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Despite Hadjar’s fears, another year passed without incident. A few of his parents’ quarrels led to Elaine being moved to his chambers.
Not because they didn’t have vacant rooms available, but because it would otherwise have been very difficult for their bodyguards to ensure their safety. Elizabeth had this weird thing about making sure they were safe.
His five-year-old sister, was, in fact, a pain in the ass. She constantly followed him around like a puppy, which irritated the Master and South Wind. But, regardless, that nuisance was his sister, so the Prince endured it. And if the Prince could handle it, then the Scholar and the warrior had to put up with it as well.
And now, after letting all the students who’d paid for their training go home, the Master started working with Hadjar.
They stood on the parade ground.
The Master, moving the blade forward, struck a pose that was vaguely reminiscent of a classic attack stance in fencing. It should be immediately noted that a sword, in Lidus, was short and narrow. It was about a yard in length, and about two or, at most, three fingers in width. And the most interesting thing was the weight of the sword, which was concentrated not in the blade itself, but in the handle, thanks to a weighty pommel. The handguard was almost non-existent.
It was easy to see that the Master’s technique would be focusing on speed coupled with thrusts at a distance. The faster the attack, the more elements were added, the more impressive and damaging the attacks would be.
Yesterday, Hadjar personally witnessed the Master behead 17 practice dummies, while remaining in one place. The dummies had been positioned in a semicircle around him, at a distance of 16 paces from the warrior. The local arts were true magic and they were amazing to behold.
And, of course, Hadjar had tried to analyze what he’d seen, using his neural network, but it had once again complained about not having enough data to work with.
“Move more smoothly,” the Master instructed, watching Hadjar’s movements. “But at the same time, move more swiftly as well.”
They were practicing on the parade ground, leaving long, sandy furrows in their wake. From the outside, it might’ve seemed like just a slow, morning stretch. But in fact, they were practicing the basic techniques.
“Tell me the first three levels of these techniques,” South Wind demanded.
Today, the Scholar was sitting in the shade again. Fanning himself, he kept adjusting his gold, spacious clothes. They were an interesting mix of a robe and a dressing gown, belted with a wide strap.
“The first is the level of Mortal, then the Spirit, and finally, the Earth.”
The scientist nodded and made a note in his scroll.
“Can you learn the technique of the Spirit?”
“No,” Hadjar answered. “I need to reach the Heaven Soldier stage before I can do that.”
“And that’s why a lot of people believe that a practitioner can only be considered a true adept once they reach the stage of the Heaven Soldier!”
South Wind was often irritated when someone in the Palace called themselves an adept. In his opinion, most of them weren’t even close to it.
And while the Scholar was grumbling something unintelligible under his breath, the young but already beautiful Elaine was watching her big brother. She noted his black hair, gathered into a tight bun, and his blue eyes; she had a handsome brother. And he was moving around amusingly, a sword in hand.
She’d seen her father moving around, too; he was swift and as sharp as a Death-Tiger. Hadjar floated through the air, moving his sword as if he were guiding a toy boat along the surface of a spring stream.
“Tell me, Hadjar, how do you distinguish a Heaven Soldier from a simple warrior?” the Master asked suddenly.
These kinds of questions were usually asked by the Scholar, not the soldier. Hadjar thought about it for a while, trying to find the catch.
“The Heaven Soldier is able to fly, to summon fire and water. They’ve grasped eternity and can live for many thousands of years.”
“That’s right,” the old man nodded and stopped demonstrating the technique.
The Prince stopped practicing as well.
“Now, look at this and tell me what you see.”
The Master closed his eyes. His breathing became steady, and the sand under his feet suddenly started to spin, rising higher and higher into the air. A moment later, a faint, sandy tornado was whirling around the Master. It had been summoned by the swirl of unleashed force.
[Urgent message! Activation of force has been detected in your vicinity!]
He’d noticed that on his own. Sometimes, the neural network was more annoying than helpful. But, to the Prince’s surprise, that wasn’t the last message.
[Expected power: 2 units!]
I’m sorry, what?!
Hadjar didn’t get a chance to think about what that message meant. The Master exhaled sharply and swung his sword. Suddenly, a fire sparrow appeared and, leaving a trail of smoke behind it, flew for about forty steps, then crashed into a wall, melting a section of it the size of a tennis ball.
The Prince staggered back and instinctively raised his sword in a defensive position.
Now he saw the Master in a completely different way.
“Are you a Heaven Soldier?!”
After a moment’s silence, the sound of two people laughing rang out. Both the old man in short training pants and the old man in the golden clothes were highly amused.
“No, your Highness,” the Master shook his head. “I just showed you the Mortal Technique.”
The Prince assessed the damage. Perhaps the tennis ball sized amount of damage to the wall didn’t look very impressive, but… Hadjar had seen something truly magical for the first time. Despite the fact that he’d been able to cut a dummy with his sword at a distance of three paces, he still sometimes found himself questioning everything around him.
“Venerable Master,” Hadjar fell to his knees and lowered his forehead to the sand, “please, teach me!”
The Master lifted the Prince back onto his feet immediately and shook him off. He didn’t want the Queen to see that her son was bowing to him.
“Of course I’ll teach you, your Highness,” the old man smiled.
He went over to a small chest, not far from the barrel that had been pivotal in Hadjar’s apprenticeship five years earlier.
The old man put his hand on the lid and it opened. Neither untold treasures nor amazing artifacts were inside. There was only one old, battered scroll. The Master handed it to Hadjar.
Having already given the order to record the scroll to his neural network, the Prince unrolled it.
“The Scorched Falcon Technique”, Hadjar read. It was Volume One.
The Scorched Falcon was one of the local fauna’s magical birds. Say, for example, that adult birds could’ve reached the Level of the Leader. It was the equivalent of A Knight of the Spirit among people. One such Falcon, with its wingspan of twelve yards, could’ve burned down half of their Kingdom.
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[Recording information in the ‘Detailed description of techniques’… A register of ‘The Scorched Falcon Technique’ has been established]
“Is this the right scroll, Master?” Hadjar smiled a little devilishly. “I saw only a Fried Sparrow.”
“Shame on you, your Highness,” the elder frowned. “You won’t find another scroll of the Mortal Technique in this entire Kingdom. I only have this one because I went on an amazing adventure in my youth. And it took me almost two centuries to comprehend it.”
Hadjar read the contents of the scroll once more. There was little he understood, but, fortunately, the text was accompanied by detailed drawings. They showed the way in which he needed to circulate his energy, and through which nodes he needed to do it, in order to produce the ‘Fried Sparrow.’
“Tell me, Prince,” South Wind spoke up again. “What kind of technique is this?”
“This is a Weapon Technique.”
“And what other techniques do you know?”
“Besides the Weapon Technique?”
The old man nodded, continuing to fan himself.
Hadjar could answer this question even without the help of the neuronet. He remembered it easily enough.
“I know of The Body Techniques, The External Energy Techniques and The Internal Energy Techniques.”
“And do you now understand what they’re intended for?”
The Prince looked at the scorched wall again.
“Do the Techniques allow us to use the power of the higher stages?”
“Not exactly, Your Highness,” the scholar disagreed. “Mostly, they allow us to use our current level of force better. In other words, a Heaven Soldier doesn’t really need any Techniques to create fire.”
“But if a Formation practitioner were to create it with the help of a Technique,” Hadjar continued, “then their fire would be stronger.”
The Scholar and the Master exchanged glances.
“I can say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to that,” the Master sighed, scooping up the cup from the barrel. “The world of martial arts is complex and multifaceted, Your Highness. And you have yet to see even a true glimpse of it, let alone actually scratch the surface. Now, try to memorize the contents of the scroll. It’ll take you at least a year.”
Hadjar nodded, very glad he had the neuronet since, as it turned out, it was quite useful. Thanks to it, he’d already remembered all of the contents, even the commas. Even if, admittedly, there were no punctuation marks in the local language…
“It says ‘Volume One’ here,” Hadjar pointed to the heading. “Are there any others?”
“The Techniques are often divided into volumes. Their complexity increases with each volume, demanding more from a practitioner with each higher volume,” the Master returned the cup to the barrel and washed his face. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, Your Highness. A practitioner at the Heaven Soldier level summoned a fiery bird with a wingspan of almost three yards with this Technique. But the Scorched Falcon, it…”
“Adult specimens have a wingspan of twelve yards.”
“That’s right, Your Highness,” the Master nodded. “What you’re holding in your hands are just the basics. And yet, you could still count the number of Techniques of the Mortal level in our Kingdom on the fingers of one hand.”
“Does that mean that the second scroll would be at the Spiritual Level?”
“Exactly, my Prince.”
Hadjar looked at the scroll, then at his teachers, and then again toward the East.
The wind blew. It told him stories. It called to him.
The Prince was weak.
He couldn’t answer the call of the wind.
Nevertheless, at that moment, a smile of anticipation spread across his face. Every day, he could see the way forward more clearly. The path leading to his cherished goal and freedom.
The path which would lead him to the vast expanses of this amazing world, to its secrets and dangers, to everything it had to offer, something that Hadjar had been deprived of in his previous life.
And while this brief moment of enlightenment was happening, he didn’t know that the wheel of Fate had already spun. That his dreams weren’t going to come true.
At that very moment, the Warlord was on his way back to the capital to celebrate his seventh birthday. He was the King’s brother and the Tribute Collector for the Empire.
Primus was coming.