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Hadjar had understood from the very beginning that things had gotten out of hand, and his plan wouldn’t be easy to implement. It had been foolish to expect that he could just become a disciple of the Master, the same way he’d done with South Wind.
You could ‘talk’ to scholars, prove you were intelligent, but warriors were people of action. They required a demonstration of something else.
Alas, in that regard, the Prince had nothing to give. He didn’t possess innate martial arts skills. He wasn’t one of the legendary adepts who’d been born with their meridians or nodes already open.
He didn’t have on of those divine physiques that would allow a five-year-old child to lift a grown horse into the air. And, of course, he hadn’t been born with innate techniques, whatever the word “technique” even meant.
Nevertheless, he’d hoped that he would be able to overcome these obstacles using sheer stubbornness. As he’d always done. Stubbornness was Hadjar’s main strength. He’d never stopped until he’d reached his goal in his previous life, and he wasn’t going to stop now. Pain, boredom or loneliness didn’t matter. If he had a goal, he would find a way to achieve it.
That was why, feeling the tidal wave of pain in his chest, he regretted only the cup that had fallen. Some water had leaked out and onto the sand, which meant he’d have to do everything over, from the beginning. Only after thinking about this did he pay attention to the messages from the neuronet.
[Critical message: …]
It was urgently warning him about a danger to the host, in the form of sharp pieces of metal.
Wait, what? Pieces of metal?!
Hadjar, twisting his head, noticed that he was flying directly toward the sword rack. Damn it, he might not get his second chance now! He was going to become a bloody kebab, and not the adept hero he’d fantasized about!
The Prince waved his hands as hard as he could, but this obviously didn’t halt his flight. The swords, reflecting the sun’s rays, were already close to his face, when suddenly, he felt a gust of wind.
It got tangled in his clothes, then rested in his hair. What had it brought him this time? The story of some distant country; the shadow of many great battles; perhaps the tale of amazing heroes and villains alike?
No, this time, it brought him peace.
If, at that moment, someone had been looking not at the Master or the Queen, but at Hadjar, they would’ve seen a complete absence of fear on the boy’s face. He flew towards the swords as calmly as a sparrow would toward the branch of a birch tree on a clear summer’s day.
When he landed right on the blades of all those swords, Elizabeth’s cry flooded the parade ground. The Master could already hear the executioner sharpening the guillotine which would cut off his head. Or the angry Queen would just finish him off herself, right then and there. It didn’t matter that she was weaker than him. An angry mother who’d lost her child was easily as scary as a wounded tigress.
And yet, the Master was unable to see the inevitable fountain of blood. He couldn’t even see one drop.
The swords fell to the sand with a ringing noise, and Hadjar stood among them as if they were merely a harmless rain. He looked at the falling blades and couldn’t help but feel surprised. The sunlight ran along the polished blades and it was a beautiful sight to behold. The ringing of steel sounded better than his music back on Earth ever had.
Suddenly, he stretched out his hand, and the handle of the lightest and thinnest dagger rested itself in his palm. It was a flexible, short cutlass.
This “toothpick” seemed like a gigantic broadsword, in the grip a two-year-old boy. However, Hadjar took hold of it firmly, and at the same time, he did so with ease, his grip both careful and powerful.
The Master and the Queen stood nearby. They froze, trying to understand what they’d seen.
The warriors stopped in their tracks, as well. Even the clumsy soldier who had kicked the Prince could come away from the wall and look at what was happening, though blood was running down his face.
The swords fell to the ground, but not a drop of blood left Hadjar’s body. He stood, lost somewhere deep within himself, holding the dagger which had become his first sword.
Elizabeth had wanted to go to her child, but the Master stopped her in time.
“A moment of inspiration.” He whispered as if that meant something.
But since these few words stopped the angry and worried mother in her tracks, they must’ve carried a really amazing meaning. More than a thousand people watched the young boy. He stood there calmly, serenely turning his face toward the East wind.
Suddenly, Hadjar opened his eyes, and they lit up for a moment with a beautiful, clear light. Afterward, he took a small step forward and swung his blade lightly. In response, the wind blew and a crescent moon, barely perceptible to the eye, rushed out from the tip of the blade. It was only visible thanks to the windswept sand.
The sword strike hit the wall and left a small cut on it. It was no longer than Hadjar’s little finger and no thicker than a woman’s hair. But it was still there.
That strike had been performed at a distance of two steps.
By a two-year-old child who hadn’t touched a sword before.
[Attack made: … analysis of the attack is not possible… recording the attack is not possible… error: [email protected]%!/5]
“Let the demons curse me,” the Master exhaled. “And let the center of my power go back to the endless universe if that isn’t ‘One with the Sword’”
“One with the Sword,” Elizabeth repeated. “Is my son in the One with the Sword stage?”
Suddenly, the old man fell to his knees and touched the Queen’s feet with his forehead.
“Your Highness, please let me take the Prince as my disciple.”
This time, none of the soldiers allowed themselves to even think about class inequality. Who would dare call it such, after what had happened? To do so would mean that such a person lacked not only a heart, but also a brain as well.
Many of those who walked the Way of the Sword spent decades to acquire the skill “One with the Sword”. Only a second and a threat to his life had been enough for Hadjar. If geniuses existed, Hadjar wasn’t one.
He was a monster, hiding in the body of a two-year-old.
Alarm, followed by resignation, and then determination all quickly flitted across Elizabeth’s face.
“If a carp has turned into a dragon, it is impossible to turn that dragon back into a carp again”, she said, quoting the old saying of her people sorrowfully. “Rise, venerable Master.”
The old man stood up, but didn’t dare to look back at Elizabeth.
“I think South Wind is going to try and stop this, but if you can work it out with him, then you have my permission to teach Hadjar.”
After speaking, the Queen ran to her son and scooped him up in a crushing embrace. The boy, dropping the dagger, closed his eyes and… fell asleep. It had been too hard for his body and mind to bear this exhausting adventure. And though he didn’t fully understand what had happened, at that moment, while falling asleep, Hadjar knew one thing – he’d achieved his goal.
Now, not only would the best scholar of the Kingdom be teaching him, but also the best martial arts instructor as well!
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Four years passed, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Hadjar lay on the hot sand, enthusiastically doing push-ups with two boulders weighing a bit over 20 pounds each on his back.
South Wind sat in the shade. He was fanning himself with a white fan and constantly adjusting his white robes.
“Where can I find the trees of Five Lives?”
“In the valley near the river Buffalo,” Hadjar replied, mentally counting his third set of ten repetitions.
“Which star will lead you to the mountain of Loud Whispers?”
“The fifth one from the constellation of the Bow.”
South Wind nodded and turned to the nearby Master. He closed his eyes, muttering something under his breath.
“Now it’s your turn,” the scholar said, hurrying him along.
He couldn’t wait to continue his examination, but he could only do it when it was his turn. That was their agreement.
“How many have you done, Prince?” The old man asked as he approached the sweaty boy who was grinding his teeth from the strain.
“Thirty-two… three-and-and–and-and-and thirty thre-eee,” Hadjar counted out, barely able to do so.
“Excellent,” the Master nodded.
He walked over to the flat cobblestones, which were the same as the two that were currently on the Prince’s back. The Master had personally carved them out of stone that the northern wind had batted against for two hundred years. Its energy permeated the rock and that would supposedly strengthen the Prince’s weak body.
No matter how proud the Master was of his apprentice, he had to admit this simple fact. As strong as Hadjar’s spirit and skills with the sword were, his body was equally weak.
As if a hero’s soul had been placed in a peasant’s body.
The heavens had been surprisingly unfair to the Prince, but his tenacity could overcome even their will.
“Then you could probably use a little help,” and then, saying that, the Master put another cobblestone on Hadjar’s back.
The weight of the stones was over sixty pounds now, and sweat rolled down the Prince’s forehead. His elbows were trembling, and each new repetition caused him unthinkable pain. But this was the only way he could reach the required level by the age of sixteen and take the exam of the Black Gates sect.
Even if he were to take just a moment to relax, he would end up forever stuck as the Prince of a small Kingdom on the outskirts of this boundless world. And he could forget about his freedom, adventure, and the wind that was calling out to him from the distance.
“Name the three stages of sword mastery,” the Scholar suddenly asked.
The Master nodded his approval.
“It’s ‘One with the Sword,’ followed by ‘One with the World.’ Finally, ‘Wielder of the Sword.’”
“That is why not everyone can say that they mastered a sword or spear,” the Master explained. “Many people are only able to truly master their weapons after reaching the stage of Heaven Soldier.”
Many people had to work hard on their weapon skills, but Hadjar was different. It turned out that he did have one talent. And while fate had given him a weak body, his talent for the sword arts was difficult to overestimate. At the age of two, he’d been able to reach the ‘One with the Sword’ stage. He could feel his blade as well as his arms and legs, it was an extension of him.
He had possessed this skill almost from birth, while other people would be forced to study for years and grasp the skill through sweat and pain.
It was kind of funny since he might never have found this out if it hadn’t been for that one event that had left a bruise on his chest.
With his skill, he had earned the envy of many courtiers, who were so-called ‘geniuses.’ Some of them had also achieved unity with their swords at an early age, that is to say, around the age of twenty.
“’One with the Sword’ can hit an enemy that’s up to five steps away,” the Master recounted. “’One with the World’ can use the energy of the world itself, and combine it with a blade to hit an enemy at a distance of twenty steps. Those who have fully mastered the sword no longer have need of it. The sword is in them, and everything around them becomes a sword. They see the Spirit of the Sword everywhere, even in a leaf or a drop of water. And they can hit an enemy with that Spirit at a distance of fifty paces.”
It sounded like an old, Eastern fairy tale from back on Earth, but this was actually an achievable goal for Hadjar. After all, he’d seen with his own eyes how the Master’s sword strike had cut a wooden doll at a distance of sixteen steps.
And so, combining his lectures with physical exercise, Hadjar spent the rest of the day trying to grow stronger. And the next day mimicked the previous one. And the day that came after it was also the same.
In any case, this was how it had to be.
Meanwhile, Primus rode in on a horse, passing by the 600-feet-tall lion-guards (majestic statues of stone and copper) at the Palace gates.
He was in a hurry to deliver some wonderful news. News that promised many riches, news that would bring great trouble with them, and change Hadjar’s fate and the destiny of the whole Kingdom forever.