the salesman made it sound so nice and easy, but it was more complicated than that. Getting an ability imprinted on you meant that a certain part of your mental concentration was devoted to it at all times. Most people can’t handle more than three marks at a time, not to mention that the higher level marks require even more concentration. Making a chair whenever you want is nice, but should it take priority over something that could save your life?
“How much does your wonderful imprint cost?” This came from Becca, who looked like she was holding back her laughter.
The salesman’s eyes lit up. “Good question, young lady. For instant comfort wherever you go, it will only cost you 8,000 units!”
The crowd burst into an uproar, with shouts of “Ripoff!” and “You’re crazy!” being thrown around. Becca was bent over laughing at this point. She clearly had the idea that those living within the Merchants’ capital were spoiled idiots, and this certainly helped to prove her point. With all of the world’s economy dependant on the Merchants, it seemed the only thing this region cared about was money.
Cayden started whimpering. “Becca! Why did you make the people get so loud? I told you I had a blasted headache…”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Cay,” Becca replied, though her mischievous smile did not go away. She held out her hand, which held a deep blue mark with multiple wavy lines. Particles shot out and surrounded the four of them. They became veiled by the particles, which then faded away. Neal knew that although he could not see it, the muffling field was in effect. The noise from the crowd grew dimmer and dimmer until it was barely audible.
While the level 11 skill Muffled Sound was not the most powerful in Becca’s arsenal, it was certainly useful. When it wasn’t blocking sound to ease Cayden’s frequent headaches, it was meant for “spy work”. It created a field where sound from the inside and outside are muffled from each other, making it perfect for private conversations, stealthy operations, and so on. Such was the line of Becca’s work, employed by their own father. She took pride in her missions, though their outing at the marketplace was a different kind of job. Their father sent them to take Cayden to be tested on his ability.
Father was very insistent that Cayden train at an early age. The best he could do was use level 2 skills, but even that was considered above average for eight year olds. When father looked at Cayden, there was hope in his eyes. Hope for a son to feel pride for, to mold into a brilliant fighter. But what did father see when he looks at Neal? Why were his eyes clouded and his brow lowered? Why did he always--
“Are you okay? You look lost in thought… again.” Now it was Sasha’s turn to be concerned for Neal. She put a hand on his shoulder.
If the background noise had not been muffled, Neal probably would not have noticed she was even talking. “Oh, I… Uhm, it’s nothing.”
Neal relaxed a little. If anyone could ease his always-troubled mind, it was Sasha. They were the same in many ways, both trapped by their own minds, while Becca and Cayden would go off and do one thing and then another. In this world, there was a saying amongst the people: Control your mind or be left behind. These words pierced Neal whenever he heard them, for they could not be more true. At least Sasha understood.
The voices of the crowd could be heard again, meaning the muffling field must have gone down. Neal guessed that Becca simply lost her concentration. Moments later, however, he realized that they were at the training building. It was a small structure, made from wood, though the golden crest on the front door meant that its owner was of Merchant status. A young man was out front, probably a servant, using his imprint to water the plants. Becca walked them up to the door.
“Here we are, Cay. You ready?”
Cayden nodded, putting on a serious face. Before Becca had the chance, he knocked on the door with all his might. Despite having small hands, he had quite some force. So much for having a headache, Neal thought. After a few seconds, a woman emerged and smiled at them.
“Oh, hello. Cayden… Resborn, is it?” she asked, reading off a piece of paper. “You’re just in time, all the other children have arrived. But, first, can you show me your mark?”
Cayden nodded, still serious. Becca helped him pull down his sleeve to show a small turquoise tattoo on his forearm. The teacher smiled again, and beckoned him to follower her. The rest of them followed, curious. Around the bend of the small building was an area that was fenced off, and about nine other children were running around, using their own abilities.
“As you can see,” the teacher began, “Most of the kids are still practicing with level 1 skills. You’re already above them in terms of ability.”
Neal gazed over all of the children. Since level 1 skills were meant only for training and getting used to the skill system, there were only three in existence. He knew them well, as did everyone. They were Jolt Sphere, Essence Dagger, and Quick Beam.
Most of the kids were running around with Jolt Sphere, meaning they each had a yellow ball of energy following them around. The balls were no larger than four centimeters in diameter, making them hard to even see. Most of the kids were having trouble with the ball, trying to make it move around their figures. Whenever the ball accidently touched them, they felt a shock and cried out. Some of the more experienced kids were able to make it swing around their whole body.
“Jolt Sphere is the perfect way to teach kids how imprints work,” the teacher said, noticing Neal’s gaze. “The yellow sphere moves with instructions from your thoughts, and embodies the relationship between energy and the mind. It’s the same blueprint as pretty much every skill in this world. And best of all, it’s completely harmless other than that small electrical shock.”
Neal frowned. A connection between energy and the mind. This was another common phrase in this world, one that frustrated Neal every time.
The other two level 1 imprints were also generally harmless. Essence Dagger created a small aetherial dagger, but the sharp side would fade away before touching skin. Quick Beam shot a small laser of energy, which stung a little but was not too harmful. The children used their imprints on each other all they wanted, without any form of punishment.
The teacher turned to Becca. “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you three to leave. Relatives and friends can not interfere with the testing.”
“Oh, of course. Let’s go, guys,” Becca replied immediately, dragging the two with her. They made their quick leave, with Sasha falling behind as usual.
They walked in silence for the next half hour, peering over at shops. The air was getting cooler, which made Neal almost cry tears of joy. They were walking much slower than they had before, since their “mission” was accomplished. Neal had the time to appreciate the tall trees that lined up with the road. The marketplace was a lot more developed than Neal’s home, and he enjoyed the change of atmosphere. The Fortress was slightly larger in the distance, but was still clearly a while away.
Becca finally broke the silence. “I’m hungry. Are you guys hungry?”
“Yes,” replied Sasha. Neal wondered if she wanted to eat for a while, but just neglected to say anything.
“Well, then, let’s find a place. I could go for a drink.” Becca led them further to where the restaurants were.
They eventually settled at a tavern all the way near the end of the marketplace trail. It was a charming place, with dark wood tiling and dim candlelights at each table. Becca ran up and sat at the bar. When Neal and Sasha attempted to do the same, she only laughed.
“Hey, I thought I was the adult here. What kind of sister would I be if I let you two drink?”
Neal rolled his eyes. Yeah, older by two years. Becca would assert her nineteen-year-old status whenever she could. Neal stuck out his tongue, a childish but nonetheless effective gesture, and went with Sasha to sit at a table. The seating was not ideal, but it was a blessing after a day of nonstop walking. Even the wobbly stools that were at each table provided him so much relief. One man across from him did not sit on a stool, but instead a chair of purple energy. I guess someone did buy it, Neal thought.
The tavern was full of interesting faces. As he got settled, Neal began to recognize some of the guilds that were present. The men clad in white armor were unmistakably members of the Valor’s Guard, whom acted as enforcers of the Merchants’ laws. They were howling with laughter and acting aloof, leading Neal to guess that this was their moment of free time amongst their usual schedule of acting as stern guards. A couple tables past them were figures concealed in blue robes. Their hoods covered their faces entirely, bearing the symbol of a blue eye with curved lines emerging from it. These were definitely from the Order of Foresight, a cult-like group. It was said that their imprints allowed them to see even with their eyes closed.
There was one person at the tavern that stood out the most, at least to Neal. At the very back corner of the room, there sat alone a young man with a long black coat and dark hair. He was leaned back against the wall, one leg up on the table, and had a small notebook in his hands. He was staring intensely into the pages, turning them every few seconds. Suddenly, he turned his head towards Neal. Their eyes met for a split second, then Neal looked down in embarrassment. He did not dare look again, but as far as he could tell, the figure was still looking at him.
Sasha seemed confused for a second, watching Neal, but shrugged it off. The waiter finally came around, a tall man in his twenties. Sasha ordered a salad while Neal ordered roasted chicken. The man nodded and went off. Neal stole a quick glance back at the black figure, who had returned to looking through his notebook.
The waiter returned with uncooked chicken. To Neal’s surprise, the man lifted his finger, and a strong but controlled flame burst out. The waiter spent a couple minutes roasting the chicken right in front of them.
“Fancy,” Sasha joked after it was done. Neal smiled, happy she was willing to break out of her shell even just a little when she was with him. They ate together, content.
Afterwards, they returned to the bar to find Becca with two empty glasses in front of her, and a third that was half finished. She was giggling and talking with some guy. Neal pulled her off of the stool and told her they should go back and get Cayden. She assured him that she was not too drunk, but then she started singing. Neal and Sasha exchanged looks before the three of them departed.
Just as they headed for the door, however, Neal decided to take one last look at the black figure in the corner. To his dismay, the figure was gone completely. Even more surprising, the notebook was still at his table. Could he have gone to the bathroom? No, the tavern did not have one nor did any of the shops nearby. Neal felt a pressuring curiosity. He told Becca and Sasha that he had dropped something and that he would meet them outside.
Neal walked nervously to the table at the corner. As he approached, he saw nothing special about the notebook, other than that it was worn and looked fairly old. The figure had been looking through it as if it were important, so why would he just leave it there?
He picked it up. As he flipped through the delicate pages, he found that it had pictures and descriptions of different imprints, more than he even knew existed. He quickly discovered that one of the pages was bookmarked by a small square piece of paper. The page was one that detailed Jolt Sphere, the level 1 skill. Neal examined the square bookmark. Turning it over, he realized that there was writing on it. He read it carefully, then gasped.
Meet me at the southwestern bridge tomorrow night. Come alone.
Upon returning to Resborn Hall, Neal felt an unusual sense of dread. That is, it would seem unusual to anyone else, but for Neal it was a familiar state of mind. The sky was a shadowy twilight when he reached the large double doors. They were fairly taller than him and considerably wide. Together they held the Resborn crest, a hand with a small flame protruding from the center of its palm. Becca moved past Neal and pushed them open with little effort, despite also holding Cayden in her arms.
Cayden was majorly exhausted after passing his test at the schoolhouse. According to his teacher, he bested the other students with ease in terms of scoring. Neal wondered what kinds of tests they had him perform, and what the scores meant exactly. The concerning part was that Cayden’s leg and elbow were bruised. It still seemed odd to Neal that a boy of Cayden’s age would need to be carried back home, but a somewhat intoxicated Becca agreed to it without any hesitation.
The unhappy feeling did not go away as Neal and the others began down Resborn Hall. True to its name, the entire building was comprised mainly of one long hall that stretched just over a hundred meters, with rooms and accommodations to either side. At the center of the floor, spanning most of the ground before them, was a beige carpet that spanned the entire hall. The walls were grey and of stone, with the occasional torch passing by.
“We’re back,” whispered Becca to a stirring Cayden.
The further they went, the more pressure Neal felt in his head. Crap, his only thought to himself. I don’t want to deal with this again. They passed more rooms, headed for the end of the hall where father stayed. With every step Neal took, he heard a powerful echo sound throughout the hall. The sounds grew more and more painful, leading Neal to cover his ears.
“Becca, could you use your Muffle? I can’t stand the echo today.”
No one said anything for several seconds. Becca eventually replied, “Uh, what do you mean?”
“That echo sound. It’s really--”
“Neal, we don’t hear any echo,” Sasha interrupted, sounding slightly sad.
Looking down at the carpet below them, Neal realized she was right. There was no way that his footsteps could be making that sound.
The farther side of the hall was more decorated than the entrance. On the right side, twelve banners bearing the Resborn crest hung from the ceiling. At the end of them, several younger boys and girls stood. They were others living at the Resborn estate, imprint users in training. They were clad in the same orange and red jackets that Neal wore. They seemed to be arguing, all looking at one of the shorter boys.
“What’s going on?” Becca demanded, a hint of authority in her voice.
One of the girls chimed up. “Sendric is gonna do the challenge.”
Sendric immediately shouted that he wasn’t sure yet. The rest of the trainees continued arguing and saying that he could not back down.
Sasha tapped on Neal’s shoulder. “What challenge?”
Neal was barely paying attention to the trainees, but answered her. “Father made it. It has to do with that level 4 imprint, Ignition Bolt. If you can manage to shoot the bolt in a straight line and catch all twelve banners on fire, you’ll get special training from father, with the promise that he’ll one day give you an imprint level 30 or higher. But if you don’t get all of them, then you have to pay to replace the ones you burned.”
Sasha’s eyes widened, perhaps at the idea of having to pay that much for damages. Neal doubted that she was considering doing it herself. They still have not determined if Sasha’s mind could even handle more than one imprint, and Ignition Bolt would probably be too advanced. On top of that, a risk that great would likely terrify her.
The boy Sendric, giving into the pressure, raised his right hand and aligned it with the twelve banners. His index finger and thumb were poised as if he were about to flick the air. Neal knew that the moment he released his finger, the bolt of fire would shoot forth. But he did not even have the inclination to see how it turned out. Instead, he said goodbye to Sasha and went to his room.
He lay in his bed, half curled up, indulged in the daily task of rummaging through his mind. His father told him to do so from time to time, in the case that it might help him sort things out. But he did not need his father’s orders to tell him to be alone in his room. Long exposure to people, such as his trip to the marketplace that day, rendered him to this state. He felt it with the trainees, how people began to seem distant even though they were right next to him.
He kicked the wall next to his bed, which was made of the same stone as the entire building. His bed itself was somewhat large, as expected for the son of a nobleman. His room remained in a childish state, with pictures he drew from his childhood hung on the walls. He had drawn people fighting one another, using various imprints that he saw at the battlefield just outside the Resborn Estate. Becca thought it was “cute” that he was still attached to his drawings, but the reality was that he did not care whether they stayed or not. And so they stayed.
But there was one thing that he knew he was avoiding. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the square piece of paper, telling him to meet some dark figure he did not even know under the southwestern bridge the following night. The message raised all sorts of questions in his mind, as he went back and forth deciding if he would go. He curled up even further, clenching all of his muscles. He was aggressively pushing the note against his forehead as if it would help him think faster.
“What are you doing?” came an accusing voice.
Neal jolted up, his face red. He was not sure himself what he was doing. As he looked around, however, he saw that his door was still closed, and that nobody was actually there. Grumbling, he sunk back into his bed.
Before he drifted asleep, his mind hopped from one option to the other about meeting the figure. How dangerous is that man? What could he possibly want to meet him for? It had not crossed Neal’s mind until now that the figure could have meant it for someone else. But nearly every other person in that bar had come and gone by that point, and Neal could not shake how he felt when the figure was staring at him. It had to be meant for me.
The next morning, Neal was greeted by Becca, who repeatedly shook him up and down on his bed. Neal grunted, his eyes heavy from oversleeping.
“Wake up, little turtle,” Becca said, referring to him by the pet name she gave him when they were younger. When he refused to respond, she shouted it.
“Ugh… what? What is it? Training doesn’t start till the afternoon.”
“No, father is calling us all to a meeting. Really urgent. Gotta come. Now.”
She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him off the bed, his head hitting the hard floor. As she continued to pull him out of the room, he realized she was not going to give him a chance to change clothes, so he grabbed his orange jacket off the wall on his way out. They rushed out of the room. Once in the hallway, Neal noticed that five of the twelve banners were gone, and the sixth was heavily burnt but still standing.
“I’m guessing Sendric didn’t…” he began.
“Nope. He was shaking way too much, and his finger slipped. Wouldn’t stop crying for like ten minutes. Come on, this way.” She pulled him harder. Family meetings were common among the Resborns, though Becca placed it with such an urgency that told Neal that it was not the typical discussion of training progress.
They entered their father’s sanctum, where most of those living at the Halls were not allowed. It was a wide room, with more banners along the sides. On the floor sat Cayden and Sasha, their heads lowered and legs crossed. Their father sat at one end of the room, facing them. As always, he wore fanciful orange attire that was fitting for a nobleman. Neal noticed how is blonde hair was especially cleanly cut and smooth, and his golden beard was recently trimmed. His blue eyes stared intensely at Becca and Neal as they entered.
“Finally you two arrive, and with no time to spare, either.” he said dryly, arms folded. “Only half of my children had the sense to come earlier, and one of them doesn’t even share my blood.”
Ever since father took Sasha under his wing, he relentlessly praised her obedience. Neal feared that this put extreme pressure on her to meet his expectations, and her attendance at every meeting continued to convince him that he was right. Neal gave her a smile as he and Becca also sat themselves down. Once they lowered their heads, their father explained that an important guest would arrive at any moment.
As if on cue, the doors behind their father opened, and another finely dressed man walked through. Neal had seen this man before, but his clothing never failed to look strange. He wore a tan colored suit, with a green strip that extended from his collar and into the suit. Neal’s father had said that it was called a “tie”, and that this man was the only one who may wear it. The man’s shoes were dark, and reflected the room’s light off of the leather material. His black hair was pulled in a small ponytail. Behind the man entered four bodyguards, all soldiers dressed in plain uniforms with their arms behind their backs.
Father stood, extending his hand. “Ah, to be greeted by Lord Miheal Stride. I got your message. What business might the most powerful man in the world have at my Halls?”
“Need I a reason to visit my friend? It’s good to see you.” Lord Stride took his hand and warmly embraced him. "I just had a sudden desire to check up, see how you and the children were doing.”
Neal lowered his head even further to the floor, as he was supposed to, but he could still practically feel the gaze of the Lord Stride upon him. Peeking to his left, Sasha and Cayden were doing the same. Becca, however, sat straight up.
“Hey, if it isn’t the Lord Merchant himself!” she blurted.
Father immediately shot her an alarming glare. He visibly tensed up, his left hand even shaking slightly. He was definitely inept at hiding his stress. Lord Stride, however, merely laughed.
“It is a pleasure to see you too, Becca Resborn. I have heard so much about your work from your father and the other noblemen. You are a great help, and an outstanding fighter. Tell me, do you still have that level 34 skill?”
Becca nodded and rose to her feet, earning another tense shudder from their father. She removed her jacket and threw it onto the floor, leaving her with a plain black tank top. She turned around, revealing to Lord Stride her large mark. The deep violet design spanned across her upper back, reaching to each of her shoulders. It was generally a crescent shape, with intricate swirls emerging and stopping to a point.
“Ah, wonderful. Now, then, give me a demonstration.” Lord Stride grinned.
Hesitating for a moment, Becca walked to one side of the room and faced them. She took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. She delicately joined her hands together, and spend a moment moving them down from her chest to her waist. She then swiftly spread them apart, pointing her palms towards the floor. The second she did, two rings of purple energy appeared on the ground; one where she was standing, and another at the other end of the room. With a bright flash, she disappeared from her spot and reappeared at the second circle.
“Brilliant, just brilliant. Teleportation is not an easy task, you know. We Merchants do not make many of them for that very reason.”
Neal struggled in believing this statement. The mental well-being of their people was most likely not the Lord Stride’s main concern. It was more probable to Neal that they restricted teleportation based abilities because they could pose a threat to the Merchants’ rule. In fact, he would not be surprised if Lord Stride was simply keeping tabs on Becca to make sure her loyalty was in check.
Regardless, Becca smiled. Their father looked incredibly pleased.
“Yes, my daughter has proven to be the best among the trainees. I would not blink if she surpassed myself in just a few years,” he stated proudly.
Neal interjected without thinking. “Yeah, it has nothing to do with her receiving twice the training than the rest of us.”
His father’s prideful expressed faded.
The Merchant Lord also changed his tone drastically, as he spoke to Neal. “Watch the sarcastic tone, boy. The way I see it, one may jest when they have something to show for it. And unlike your sister, you have nothing to stand on.”
Neal’s hands shook under the pressure of both his father and the Lord Stride. Of course he would not receive the same treatment as his sister, and it was idiotic to think otherwise.
Lord Stride turned back to their father, raising a finger at Neal. “Can he still not use skills at all?”
“Concentration issues,” father replied right away. “We’re still trying all we can. His only mark is Quick Beam at the moment, but he struggles even making a connection with the energy at all.”
Resting his hand in his chin, the Merchant seemed to be contemplating deeply. “That is no good, no good at all. It is very rare for someone to lack any connection to the energy around us. If this persists, I must ask that he drop the training program and begin work elsewhere.”
Watching the man’s mouth to make sure everything he said was real, Neal shuddered. He knew that a decision like this was coming, but it frightened him all the same. It also frustrated him beyond belief that years of effort and turmoil could be washed away at the words of the Merchant Lord.
“And what about your other children?” Lord Stride motioned to Sasha and Cayden, who remained poised and lowered.
Their father eased a little. “Cayden just passed his test yesterday, with scores above the rest of the kids. He’s a quick learner, and should receive a level 4 or 5 in just a few months.”
Lord Stride smiled, but turned his gaze to Sasha.
“Ah, and Sasha shows great promise as well,” their father continued. “Even though she had no experience with imprints before she came to us. Her late parents apparently neglected to teach her anything, violating your laws. But with us, she has already used a level 7 and will keep growing.”
Neal wished that father would be more sensitive whenever he mentioned Sasha’s parents. Stealing another look in her direction, he saw that her eyes were sunken but showed no further emotion. Neal clutched his own arm where his level 1 mark was, his face still hot from the Merchant Lord’s assessment of him.
The meeting eventually left the topic of their training and proceeded into their father’s own work. As one of the several nobleman that live under the Merchants’ protection, he did his best to show that he was spending all of his resources wisely. He ensured that any and all rogue elements in the area had been taken care of, and that the flow of imprints was distributed smoothly across all people of the nearby district. This evidently pleased Lord Stride, but not too much; it was exactly what he expected from noblemen, and would tolerate nothing less.
At one point, father mentioned the fighting between guilds that was a happening just a kilometer to the north of the estate. He feared that tensions would escalate to the point where outside interference would be needed, and suggested that the Merchants stop the conflict.
Lord Stride frowned when he mentioned this, and replied, “But we Merchants are already fulfilling our role. In this world where mental abilities are heightened, we do all that we can to keep order. Every single imprint, from the meek level 1 to the indomitable level 50, has a purpose; therefore, there is no chaos between guilds that is not of the Merchants’ will. It is their decision to fight, and we provide them with the means to do so.”
Neal watched his father immediately retract his statement, and thank their guest for all that he has done for the world. Despite all of the troubles that the fighting brought to the Resborn estate, such as people seeking refuge and even destruction of Resborn property, father seemed to have a quick change of heart.
Once more time had passed and the seriousness faded, Lord Stride announced that he would be making his leave. First, however, he studied the four trainees in the room. Neal scrunched his eyes as the man approached, but he passed by. The Merchant stopped in front of Sasha, a light smile on his face. He gently extended his hand and lifted her face to meet his gaze.
“She's a lovely one, is she not? I am sure she brightens every room she enters.”
He caressed her chin slightly. Sasha seemed to wince, her lip quivering. She remained silent.
“You know, there is always room for new servants at the Fortress. If you find that using imprints is too difficult for you, then you should consider moving with me.”
Rage filled Neal’s chest, and he clenched his fists. That's my younger sister, you bastard. Lord Stride appeared to take notice.
“I'm merely making her an offer,” he said sternly, then moved towards the doors. “Well, then, it seems I am off. My many duties demand my return.”
So the great Merchant Lord took off with his guards, carrying the tremendous tension in the room along with him. Their father said that the four of them had permission to leave as well, so Becca and Cayden exited straight away. Sasha, however, waited, and Neal rushed to her. Her eyes began to swell with tears.
Before Neal knew it, nightfall approached. All of the bustle and talk within the halls were winding to a close, and training activities were at their end. Neal leaned against a wall, watching people as they returned to their rooms.
Time to go, he thought once the halls were void of trainees. He briefly dashed into his own room and opened the largest drawer.
Running his hands along his red combat gear, he questioned himself for just a moment. Was this really the right idea? He had no fear for his own safety; he was and always had been indifferent towards the fate of his own life. But would it benefit him? His thoughts shifted to Lord Stride’s words, how his life was already on the path of change due to his inability to use imprints. What if the mysterious figure could offer him something better? He then thought of something even more hopeful and unlikely. What if the figure could somehow help Sasha?
He outfitted himself in the gear. Just as he turned to run away, he saw an unusual but familiar sight. A face emerged from his his wall. It was entirely made from stone, and its only features were a nose and dark holes for its eyes and mouth. It emitted a low humming sound, and its mere existence incited the most unsettling feeling. But Neal’s mind was still elsewhere.
“Not now,” he told the hallucination.
Extra careful that he caught no attention, he opened his window and slipped into the early night.
Wiping away dust and soot, One made a seat for himself on the piece of old furniture. He sighed as he peered around him. It was not the best refuge, but it would do. It was a one room house, with a large chuck of the wall missing on one side.
He had chosen to hide out in the abandoned house at the far south of the plains. It was farther away from the Merchants’ reach, but within distance to several important guilds. The houses of this area were abandoned at least twenty years ago, around the time when the Merchants declared that those who did not live under proper requirements would not receive protection from the law. ‘Proper requirements’ meant either living in a guild, or living under a nobleman host family. Secluded places, however, drew One’s attention for obvious reasons of secrecy.
One was expecting guests that night. After multiple near-death experiences a month ago, such as his encounter with the Scouts, he decided that making connections with people was his next course of action. He could still operate mostly alone, but with help at necessary points.
After two hours passed, One had grown impatient and was tossing stones up to the ceiling. Dust and small fragments of wood would fall back onto his face, though he hardly cared.
“Are you trying to attract attention?” came a voice from the outside, as One threw a large stone upwards. The door opened, and a tall man dressed in blue robes entered the house. His face was covered completely by his hood except for his mouth and chin.
One smiled, caught a stone on its way down, and turned upright. “I was hoping one of you would show up. So, I take it your guild has accepted the terms of my contract?”
“Indeed we have,” the robed man replied. “The Order of Foresight will gladly share information, so long as you dispose of our certain enemies as you promised.”
“Yeah, yeah. All I need to know right now is the location of a few individuals.”
The Order of Foresight sees everything, or so they claimed. Their imprints specialized in clairvoyance, as well as monitoring other guilds. While they supposedly were connected to the Merchants, they apparently still had their own agendas. Otherwise, they would have turned him down the moment he contacted them. Unless they are planning to betray me and turn me in, he thought. It would be better for him to ask questions that do not reveal his own plans.
His guest had fully entered the room and shut the door behind him, as if it were some kind of civil meeting. The robed man stood upright, arms behind his back. He was silent, waiting for the questioning to begin.
“First,” One began, scratching his chin, “that woman with the level 50 skill, the one they call the Angel of the Plains. Is she still with the Mistcutter guild?”
The man nodded. “Yes. In fact, through our visions, we’ve seen that she is quickly rising through their ranks, and will most likely become leader.”
One whistled. Not that it came as a surprise, since any person granted a level 50 by the Merchants was destined to succeed. Especially with a nickname like hers. One had a strange feeling that she could be turned into an ally. He was also mildly interested in the Mistcutters, since their focus on self-improvement aligned with his style of fighting.
“So, then… is it safe to assume that none of the six guilds are making any rash moves at the moment?”
While it was difficult to study the man’s face under the long hood, his guest appeared puzzled. “I am not sure what you mean by ‘rash’. That word implies that they are all playing some game against each other. However, I can assure you that they are generally keeping to themselves…”
“Good,” One said, ignoring the man’s confusion. “Then all that’s left in our conversation is the noblemen.”
Noblemen were tricky business. Each of the individual guilds were simple in comparison; One could find their weakest links and exploit them all he wished. Any collective group has a soft spot, a place to strike. The guilds, to some extent or another, were separate from the Merchants, making them the most ideal areas to target within his grand scheme. But the noblemen were different. Serving directly under the Merchants and sustained by them, the noblemen kept a lower profile and guarded their secrets well.
The Foresight member shrugged. “Nothing to report about them. They just continue to pursue their own interests and their own wealth. All while kissing up to the Merchant Lord. The Lord visited one of them today, actually.”
“Stride did?” One asked. “Which nobleman?”
His visitor thought for a moment. “Resborn.”
Resborn. Of course, One thought as he was reminded of his meeting for later that night. If Stride paid a visit to the Resborn estate, it could mean many things. One knew little about the nobleman Acel Resborn, other than he trained his own set of pupils. But after a little chat at the bridge tonight, maybe I’ll have learned more. He forced himself to snap back to his current contact.
“Can I be frank for a second?” One asked politely. “Taking care of your enemies isn’t the only reason your Order signed the contract with me, is it?” He paused. “You’re also interested in this, right?”
One snapped his fingers, and the yellow ball of energy appeared in between them. The robed man took a step back. One proceeded to swish his hand around, and the large sphere glided from side to side, creating a humming sound and a few sparks of electricity.
“I’m sure the Order saw me in action with this quite a few times,” he added.
The robed man continued to look distressed at the sphere that was floating around. “Y-yes, we have. Of course, you’re right that we are interested in your… skill. If nothing else, we would hope to learn how it is even possible.”
One slumped his shoulders, and the sphere disappeared in an instant. “If our allegiance goes well, then you will be the first that I share my secret with. Now then, I’ve gotten all that I want today, so you can leave now.”
Hesitating for a moment, the man turned away towards the door. One thought it strange that the man had enough trust to turn his back, especially with One’s dangerous reputation. But he reminded himself that the man was from the Order, so his imprint was most likely enhanced perception. If One were to attack from behind, the man would know immediately.
One watched the robed figure close the door and walk off into the grass until he could no longer be heard. One sighed, slouching back into the dusty couch. Darkness had descended unto the sky, and a chilling wind shook much of the house.
After only five minutes, another figure appeared. This person did not use the door, but instead perched himself on the broken segment of the wall. His face and upper torso were veiled in a shadowy aura, which was common for members of the guild he came from. The blackness of the night concealed him even further. One waved to him.
“The first errand boy leaves, and another arrives.” One smirked. “Though you’ll have to work on your timing. It would’ve been a problem if my last guest saw you.”
A moment passed without the figure responding. “I have come with our response to your contract,” he eventually replied in a low voice.
“Wonderful,” One exclaimed. “Your guild would like my help? I don’t need much from you guys, other than that you pretend to--”
The figure interrupted him. “No. The Penumbra Clan will have nothing to do with your scheming. We will not subvert ourselves for the sake of your ridiculous plan.”
One narrowed his eyes and frowned. It did not make sense for the Penumbra Clan to deny him so quickly. If any guild would become his ally, he would guess it to be this group of cutthroats and thieves. Surely they understood his hatred for the Merchants. Surely they shared his desire to stir chaos. It was not the response he had expected at all.
The shadowy being that crouched before him seemed far more hostile. The dark aura coming from the person blended into the sky, making him appear more of a wraith or spirit. No, One thought. It’s just another forsaken imprint. The same things that the Merchants sell to everyone.
“I have another message,” the figure hissed. “This comes from Elissa herself.”
Before One could open his mouth, something bright and purple was flying straight at him. It was small, but had sharp ends that whipped through the air. Already expecting an attack, One slid off of the couch and ducked. The projectile stuck to the wood behind him. It was a throwing star, with five jagged spikes extending all around it. Crooked Star. One recognized the level 17 skill that was uniform for all members of the Penumbra Clan.
With flashes of violet energy, two more stars appeared in the figure’s hands, illuminating the shadows. Unmoving from the broken part of the wall, he threw them at the same time with expert precision, each heading towards One at a different angle.
Creating a loud swoosh, One’s yellow sphere appeared and swung in a wide arc. The ball’s swing aligned with both throwing stars and whacked both of them in its path, creating sparks of electricity upon hitting each star. The weapons clinked against the ground, fading away shortly after,becoming particles of purple light that scattered into the air. One wasted no time. As soon as the sphere halted from the first swing, he alternated direction and sent it in another arc, heading it for the Penumbra Clan member. This time, he poured more force into it, and the sphere tore through the house’s wall as it approached the shadowy figure. Chips of wood sprung in every direction, with the sounds of destruction growing louder.
By the time the ball had reached the broken part of the wall, the figure jumped out of the house. One halted his Jolt Sphere. Everything was quiet, aside from pieces of destroyed wood settling on the ground. One cautiously walked towards the wall, his feet wading through the rubble.
The Penumbra Clan member had clearly fled, but One feared that he had not gone far. He frantically waved his sphere into the darkness beyond the wall, but got no response. After letting out a sigh, he made his skill disappear. Well, clearly he saw what I can do, and ran away. Still, it was a great shame that the Penumbra Clan refused to make a contract with him. Instead of seeking him as an ally, they would prefer him dead. He was another obstacle to them. I’ll have to change their minds somehow.
He walked out of the house, still keeping an open ear in case the shadowy figure returned. After taking only a few steps, the house behind him, which had two of its walls completely destroyed, collapsed in on itself. One turned to look for a second, but gave it little notice. He had a long walk ahead of him.
Two hours passed, and Neal began to regret his decision with every passing moment. The farther he got from Resborn Hall, the more insecure he became. He was already a few miles away, but he came to fully realize that he was all alone in the Plains, which was never a good idea. His combat gear did little to reassure himself when he could not even use an imprint to fight with. All he carried was a shortsword. How effective would a sword be, however, against someone who could spew fire, or alter gravity, or move extremely fast? For yet another time in his life, he was reminded that he was a sheep among wolves.
As Neal continued across the grass that night, he wondered if staying at home would have even been better. Sitting in his room, constantly reminded of his failures and grim future. He was just as insecure at home, if not more. Looking around, he at least saw things that were new to him, such as the abandoned villages from years past. All in all, it’s the monotony of my life I’m escaping from.
At last, the southwestern bridge came into view. The meeting place. The cement passage stretched a quarter of a mile long, over the fast-running river below. A loud gushing of water became audible as Neal approached. It was one of three bridges allowing passage in and out of the Merchants’ District, for those who dared not to cross the rapid stream. Neal heard that over a hundred died every year to those waters.
Neal leaned against the rigid railing of the bridge, slouching in nervousness. Just as he began to consider turning back, footsteps sounded from the same end of the bridge that he came from. Neal had been keeping an eye out in every direction, but still had not seen the man approach. Once the man was on the bridge, however, he did nothing to hide his presence. His footsteps resounded on the hard surface.
“I am glad you decided to come, Resborn. Come to think of it, I cannot think of a single reason you might have to trust me and come here alone. Which leads me to believe…” the the long-coated person said as he approached. “... that my theory about you is correct.”
Neal blinked a few times, trying to make out the figure’s appearance. In the dim moonlight, he could tell that it was a young man with dark hair. The man was lean, without much backbone or muscular features. What struck Neal right away was the way that the man talked. His tone was pompous and emphasized at certain points, like he was a nobleman himself.
“Your theory?” Neal asked. “Who are you?”
“You can call me One,” the man replied straight away, as if he had said it many times before.
One? Neal could understand the need for secrecy, but still found the name to be rather silly. The man really wants to be known as a number? Neal worried that he came all this way just to meet with some nutjob. Still, the way One talked intrigued him, as if he had many secrets to share. This was an opportunity to learn at the very least.
“Ehm… nice to meet you… One. I’m Neal Resborn. Well, you already knew about the Resborn part…”
“Of course,” One said. “When you three walked into that tavern yesterday, your clothing gave away that you were children of a nobleman. But that’s not why we are talking right now. I sensed something right away about you.”
Neal took a step back. What could he mean?
One continued. “You only have one imprint, and it’s a level 1. Normally this is no big deal; perhaps you do not rely on skills, or you seek work elsewhere. But for a boy of your stature? The son of Acel Resborn, no less?”
There was a pause, as if One expected Neal to know where he was going with all this. Neal simply stared at him, arms at his sides. One sighed.
“... So I ask you, are you the same as me?”
Before Neal could ask what the hell he meant, something bright appeared next to One. Sounds of electricity vibrated through the air. Once Neal’s eyes could adjust, he saw a large yellow sphere next to the man. It was such a simple object, hovering up and down slightly.
“Is that… Jolt Sphere?” Neal sputtered, eyes peeled at the level 1 skill before him.
“Precisely,” One replied. He maneuvered the sphere around him and to the other side. It moved incredibly fast, which was of course impossible for a level 1. “But your confusion has me concerned. Which level 1 do you possess? Show me.”
It took Neal a moment to snap back to reality. He slowly pulled down his right sleeve and revealed the small mark on his wrist, consisting of four wavy lines and one straight line at the center of them.
“Quick Beam,” One recognized. “But I told you to show me. Surely you can make it stronger than its original design?”
Neal opened his mouth to explain, but One shook his head. He clearly wanted a demonstration. Neal shuddered, because it meant that he would have to prove his powerlessness to the man. While he had practiced his Quick Beam over and over in his own room, it had been ages since he showed it to someone. It was just… shameful.
Reaching out with his right hand, Neal positioned his pointer and index fingers towards One. The man seemed to have no fear at all. Neal closed his eyes, and poured all the concentration he could muster. But it still felt off. His fingers began to feel hot, and he released everything that he had built up. The result: a few red particles emerged from his fingers, but nothing more.
One folded his arms and looked down, his sphere wavering at his side. “So that’s really it, huh. You cannot do what I do.”
After embarrassing himself in front of the stranger, Neal’s face became flustered. “Well then, what is it you can do? That giant yellow ball? How about you explain that?! You know, instead of judging me all by yourself?”
“You expect me to trust you enough to tell you how my sphere works? Do not think about how I do it, but what I am going to do with it. It is a level 1 skill that does much more than a level 1 skill can do. It is standalone proof that this entire system is flawed.”
“What are you saying?”
One grinned deeply, the top half of his face darkening even further. “I’m here to break the system. That is my goal. Something you cannot help me with, since you cannot use imprints at all.”
“I’d love to be able to. But there’s something wrong with my mind.”
While Neal could hardly see One’s face in the darkness, it appeared that the man raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
“I can’t explain it,” Neal responded, holding his head in his hands. “I’m constantly distracted, I hear things that aren’t there. I see things. There’s just something ‘off’ about my brain.”
One held up his hand. “Hold on. Is it a problem with your brain, or is it your mind?”
Neal blinked. “What’s the difference?”
“It’s just like our words for ‘imprints’ and ‘skills’. An imprint is the physical encoding that allows you to use mental abilities, while a skill is the result of it, or the potential that it has. It’s the same thing here. Your brain is the physical object that lets you think and solve problems, but your mind is something… more.” One paused. “That’s something I was taught… long ago.”
It sounded as if One was reciting rather than explaining. Regardless, Neal was still confused. In all his years of receiving lectures from his father, he had heard that imprints work because of a connection between energy and the mind. Since Neal was unable to use imprints at all, he had always figured that his mind was faulted. It was as simple as that.
Neal remembered all of the fears he recounted on his way to meet with One. Everything he passed would frighten him: the grass, the trees, the wind. It felt like the world was against him. But as he stood across from this man called One, everything seemed different. The waters below them were still, and the air calm. But there was a new danger standing before him, and it was One. He stood out like he was the only rogue element in this world.
“You said you want to break the system. Do you mean you want to change how imprints are used, or the guild system, or what? You want to destroy the natural order of things?” Neal asked. He did not believe everything he said, but wanted to see what One’s answer would be.
“The natural order of things? Natural? Here, I’ll show you something natural.”
One turned and sprinted towards the end of the bridge, where they had both come from. He was remarkably fast. Neal waited for a second, biting his tongue, and began chasing after him.
One waited for him at the end of the bridge, arms crossed. Neal caught up with him, panting loudly and slouching over for support. One went around the bridge’s end posts and walked down the hill to the water. Neal followed, crawling backwards down the steep hill, afraid to fall and land in the water. When he got down, One pointed at the bridge.
“Do you see what is under the bridge? This river goes all the way around the Merchant’s District. It makes a giant loop around it. You know that. But that’s impossible unless there are streams feeding in and out of it, right? There aren’t.”
Neal squinted, trying to see what was under the bridge. There was a part of the river under it where the water seemed to change a bit. Neal looked harder. At a certain line, the water elevation was slightly higher. The river still flowed in the same direction, but at that point, the water was going up.
“That is how the river keeps going,” One said, catching Neal’s glare. “Someone-- No, several people are using an imprint to control the water at that one spot, so that the river will continue in a circle. And do you think it is some nobleman doing it, or someone being justly paid for this? I can assure you that there are poor people who have to spend a portion of their concentration every day to keep the water flowing up. The Merchants force them to. Now, tell me again how this system is natural.”
Neal was at a loss for words… again. Is that why he chose this place to meet? He knew that there was something unusual about the river for a long time, but never considered the implication of it until then. One was just trying to make a point. Still, none of this surprised Neal; every day he saw how imprints played a role in every aspect of life. Some uses are good, and others are bad. Neal wanted to say this to One, but looking at the man’s stern gaze at him, he kept to himself.
After several moments without getting a response, One breathed deeply and climbed back up the hill. “You know what? This was a waste of time. Maybe if you could ‘break’ your level 1 skill like I did, you would understand. But you cannot even use it normally.”
One ascended over the hill and went out of view. Neal was about to burst. People had talked down to him all his life, that was nothing new. But during the first few moments of their meeting, One actually saw something in him. On top of that, the meeting went nowhere for him. Neal had gained some hope for the first time in ages, and it was squashed.
“Hold up!” he shouted in rage, even though One was no longer in sight. “Aren’t you contradicting yourself? You talk about how you hate the imprint system and want to break it, but you’re going to call me weak because I can’t use it?”
No reply came. Neal was fuming, and began to crawl up the hill himself. The imprint on his wrist came into view as he climbed, which angered him even further. One is clearly insane, he told himself. If he really tries to change the world, he’ll get himself killed.
Neal reached the top, and saw that One was only a few meters away. Neal was about to shout again, but stopped short. He must have been blind in rage, and did not even notice what had happened.
One was faced by a half dozen people. Each of them were like shadows, with a dark aura emerging from them. In their hands were bright throwing stars.
Neal stood frozen in place. About fifty feet away from him, he counted six menacing figures facing One. At this distance, they only looked like balls of shadow to Neal, expect for their glowing weapons. This baleful presence could only mean one thing… Penumbra Clan.
Although Neal was only staring at One’s back, the man appeared unfazed. The ends of his coat swayed slightly, and his hands rested at his hips.
“Well, this is very kind of you. Not only have you reconsidered my offer, but you brought more lackeys to help me out. I'm touched, really.”
A Penumbra Clan member in the center of the group-- a man, Neal could tell-- stepped forward. Neal noticed that the man’s aura was larger than the others. He gave off a strong presence, and held a blade made of energy in addition to throwing stars. A leader, perhaps? Or is his concentration just stronger?
The man began to speak in a sort of chant. As he spoke, the rest of the Penumbra Clan joined him in unison. “We serve as emissaries of the dusk. Under the moon’s watchful gaze, we claim our victim tonight so that--”
“Right, yeah... I’ve heard your guild’s little anthem before. I honestly don’t see the point. If you’re going to kill me, get on with it already.”
The man at the center seemed amused. “We find it necessary to inform our victims why they must die. Without cause or ideals, murder is just murder. But as servants of the Penumbra--”
“Usually when I meet assassins, there isn’t this much talking.”
“-- we imbue meaning into our jobs. That way, each and every death carries honor.”
One laughed mockingly. “You should listen to the way you speak! All this talk about ‘honor’ is something I would hear from the Valor guild, not your ‘edgy killing club’. Like you said, murder is just murder. I do not wish to hear anything else from you.”
One did not wait for a response. His Jolt Sphere sprung out without warning. It collided against a Penumbra Clan member before a second passed. Before Neal could process that first impact, the sphere zoomed in a zigzag pattern to strike two other assassins.
By the time the third assassin fell to the ground, the rest of the Penumbra Clan commenced their attack. Purple lights flared as throwing stars were tossed at One. The sphere returned to One's side, acting defensively by swinging and circling around him. The ball's movements seemed to be random, but Neal saw that stars were being chucked aside, fading away into the air. All the while, One had not moved an inch.
The assassins began to encircle him, their auras leaving shadowy trails as they ran. It only took a moment before more stars materialized in their hands. Neal noticed that the leader was giving orders through hand signals. They were strategizing, Neal could tell, looking for a way to get past the blurry chaos of One’s ability.
Neal felt both helpless and useless. He crouched and slowly moved backwards, hoping to reach the hill behind him for cover. But he was determined to watch. He could not help One, nor did he feel a strong need to, but he had to see it through.
Two of the fallen assassins got up. They fired up their imprints with a vicious intensity, springing back into combat. They joined their guild members as they danced around the swirling sphere. The six Penumbra Clan were picking up in speed, throwing stars in different angles and directions. Neal heard cursing from within the yellow blur. At least one of the stars had gone through.
Any time an assassin got too close, they were knocked aside by the electrical ball. The leader was cunning, however. With a long energized blade in hand, the man was able to parry the sphere. He could block the sphere enough to weave in and out, gradually getting closer to his target.
One seemed prepared for this. As soon as the leader got close, One kicked him in the chest. The man stumbled backwards. One took this moment to send the sphere directly at him, causing the man to practically roll away from him.
“I’m disappointed,” One said as he fended off the other assassins. “I tried not to take you out right away. I wanted to see what you could do. But you’re all the same. Your shadows barely conceal you either, with those flashy weapons all about.”
With a quick spin, the sphere rammed into three assassins and shot them backwards.
A crooked star then struck One in the back. He grunted in pain as it faded away, and thrashed the sphere into the assassin who threw it. While the assassin was still in the air, One made his sphere disappear and rematerialized it underneath the assassin, so that it lifted him higher. The sphere continued moving up, carrying a limp assassin with it.
As the ball reached eight feet above the ground, it began to move more unstably. One’s hands were shaking. The farther it gets from him, the harder it is to control, is that it? Neal wondered.
One made the sphere disappear, and the assassin fell. There was a slight cracking sound as the figure hit the ground. The assassin’s shadowy aura faded away, with no conscious mind to keep it up.
While One was occupied, several stars hit him on his side. He grunted again, recreating his sphere to strike down the assassins. It entered another frenzy. This time, One was running as well, most likely trying to avoid the fierce attacks.
Neal was at a loss for what to do. He tried to instruct himself, to remember his basic training, but his mind failed him. His first coherent thought was to hide in the steep hill behind him that led into the river. His next was to put his hand on his sword, and begin fighting. He wondered if the Penumbra Clan would consider him an enemy. After all, I’m not their victim tonight. As far as I know… Fear continued to pulsate throughout his body. Even if he used his sword, could he really defend himself?
A low humming noise caught Neal’s ears. He could not distinguish its direction; it came from all sides and enveloped him. He quickly realized what was happening. Looking below to his feet, he saw movement in the ground nearby. Something was protruding from the ground, causing the humming to grow. Despite the surrounding darkness, Neal could see it clearly: a grey face made of stone, with holes in place of its eyes and mouth.
The humming entered a sort of rhythm. Huuuaagh… Huuuaagh… It sent him into a trance that was familiar but stronger than he had ever experienced. He felt like he was outside the event, drifting into an isolated space. His mind became detached and distant from any consequences. His fear was still there, but it had no effect on his body any more.
Something pulled him back to reality. The humming was gone. The face had disappeared as well. He knew that his hallucination only lasted a brief moment, but it seemed like minutes. Moreover, something caused him to return. What was it?
It was something Neal heard. It came from the leader of the assassins.
“Kill the other boy. It might distract our victim,” the man hissed to one of his underlings, this one female. Neal felt another twinge of fear. Did One hear this?
Regardless, the assassin accepted her order and headed for Neal.
“One!” Neal cried as he stared at the shadowy figure running at him. One seemed to look, but it was too late. The assassin was closing in, creating a small blade in her hands. She intends to gut me like a fish, Neal thought.
Trembling, he reached for the hilt of his sword. The shadowy figure was forty feet away. Thirty five. Neal pulled his sword out of its sheath, the steel blade reflecting the light of the assassin’s imprint. He knew his skill could not match hers, but the sword was his only chance at surviving. He needed to parry her strike as soon as she came in close.
Right as he took out the sword, however, the assassin waved a glowing white hand in the air. Neal felt a strong force pulling at his blade. The sword sprung out of his grip and flew backwards into the river. The woman put down her hand, leaving Neal in shock for a second. Was I just disarmed? She had another imprint that could disarm me?
It was hopeless. With little time and nothing else to do, Neal reached out his arm, looking at his level 1 imprint’s mark. His index and middle finger began positioning to use it. But this position makes it obvious that it’s a level 1, he thought. And of course, I can’t even make it work. All I can do… is make is a few particles shoot out.
He acted immediately. With the assassin just ten feet away, ready to strike, he extended both of his arms. His left hand was an open palm. Right behind it, he held his right hand in the level 1 position. With With his dominant hand hidden behind the other, he used his imprint. Tried to, at least.
Red particles emerged from the fingertips of his concealed hand. They scattered and emerged through the openings of his left hand, which was open wide. The result: it appeared that he was controlling energy through an open palm. It was enough to make the assassin stop in her tracks for a moment. She moved to the side, expecting something to happen.
In the brief moments of her confusion, One’s sphere came speeding at her. It struck her back, causing the assassin to fly past Neal. She somersaulted down the steep hill and splashed into the river. The assassin did not come back.
Neal wanted to thank One, but he did not want to attract any more attention to himself. He would have to wait.
One struggled to dodge the relentless stars as he saved Neal. The leader came in close again, but was knocked away by a quick swing by the sphere. Neal could not get past how strange it was-- seeing skilled fighters getting knocked around by a giant yellow ball.
One’s fight with the remaining four assassins was unending. His imprint was too fast to follow at times. When it was closer to One, it acted as a barrier, moving much faster than when he was attacking with it. Because he has better control when it’s close, right? Neal wondered. But it was not just One’s ability he had trouble seeing. The Penumbra Clan were all over the place, marked only by the purple lights of their own imprints.
Stars continued to get through One’s defense, but only striking him in nonvital areas of his body. One seemed to be protecting his head and his chest more, where a well-aimed star could be deadly. He was undeterred, keeping up with his torrent of yellow and hitting assassins aside when they got careless.
At one point, only a single assassin was nearby. One held his sphere in one place, ignoring a star that hit him in the arm. After intense concentration, he launched the sphere in one direction like a cannonball towards the assassin. Surprised by the speed, the assassin was swept by its force and was carried dozens of feet back. The assassin did not come back.
After another minute of combat, the shadowy leader went still.
“Cease this fighting. That goes for everyone!” he said.
The other two remaining assassins stopped. To Neal’s surprise, One’s sphere halted as well.
“I can see that our prey tonight is more than six of us could handle. And I know an unwinnable assassination when I see one. Creta, Willard, you two may leave.”
The two assassins seemed to hesitate, but both of them turned and ran away. One just stood there, allowing them to escape, but he did not put away his sphere. He was visibly panting and worn out. Regardless, his sphere loomed as a great threat.
“How noble of you,” he said between breaths. “You dismissed two of them. Saved their lives, even. Can’t say the same for the other four. So you intend to take me yourself? Or strike a civil conversation?”
“Conversation, if you please. I believe I can grant a pardon for you, so long as I make one thing clear. The Penumbra Clan will never, ever, be a pawn to you. The contract you sent us was laughable, asking us to become petty actors when we are servants of the Penumbra. If you never contact us like that again, you will no longer be a target.”
One coughed. “Aye, that clears everything up. You deliver a speech, try to kill me, fail, deliver another speech, and now I’m off with a warning. Crappy killers, you lot.”
“We just have more dignity than you give us credit for. We acknowledge your strength. I grant you pardon this night as one of the Five Blades. You are talking to the Third Blade himself.”
“Oh, the Five Blades… the five heads of the Penumbra Clan? I would say it’s an honor to meet you, but the Five changes every other day. You guys drop like flies.”
The shadowy figure seemed to tense up. “We will make you take back those words. Someday very soon, everything will change.”
“You want me to take back my words?!” One screamed. “Then prove yourself, right here and right now! You honestly think we can just separate now like nothing ever happened? How many victims of yours were not given that luxury?”
The Third Blade took a step back. “Despite what you say, I do not want any more violence this night. Believe me, this is out of respect. Perhaps another time soon, we can--”
In a flash, One’s sphere flew and swung into the Third Blade’s head, forcing him to fall. Electricity flew into the air after the massive impact. The Third Blade managed to lift his torso off the grass. He created his energy blade and threw it at One, who dodged it easily.
Neal watched the scene unfold. Every time the Penumbra Clan leader struggled or moved, the sphere rammed him in the back, flattening him into the ground.
One took a step forward. “If you’re still listening, let me remind you of something. The only thing this world breeds is violence.”
He slammed the ball into the Third Blade again. One continued to speak, swinging the ball downwards into the man after each word.
With the last swing, Neal heard a loud cracking of bones coming from the Third Blade. The leader’s shadowy aura faded away, and his body lay mangled and contorted under the yellow light of One’s sphere.
One stared at the corpse for several seconds, fists clenched. Eventually, his heavy panting became smoother, and he relaxed his hands. The moment he did, his sphere disappeared. As soon as the yellow light was gone, the scene appeared even more grim. One slowly turned and walked towards Neal.
Neal instinctively braced himself, despite One being an ally. His judgement of One had changed again with fear. The closer the man came to Neal, the more he could see that the fight took a toll on him. His face had several cuts, with thin trickles of blood running to his chin. More blood emerged from his sleeve and onto his hand, from where he had been punctured in the arm by stars.
He suddenly put both hands on his left thigh, grimacing in pain. “Ah, those bastards. This one was real.” With a quick motion, he pulled a metal star out of his leg. He cried out and tossed it aside.
One took off his battered coat and sighed. “They tore my coat. I hate it when people do that.” Neal guessed that if a living Penumbra Clan member was nearby, they would face One’s wrath. Just who is this guy? Neal thought. He acts so casually but has a monstrous imprint. Suddenly, all that talk about changing the world seemed more real. Could he actually do it?
“Well, I’m sorry I wasn’t any help back there…” Neal chose his words carefully.
“Nonsense,” One said. “If nothing else, you distracted one of the assassins for a moment. Made my fight a bit easier. I mean sure, I had to save you, but you distracted her and made her an easy target.”
Neal wondered if that was a compliment at all.
“I don’t understand,” Neal said. “Why are you even still talking to me? I’m worthless, you pretty much said it yourself earlier.”
One put a hand on his shoulder. His face warmed a little. “Listen, Neal. How old are you? Sixteen?”
“Seventeen,” Neal grumbled.
“Right. Well, I am only one year above you. I have grown tremendously in the course of that one year, and it is due to my experiences. I believe you can grow and become impressive in that time. And help me a lot, too…”
“But I can’t use imprints. At all. Not to mention that my mind goes--”
“True, you are powerless in that respect, but tonight you showed something that baffled me. Ingenuity. You were faced with immediate death: an assassin ready to cut your throat. But you were quick, and came up with an idea that put her off her guard.”
Neal let that dawn on him. He, too, was amazed that he came up with a solution so quickly. His father had always drilled him on timing and reflexes, but his idea came out of the blue.
“People who think like that… they are exactly what I need,” One said. “You can think outside this black and white system. With all these levels and skills, people come to expect certain things. Just like you did with the assassin, I can use those expectations to my advantage.”
Neal was somewhat confused. Is he talking about his level 1 sphere? No one would expect that to be so strong. When he first met One, he could not imagine how such a thing could exist. Indeed, the system seemed to be flawed.
Everything that One said was dangerous. Everything he said was against all the lessons that Neal’s father gave him. Even more worryingly, everything he said was starting to make sense.