frowned at Master Doran as the elder scrambled up the path toward him. Like a mud crab during mating season. It was a less than courteous thought, but given the master artisan’s age, it was a compliment of sorts.
He gave a short bow toward the gray-haired weaponsmith, cupping his hands together in greeting. Red faced, Doran replied without slowing, his hand waving in rhythm with his gasps for breath.
“I’m here, I’m here! Sorry for being a little late. These old bones overslept today.”
Yi shot a glance at the midday sun. A little late indeed, if that meant an entire morning.
“From time, all things spring forth,” Yi recited, his brows furrowed. “Morning dew dawns. Evening mists fall. Thus are born the sun, moon, and stars.”
Doran paused, his waterskin halfway to his mouth. “What?”
“The opening verse from ‘The Compilation of Mandates.’ Have you never heard of it, master?” Yi could hardly believe it. It was a famous verse, most often used to chastise the tardy. “That poem is one of Buxii’s classics.”
The elder stroked his beard, face scrunched in confusion. “Who?”
Yi’s eyes narrowed. Master Buxii was the greatest poet in Ionian history. Before Yi had learned the names of all his extended family, his father had taught him to recite Buxii’s “The Glow of Sunset Among the Mountains.”
“Never mind.” Yi cleared his throat. “My master has informed me of the importance of today’s training. I am to follow your instructions.”
Doran chuckled. “He called this training? No wonder you arrived so early.”
He must be joking. Yi had met Doran before, at his parents’ workshop. Fair and Emai respected him greatly—though he was once an outsider to the village, Wuju’s smiths and masters had embraced him, so legendary was his skill with hammer and anvil. Yet the similarities between Yi’s parents and Doran ended with their professions. The elder weaponsmith was unkempt, absentminded, and known to be eccentric. And though Yi’s parents knew and respected the great poets, Doran apparently did not.
Not for the first time, Yi questioned what this strange weaponsmith had to teach him about the sacred art of Wuju.
He forced his lips into a tight smile. “When do we begin, master?”
“Well, to this old man, we have all the time in the world. But to you…”
Doran packed up his waterskin and turned to glance up the road he had just traveled—a narrow and winding shepherd’s path leading to the village of Wuju. As he turned, Yi noticed the load Doran carried on his shoulders: a basket weaved from bamboo, covered with thick takin hide. It was clearly meant for long journeys.
“You’re what, a mere six moons into swordsman training, and facing your first little setback. Why so impatient?” Doran said.
Yi tensed. It was much more than a little setback—it was a problem that could make him unfit to continue training in Wuju style. He clenched and released the sheath of his sword in an attempt to center himself. This trick, taught to him by his fellow disciples, proved fairly ineffective at the moment.
“Master,” he said softly. “I have been studying Wuju swordsmanship for four seasons.”
“Oh! You’re right! You’re fifteen summers now.” Doran pinched Yi’s bicep with an exaggerated look of surprise. “No wonder you’re so strong. You must have been practicing those sword strikes every sunrise, eh?”
Yi had never shirked any assignment his master had given him, whether it was practicing his sword strikes, meditating, or reciting poetry. In fact, he worked harder than his fellow apprentices and most of the older disciples. He could perform every stance and move in Wuju style with incredible precision, enter a meditative state with impeccable speed and form, and recite most of the poems, songs, and scriptures in the Wuju texts. Yet in spite of all his achievements, he had hit an embarrassing plateau in his progress.
Yi couldn’t keep a bitter smile from creeping across his face. “About four thousand times every day.”
Doran whistled. “Four thousand sword strikes a day? Are you training to be a blacksmith?”
The young swordsman crossed his arms. Repetition was the essence of a fundamental doctrine of Wuju: The Trunk Is Sturdier than the Branch. Did Doran not even know that?
Before Yi could respond, Doran removed the bamboo basket from his back and thrust it into his arms. “There you go, then. A fitting load for a strong young man.”
He massaged his shoulder as he strode away from Yi. Momentarily stunned, Yi ran to catch up.
“Master? Where are you headed? This path leads south.”
“Don’t you worry,” Doran said. “I can still tell north from south.”
“But what about the training?”
“You really want to train that much?” Doran sauntered forward, putting both hands behind his back. “Then let us begin.”
Yi paused. South of the Wuju village was nothing but uninhabited woods. Unless Doran’s plan was to go wild boar hunting, there wasn’t much “training” to be done there.But he had promised his master he would obey the old man, and so he slung the bamboo basket over his shoulders, and followed.
Yi had never set foot on this path before—he had never even heard of its existence.
The path was marked by stepping stones that were deep in the soil, mostly broken by time and neglect. Wild grass grew between them, sometimes as tall as Yi’s shins. At first, he suspected that this route would lead to some abandoned shrine or settlement. In the mountainous island of Bahrl, ancient ruins were said to lie undisturbed in the woods outside villages and towns.
They had trekked southward for some time, and the weaponsmith’s promise of training hadn’t materialized. Irritated, Yi shifted the bamboo basket on his shoulders. “Master, what exactly am I carrying? It’s heavy.”
“Swords,” Doran replied without turning to face him. “All swords.”
Yi raised an eyebrow. Doran crafted swords exclusively for Wuju swordsmen, and he only made a few every season.
“Are these blades all forged by you, Master Doran?”
“Three of them are. As for the rest…” Doran paused, as if trying to find the right words. “Those were entrusted to me by my peers.”
“You mean other weaponsmiths? Why would they give you their swords?”
Yi absentmindedly peered over his shoulder to look at the basket, promptly tripping over an oddly shaped stone. He staggered as he caught his balance.
“Hey! Watch it!” Doran quickly rebalanced the basket on Yi’s shoulders. “One of them is for you, you know. If you bend it, I’m sure you’ll blame me later.”
“For—for me? Is it a sharpened blade?”
“Of course it is. I don’t craft unsharpened swords.”
Only those who truly understood the Wuju philosophy of bloodless combat were given the privilege of wielding sharpened blades, as a testament to the swordsman’s self-control. And one handcrafted by Master Doran… Many senior disciples had endured over ten summers of training before receiving such an honor, yet Yi had only been training for four seasons. The young swordsman was flattered.
However, his excitement was fleeting, and he cast his eyes down. Doran seemed to notice the change in mood. The two walked in silence for a few paces before the weaponsmith gently said, “I heard from your master that you’re having some trouble connecting with the spirit realm.”
Yi didn’t answer right away, so great was his shame. When he finally spoke, he said, “Connecting isn’t the problem. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t have been accepted into the Wuju school.” He scratched the back of his head. “Yet I can’t seem to draw power from it. Sometimes I can draw a little, but I can’t imbue my weapon with it.”
“Could it simply be that it’s not yet your time? Evoking the spirit realm’s energy…” Doran smiled as he stroked his beard. “When it happens might simply come down to the whims of fate.”
Yi wanted to tell Doran he was wrong—the ability to draw power from the spirit realm wasn’t something to be negotiated with fate. And that’s what worried him. Perhaps he was failing because he lacked the innate talent. Perhaps it was his fate that he’d never succeed.
Yet he bit his tongue. He didn’t want to appear impudent, and he still clung to the hope that today’s “training” would help him, however slim the chance.
“Hm. Perhaps you’re right,” Yi finally replied.
The muddy path became more difficult to walk, as roots and brambles crowded over the broken stones. While earlier, Yi could occasionally spot the footprints of other travelers, there was now no sign that any living soul had passed through here before. The only sound was the summer wind whistling through the dense trees.
“Master Doran, have you come this way before?”
“Mhm. I take this path once every four seasons. Your master even accompanied me two or three times.”
Yi was surprised. “Master Hurong? I’ve never heard him say so.”
“I’m sure he will, eventually.” Doran waved him off before picking up his pace. From his swift strides, it was hard to remember he was an elder of almost sixty summers. Not much like a mud crab after all.
He’s brought other swordsmen with him. Does he need a bodyguard? Is this the training—a chance to practice my mercy strokes? Yi welcomed the prospect.
“Have you ever met any threats on this path, master?”
“None at all.” Doran shook his head with a smile. “But keep a good grip on that sword of yours, son. My walking of this path has nothing to do with yours. Even if I had walked this path a thousand times without encountering any danger, it doesn’t mean you definitely won’t.”
As if on cue, a sharp bird-like screech rang out.
Yi halted and grasped the hilt of his unedged sword, lifting it to his chest. He recognized the sound as the cry of a raptor—a dangerous species of wild fowl usually found deep within forests.
The swordsman clenched his teeth, and scanned the tree line.
Rolling his eyes, Doran gestured forward. “Do you see those mountains over there?”
Straight ahead, an unbroken range of peaks stretched across the horizon. They were not particularly high, but they went on as far as the eye could see.
The woods had been silent since the raptor’s call, so Yi lowered his sword. “We’re going mountain climbing?” he asked, trying to hide his annoyance.
“You’re from Bahrl,” Doran replied, patting Yi’s chest with the back of his hand. “Surely you’re not afraid of some hills?”
Yi looked up. A golden, dazzling sun hung upon a cloudless blue canvas. It actually was a good day for a hike, he had to admit.He squared his shoulders and pressed forward.
After skirting a grove and crossing a stream, they finally closed in on the mountains. They were well outside Wuju territory by now, and beyond the range the elders considered wise to travel. Yet Doran had yet to show any signs of slowing down.
Once they reached the first incline, they ascended a series of stone steps. They might have been well traveled in the past, but now they were broken, covered in weeds and slippery mud. The steps abruptly ended at a steep cliff face that was roughly the height of three men, and before Yi could ask, Doran had already grabbed a handhold on the rock and started to climb. He reached the top with little effort, turning back to look down at Yi with an expression that said, What are you waiting for?
Scaling a rock wall was an easy feat for just about any young person from Wuju, but Yi had never attempted this sort of climb while carrying a heavy load. The task was even more difficult than it looked. After he finally summited the cliff, it was quite some time before he caught his breath.
At last, he stood up straight and dusted off his clothes, only to stop as his eyes locked on a stone tablet before him, a single word etched on it. He could just barely make out the weather-worn Ionian characters.
“We still have time.” Doran sat down beside the stone tablet and took a sip from his waterskin. “Let’s rest.”
He pulled a rice cake from some mysterious pouch or hidden pocket, and began munching away. After a few bites, Doran looked up as if he had suddenly remembered something. He jabbed the remnant of the rice cake at Yi, who was still studying the stone tablet. Seeing the jagged teeth marks on the offering, Yi shook his head.
“Master, when you said we still have time, you meant for my training, right?”
Doran slapped his knee while chewing on a mouthful of rice cake. “A beard well lathered is half shaved, kid. If you’re really that anxious to start the training, I suggest you rest up here first.”
When Yi saw that Doran had started gnawing on a second rice cake, he suppressed an exasperated sigh. Seeking to hide his impatience, he examined his surroundings.
Apart from the stone tablet, Yi noticed a few ancient ruins hidden under thick clusters of vines and shrubbery. Though only broken columns and walls were left, he could tell that this majestic and bold architecture was entirely different from that of Wuju’s pagodas.
Doran pointed toward the ruins. “This mountain used to house a shrine—for worshiping a god who fell from grace long before any of us were born. Nobody knows the god’s name, and nobody knows where its believers went. These humble stones are all that remain.”
“Flowers wilt as folks grow old. Even morning stars must return to night,” Yi recited. He then pointed at the stone tablet. “Were they the ones who named this place Mistfall?”
“Later generations carved that. As for the name…” Doran motioned toward the other side of the cliff. “Its meaning will be clear if you look over there.”
Yi peered cautiously over the edge of the cliff. Beneath him, white fog blanketed a valley, and farther in the distance, blue sky met the mountains. The view was breathtaking, its grandeur stretching as far as he could see.
The valley itself wasn’t large. It reminded Yi of a lake, only with swirling silvery mist instead of water. A narrow downward path led from the cliff and disappeared into the depths.
“You see that?” Doran asked. “That’s where we’re going.”
“There? Into the valley?”
After a long day of trekking through empty wilderness, his training ever more elusive, Yi couldn’t stomach any more nonsense.
“Master, just what kind of training are we doing?” he blurted out.
“All I can say is, the journey will be rough, which is why you should take this respite more seriously.”
Yi swallowed his frustration, as it was clear that Doran was not going to explain further. He found a slab of flat stone opposite the old weaponsmith, and sat down, placing the bamboo basket next to him.
Forget rest. At least this place was perfect for practicing meditation.
Yi closed his eyes and started to breathe deeply and slowly. Perhaps it was due to the unfamiliar environment, but he took a while longer than usual to enter his meditative state. In that space between unconsciousness and waking, a lightness cascaded through his body. And at the tip of this lightness, a bright and unusual object emerged. It was like a spark, illuminating every corner of his mind.
It wasn’t uncommon for Yi to encounter spirits while meditating. They visited him more often than they did most of his fellow disciples. It was probably a good thing, for it meant that he was closer to the spiritual realm, and he ought to be skilled at drawing energy from it.
Ought to be.Yi focused on the white light, purging his mind of all other thoughts. He soon realized that this was no average spirit. He tried to grasp it, feeling how it pulsed. To his surprise, he merged with the entity, disappearing in the blinding light.
He forced his eyes open, and found himself sitting under a gigantic silverwood tree—the one that stood at the entrance to Wuju. Yet the buildings in the distance looked strange and unfamiliar.
Flustered, Yi stood and walked into the village, where he saw familiar figures—his father, mother, fellow disciples, even his neighbor’s black cat, Little Beauty, and the chief elder’s dog, Goldie. They all seemed to be engrossed in their own world, ignoring Yi. These must be visions, he thought. He calmed himself as he continued down the main road.
Then he saw something that made him freeze in his tracks. “Master Doran?”
The elder weaponsmith spared Yi a glance before turning back to his work. But he was not crafting swords—where a furnace, smithing tools, and an anvil should have been, there was only a flower pot with tender seedlings. With a delirious grin, the artisan slowly raised his arms over his head, and the seedlings in the pot curled and stretched in response. They grew at an unimaginable pace, sprouting leaves until they took the shape of a small juniper tree. Doran examined it closely, looking somewhat unsatisfied. He then raised his arms a few more times. The tree changed its form, swaying merrily in the wind before becoming a weeping willow.
Bewildered, Yi turned his gaze toward the rest of the village, noticing for the first time that each and every house was covered in lush, colorful, and even grotesque vegetation. Many dwellings looked like they had grown out of solid rock, while others twisted into forms that resembled people—not just in shape, but in their movements.
As Yi meandered aimlessly, a clarion sounded from the village center. Nearly every villager stopped what they were doing and strode toward the mountainside on the other end of town.
A waterfall ran down the mountain, obscuring a cave behind it. Doran was the first villager to arrive. He raised his arms, parting the water so he could pass, dry as can be. Other villagers promptly followed suit, entering the cave one by one. But when Yi raised his arms, it had no effect on the cascading water.
It’s just a vision, he reassured himself. It doesn’t matter if I get wet.
He stepped through the waterfall, and found himself in a massive chamber. Thousands upon thousands of candles adorned the space. In the center of the cave were the villagers who entered before him, conversing in a language Yi could not understand. In the opposite corner, he spotted his Wuju master, Hurong, standing with a number of other highly respected elders from the village.
Strange ridges and lines were carved into the stone walls, and the patterns seemed to shift as Master Hurong spoke and gestured. It looked like a living calligraphy painting—no, not a painting. Some sort of map.
The elders concluded their discussion, exchanging glances and nods. Yi’s master then raised his right arm and snapped his fingers. With the ease of a door being thrown open, an entire wall sundered, right up to the ceiling, revealing the sky as streaks of blinding sunlight filled the cavern. Outside was a sheer drop to the distant ground.
With a leap, Master Hurong transformed into a vibrant blue Bahrl jay and took to the air, soaring out of the mountain and into the clouds. Next came the other elders and villagers—after turning into birds, they emptied the broken cave in a chorus of squawks, leaving behind only Yi and Doran.
Knowing he could not communicate with Doran, Yi nodded respectfully and prepared to take his leave. He was shocked when Doran called out to him in a language he could understand, his voice cold and deep.
“You. You walk the path of Wuju?”
Yi froze, staring wordlessly at the weaponsmith.
“I have met you Wuju practitioners before,” Doran said, his face impassive. Yi hadn’t realized how strange his eyes were—crimson irises transfixed him, shining with an eerie light, devoid of any semblance of life. “You take great pains to wring out what little power you can from the spirit realm, only to put it in a weapon—how tawdry. Yet this poor mimicry is still enough to allow you to enter the domain of the strong.”
“Mimicry?” Yi had never heard anyone disparage Wuju style before. “Mimicry of whom?”
Doran ignored the question, instead pointing toward the gradually closing gap in the cave walls. “Go. Follow them.”
Yi looked up at the sky. This is ridiculous. “But I can’t fly.”
Doran’s voice had come from behind him. Yi whirled around to see the weaponsmith standing outside the cave entrance, fingers steepled. “You just don’t know how to do it yet.”
The entrance and the gap in the cave walls slammed shut, sealing Yi inside. His only escape was an opening far above his head. It seemed this crimson-eyed Doran wished to compel Yi to fly out of the mountain like the others.
Yi scoffed, then sat down on the stone floor, crossed his legs, and closed his eyes. Fly out? That wouldn’t be necessary. Visions were just like dreams: no matter how bizarre they got, one only had to wake up for it all to become but a passing fancy.
Yi gasped as he opened his eyes, finding himself back on the stone slab near Mistfall, right opposite where Doran sat. The old weaponsmith didn’t seem to notice Yi’s sudden waking, so engrossed was he with his own thoughts.
Yi pinched his earlobe. He did this whenever he returned from a vision, to make sure he was indeed back in reality. Yet the vision had been so vivid, so real, that even the pinch did not make him feel grounded.
“Hmm?” Doran turned to look at him. “What?”
Yi gazed into Doran’s dark brown eyes. “How long have I been meditating?”
“You pretty much just sat down. Why?”
Yi rubbed his lips. He wouldn’t share an experience he did not fully understand himself.“It’s no matter. Let’s get going, shall we?”
Just as Doran had warned, the path leading down into the sea of mist was perilous. A treacherous green moss grew on the stone stairs, each step requiring meticulous care. The task was made more difficult by carrying a heavy basket full of swords, but Yi offered no complaint—he wouldn’t give Doran the satisfaction.
It became clear that Doran was not the only one who knew of this secret location. As they approached the mists, Yi saw a relatively new wooden board to the side of the path, a warning of danger scrawled across it. The shoddy handwriting and misspellings hinted that it had been penned by an uneducated hunter.
Yi couldn’t tell if his senses were playing tricks on him, but as he passed the wooden board, it grew cold. It had been a hot summer day, yet frigid winds swirled around him now. On top of that, his vision started to blur as a strange, dense fog wrapped around him and Doran.
He followed closely behind the elder, tightly gripping the hilt of his blade and scanning his surroundings, fearing that something might leap out of the fog.
“This mist isn’t normal,” Yi muttered. “Spirits linger here. We should wait and return after they are gone.”
“The spirits will never leave,” Doran replied, shaking his head. “They have lived in this place longer than people have lived in Ionia. Don’t worry. We won’t be here for long.” He gestured ahead of him. “Come, you have better eyes than I. Help me find a sword.”
Yi frowned. “Find a sword? Here?”
“A Placidium flamberge, to be exact. It should be pretty obvious,” Doran explained. “I left it as a marker the last time I came here.”
Yi looked around blankly. Everything was covered in a thick white blanket of mist. Never mind finding a Placidium flamberge—it was barely possible to spot someone standing just two steps away. With no good place to start, Yi pretended to search the ground on either side.
He had only taken a few more steps when his stomach lurched. He suddenly felt as though his body was becoming lighter and lighter. Even the weight of the bamboo basket had disappeared.
“Master Doran,” Yi said uneasily.
But Doran neither slowed nor turned back, and instead picked up his pace. Alarmed, Yi tried to catch up, but the weaponsmith slipped farther away. It wasn’t long before Doran vanished completely in the white mist. Yi watched as the same mist devoured him—it was so dense that he couldn’t see his own legs. He was weightless and bodiless, floating up through the impossible fog.
No. He wasn’t simply floating. He was soaring, the mists becoming clouds and the chill air turning into wind.
He must be in another vision. This time, however, the spirits hadn’t given any warning before they whisked him away.
Feeling disoriented, he tried to stretch his arms out for balance—but a pair of magnificent jade wings spread out from him instead.
I’ve become a bird!
As he soared through the sky, a long coastline appeared. A salty sea breeze swept over him as cerulean ocean waves crashed against the shore. The land felt like home, and yet at the edge of the beach loomed a dark gray structure, an edifice that had no place in Ionia.
Is that… is that a monument of some kind? If it hadn’t been for the precise construction, it could have been taken for a mountain. As he flew closer, he saw it was three monstrous towers, each one of incredible size, sharing a single base.
This cannot possibly be the craftsmanship of mortals.
Yi had never seen anything like this. The towers were made of thousands of large stones, polished and carved into perfect blocks, each the height of a grown swordsman.
A flock of vibrantly colored birds burst from the clouds and glided toward the fortress. Unsure if it was by his own volition, Yi winged over to join them, flying with great speed.
He followed a bright red bird, dashing between the three towers. The bird left Yi behind as it dived for the base of the structure, tumbling as it landed. As it stood, it took the shape of a man—the crimson-eyed Master Doran. He beckoned as he peered up at Yi, still spiraling overhead.
Yi landed on Doran’s shoulder, then lightly tumbled to the ground. As he regained his feet, he discovered that his human legs had returned, along with the rest of his body.
“It appears you can fly,” Doran said.
Invigorated, Yi said breathlessly, “Master Doran—”
But Doran shook his head. “No. He is but a form I’ve taken.”
He said no more, and Yi blinked. Why would this spirit take the form of Doran, of all people?
He stretched his back, and his gaze fell on the massive towers. “What is this place?”
“You call it Bahrl.” The spirit who looked like Doran pointed at the snakelike coastline, where a squad of warriors armed with pikes and glaives patrolled the beach. Their weapons and armor looked foreign. “They call it the Other Shore. We call it home.”
“Who are they? And who is this we?”
Yi turned to look at the spirit, but he was already gone. Only a few red and white feathers remained.
Yi wanted to leave this vision as he had the last one, but before he could start meditating, a loud, rhythmic noise came from far away—the loudest he had ever heard. It was the clanging of metal and the cries of men. His curiosity piqued, he followed the sound to its source.
As Yi passed by the huge towers, it became even more apparent that their size defied reality. Each tower could house the entire Wuju village and more. But why would anyone build houses so large and ugly? It made no sense.
Lost in his thoughts, Yi almost bumped into a burly passerby. He wore a shining metal helmet, yet his chest was bare, and he wielded a strange-looking halberd.
Just like the villagers in Yi’s previous vision, the people of this vision didn’t pay him much mind. The foreign man paused briefly, then continued on his way. There were a few other warriors patrolling the area, radiating a resolute air of strength. They also let Yi pass.
As Yi approached an earthen rampart, the noise became deafening. He could hear war drums pounding, punctuated by shouting.
Yi swallowed as he climbed up the rampart, and carefully craned his neck so he could see what lay beyond.
Thousands of soldiers packed a large, open square, easily outnumbering the people of Wuju. Their rows were as neat as their war banners, and they were geared with all sorts of different equipment. Some had spiked steel plate armor, some donned thick animal hides, and some wore only thin cloth robes. Though these soldiers were disparate in appearance, they were united in purpose, beating their chests in rhythm with the drums and their war cries.
“Tell me, disciple of Wuju,” a cold voice called from behind him. “What do you see?”
Yi gripped his sheath and spun around, only to see the crimson-eyed spirit standing at the bottom of the rampart. He climbed up level with Yi and placed his hands lightly upon the top of the earthwork.
“Give me your first impressions,” the spirit said.
Yi retorted with questions of his own. “Who are they? Why are you showing me this?”
But the spirit did not yield. “The first word,” he pressed. “The first one that comes to mind.”
“The first word…” Yi gazed at the sea of warriors again. “Strength,” he said finally.
“Strength. Where do you see strength?”
“Where?” Yi scratched his head. “Each warrior possesses the ferocity of the tiger, the strength of the great bears. They wield sharp blades and shining armor. Their call roars across these beaches—”
“So that is what you see. Ah, child. This is why you are here.” The spirit’s expression darkened as he nodded. He pointed behind the young swordsman. “The direction of your gaze is mistaken. The harder you train, the further you will be from your goal.”
Yi turned to look behind him. But before he could see anything, the spirit shoved him, knocking him from the rampart so he tumbled to the ground, which was now impossibly far below. Even knowing he was in a vision, Yi couldn’t help but cry out in shock.
He squeezed his eyes shut as the ground rushed up toward him.
When he reopened them, he was sitting down, thick mist swirling around him, the bamboo basket at his back. He suspected he was back in Mistfall, but he pinched his earlobes—he had to be sure that he had left the vision. Once he was satisfied, he looked to the sky.
“Why can’t he just leave me alone?” Yi groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. “And what in the world was he talking about?”
As Yi wiped the sweat off his brow and heaved a few sighs of relief, Doran came hobbling out of the fog, hugging something in his arms. He looked up and down at Yi.
“Hey, kid, what happened? Why are you sitting down?” The weaponsmith held an oddly shaped sword with an undulating, snakelike blade. This was probably the Placidium flamberge he had been looking for.
“Master Doran,” Yi said. “When you came here with my master, did you encounter anything strange?”
“Here in the fog?” Doran squinted his eyes. “What trouble have you gotten into?”
Unsure how to explain, Yi stood up and shook his head, slinging the bamboo basket over his shoulders. “I’m just worried that this place might not be safe. The mist has only grown thicker since we arrived.”
“Oh, no need to worry,” Doran replied as he stuck the flamberge into the ground. “The mist will soon disperse. And we will be safe as long as we leave before it sets in again.”
“The mist will disperse? Why?”
“Every four seasons, there is one sundown when the mists recede. That is today, during this very sundown.”
Just then, Yi noticed that the air was losing its chill. Within moments, the mist thinned out at astonishing speed.
Doran put a finger on his lips, motioning for Yi to stay silent. Just as the sun touched the zenith of a faraway mountain, the entire valley was laid bare. Yi clasped his hands over his mouth and took a huge breath, unable to believe the scene unfolding before him.“Why does the mist disperse?” Doran rested his hands on the hilt of the flamberge. “Maybe the spirits here are commemorating that one momentous sunset, countless summers ago…”
In all his fifteen summers, the fiercest combat Yi had witnessed was when a hunter fought a wild boar. The former lost a finger while the latter lost its head. As far as Yi knew, Ionia had always been a pure and peaceful land, representing harmony. Yet, what lay before him exuded a foul aura. It was completely at odds with the Ionia that Yi knew.
Countless blades were stuck in the ground. Starting from just ten paces away, the vast ocean of weapons spread to the foot of the distant mountains, washing over the valley. At the center were ten large claymores. Actually, it would be wrong to call them large. They were gargantuan. With the tips of the swords buried underground, Yi couldn’t determine their full scale. The hilts alone were the height of a grown swordsman, and just the visible portions of the blades were the height of seven or eight, like the Great Pagoda of Wuju.
“This was the site of an ancient battle.” Doran patted Yi on the shoulder. “The combatants left their weapons here. The spirits protect each and every one, helping them resist the corrosion of time. As the eons went by, this became a sacred land. Over time, those who vowed never again to participate in the violence and bloodshed of war started coming here to leave their blades as well.”
Yi looked around. “I’ve never heard of a place like this…”
“What I speak of happened a long, long time ago. Some of these weapons might be older than your oldest ancestors. Nowadays, there is hardly anyone left who still remembers this tradition. And of those who do, most choose not to disturb the spirits.”
“Then why do you come here, Master Doran?”
“It used to be rumored that Mistfall’s spirits would bless weapons with power in combat. When I finally found my way here, I discovered the truth was just the opposite. The ancient battle ripped apart the balance in this place. That’s why the spirits in the valley hate violence. While they do bless weapons, their blessings lose their effect the moment the blades are used for bloodshed. Most swordsmiths stopped coming after they realized this. I’m the only one who has been able to win blessings that last. Have you figured out why?”
Yi nodded. “It’s because you only craft swords for Wuju bladesmen, and we abstain from bloodshed and killing.”
“That’s right. That’s exactly why I remained in Wuju. All my life, I’ve wanted to create the best blades in the world—but not for battle. And only you Wuju bladesmen see weapons the same way.” Doran gestured at the bamboo basket on Yi’s back. “Oh, you can put that down now.”
Yi gladly removed the heavy load from his shoulders.
“We’ll plant those here today to be blessed—that includes the blade I made for you. Then I’ll retrieve the swords I left behind last time.”
The two walked deeper into the valley. As they got closer to the center of the battlefield, there were other kinds of weapons in the ground. While some resembled conventional blades, their dimensions were either too large or too small for Yi to wield, and the ones that he could wield had forms he’d never seen before. Yi marveled at who could have used them.
“Look! Here we are. My garden!”
Doran was pointing at a single-edged sword with a magnificent cross guard. The weapon was fit for a human swordsman, and looked much newer than the others—as if it had been forged yesterday.
Upon closer inspection, Yi noticed something even more interesting—a paper amulet was dangling from the hilt on a thin red string. In fact, quite a few swords in the ground had paper amulets as well. Amulets were usually used for prayers and blessings. This was the first time Yi had seen them attached to weapons.
Doran carefully pulled the single-edged sword out of the soil and removed the amulet, delicately placing the paper on the ground. After scrutinizing the blade, he turned to another sword stuck in the ground, and began this process once again, like a farmer harvesting his crops.
Like transplanting rice stalks, Yi mused. He rolled up his sleeves and grasped the hilt of a long sword with an amulet.
“Don’t touch that!” Doran shouted. “That was left behind by another swordsmith. It has been here for some time now. Leave it in the ground.”
Yi released the weapon, but he accidentally unraveled the red string attaching the amulet to the hilt. He picked up the paper, reading the Ionian text written on it—a simple poem.
Deafening thunder in spring;
Torrential rains in summer;
Easterly gales in autumn;
Flying snow in winter.
Yi furrowed his brow. “What is this?”
The older man looked up as he opened the basket. “That’s a poem the swordsmith wrote. What do you think?”
Yi took a closer look—the writer’s skill with calligraphy and poetry was definitely above average. Still, it read more like a toast than a poem. “It’s adequate. But what’s the purpose of writing poems here?”
“We write poems to honor the spirits.” As he knelt down, Doran took a large sip of water, then reached into his satchel and pulled out a calligraphy brush coated in dried ink. He dabbed it on his tongue. “If the spirits in Wuju can understand poetry, why not the spirits here?” Doran motioned to the three blank amulets on the ground before him. “The swordsmiths who asked me to drop off their swords prepared their amulets in advance, so I just have to write the poems for mine.”
“Master Doran, you’re going to write poems? Does this mean you actually study poetry?” Yi walked over as Doran began to write. “So you were just teasing me when you said you had no idea who Buxii was.”
The artisan gave him a sly grin. His calligraphy was unrestrained, with audacious strokes sweeping across the paper. A lengthy verse quickly took form.
“Let’s have a look.” Yi bent down and read aloud. “No wars today, just a sip of wine to wash down duck eggs. Tastes yummy—” He couldn’t contain his outrage. “Doran! Master! What are you writing?”
Doran stroked his beard with pride. “Do you like it?”
“This isn’t even poetry!” Yi gesticulated wildly. “There’s no rhythm, no rhyme, the lines don’t relate, and even the basic format of a poem is nowhere to be found!”
“The most important part of a poem is the feeling, not the form.” Doran grinned as he jabbed a finger at his chest. “It’s the theme of the heart. Rhythm and rhyme are only the flourishes decorating a poem.”
Yi stared blankly at him. “But—what you just wrote. Where are the feelings and themes?”
“This is my experience of war.” Doran gazed at the amulet. “When you’re an old man like me, who has witnessed bloodshed and killing, you’ll understand why a sip of wine alongside a duck egg is worthy of poetry and praise.”
Yi raised an eyebrow, turning to the other weapons with amulets. Did these swordsmiths write questionable poetry as well?
He approached another sword and read its amulet. “Indefatigable horrors and demons, alongside inexhaustible evils and villains…”
This poem was attached to a ceremonial blade, not intended for combat. Based on the verse, Yi suspected it belonged to an adjudicator or roaming swordsman.
Doran, still immersed in his own writing, glanced at the young man. “Oh, that one’s by Laka. She’s famous at the Placidium. Her swords cost a fortune.”
Yi had never been to the Placidium of Navori, though he’d heard merchants call it a sanctuary. Perhaps it was slightly bigger than Wuju?
He moved on to another ceremonial blade, this one used as a cane. A cooling fragrance of insect-repelling mint emanated from its teakwood handle.
Blind faith ruins minds;
Blind loyalty ruins lives.
When the butcher’s knife strikes the ground,
All are wounded, and the self is destroyed.
Yi was only halfway through reading the verse when Doran interrupted. “That would be Morya. He always uses the best materials for the stingiest of clients—priests, monks, and the like. He only gets poorer with every weapon he crafts. He still owes me money!”
Doran gestured with his brush to a spot near Yi. “Oh, right! Take a look at that one! That’s a good one!”
Yi spun around to find the sword Doran had indicated: a greatsword with a serrated edge, with a tiny blue amulet hanging from the hilt.
The text on the amulet was in a foreign language. Yi couldn’t read any of it except for the signature at the end. Lear, scrawled in Ionian.
“Lear is an absolute genius. He lives on the southern isles, and has even been to Zaun,” Doran said.
After reading amulet after amulet, Yi let out a relieved sigh. It seemed that Doran was the only person in all of Mistfall who wrote such non-poetic poems.
Yi turned to the older man. “Master Doran, the works of the others at least resemble poetry. You’re the only one who’s careless.”
Doran paused his brush. “Careless?”
“Feelings are important, but a poem is defined by its form.” Yi spoke with utmost seriousness. “If you’re going to write poetry, you should follow tradition. This is but basic courtesy and respect to the spirits.”
“Interesting.” Doran smiled. “Your master once said the same thing to me… and he wasn’t even the Wuju leader back then.”
“That’s because we’re both Wuju swordsmen.” Yi puffed out his chest. “It’s our duty to protect the old ways. As such, it is my duty to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong.” Yi looked around him. “No, your poetry isn’t the real problem. The fact that we’re here—that’s the problem. Master Doran, you are disturbing these spirits for your selfish hope of crafting better swords.”
“Both Wuju swordsmen…” Doran nodded. “How much do you really understand of Wuju?”
Yi’s frustration finally boiled over. He hid his clenched right fist behind his back and spoke with a voice that trembled with suppressed fury.
“I’ve indeed only been training for four seasons, and barely understand the art of Wuju. But what do you know? You may be a respected weaponsmith, but you have never been through a single day of swordsmanship training, have you? Who are you to question my understanding?”
Doran was undaunted. “Heh, interesting. Why do I have to understand swordsmanship? You’re the one who’s supposed to be training today.”
Disbelieving his ears, Yi took half a step forward. “Training? You’ve been making me climb mountains, rest, search for swords. So when exactly is the training going to start?!”
Doran was silent for a while, before finally setting his brush on the ground. “Your master told me that the most vital knowledge cannot be taught with words. It can only be learned through epiphany. It was at this very place, years ago, that he found the answers he had been seeking.”
The young man froze. The weaponsmith was referring to one of the Seven Fundamental Doctrines of Wuju, The Stunted Flower Blooms Best in Rain. He waited for Doran to continue.
“I have no idea how you Wuju bladesmen train. That’s why I asked you how much you have understood thus far.” Doran paused. “Or have you learned nothing at all?”
Embarrassed, Yi looked away. “My apologies, Master Doran. Did Master Hurong tell you how he reached his epiphany?”
“I didn’t ask, but he left behind a poem at the time.” Doran pointed behind Yi, at an enormous greatsword that towered over the battlefield. “It’s on that sword over there.”
Yi hesitantly made his way to the greatsword. Covered with notches and cracks, the giant blade was damaged beyond repair… however, given its incredible size, a sharp edge wasn’t really needed.
Not seeing any poem, Yi took a few steps to the side to get a better view. He then noticed that the blade was gleaming—the sword appeared to be made of some sort of glass. Curious, Yi stretched out his hand, lightly touching the brilliant shimmer of reflected light.He blinked.
A thunderous rumble shook the valley as the gargantuan sword was drawn out of the ground.
Yi took a step back, dumbfounded. Ten giants, each the size of a small mountain, stood before him. They were clad in golden armor and strange helmets, and where eyes should have been, two blazing orbs flared, flashing with a sinister glow. Their gigantic swords reflected the rays of the setting sun. In their regalia, holding stalwart stances, they looked like gods descended from the heavens.
Farther away, among the foothills, another fifty giants were slowly making their way over. Holding massive weapons, they stopped and stood still as if awaiting an order.
Hearing a commotion behind him, Yi turned around, only to be greeted by a sea of faces.
At first, they looked familiar—they were villagers from Wuju, except they were hazier, less distinct, and they began to melt like a watercolor painting in the rain.
But then their features became clearer, and Yi realized that these were people unlike any he had encountered before—they had feathers all over their backs, or only three fingers, or green skin. They were tall, with fit physiques. Colorful clothes, some with the appearance of lustrous scales, draped across their lithe frames.
He stood transfixed. “What—what are they?” he breathed.
Yi had no idea when the spirit who looked like Doran had appeared beside him, but there he was, responding coldly with his crimson-eyed stare. “You called them—you called us—the Vastayashai’rei.”
Yi had never heard this long and cumbersome name before. He regarded the spirit, whose outfit made him resemble a crane standing on two feet.
The spirit gestured to the Vastayashai’rei. “We were the victors of this battle.”
Yi’s gaze fell on the army of giants. “How could you possibly have won against these monsters?”
The spirit did not answer.
Ten elders—or what Yi assumed were elders, among these strange beings—emerged from the Vastayashai’rei’s ranks. One made her way to the front, resting one palm over the other and raising her arms above her head. She slammed her hands down on the ground, and the whole valley shook as a fissure tore toward the giants. A deep chasm now separated the two armies.
At the same time, the other nine elders invoked their magic. Some began to dance as others sat cross-legged, and howling gales and a foreboding blanket of dark clouds descended on the battlefield. Thunder roared as lightning flashed across the sky. Standing at the edge of the fissure, another elder conjured a mass of vines, enormous tangles bursting from the earth, intertwining to form a wall the height of six swordsmen.
Such power over the elements was unheard of except in myth. Yi knew he was in a vision, but he couldn’t help but feel awed.
“What do you see now?” the spirit asked. “Is this strength?”
Yi nodded. “Yes, this is strength.”
“Yet we’re equipped with neither sturdy armor nor powerful weapons, nor are we shouting with the fervor of a bloodthirsty army. Where do you see strength?”
“You are conjuring winds, and calling storms, and parting the earth itself. If that’s not strength, what is?”
The spirit pointed at the giants. “You asked me how one could win in a battle against these monsters. The question should be, how will these giants contend with the divine powers that created this very land?”
The behemoths were undaunted by the Vastayashai’rei’s mastery of magic. They threw back their heads and howled with glee, the ten lead giants raising their massive swords and charging. With their sheer size, they seemed like a mountain range crashing toward the Vastayashai’rei.
Yet the Vastayashai’rei did not flinch. The elders advanced as the ranks behind them followed. Some of them bent low and sprang forward, transforming into vulkodalks, scaled snappers, and wolves, the beasts dashing past Yi. Others took to the skies, shifting into avian forms as they soared through the air like arrows. In a flash, the Vastayashai’rei became a stampede hunting down their prey.
The giants were surprisingly nimble. They leapt over the fissure, easily clearing the wall of vines behind it, and dived straight into the pack of beasts.
Each swing of their swords was an unstoppable force. The vanguard of avian warriors fell in waves. Undeterred, their brethren beat their wings, casting enchanted blades of wind at their enemies, gouging shallow lines of red in the gaps between their armor. These strikes would normally cleave a person in two, yet they barely slowed the giants.
The Vastayashai’rei’s ground forces were just as fearless. Several scaled snappers charged the giants, using their bulk to knock them down, while vulkodalks tore into their foes with horns and razor-sharp teeth.
Enormous trees ripped from the earth, sharpened like stakes, their branches cracking like whips. Thunder roiled, and massive bolts of lightning struck with divine fury, blasting craters in the ground. Yet even this apocalyptic scene did not deter the giants. As vines snared their feet, and beasts clambered over them, and some were even brought to their knees and slain, they still continued to fight, and howl, and press forward. They seemed emboldened, increasing their momentum, treading on countless corpses as they tore an opening in the ranks of the bestial army.
The smell of blood wafted through the air, its tang seeming real.
In that moment, one giant noticed Yi’s presence. His fiery eyes glaring, the behemoth headed straight for him. Stunned, the young swordsman retreated a step back, assuming a defensive stance.
As the giant bore down on him, the spirit rested his hand on the sheath of Yi’s sword.
“Winds and rain. Thunder and lightning. Avalanches. Even the body itself. All are mere forms. If you can find their essence, all forms are but a stone’s throw away. That also includes imbuing your blade with power.”
As the spirit spoke, the giant’s footsteps slowed, as did the assault of the Vastayashai’rei. Even the lightning became sluggish, as everything around Yi crawled to a standstill.
Realization dawned on him. “You mean—”
“Wuju style.” The spirit nodded. “Wuju style draws power from the spirit realm. That’s also how the Vastayashai’rei changed their shapes, and manipulated the elements. The only difference is in the degree of power used. I have no idea who founded Wuju style, but they must have been a remarkable mage.”
“That’s impossible!” Yi exclaimed. “We’re swordsmen, not mages.”
“Forms! It doesn’t matter if they’re known as mages, priests, or monks. Those are all merely adopted forms,” the spirit said, exasperated. “The heart of Wuju is magic. The heart of the Wuju school is the people who wield this magic. Every martial stance, every poem, every meditation that you have studied, they all exist for the sake of this magic.”
Yi wanted to refute the spirit—precision in form was an essential part of Wuju!—when suddenly he realized this wasn’t a debate. This spirit was obviously guiding him in the art of Wuju. This had to be the training his master had spoken of!
“Then how do I use this magic?” Yi said. “I have no issues with my swordsmanship and meditation, so why am I failing to draw power from the spirit realm?”
“The issue lies precisely in your bladesmanship and meditation.”
The spirit took the hilt of Yi’s sword and drew the unedged blade, shifting through several stances with the grace of a master. Yi assumed he would demonstrate a few moves, but instead the spirit snapped the sword in two, and tossed it to the ground.
“The sword is not the bearer of the magic. You are. By focusing too much on your swordsmanship and meditation, you are directing all your attention to these useless forms. This is exactly why you lack the instinct every Wuju swordsman should have.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Forget the sword. Forget the enemy. Forget all of your master’s teachings,” the spirit said. “Even in the moment of contact with the spirit realm, forget that you are meditating. Stop wondering if your every move is right or wrong.”
Suddenly, the battle roared back into chaos. The giant picked up speed as he resumed striding toward Yi, raising his sword. And he had nothing but a wooden sheath to defend himself.
“It’s your turn now.” The spirit took a step back. “Ask yourself: how will you defeat an enemy whose strength so severely outmatches your own?”
Yi drew the sheath like a sword and readied his stance, taking shallow breaths.
The giant’s steps shook the ground. This is only a vision, Yi reminded himself, yet he could barely stabilize his breathing.
He felt the magic of the spirit realm surging around him, like a mighty river. In the past, when he had tried to draw this power into his sword, it had eluded him.
Yet the sword was just a form. So was the sheath.
So am I.
How will I defeat an enemy whose strength so severely outmatches my own?
By becoming the river.
The monster swung his sword in a mighty blow.
Almost entirely by instinct, Yi raised his sheath to block the attack. As sheath clashed with sword, the force of the impact reverberated through his entire body. Yet he remained standing. Not only had he withstood the blow, but his flimsy wooden sheath had somehow cut a notch in the giant’s massive weapon.
Encouraged, Yi switched his stance and swung the sheath diagonally at the sword, tearing a gash into it. The giant hesitated, then pulled his weapon back to examine it. Upon seeing the damage to the blade, he bellowed in rage and astonishment. The fiery orbs of his eyes dimmed underneath his helm.
Yi also couldn’t believe what was happening. He gently ran his index finger along the side of the sheath. There wasn’t a single crack or splinter—but it sliced open his fingertip, as though possessing a sharp edge.
“Do you feel it?” The spirit stepped forward and grasped Yi’s hand, holding up his bloody finger. “This power at your command?”
“Remember this feeling, and direct it from beneath your feet to your target.” The spirit gestured to the giant. “Attack with your heart and your body, not your blade.”
Though the spirit still spoke in the language of forms, Yi now understood.
The spirit stepped back just as the giant once again attacked. This time, he knelt down, sweeping his sword near the ground like a sickle harvesting crops.
Now Yi was completely focused. He held his breath, got down on one knee, and raised his arms over his head, shielding his upper body with the sheath—he had never understood the purpose of this stance during his training, but a curtain had lifted, giving him clarity.
Just as the giant’s sword was about to make contact, Yi leapt to his feet, his weapon before him. He dashed with the force of a tsunami, throwing himself against the giant’s attack, sheath slicing toward the sword.
By the time Yi closed his stance and stowed his weapon, the severed half of the giant’s blade had plummeted to the earth like a kite with a broken string.
Thrown by his momentum, the giant crashed to the ground. Just as he started to stand, a bolt of lightning struck him in the back, and dozens of Vastayashai’rei swarmed over him. The behemoth’s eyes showed fury… and fear.
Yi stared at his hands, shaking his head in wonder. “I feel like I can cut through a mountain!”
The spirit nodded. “No armor can withstand attacks by master Wuju swordsmen. As long as you draw enough power, you can indeed sunder a mountain, a forest, or even the entire world.”
Yi was so excited that he clenched his fist and almost started to dance. Seeing this, the spirit quickly cleared his throat. “But remember, this is all a vision.”
“Um, yes, of course.” Yi frowned. What an odd thing for a spirit to say.
“There’s a limit to the amount of power humans can draw from the spirit realm. Thus…” A grin appeared on the spirit’s face. “If you really meet an opponent like this, I suggest you run. You’ll probably fail to slice off even a toenail.”
“Definitely.” Yi rubbed the back of his head. “I understand.” After all, Bahrl was a peaceful place. He’d have no need to sunder such foes.
“I’ve seen many Wuju disciples, but you stand out. Don’t waste your life pursuing useless endeavors.” The spirit gently rested his hands on Yi’s shoulders, assessing him. “I’ll teach you something else, if you’d like.”
Yi’s eyes brightened. “Yes!”“You grew up in Bahrl, so—”
Yi was suddenly back in Mistfall, staring at the giant blade planted in the ground.
He was drenched in water—water from Doran’s waterskin, which he had just thrown at his face.
“I shook you a couple of times to no avail, so I had to resort to this.” Doran smiled as he handed Yi the skin. “Come, have a drink. You’ll feel better.”
Yi looked up at the sky, letting out a huge sigh. “Gods! Master! Couldn’t you have waited just a moment longer?!”
“Oh?” Doran said. “Were you about to slay the giant, or what?”
“I was just about to learn…” Yi froze. “Wait! Master Doran, you—you’ve seen the vision as well, haven’t you? The battle with the giants?”
“I’ve heard your master speak of it. It seems that you Wuju bladesmen are the only ones who encounter such visions in this place.” Doran leaned forward. “You seem excited. I suppose you discovered something?”
Yi lowered his gaze to his sheath, and drew his unedged sword. He stood before the massive blade, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath with the devotion of a priest at prayer. After a few moments, he raised his sword and swung it, magic coursing through the weapon. So great was his strength that he cleaved through the giant’s sword. Only a shard remained in the earth.
Doran drew a sharp breath. “Whoa!”
“How’s that?” An almost smug grin crept across Yi’s face.
“Who have you been talking to?” Doran said, raising an eyebrow.
Yi was about to tell him that it was a spirit in his likeness, but inspiration suddenly struck. “Master Doran! Could I borrow your brush?”
Doran turned to fetch the ink-soaked brush, and handed it over to Yi. “Why? Are you going to write a poem about your feelings like your master did?”
Yi weighed the brush in his hands before returning to the remnant of the giant’s sword in the ground. Before he began, he ran his palm over it, catching sight of what seemed to be traces of ink—the wind and rain would erase all hints of any calligraphy one were to write here. But that didn’t matter. Whatever he wrote wasn’t meant for the eyes of other visitors.
“The poem my master wrote wasn’t about his feelings,” Yi said as he penned his first word. “It was about his gratitude.”
By the time Yi had finished writing, Doran had packed up the swords in the bamboo basket, and was about to lift it onto his shoulders. Yi rushed over to take the burden himself, but Doran stopped him.
“I’ll carry it. After all, your training today is completed.”
Yi nodded. He looked at the blades Doran was leaving behind to be blessed.
“Master, which one is my blade?”
“None of them. The blade I crafted for you will go to a junior disciple instead.”
“What?” Yi couldn’t believe it. “Junior? Which junior?”
Doran snorted, turned, and walked away, leaving Yi behind.
Yi ran after him. “But why, master?”
The old weaponsmith sighed in bemusement, muttering words only he could hear.“It’s no longer worthy of you, kid.”