Arran looked at the town ahead of them with some excitement. It had been months since they had last visited anything bigger than a village, and he missed the feeling of being around people other than Master Zhao.
“I almost forgot,” Master Zhao said. He tapped two fingers against Arran’s head, and the seal that covered Arran’s forbidden Realm disappeared.
“Why did you remove it?” Arran asked anxiously. With the seal gone, he immediately worried about being discovered by the Academy.
“There should be no Academy mages nearby,” Master Zhao said. “And we’re about to visit someone who could help you hide.”
The words did little to reassure Arran, but he had no choice but to accept them.
When they entered the town, Arran was reminded of Riverbend. It held a few thousand people at most, and the houses looked old and cozy, with smoke wafting from stone chimneys.
They followed the main street for a time, passing by houses and stores, with the townsfolk occasionally casting curious glances at them.
Finally, they reached a large wall that seemed to cut right across the town. In the middle of the wall was an open gate, with several guards in front. Each carried a long wooden spear with a shining steel tip, and they looked alert but relaxed.
When Arran and Master Zhao approached, horse-drawn cart behind them, one guard stepped forward.
“What’s your business at the monastery?” he asked. His tone was not unfriendly, but firm enough to make it clear that they could not enter without good reason.
“I’ve come for Windsong,” Master Zhao said.
“You’re here for Grandmaster Windsong?” the guard asked, emphasizing the man’s title.
“Tell him an old friend has come to visit him,” Master Zhao said.
“An old friend?” The guard looked doubtful, but after a moment’s hesitation, he sent one of his companions inside the gate.
Arran and Master Zhao spent several minutes waiting while the guards kept a wary eye on them. It was clear that they had some misgivings about the old man who had so casually called for their master.
“Fireheart.” The man who stepped forth was tall and gaunt, with light brown skin and a long beard. He wore a jet-black robe that contrasted sharply with his snow-white hair, and Arran could not help but think that this was what a true mage was supposed to look like.
“Windsong,” Master Zhao said with a grin. “It’s been a while, you old bastard.”
“I thought you died centuries ago,” Windsong said, laughing. “Since you’re still alive, I take it you gave up that little crusade of yours?”
Centuries? Arran had given little thought to Master Zhao’s age, but now, he realized that the man must be far older than he had imagined.
“I’ve been keeping busy,” Master Zhao said with a noncommittal shrug. “And what of you? Last time I was here, all you had were three huts and an outhouse. Now you actually have your own town?”
“I took on a few students,” Windsong said. “Then some merchants showed up, built some stores… Just a century later, they’d built an entire town, right in my backyard.” With a hearty laugh, he added, “Would you believe the townsfolk call me Lord Windsong these days?”
Master Zhao and Windsong continued to speak as they walked through the gate, Arran following a short distance behind them, while the guards took care of the cart and the horses.
Inside the walls, Arran saw dozens of buildings, scattered around the monastery grounds. Most of the buildings were fairly small, but at the center of the grounds was a building the size of a large mansion.
“I see you’ve taken on an apprentice,” Windsong said with a look at Arran as they walked toward the large building. “Finally decided to become a respectable mage?”
Master Zhao frowned. “He’s the reason I’m here. The Academy—”
“The Academy?” Windsong interrupted Master Zhao, his expression suddenly serious. “We’ll talk inside.”
They entered the building, and Windsong guided them through several long hallways, eventually leading them to a spacious chamber that held a large table, several chairs, and numerous bookcases. On the few walls without bookcases hung paintings, showing various scenes of battle.
“Sit down,” Windsong said, gesturing at the chairs. “Now, what’s this talk about the Academy?”
“I found this boy a year ago,” Master Zhao said. “He has a forbidden Realm.”
Arran cringed at hearing his secret discussed so openly, but he remained silent.
“A forbidden Realm?” Windsong’s expression grew troubled. “And the Academy knows of this?”
Master Zhao hesitated. “They know some of it. They do not know who he is, nor where he is.”
“Come over here, boy,” Windsong said to Arran. “Let me take a look.”
Windsong put his hand against Arran’s head, and a look of concentration appeared on his face. After several seconds, he lowered his hand, gesturing for Arran to sit down again.
“This is rather troublesome,” he said to Master Zhao. “What do you intend to do with him?”
“That’s why I came to you,” Master Zhao said. “The boy needs a good teacher, someone who can keep him safe from the Academy.”
“You want me to teach him?” Windsong knitted his brows.
“There are few other places where he would be safe,” Master Zhao said.
“There’s the major clans, the Imperial Family, the Great Societies… Why bring him here?” Windsong asked with a thoughtful look on his face.
“Both the Imperial Family and the major clans are riddled with Academy spies,” Master Zhao said, shaking his head. “As for the Great Societies… he’d be in nearly as much danger as he would be with the Academy.”
Windsong spent some moments in thought, then nodded. “The two of you can remain here for a time,” he said. “But protecting your apprentice will not be as easy as you think. The Academy has grown strong these past few years.”
Master Zhao cast a glance at Arran. “I think it’s better we continue this conversation by ourselves,” he said.
Windsong nodded, then made a strange gesture with his right hand.
A few moments later a man entered the chamber. He was short, with olive skin and a sharp but friendly face.
“You called, Grandmaster Windsong?” the man asked, bowing politely to Windsong, then once more to Master Zhao.
“Adept Kadir,” Windsong said, gesturing to Arran. “This young man is Master Fireheart’s apprentice. Prepare a room for him, then have him join the other initiates for practice.”
As Arran followed Adept Kadir out of the chamber, he heard Windsong and Master Zhao continue their discussion. Several times, the word ‘Academy’ sounded.
In the hallway, Adept Kadir took a long look at Arran. “What’s your name, initiate?” he finally asked.
“Li Wei An,” Arran said.
“Very well, Initiate Li,” Adept Kadir said. “First, let’s get you a bath and some clean clothes. I take it you’ve been traveling for a while?”
“Close to half a year,” Arran said with a nod.
“I’ve never had much love for travel myself,” Adept Kadir said. “Nowhere near enough baths on the road.”
With that, he guided Arran away.
Half an hour later, Arran stood in one of the smaller buildings on the monastery grounds. He was freshly bathed and wearing a clean linen robe that Adept Kadir had given him. It fit surprisingly well.
“Much better,” Adept Kadir said with an approving look. “Now, let’s get you to the training hall and introduce you to the other initiates.”
As Adept Kadir guided Arran across the castle grounds, they passed several large groups of plainly dressed youths who were practicing various forms of combat.
“These are the newest applicants,” Adept Kadir explained. “Those who prove themselves worthy will receive a Realm and become initiates.”
“They don’t need a Realm to join?” Arran asked, remembering how the Academy only accepted those who already had a Realm.
Adept Kadir shook his head. “Grandmaster Windsong believes that what matters most is effort, not talent.”
Hearing this, Arran felt his respect for Windsong grow.
Just before they reached a large stone hall that Arran assumed was the training hall, Adept Kadir stopped, then turned to Arran. “When did you start your training?”
“About a year ago,” Arran said, remembering what Master Zhao had told him. The lies were beginning to make him uncomfortable.
“Ah, so you’ve just started,” Adept Kadir said. “Your master has already made quite an impression at the monastery, and the other initiates will be eager to test themselves against you.”
“Will there be trouble?” Arran asked.
“Trouble? Of course not,” Adept Kadir said with a frown. “It’s just that with only a year’s training you won’t be a match for most, so don’t force yourself.”
When they entered the training hall, Arran saw several dozens of young men and women sparring with wooden training swords. The moment they stepped inside the combat came to a halt, and all eyes turned to them.
“Initiates,” Adept Kadir said in a loud voice. “This is Master Fireheart’s apprentice, Initiate Li. For the time being, he will join us in training.”
An excited murmur went through the group. It was clear that the initiates had already heard about Grandmaster Windsong’s old friend.
“Can I spar a few rounds with him?” a broad-shouldered young man with dark brown hair asked.
“Initiate Guha, step forward,” Adept Kadir said.
The young man did as he was told, smiling broadly.
“Initiate Li,” Adept Kadir said. “Initiate Guha is one of our better swordsmen. If you wish, you can spar against him, but don’t feel pressured.”
“I’m fine going a round or two,” Arran said. After months of sparring against Master Zhao, he was confident in his skills.
Adept Kadir handed Arran a wooden sword, and Initiate Guha stepped forth to face him, his expression eager.
Their first few exchanges were restrained, each of them holding back as they tested the other’s skills. After a short while, the fight grew more intense, and Arran soon found that Initiate Guha’s style was completely different from his own.
Where Arran used the controlled, minimal style that Master Zhao had taught him, Initiate Guha was a constant flurry of movement, almost dancing around Arran as he unleashed strike after strike.
For a time, they were almost equally matched. While Arran had trouble countering Initiate Guha’s constant movement, using Master Zhao’s techniques he could conserve his energy and strike only when necessary, each of his blows disrupting Initiate Guha’s attacks.
Finally, Initiate Guha slipped his sword past Arran’s defenses, in an instant striking both his chest and his arm. Before he could recover, Initiate Guha struck another quick blow, sending Arran’s sword flying.
“That was amazing!” Initiate Guha spoke the words before Arran’s sword had even hit the ground. “Such strange techniques! We must spar again!”
“I think that’s enough for now,” Adept Kadir said. “Initiate Li only just arrived. The two of you will have plenty more opportunities to spar.”
Initiate Guha nodded reluctantly, and Arran breathed a secret sigh of relief. The fight had been exhausting.
“Adept Kadir.” A young woman with pale skin and black hair stepped forward. She looked to be barely five feet tall, but her delicate face was filled with confidence.
“What is it, Initiate Jiang?”
“Could Initiate Li perhaps show us some of the magic he has learned from Master Fireheart?”
“Initiate Li has only been training for a year,” Adept Kadir said. “I don’t think it would be—”
“I’ll do it,” Arran interrupted him. After losing the fight against Initiate Guha, he was eager to prove his skill.
“Are you sure?” Adept Kadir asked.
Arran nodded. “Can I use one of those targets?” He pointed at a wooden target that was standing against the stone wall, about ten paces away from him.
“Of course,” Adept Kadir said.
With a grin, Arran turned toward the target. Master Zhao had stopped him from practicing his magic when they neared the town, and by now, Arran’s body was filled to the brim with Essence.
Focusing his concentration, Arran mustered all the Fire Essence he could. Then, with a surge of effort, he sent a fireball soaring toward the target. It struck with a roar, instantly setting the target ablaze.
Arran beamed with pride. This was the best fireball he had produced so far. Feeling satisfied, he turned around, only to find the initiates staring at him with wide eyes and shocked faces.
“You’re an initiate?!”
“What the hell was that?!”
Confused, Arran turned toward Adept Kadir. He had hoped the other initiates would be impressed by his display, but this reaction far surpassed his expectations.
“You said you were an initiate, correct?” Adept Kadir asked with a thoughtful look on his face.
“What stage have you reached?”
“Stage?” Arran asked. “There are stages?”
The hall went silent.