Authors: Matthew Wolf
THE KNIFE’S EDGE
Book One of The Ronin Saga
By Matthew Wolf
Copyright 2013 Matthew Wolf
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To my devoted editor, friend, and all around rock—my mom.
THE KNIFE’S EDGE
Book One of The Ronin Saga
SING THE TOOTH OF
the battlement as a stepping-stone, he launched himself at Ren. Blade arcing, he landed in Water Upon the Rocks, an attack from above. Steel clanged as metal sparked, and his muscles strained against his master’s parry.
Ren’s thin lips curved into a smile, making his peppered beard rustle. “Keep that up and you’ll have my title before long.”
Eyeing him through the mesh of their swords, Kirin smirked. “It’s all yours.”
Immediately, he realized his mistake, but it was too late. His pressure waned as his concentration slipped. Ren’s heavy biceps flexed. Kirin was blown back as if by a gust of wind, feet scraping along the gray stone. He threw a leather boot to the ground in a Low Moon stance, his knees bent and back straight. At the same time, he tossed a hand to the rampart’s wall. His palms scraped the stone merlons and he skidded to a halt. He looked up. Ren’s sword hurtled towards his face. Pressing against the ground, he vaulted backwards, diving beneath the blade’s tip. Landing on the balls of his feet, he peered through his brown hair.
Ren rose to his full, impressive height. Despite the chill in the air, the man was bare-chested, wearing only a pair of frayed brown pants with leather strings. His frame was tanned dark from the unforgiving sun. A long scar ran diagonally across his chest. A few more white lines marred his shoulders and arms. There was not a scrap of fat on him. Lit by the dawning sun, Ren stood in High Moon. His back leg was heavily bent, holding the majority of his weight, while his front foot rested lightly upon the ground. It was a stance most could learn, but few could ever master.
Kirin rose. “You tricked me.”
Ren broke High Moon. Sword tip to the stone, he leaned on his pommel, lounging. He was beginning to lose his hair, pate wearing thin, but what was left was plaited back into a komai tail, a black and gray braid of traditional Devari code, but far longer in accordance to his rank. “Don’t listen to me then, or, better yet, don’t talk back. Besides, you should know my tools by now—tools which a blademaster should always have at his disposal.”
He scoffed. “Tools? They are clearly tricks and you know it.” His palms stung and he saw peeled callouses, raw and pink, like a shaved beet. “And why do I always seem to get hurt around you?”
Ren shrugged innocently. “Not sure, I don’t get hurt.”
There was a subtle shift in the air, and Kirin focused, becoming acutely aware of his surroundings. Sharpening his senses at will was a skill of the Devari harnessed over years of intense training. Ramparts, crenulated towers, and scaled rooftops surrounded him. What he felt was the guard changing as hundreds of fresh bodies were beginning their first patrol of the day.
He embraced the Leaf, using his Ki. Suddenly, his veins chilled. He stood inside a soldier’s cold limbs, felt his stiff joints, and heavy lids from recently shed dreams. The man excused another tired soul to the hard sacks of the barracks. With a breath, Kirin retreated from the guard’s body, flowing back into his own.
What I wouldn’t do for a soft pillow. He envied them, for a Devari never slept more than several hours. But deep down, he did not envy their softness, or at least, he would not trade for it. Brushing the dirt from his black tunic and brown pants, he regained his feet and raised his sword. But Ren was looking away, gazing over the bailey’s walls. Something weighed heavily on his master’s features. There were shadows in the man’s eyes. “Is it true?” he asked.
“Rumors are rumors, Kirin. Besides, you should not concern yourself with prophecy. As Devari, we are above such things.”
“You’re avoiding the question. I want to know, is it true they are back?”
“Say their name lad. Only a fool fears a name.”
“Then I’ll say it for you.”
“Ronin,” Ren said, interrupting him.
Kirin’s breath caught. He looked behind. The rampart was empty and he breathed a sigh. Though he knew the guards would not disturb Devari training and they were safe from prying ears, to speak their name aloud was a crime punishable by death.
“It’s only you and me up here, Kirin. And as for your question, I’ve outlasted a hundred false returns, each one more absurd than the last. Though a false return is nothing to smile about. Each causes its share of pandemonium. I’ve seen hangings, riots, even full-scale wars at the hands of a false return.” The man was holding something back.
“But I’m not asking about rumors. Though I have heard them all… whispers that the elvin prophet is on her deathbed, that the Patriarch is to decree this coming as a True Return, that Taer and Maldon are shutting their doors to outsiders completely.”
“Taerians have always been a foolish, superstitious lot, and Maldians follow on their heels like a trotting dog,“ Ren said contemptuously, “and I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but the Patriarch has uttered no such thing.”
He continued undaunted, “All of Farhaven’s magical creatures are fleeing to their sanctuaries. The whole Citadel is in an uproar. Things I’d have to be blind to miss. I’m not asking if something is happening, Ren. I know something is happening. I’m asking what you think.”
Ren turned, looking away. He was silent so long Kirin didn’t think he was going to answer. At last, he spoke, “This time, something seems different. I feel there is a deadly sliver of truth within the rumors. After two-thousand years, I fear the Return has come.”
The Return… The phrase alone was even more terrifying than Ren’s fear. But the feeling of dread in the Citadel of late had been palpable, nothing short of the Return seemed likely. “The Gates separate Farhaven from Daerval and the enemy has never crossed the Gates, right Ren?”
“Farhaven is safe, lad,” Ren said. “Don’t you worry.”
Kirin looked out over the Citadel’s curtain wall in thought. He saw the courtyards with sculpted shrubbery. The baileys were filled with winding stone paths, training dummies, and rows of haystacks. The morning bell tolled, announcing Neophytes to their daily duties. Out over the Citadel, its field of towers, and heavily fortified keeps was a magnificent city; and where the sun beat back the mist, it revealed pockets of the land below.
He saw dirt streets. From this height the people looked like colored ants. To Kirin, the city was an awning that covered the land, reaching into the dunes of the Reliahs Desert. It was the great desert city of Farbs, Kingdom of Fire. It was truly breathtaking. Often he wished he could leave the walls and walk among the people. But such a thing was not possible for a Devari.
“Wake up!” Ren bellowed, and he was glad to see the years had shed from Ren’s face. His master’s stance switched from High Moon to Low Moon, one leg sweeping back. Kirin saw his opening, but kept his face blank. “So are you going to sight-see, or for once are you going to actually hit…”
He didn’t let Ren finish and charged with a fierce cry, sword raised for Heron in the Reeds. Ren smiled as if he were waiting for it, blade flickering into Full Moon, covering his head. In the last moment, Kirin gathered his meager power. Using the element of moon, he summoned a blanket of darkness and flung it before him like a black shield. It was a weak and dismal spell, but it was enough. His cry pitched and he dove through the shield. Ren’s sword appeared from nowhere, but he rolled beneath the man’s blade. As he landed, he twisted. Fisher in the Shallows. He lashed at Ren’s legs, ready to retract the blow in victory. Ren had lost. Elation lanced through him. Abruptly, his master smirked and his hand smacked a hidden block of stone.
A sphere of dark purple appeared from thin air, hovering between them. The liquid darkness swiftly expanded. It touched his outstretched arm and he recoiled, but it was no use. His muscles twitched as if suffocated in stone, and the darkness swiftly slid over him like a second skin.
The world turned black as night.
Kirin was weightless and falling.
The Seven Trials
ERA INHALED THE INCENSE THAT BURNED
in the brightly lit room. On any other day she would complain about its putrid sting as she walked past the Oval Hall, watching as people flocked towards the great chamber.
Today, however, the incense smelled sweet.
Her face glistened with sweat. Seven women surrounded her. Each stood on one of the seven points of the Star of Magha, set in the white marble floor with gold veins. Each point stood for one of the elements of the Great Kingdoms. She stood on the red flame of the Citadel.
All the elements were present, but one. The forbidden element of wind.
The women surrounding her breathed heavily, wearing looks of loathing. They fear what they don’t understand. She took in their stares and noted their different strengths. Merian stood on the emblem of flesh, Sara, water, Tamiko, earth, Resa, sun, Eliwyn, fire, and the others she did not know. The only thing they shared was that they were years older than her, and nearly all of them despised her.