There are moments in the history of people and planets when myth, legend, and inescapable destiny rule. Such times are bound by prophecy and, once begun, are impossible to halt—for the fates of all, unknowingly intertwined, move toward a numinous end that will not be denied.
It was on such a night that destiny stirred, once again, on the planet of Terra. Hanging in the starry sky like great watching eyes, Terra’s two moons shone with a silvery-blue light which radiated from deep within their cores. Far below, on Terra’s surface, the orbs cast a soft glow into a small clearing in the woods nestled onto the side of the impossibly tall mountain of Devdan’s Zenith.
The glade’s thick pines swayed gently in the wind. Whispering through the branches and soft grasses, a breeze circled a solitary man, ruffling the dark robes that hung from his shoulders. Growing stronger, the gust pushed back his long hair, causing it to shine like black gossamer in the shafts of silver moonlight that fell through the shadowed canopy around him.
Behind the man, the monolithic citadel of the Masters’ Academy rose proudly from the side of the colossal mountain. Like always, the Academy’s sanctified crystal towers were ablaze, tirelessly casting back the darkness of the night. Looming above the spires, the mountain’s Zenith reflected the light of the moons, caressing the heavens much as a lover would.
With his back to the Academy and his hair strewn about him, the man sat nobly in the grass. His legs were crossed, feet resting on opposite knees. As the breeze blew across his face, he closed his eyes and cupped his hands as if clutching an invisible sphere. The man silently mouthed an ancient invocation, and his hands shook in the shadows. He intoned the Runic language of Numen—an occult burden that few in Terra knew the weight of.
A translucent light appeared. Pulsing in time with his heartbeat, it slowly grew within the space between his palms. Forming itself into a small ball, the glow shone through his fingers, casting long shadows against the grass. As the light grew stronger, intricately flowing Runes coalesced on the ball’s surface. The cryptic glyphs danced across the sphere in a scrolling line, detailing the orb’s power and purpose. With his Runic casting complete, the man lowered his hands and let out a great sigh.
The Runic ball expanded. Swirling like incandescent water, it cast an eerie glow within the clearing. As the sphere grew to a diameter of nearly two meters, the man felt its edges flow over his robed body like shimmering quicksilver. After it fully enclosed him, the Runes on the orb’s outer surface shone with a new, multicolored ferocity. The man felt himself grow buoyant as he was lifted several centimeters off the grass. As the sphere’s exterior took solid form, the outside world was completely blocked from view. The man was gently lowered onto the orb’s smooth inner surface.
The man’s long hair shone dimly in the faint light of the sphere’s inner walls. He bowed his head and took a long apprehensive inhalation. Upon his face was a look of uneasiness, and his shoulders were tensed in anticipation of the conversation to come. Exhaling slowly, he forced his body to relax.
Raising his palms to the curved walls, the man focused his mind and once again mouthed a silent command. With a sudden flash, the interior of the sphere sprang to life, revealing a full 360-degree panorama of a small stone room with a low-burning fire.
Many kilometers away on Terra’s Northern Continent of Simn, a large, muscular man of dark presence sat alone in a stone room. Lit by a tepid fire, the room had a thin rug and only a single wooden door, bolted shut.
The man wore a long cloak accented with deep greens that matched the bright emeralds of his eyes. Tailored in the style of the North, his clothes were intricately embroidered with the designs of the noble aristocracy. Upon both hands and forearms, however, he wore ornately crafted gauntlets of a much more sinister style and origin.
He sat on a low cushion with his eyes half-closed until a glimmer of light arose before him. His eyes perked up as a holographic projection of a robed man with long dark hair slowly took form in the barren room. Imbued with a translucent Runic glow, the visitor’s visage cast faint shadows in the dim room.
The long-haired man’s projection pressed his hands together before his heart and bowed his head low. The light of the fire seemed to pass through his luminescent body and eerily dance across the stone walls.
The muscular man did not return the bow. “The hour grows late, Nataraja.” His voice was a deep rumble, akin to a massive boulder slowly rolling forward, with nothing to stop its inevitable movement.
“I apologize, Lord Asura,” Nataraja answered. “Getting away from the Academy was difficult tonight.”
“You know that was not my meaning.”
“Aleksi has proven . . . challenging to shift, Master. His anger is growing as intended but now threatens to overtake him.” Nataraja forced his voice to remain calm. “Lord, I need more time. Please just grant me—”
Asura raised his armored fist, cutting Nataraja’s words short. Blue fire raced across Asura’s gauntleted arm and flowed into his hand. No one else in known history had dared awaken a Runic tool of such ominous power, passed down from an age long forgotten.
“What difference does a drop of time make?” Asura asked roughly. The smoky-blue light in his fist then fractured, and pristine white sand seeped through his mailed fingers.
“Lord, it does not have to be this way.” Nataraja strained to keep his voice controlled as he watched the grains fall to the floor. “Aleksi will turn and join our cause. I am so very close—”
“After Rudra abandoned the boy, you had five years to complete your mission. Yet Aleksi’s Rune is now awakening and I refuse to allow his power to go unchecked—lest he seek out Rudra and aid his so-called Resistance.”
“My Lord, I—”
“You have failed!” Asura boomed, wiping the last of the sand from his palms. “I wanted him, but your charade as Aleksi’s Master ends tonight. Go now and collect your things. Your time in the East is done.”
A look of confusion passed over Nataraja’s face. “Lord, Aleksi is still just a youth and has so much potential. I beg you—”
Before Nataraja could utter another word, Asura clapped his hands. A wave of concussive energy swept through the room, striking Nataraja’s holographic projection in the chest and causing it to momentarily blur.
When Nataraja spoke again there was desperation in his tone. “Master, please do not command me to kill the boy.”
“No need,” Asura answered coldly. “I have sent a shadow to deal with him. I assume you know which one. A fitting end for the youth, don’t you agree?”
Anger flashed across Nataraja’s face, but he quickly regained his composure.
“Always remember,” Asura continued, eyeing Nataraja carefully, “it is your failure that has killed Aleksi. Although this boy’s blood does not warm your blade, just like the last one it will forever stain your hands.”
Fury shone in Nataraja’s eyes as his projected image disintegrated into bits of light that sheared off into nothingness.
“I will know you by your actions, Nataraja,” Asura said, as he once again tightened his gauntleted fists. “Choose your path carefully . . .”
Back in the clearing on the Eastern Zenith, Nataraja’s Runic sphere once again returned to flowing light. The light soon disintegrated and dispersed into the shadows, leaving Nataraja alone in the darkness among the wind, trees, and grass.
“No, not like La’vail,” Nataraja whispered bitterly as a ripple of anger moved across his face. “Not Aleksi, too . . .”
Nataraja was immediately on his feet and sprinting, long hair flowing behind him. Faster than any normal man should be able to move, his body became a flicker of light as he raced toward the massive citadel that protruded from the great mountainside above.
Soon, Nataraja approached the fore-gates of the Masters’ Academy. Two guards stood facing the night. Each held a guttering torch that cast a halo of warmth into the cool evening mist. Nataraja swept past them in a flash. As he did, one of the guards called out.
“Master, is everything . . . ?”
Nataraja flew across the stable yard and up a back stairway that led to the students’ sleeping halls. He raced up a winding flight of stone stairs and came within sight of Aleksi’s door. Without losing speed, Nataraja raised a hand. The air around his outstretched arm rippled with light. Nataraja’s Runic power silently ripped the door off its thick metal hinges and cast it aside.
Bursting into the darkness, Nataraja held out both palms and whispered under his breath. Answering his command, the wall lamps ignited, burning bright in the small room. Now that it was illuminated, Nataraja could see that the chamber was bare. Before him was a writing desk devoid of papers, an empty closet, and a wooden chest at the foot of a neatly made bed. The room’s only window stood open. Outside, there was a clear view of the moons shining down on the large island of Adhira just off the coast.
Nataraja’s black hair shone in the lamplight. Nataraja was in his midyears, and when they saw him in profile, women still thought him tempting—but after they looked into his hardened green eyes and saw that fierce stare, any thought of seduction evaporated. That very gaze now swept the room with the unmistakable glare of violence.
As he scanned the chamber, Nataraja noticed that the only thing out of place in the boy’s quarters was its very emptiness. Aleksi was gone, and yet there was no lingering smell of death. A sudden breeze blew through the open window, and Nataraja turned sharply, as if listening to a faraway sound. Dropping into a defensive stance, he extended one hand out in front of his chest, and a luminescent blue barrier emanated from his palm.
Abruptly, a whirl of wind rose up from the night and a throwing knife flew in through the window. It ricocheted off Nataraja’s energetic shield, struck the wall, and fell to the wooden floor with a metallic clang. The room’s lamps were suddenly extinguished, and the chamber was plunged back into shadow. Nataraja had disappeared.
A thick, smoky darkness silently seeped in through the open window. It spread out across the floor like heavy, shadowy vapor, its color blacker than a starless night. This darkness did not belong to Nataraja, yet he knew it well—it belonged to Nevain, his stepson and former Apprentice. Pooling over the floorboards, the darkness settled into the room’s corners and smothered all sound. Shrouding the chamber like black silk, it even drowned out the light of the moons. To most, this depth of gloom brought a terror that seemed to suck the very life out of all it touched. Nataraja, however, was not impressed.
After a moment, a cloaked figure glided in through the window. Enveloped in a wispy mantle of the blackness, Nevain floated toward the center of the room, causing dark tendrils to swirl about his boots with each silent step. In a startling flash, he spun and threw three more daggers into the shadowed depths where Nataraja hid. The daggers, however, pierced the inky dark only to be buried in the wall with a loud thunk.
The lamps suddenly flared, viciously burning away the black, causing Nevain to shield his light-sensitive eyes in anguish. Nataraja loomed behind the young man, seeming to materialize out of the room’s thinning darkness. Before Nevain could turn, Nataraja slammed his fist into the young man’s lower back, breaking his spine with an audible crack.
Nevain’s mouth contorted in a soundless scream as his legs collapsed beneath him. Hitting the ground, the young man struggled to move but found his lower body numb. Flipping Nevain onto his back, Nataraja took two dark daggers from the young man’s belt and plunged them, one at a time, into Nevain’s hands, pinning him to the floor.
“Is this how you killed your brother, La’vail?” Nataraja asked in a voice that was cold and controlled. “And now you plan to do the same to Aleksi?”
“. . . Master Nataraja . . .” But before Nevain could say any more, his mouth slackened and his eyes rolled back into their sockets.
As his stepson slipped out of consciousness, Nataraja placed a hand on the young man’s chest. Soft white light emanated from Nataraja’s palm, and Nevain’s body convulsed as his eyes wildly snapped back open.
“My little shadow,” Nataraja continued, “if you wish to ever walk again, you will answer my questions quickly. You do not have much time.” Nataraja’s tone was tight, but his green eyes were alive with fury. “So I ask you again, is this how you killed your brother, La’vail?”
“Master, please forgive me!” Fear rang in Nevain’s voice as he futilely struggled against the daggers pinning him to the floor. “All I have done has been under the direct order of High Master Asura! I swear it!”
“So it was you that killed La’vail!” Nataraja bared his teeth and his face filled with rage. Nataraja took another knife from Nevain’s leather belt. The blade seemed to carnivorously swallow the light from the lamps. Seeing this, the young man’s green eyes grew even wider. “After all I have taught you, you dare to repay my love by murdering not just my son, but now my Apprentice, too? Nevain, I don’t care if High Arkai Kaisra commanded you to commit such an act. You are a fool to obey!”
Nataraja plunged the dagger into Nevain’s gut. The young man gritted his teeth and grunted as Nataraja slowly twisted the blade. Blood seeped through Nevain’s cloak as his torn flesh glistened in the hot lamplight.
“I have one last question for you, my lost Apprentice,” Nataraja said calmly as he continued to twist the dagger. “Did you come here alone or are there others? Speak quickly, or I will let you die.”
“Father,” Nevain cried in anguish as the blade continued to gouge his stomach. “Please have mercy! Please!”
“You are no son of mine,” Nataraja yelled, digging the dagger deeper into his stepson’s flesh. “Answer my question!”
“I . . . I am alone! I swear it on Mother’s grave.”
Nataraja lowered his head and let go of the dagger.
“Please,” Nevain whispered with a soft desperation in his tone. “I can feel it. I can feel death taking me. Father, I beg you. Don’t let me die . . . I was only following our lord’s orders . . . both times.”
After a long moment, Nataraja let out a great sigh and placed his right hand over the young man’s blood-soaked torso.
A look of relief flooded across Nevain’s pale face. “Thank you, Father.”
“Only following orders,” Nataraja whispered. “Oh, Nevain, that was my greatest folly. And for your sake, I am so very sorry . . .”
Confusion crept into Nevain’s eyes.
“Sleep well, my little shadow,” Nataraja continued sadly, “knowing that you have blindly served your lord’s will.” Nevain’s eyes widened as Nataraja’s hand glowed red. “I, however, will never make that mistake again . . .”
A look of horror swept across Nevain’s face as his body emitted tremendous heat and light. “No, Master!” Nevain sputtered, as fire and pain flooded through his chest. “Asura will know of your betrayal!”
“And by then,” Nataraja whispered, “it will not matter . . .”
A fire raged inside the young man, burning out his lungs as he let out a soundless scream. “I send your soul back to High Arkai Kaisra,” Nataraja continued softly, as a tear ran down his cheek. “May he show you the forgiveness I never could . . .”
Terra’s two moons still hung brightly in the starry sky. They had moved a great distance, however, and now shone through the room’s open window in a glorious shaft of silver brilliance. The elegant light framed Nevain’s lifeless body slumped on the floor. Idly staring up at the ceiling, his dull eyes reflected the moons’ soft glow. The cinders that were crusted around the gaping hole in the young man’s charred chest cavity were now cold, but despite the open window, the scent of burnt flesh still enveloped the room.
“Kai’la, my love,” Nataraja said roughly with emotion thick in his voice. “Please forgive . . .” The Master sat some distance away on the bed. He held his head in callused and tearstained hands. “Please forgive me.”
After several long moments, Nataraja raised his head and brushed away strands of damp hair. Turning to look out the window with raw eyes, he gazed down at the twinkling island of Adhira and Terra’s great ocean beyond.
“Go fast, young Aleksi,” Nataraja whispered. “You are not ready for what follows you. Nor for what you will find . . .”
Huddled on the deck of a small sailing ship, Aleksi watched the dawn of a new day break over the Eastern Zenith. The ship quickly surged westward, riding the wide channel’s unusually fast current to the island of Adhira. Although his heart still longed for one last glimpse of the majestic towers of his departed home, Aleksi knew he would not be able to see the Masters’ Academy at such a distance. So instead, the youth cast his gaze past the sky’s highest clouds and up to the mountain’s lofty crystalline peak as the shimmering Zenith shone its new rays of morning light.
The morning’s damp breeze was piercingly cold. Instead of being illuminated by a sun, Terra received its daylight from the Zenith of each continent’s sacred spire mountain, a gift of the Arkai. As Aleksi watched the Eastern Zenith’s globe give off its first glimmering rays of light in the dark sky, he wrapped his sleeveless cloak tightly around himself.
The one-masted vessel was bound for Mindra’s Haven, known by all as the shining star of Adhira and the most renowned city in the Eastern realm of Devdan. Mindra’s Haven, however, was not Aleksi’s final destination. Ultimately, he needed to find passage halfway across Terra’s great ocean to the war-torn Central Continent of Vai’kel. After Aleksi arrived in Vai’kel, the youth knew not where fate would take him—only that if he did not get there quickly, he would soon be dead.
Other than a few low-denomination black pearls of currency, Aleksi had only the clothes on his back, the sword at his hip, and a frayed letter from Master Rudra in his pocket. Aleksi slipped a hand into his cloak and felt the cryptic message’s weathered parchment. It was smooth to his touch, worn from many attempts to decipher its occult meaning. Letting out a great sigh, Aleksi slipped the page from his pocket and silently reread the strange message by the growing light of the Zenith’s new dawn.
I sense your Rune has finally begun to awaken. Others can feel it, too. Dark assassins have been sent to corrupt or kill you—to steal your Rune for their own or to prevent its power from entering this world. If they succeed, you will become the catalyst of the Guardians’ destruction, for it will be by your hand, or lack thereof, that Terra’s salvation will be plunged into darkness.
To flee the grasping shadow, you must go to the city of ruin that the Guardians neglected. At the precipice of eternal ignorance, turn from the edge of darkness, for if at any time upon your journey you take a life in anger, you will fall willingly into the hands of those who hunt you. As the repercussions of your rage burn through your body, drink deeply from the light of Mindra—his power of compassion and healing is freely given if you can but open your heart to his eternal song.
Next, find the ancestral place of healing which was once dedicated to the Northern light. As you search, give not into your temptation, but remember the Masters’ Vow. Once you arrive, let the wounded blindly run away from his fears. As you bear the token of your father while seated by a cold flame, a soon-to-be-resurrected leader will tell you to forsake your lineage. Save him from both flame and steel, for he will lead you to your safe passage before giving the children of Mindra a new hope against the looming shadow.
As you search for your past, your house, and its fateful ruin, you will cross the sea on a ship of many facets. When torment returns, the myth of the moons and their holy birth will temporarily cleanse your wounds. As your mettle is tested, please remember: the truth is never as simple as a deceiver would lead you to believe. Contemplating your choices from the loft perched in light, do not unveil the truth of the noble, for the leader must seal the fate of his people untainted, lest he condemn us all to shadow. Finally, when you find Vai’kel’s last hope in dire need, give her your strength and trust in your heart, for it will be love that will save you both and awaken your true power.
Most importantly, however, never forget that only I can teach you how to harness your Rune and protect yourself from its devastation. Until you have it mastered, you are a threat to both friend and foe alike. But fear not: your fissured heart will lead you to your answers, and then, finally, to me. I know that you have great faith but also great doubt—remember that both are needed, yet it will be great determination which will allow you to transcend to salvation.
When you are well on the path, I will send word again. But remember to make all haste, my Apprentice, for shadows follow your every step. Never forget that if at any point on your journey you choose to fall prey to its alluring power, then its corruption will reign over Terra, eternal.
Anxiety spread across Aleksi’s face and he looked down at his right palm. It was covered in a clean white bandage. The youth focused his mind and felt the nerves in the flesh of his hand pulse and burn with Runic power. It was as if sharp, white-hot tendrils spread out from his palm and extended into his fingers and wrist.
Is the forsaken word of that man really worth abandoning Master Nataraja and my tutelage at the Academy, and defying the Masters’ Law? How can I trust him after what he did? Is that broken outcast truly worth dying for?
A familiar soft blue light emanated from the flesh of Aleksi’s bandaged palm. Although it showed itself only infrequently, the glow had begun the same night Rudra’s letter appeared under his pillow. The light meant only one thing—Rudra was right, Aleksi’s Rune had begun to awaken. Rudra had told him many years ago that if left unguided by a trained Master, the Rune would send its metallic tendrils up his central nervous system and into his brain too quickly. Not only would this kill him, but dying in such a way would overload his newly synchronized Rune and cause an explosion of colossal magnitude. Anger welled up within Aleksi and, scowling, he crumpled Rudra’s letter in his bandaged fist.
Whether it was right to leave or not, it does not matter now. The choice is made and there is no turning back . . .
Huddling on the ship’s damp planks, Aleksi wrapped his hooded cloak around himself even tighter as he squinted and futilely tried one last time to make out the Masters’ Academy on the western slope of the towering Eastern Zenith. Despite his Rune, Aleksi knew it no longer mattered if Rudra’s ominous letter was true or false. The moment Aleksi had left his Academy, he had sealed his fate. The youth now had no choice but to continue to follow Rudra’s cryptic path and do his best to outrun both the Academy’s Enforcers and the Shadow Assassins.
Aleksi let out a great sigh. Even worse, if the letter was accurate, then those who followed him would be the least of Aleksi’s worries. Born in the South and now known only as Terra’s Bane, Rudra was a forsaken Master hunted the world over—yet if he was telling the truth, Rudra was also the youth’s only hope of survival. For although much of the letter was cryptic and confusing, one thing was perfectly clear—Aleksi looked down to his glowing palm once again—his Rune was beginning to awaken, and the youth was therefore in unfathomable danger.