Stories

Avenger


Rise. Pray. Eat. Pray. Train. Pray. Work. Pray. Train. Pray. Eat. Pray. Work. Pray. Train. Pray. Sleep.

These were Dun's nights. The Orb would disappear below the distant horizon, giving way to the Disc, and his routine would begin. It was not always identical, of course. Some nights, he would clean the latrines; others, he would clean the kitchens. Sometimes, he would do one early and the other later. It all depended on the whims of his master.

The prayers, though, were always the same. Praise Galvetrus, the great Disc, he who brings the night and the dark, who blankets the world and protects it from the harsh light, who gives us the life of water and the bounty of earth. You who are the mightiest and rightly rule over us all, we give you thanks for that small strength you bless us with. We shall take that strength and make it mightier, so that with it we may protect ourselves, our families, our homes, our people, and our faith. May we never falter, may we never grow weak, and if we do, may we lay down our lives for the greater good before we fail. If we shall never fall, let the night come where we may serve you at your side, and take us.

He would repeat this mantra, over and over, until the master informed him the time for prayer was over. In actuality, this meant he would repeat the prayer a hundred and twenty-three times, exactly. That number never wavered. Not once, since he had devised the prayer for himself.




When he first came to apprentice with the master, he had used the prayers of his youth during the sessions. They were simple ones, drilled into his head ad nauseum by priests, but they were not his prayers. As he had mouthed those empty prayers in his first few months, he had wondered why he'd ever come to train. Back then, he prayed, worked, and ate, and did little else. Many of the other prospective students felt the same and, one by one, they had left the master's service, vowing to find other masters.

Then Dun had his epiphany. He devised his own prayer. The next night, as he knelt for his dusk prayer, he began to say the words quietly to himself, his lips barely moving. When the prayer was finished, his master pulled him away from the meal. At first, Dun thought he was being punished for going against the church's teachings by having his food withheld.

"You spoke a new prayer," his master said, softly. Despite being a middle-aged goblin, with numerous battle scars over his exposed arms and shoulders, his master was soft-spoken. At times, it made it difficult to hear him, behind his ever-present mask. Dun wondered what his master looked like behind that mask.

"I did, master," Dun said firmly. He could have lied, he supposed, and claimed to have been speaking a prayer he had learned from some priest back in his village. But he would not lie. Lies were for the common person, not him.

"Let me hear it," his master said. Dun began to kneel on the floor and his master stopped him. "Why do you kneel?"

"I am about to say a prayer," Dun explained simply. "I must kneel."

His master paused a moment, then said, "Is that really necessary? I merely wish to hear it recited. You need not go through the full ritual."

At that moment, Dun wished for nothing more than to reach out and snatch the mask off his master's face. He knew that, even if he tried, his master would easily stop him. Even considering his master's advanced age (for though Dun had never seen his face, he knew his master must be aged. For why else would an asag muda of his stature have retired to a hermitage to train new muda?), Dun would be no match.

"If I am to say a prayer," Dun said, "I shall say it properly." His master nodded slightly, though in approval or mere acquiescence, Dun could not tell.

Regardless, Dun knelt on the floor, crossed his wrists in front of his face and placed the back of his hands over his eyes. Thus prepared, he recited his prayer to the word. Finished, he uncovered his eyes and slowly stood.

His master stared at him from behind his mask, which was carved into the shape of a growling beast of his master's own imagination. It evoked something of a dragon and a wolf. Only his master's eyes could be seen behind it. They were a dark amber color, like honey after a cold night.

As he continued to stare, Dun once again feared he had done something wrong. Instead, his master slowly nodded his head again and said, "Very good, Dun. Very good indeed. Go and eat. When you finish, come to me. It is time you learned to use a sword."

Dun could barely contain his excitement, but managed to force a formal bow and retreat from the room with dignity. He fought to keep his face from breaking into a crooked grin as he returned to the mess hall, a battle he only partly won. The other students who remained, a grand total of six of them, saw his expression and were visibly confused. They had likely assumed he was in trouble as well, but here he was with satisfied demeanor. What could it possibly mean?

For the time being, none questioned him and Dun offered no explanation to them. It could wait. He would eventually tell them, but at that moment he wanted to keep it all to himself. A moment of selfishness could be excused, he told himself, after such a victory.

When they finished eating, they all dispersed. The other students went to perform their work duties, which had become much more burdensome now that so many of the other students had left. Dun went to his master and began to train with the sword.

It was a slow process, of course. Dun had held simple kitchen knives before and had, as any young boy, run around with sticks and imagined them swords. But never had he held an actual blade of war in his hands, one that could shear off an enemy's limb with a single slash. His master greeted him with a pair of wooden swords, little more than sticks themselves, and began with the barest of basics.

On that first night, Dun only trained for that short time. Once finished, his hands were covered in sores from his inexpert grip on the wooden sword. His master promised him they would end, eventually, but Dun did not care. He wanted to press on, to continue training, but then his master lightly tapped him on the hands and he dropped the wooden sword on the ground.

Dun was embarrassed and hated himself for displaying such weakness, but his master simply said, "Strength comes not overnight, but must be acquired slowly and steadily. For now, this will do. But I expect you to be stronger next eve."

Dun swore he would and then ran off to the next prayer session. He recited his new prayer over and over, exactly one-hundred and twenty-three times. When he was finished, his master called him aside. Dun hoped it was for a chance at more training, but instead he was simply asked, "Did you tell the other students about your training?"

"No," Dun said, emphatically.

"Why not?" his master asked, his soft voice so muffled by his mask that Dun was unsure he even heard the question. When Dun did not answer quickly, his master raised a hand to wave off the question and said, "Nevermind. Go about your work."

Dun frowned, but did as he was told. He did his work and fell into his normal routine for the rest of the night. Finally, at night before he went to sleep, he gathered his fellow students.

"Today the master began to train me in swordsmanship," he said. The other students all began to murmur to each other, but none spoke up to question Dun directly. "Do you want to know why?" he finally asked.

One of the older students, a boy named Chon, looked up. "What did you do, Dun?" Chon was a few seasons older than Dun. He had wanted to be a sculptor, but had no eye for art, and his master had refused to train him further. So he had instead come to train to be a warrior, though he also seemed to have little heart for battle.

Even so, Dun was impressed that Chon was the one who asked, and was so earnest in doing it. "Well, Chon, here's the thing... I don't think I should just tell you all how I did it. That wouldn't be in the spirit of Galvetrus, would it?" The others agreed that it would not be. "Instead, I offer you a challenge. Anyone who can wrestle me to the floor and pin me, I'll tell him the secret."

"And what stops one of us from beating you and just telling the others?" another boy, Yan, asked. Yan was younger than Dun, but clever and perhaps a little too willing to break the rules to get ahead.

Dun shrugged at his question. "Once it is yours, you are free to do what you want with it. If you think you should show pity on the other students and tell them, do so. Or you can trade it how you wish, or keep it to yourself, or do anything like it."

Before Dun could even close his mouth to finish speaking, Chon had jumped on him and was grabbing his arms, trying to pin them behind Dun's back. The suddenness of the attack caught Dun off guard and he let Chon get a single arm, but managed to slip his other one out. Soon the two were grabbing at each other, searching for some handhold to claim the advantage.

Being older than Dun, Chon had a distinct advantage in weight and reach, but he was too cautious and afraid of making a mistake. His attacks were slow and predictable, meant to draw Dun into a trap rather than force him into a mistake. It was easy to defend and Dun simply slapped away his grasping hands or dodged his tentative strikes. After a few minutes of this, Chon was starting to breathe heavily and Dun saw his chance.

He lunged at Chon, causing the bigger boy to jump backward, right into the edge of one of the bunks. Chon let out a yelp of pain as Dun grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him into a headlock. Chon crashed to the floor and the other students started whooping and hollering. Dun fell on top of Chon and kept him in the headlock, aiming to just torment him for a few minutes before letting him go.

Before he could get that far, though, the door to the bunk was flung open and in stormed their master. Everyone fell silent and he immediately grabbed Dun by the collar and yanked him off Chon. Chon remained on the floor, laying immobile. Their master knelt down and checked Chon and found him unresponsive. He quickly glanced back at Dun, then at the other students.

"Moke, Traut, pick him up." The two students the master had indicated, boys who were only a few dozen seasons old, rushed to do as instructed. Moke took Chon under the shoulders, while Traut grabbed him around the ankles. They lifted him and his body was limp and unmoving. Dun wondered what he had done to cause such a state.

"Take him to the mess," the master ordered. "Lay him flat on the table there, then come immediately back here." The two boys nodded and hurried out.

Once they were gone, the master looked at Dun. "What happened?" he asked.

"He attacked me," Dun said, quite truthfully.

"Why?" the master asked, soft voice steely. Dun wanted to see his face. What did his face say? There was just that howling mask.

"I told him if he pinned me, I would tell him how I convinced you to train me." There was no point in lying. It would be discovered regardless and Dun was no liar.

The master simply nodded his head and turned to the door. As he walked out, he paused briefly. "Dun invented his own prayer for the sessions. That is how he earned the privilege of my training. Once Moke and Traut return to the room, you are all to go to sleep."

He firmly closed the door behind him without slamming it and it wasn't until his soft, almost inaudible footfalls completely vanished that anyone in the room dared breathe.




One hundred and twenty-three times. He wondered if the other students were so mechanical as him. Did they count their prayers? Did they always reach the same number? He doubted it. They were, after all, merely students. He was an apprentice. He was special. The master never told him this, but Dun knew it from the deepest part of his heart.

He rose from his kneeling position as the master sounded the bell that ended the prayer session. It was on to training next. He and the other five students all stood and walked briskly through the halls of their master's small hermitage, toward the training room.

They had all graduated to real swords by now. It had taken nearly a season for each of them to go from the wooden practice weapons to actual swords. Dun had known he could have moved on sooner. He could have picked up a real sword and been trusted with it, even as the other students ached and complained about their blistered hands.

But their master would not allow it. "You move as one or you move not at all," their master told him.

That infuriated Dun. How could the master punish him for the weakness of the other students? He was better than them! If they couldn't be trusted with a real sword, else they hurt each other, why did that mean Dun couldn't move forward as well?

He supposed his master was simply being lazy. Why train them all individually, even if that would be proper, when he could train them all as a group? Dun dared to insinuate such to the master one night. The master cocked his head to the side and looked at Dun through the two eyeholes of his unchanging mask. Did he ever remove it?

The master drew one of his own swords and tossed it to Dun. Dun flinched and, though he made a half-hearted effort to catch it, allowed the sword to clatter to the floor. Sheepishly, he picked it up and held it out, in the stance the master had taught him. "Come at me," the master said simply.

"Master, you have no weapon to defend yourself with," Dun said. Mercy was not a trait that Galvetrus exalted. When an opponent is weak and you are strong, you strike. The causes for this weakness were unimportant. Yet Dun wished his master to train him.

"I do not need one," the master said. "Or perhaps you will prove me wrong."

Dun held his stance for a moment, then struck with what he thought was sudden quickness. His master, however, was not fooled and stepped easily aside. He grabbed Dun's wrist as he sailed uselessly past, twisted it violently so that Dun was wrenched to a knee and dropped the sword, and then effortlessly punched him in the side of the head, sending him sprawling on the ground.

The master stooped down and retrieved his sword, sliding it easily back into his sheath. "Now you see why I must wait for the others to reach you," the master said. "You must have someone to practice with. If you practice with me, you will die."

Dun bowed to his master's wisdom, yet still felt a sting of dissatisfaction. He picked up his wooden sword and began to go through the training drills along with the others.

But when he finally was given a real sword to train with, his pride soared. The master preached caution. "Though you are all ready to wield a real blade, you are all still foolish and young. That is a weapon. A weapon is death incarnate. Death is the providence of the great Galvetrus. We bury the dead in the earth and, eventually, all dead things become the earth, which is Galvetrus. In your hands you hold a god, so treat it with the reverence you hold for a god. And so, treat it with the fear you hold for a god."

The master paired the students off against each other. Dun was paired against Yan, who had been the most capable of the other students, but still wasn't at his level. The two were supposed to practice their parrying. They started with Dun lazily blocking the swings of Yan's sword, letting the blades clash without doing much to actually deflect the attacks.

When the master came to their pairing to watch their progress, Dun turned it on. Yan came in with another wide, slow swing. Dun pushed his blade forward to knock Yan's strike away mid-swing, rather than waiting for it to arrive. Yan's eyes went wide with the sudden ferocity of Dun's counter, even more so when Dun pressed his advantage and drove toward Yan. Yan took a shocked step back and Dun lashed out with the flat of his blade, catching Yan across the back of the arm.

Yan dropped his sword on the ground and stumbled backward, so Dun stuck out his foot and tripped him, sending him clattering to the ground. Yan landed in a heap and Dun leapt on him, forcing the edge of his sword against Yan's throat. Yan held up his arms in confused fright. "Yield!" Dun ordered.

"I yield, I yield!" Yan shrieked.

Dun stood and turned to their master and gave him a proud bow. The master gave a small bow back. "Impressive, Dun," he said, any emotion in his soft voice muffled by the mask. "You have defeated someone who was not expecting a fight."

"Of course, master," Dun said firmly. "A weakness is a weakness and it should be exploited. You do not tell an opponent you are going to ambush him. Take advantage of any weakness. If you do not wish to be taken advantage of, eliminate your weaknesses."

The master nodded his head slowly. "A very important less to learn," he said.

A second later, Dun doubled over in pain as Yan kicked him in the crotch from behind. Yan grabbed Dun by the hair and threw him to the ground. Before Dun could recover, Yan started to kick him in the ribs. Dun tried to get his arms down to shield himself, but as soon as he did, Yan kicked him in the head. Dun curled into a ball to try to keep from being assaulted further, but another kick never came.

Dun peeked to see their master pulling Yan away. "Enough, Yan," their master said. "You have proven that you learned Dun's lesson quite well."

Dun growled and sat up. It pained him to do so. He could taste blood in his mouth from when Yan kicked him in the head. "He yielded!" Dun complained. "I had beaten him!"

The master whirled and stalked over. He stood over top Dun and stared down at him, his amber eyes flashing from behind the mask. "You had him beaten, but you showed him mercy," the master said, his soft voice little more than a serpentine hiss. "You dare lecture about Galvetrus's ways and then spare a weakened foe? If you wished to avoid vengeance, you should have either killed him or refrained from invoking his wrath!"

His master stared down for a moment, daring Dun to say anything. It was all Dun could do to avoid reaching up and ripping his master's mask off. But he stayed his hand, for the moment, until his master stepped away. Then, Dun grabbed his sword and shot to his feet. He rushed Yan, aiming to kill him.

He swung his sword in a huge, swift arc designed to take Yan down in a single strike. Yan raised his own sword to block, but Dun knew that he would easily knock it away and continue the slash. Yan was younger. Yan was more inexperienced. Yan was weaker. Yan would die.

But Dun's sword was easily turned away. In fact, it was knocked out of his hand so quickly that Dun didn't even know what was happening. Then he was on his back and his master was standing over him, sword at his throat.

"I won't have you killing another one of my students," his master said. Suddenly, his voice was not so soft. "If you attack one like this again, I will protect them. I will kill you, Dun, if you persist in such childish anger."

"But master, if he is too weak to - "

"Do not lecture me on Galvetrus's ways!" the master boomed. His voice was loud enough to shake the room. Or perhaps it was just that Dun was quivering so much it seemed that way. "I am an asag muda! I have fought for the ways of Galvetrus since before you were born. I have fought since your parents were children, or earlier! I protect our people and I protect my students so that one night they may protect our people! If the only strength you understand is at the end of the blade and believe that the barest babe should be struck down because they cannot defend themselves, then tell me now. I will cut out your throat and show you what real strength is."

Dun said nothing. There was nothing he could say. After what seemed like an eternity passed, the master sheathed his sword and calmly stepped away from Dun. He walked over to the bell that signaled the end of practice and rang it.

It was time to pray.




Dun tried not to sulk after his undressing by the master. He said his prayers and by the time they reached the end and he had done one hundred and twenty-three, his shaking knees had calmed and his head had cleared. Of course the master was correct. Strength was a gradual process. Everyone was given their part by Galvetrus when they were born; it was up to the individual to make use of it. Some did it with a sword. Some did it with a pen. Others did it in their own way. But it took practice, training, refining.

So he put the incident in the back of his mind. He did not forget it. No, he would never forget it.

The training continued on, nightly. So did the prayers. So did the work, though with only six students there was much more work to go around and less time to do it. Dun supposed that was for the better. Before, there would be several students all doing the same job at the same time, stepping on each others toes and doing poor jobs. But left alone, Dun could focus all his energy on completing his work and making sure things were done right.

One night, he was outside, tending to the master's sparse garden, pulling up the weeds that had sprouted during the short day and checking for any parasites, when he heard heavy footfalls on the pathway to the hermitage. None of the students had left the hermitage to venture down into the village at the base of the hill. The villagers never came up to the hermitage.

Who could it be? More prospective students? It seemed unlikely. It had not been a full turn yet. Then what...

Around the bend came a trio of men on the backs of komostiers. The lead rider bore a long banner which hung limp in the light breeze. Upon seeing Dun standing there, the rider kicked his spurs into the komostier's sides, sending it into a gallop. The banner flicked out behind him, revealing the Disc of Galvetrus atop a purple background, with an orange gear embedded in it.

The rider came to a stop before the garden as the others trotted behind to catch up. All three of them were wearing light armor, save for the armets covering their faces. The lead rider raised his visor, revealing a human face beneath.

For a moment, neither Dun nor the man spoke. They simply stared at one another. When the other two riders finally joined the man and raised their own visors, revealing one other human and a goblin, the first rider finally spoke. "We heard that a legendary masked avenger lived here," the man said in a rough voice. He had a thick accent too, which Dun could not recognize. "We wish to speak with him."

"Yes, my master is an asag muda," Dun said, stressing the words over the human's vulgar terminology. "What business do you have with him?"

The three men exchanged glances. "You are his student?" the lead rider asked. "We did not realize he had a student." He smiled. "That is good. The General will be pleased."

Dun crossed his arms over his chest. "You still did not answer my question," he said. "Why do you wish to speak with my master?"

The man bowed his head slightly. "We are servants of Galvetrus," he said as if that answered anything.

Dun did not budge. "We are all servants of Galvetrus," he said with a respectful bow back to the man. "But if you wish to discuss matters of faith, you will find my master a dry partner."

Now the man finally allowed himself a frown. "We have important matters to discuss with the masked avenger," he said. "Now will you retrieve him or shall I find him myself." The man laid a hand on the pommel of his sword.

Dun had no weapon of his own. A brief glance around only revealed a few gardening tools which he could use. He was closest to the shovel, but figured the rake might make a better potential weapon. Plus, it was dark and he knew humans couldn't see well in the dark. The goblin with them, on the other hand...

He was spared the necessity to make a decision by the arrival of the master himself, coming outside, likely drawn by the unfamiliar voice of the rider. Or, perhaps, one of the other students had seen what was going on and alerted him. Regardless, his master strode purposefully forward, hand away from his sword, though he displayed it openly.

"And who might my honored guests be?" he asked in his characteristic soft voice.

The riders exchanged looks with each other at the sound of his speaking. They must be thinking, Surely, this soft-spoken man cannot be the great masked avenger we've heard about. But the first rider turned back to the master and said, "We are servants of Galvetrus, in the employ of his General. We have been sent to discuss matters with you."

The master nodded his head. "Well, then, you had best come inside. Leave your steeds outside. Dun, Traut, see to their komostiers." The riders dismounted as Traut ran from the opening to the hermitage. The men followed their master inside.

Once they were all inside, Traut turned to Dun. "Who were they?"

Dun shrugged, but looked over his shoulder suspiciously as he led the komostiers to the rear of the hermitage where they could be tied up. "I don't know. They said they serve Galvetrus and mentioned the General more than once."

"Who's the General?"

Dun shrugged once more. "The dawn if I know." He tried to sound disinterested, but he was terribly curious himself.

Once they finished tying up the komostiers, Dun told Traut, "Get back to whatever work you were doing." Traut tried to argue, but Dun glared and off he went. Dun himself went back to work as well, trying to finish off the weeds before prayer time.

Of course, prayer time came and there was no bell. Dun frowned; the master had never missed sounding a bell. But these strange riders must be taking up his master's time. Dun entered the hermitage and sounded the bell himself. Within a few minutes, the other students had all gathered in the prayer room. They all began their prayers as if nothing unusual were happening, which Dun found commendable.

Half-way through the session, the master entered the room with the three riders at his heel. "Dun," his master said, breaking Dun's rhythm and causing him to stumble over his prayer. He finished it hurriedly and looked up. "Please take these men to their steeds. They are leaving now."

Dun sputtered, "But master, I am not finished my prayers yet."

His master simply stared at him and Dun finally rose from his knees, visibly flustered. The three men fell into step behind him as he hurriedly rushed out. He wanted to ask who they were, who the General was, what they wanted with his master... But he couldn't bring himself to do it. And none of the men were talking either. They were dead silent, save for the light jingle of their mail.

He led them to their komostiers and the three men quickly mounted. The two humans rode off, but the goblin stopped. He turned back to Dun and looked at him. Dun froze and stared back at him, unwilling to look away. They spent a long minute staring at one another before the goblin snorted out a laugh and kicked his komostier into a trot.

Dun wanted to run after them. Something about them was compelling, deep inside him. But he could not. He couldn't abandon his master. Not when there was still so much to learn. Not for whatever these men were offering.

After they had disappeared around a bend, he finally began to make his way back to the prayer room. When he arrived, the master was striking the bell, calling the prayer time to an end.

A flurry of questions from the students assaulted the master. He simply shook his head and said, "They were no one of concern. It is time for us to train. Today, we will learn the first of the muda techniques."

The first of the muda techniques? Soon, the men were forgotten completely.




Several weeks passed. The men were mostly forgotten by the students as they trained further. The first of the muda techniques was a simple one. Draw your sword and strike with it in the same motion. But it was difficult still. None of the students could grasp the entire concept, not the way their master could. His draw was so swift, so perfect, that the students would see a target falling to pieces before they even heard the sound of the blade ringing against the scabbard.

None could replicate that. Moke was the least skill of them all; his sword continually got caught during the draw and his strikes were sloppy. Traut was better at drawing, but worse at striking. Yan was good at striking, but his draws were slow and deliberate. Bei had a wonderful strike, but when he drew the sword was as likely to slip out of his hand than not. Zhin perhaps came the closest to their master in grace, though his movements were slow and even Moke could have fumbled out his weapon to stop him before he struck.

Dun, of course, was the best. His draw was fast, if jerky, and his strikes were fluid and fast, if inaccurate. Were they to actually fight, he would easily beat any of them, save for a lucky strike by Traut or Bei. Of course, they did not actually fight. Their master refused to allow them to fight each other, not at this level of competence.

And despite learning their first muda technique, they were still raw with actual swordsmanship. Each had their strengths and weaknesses. Dun knew his parrying was unpolished, but he also could not bring himself to practice it too much. "The best defense is to keep your opponent from having a chance to strike you," he explained to his master one day, when trying to defend his unwillingness to practice parrying.

"That is true," their master said. "Zhin, come here." Zhin swiftly came across the training hall, wooden sword clutched in his hand. He repeated to Zhin what Dun had just said, then added, "But for this, I want you to simply defend. Understand?"

Zhin nodded his head. "Dun, attack Zhin. Break through his defenses and land a killing strike." Of course, with the wooden swords and the padding they wore, there would be no actual deathblow, but Dun could approximate one.

He and Zhin faced each other, wooden swords drawn. At a shout from Dun, they engaged. Dun brought his sword crashing down at Zhin from a variety of angles. Of the students, Zhin was not the worst fighter, but he was nowhere near the best either. Dun knew that in a real fight, he would easily beat Zhin.

But in this practice, he found himself facing difficulty. Zhin's parries were imprecise and full of effort, his dodges barely getting out of the way in time, but they did the job. He would not have the chance to counterattack, but neither did Dun's weapon ever touch him. Dun forced him back, toward the other students, who had to quickly leap out of the way to avoid being bowled over by the retreating Zhin.

Dun attempted to maneuver him toward the wall, pin him back, so that he would be unable to effectively dodge and parry. Zhin recognized what he was trying, however, and was able to keep from being hemmed in. Annoyed, Dun redoubled his efforts to get to Zhin, swinging harder and harder. His blows managed to stagger Zhin through his parries, but he still wasn't managing to land an actual blow.

After several minutes of this, Dun was breathing heavily, with sweat pouring down his face. "Now, Zhin, strike back!" their master ordered.

Dun was flabbergasted. Did their master really expect Zhin to be able to fight back? He could barely keep up! Dun pressed the attack, knowing that Zhin would try to fight back at some point and open himself up.

Instead, Zhin swept aside one of Dun's attacks and countered. Dun tried to get his wooden sword up to parry, but his arms felt like lead. They could barely move. But Zhin seemed to be perfectly fine! Zhin's sword cracked into the side of Dun's head, sending him crashing to the floor in a burst of stars. He lay there, sucking in breath, wondering what possibly could have happened.

"Good work, Zhin," their master said as he came to stand over Dun. He looked down, from behind that howling mask, his amber eyes filled with... What emotion was that? Mirth? Pity? Shame? Dun couldn't tell if it was any of those, or something else entirely. "Hopefully this has taught you something."

What had it taught? "I don't understand," Dun gasped out. He pushed himself to a sitting position, but couldn't bring himself to stand yet. "How did I lose?"

"It is easier to defend than to attack," his master said. "This is true in all senses. You are a better fighter, but it is easier for Zhin to parry and evade than it is for you to land a strike. Similarly, it takes less effort for him to defend than for you to attack. Allow your opponent to wear himself down by attacking and eventually you will have an advantage."

Dun slumped over on the floor. It seemed like such an obvious lesson. Why had the master waited until now to teach it? Why did he have to humiliate Dun in order to impart it? Why not just tell him? Dun would have understood.

But the master's wisdom was not to be questioned. Dun nodded and slowly pushed himself off the floor. "I shall try better in the future, master," Dun said.

They finished their training for the day and went to pray. After one-hundred and twenty-three repetitions, it was time for daily work. Tonight, Dun and Bei were being sent down to the village to purchase some supplies that the hermitage still needed. They hadn't been down to the village in many seasons.

They hitched up a wagon to the master's komostier, an old, muscular beast with faded scales and milky eyes. It had a foul temper, but once they got the wagon hooked on it plodded along down the path without complaint. It was a three hour trip down to the village and longer on the way back, so the two students took rations with them to eat.

Once they were well into their trip, the two began their scheduled prayers, even though they weren't in the hermitage. Dun said his one-hundred and twenty-three and opened his eyes. Bei was still praying and Dun said, "Prayer time is over."

Bei opened his eyes in shock. "How do you know?" he asked.

"I said the same number of prayers I always do," Dun said with a shrug. "So prayer time's over."

"You count yours?" Bei asked in wonder.

"You don't?" Dun mused smugly back.

The two kept silent after that. If they were still in the hermitage, they would be training, but it would be impossible to train as they moved. They reached the village shortly after besides and immediately made their way to the shops to pick up the supplies their master needed.

It was mostly things that the master and his students couldn't make themselves. Nails and other metal objects, some spare food (as though the master had his own garden and livestock, it wasn't enough to feed everyone, so picking up some grain was a necessity), thread and needle to repair clothing, and similar things.

As they went about their business, Dun kept overhearing half-murmured conversations from the villagers. There was one word on all their lips. "General." The General. Galvetrus's General. Who was he? What was he doing? Was he a savior or a villain? No one was sure.

There were rumors, of course. He was raising an army. He had been visited by Galvetrus personally and tasked with bringing the entire world under his blanket of night. He was a human. He was a goblin. He was (and surely this couldn't be true) a dranomicax. He was none of them at all, he was a demon. He was something else entirely. He wanted to destroy the world. He wanted to rule it. He'd already conquered the nightlands. He was going to conquer the dawnlands first. He hadn't conquered anything yet. He could kill a man just by looking at him. He was a wizard. He was a warrior.

Dun heard everything and its contradiction, all applied to this General. The only things that were certain was that he praised Galvetrus and was building an army. So why had those men belonging to the General come to the hermitage? Did they want the master to join this army?

If so, why had the master sent them away?

Dun and Bei finished gathering the supplies and set off back toward the hermitage. Under the additional load, and going uphill, the komostier was slower and more deliberate. It would almost be daybreak by the time they reached it. The world was dark and colorless under the Disc of Galvetrus. The only light was provided by the Tears of Optierus, tiny twinkling lights in the sky. It was more than enough for the pair of goblins and the komostier to see by, of course.

Dun ate his meal in silence, it being little more than rice and sliced up vegetables. He should have been starving from the day's labor, but he merely plucked at the food, pushing it around with his fork and half-heartedly eating a few small bites.

Eventually, Bei asked to eat it and Dun willingly gave it up. No point in wasting it. After Bei finished, they settled in for their prayers. Dun murmured his prayers over and over.

Suddenly, Bei said, "Dun, we're here." Dun's eyes snapped open. For the first time ever, he had lost count of his prayers.




A bell was being rung. Dun had only heard that bell once before, on his first day as a student of the master. It was a bell that the master kept specially with him to signal a specific type of danger. It was a bell to signal an attack.

Dun and the rest of the students had awoken immediately upon hearing the bell. They all leapt out of bed and began to scramble for their things. Few of them were properly dressed, but they rushed down the halls of the hermitage to the armory. There, they each spent a few minutes slipping into armor and grabbing weapons. The armor was little more than cloth padding; it would do little to truly turn aside a blow from a real weapon, but it was better than nothing. Their swords, on the other hand, were finely honed, deadly blades.

Once they had their things, they rushed outside into the daylight. It was blinding. Dun could barely see in the harsh glare of the Orb. Some of his fellow students gasped in pain upon coming out into the light. Dun wondered if any of them had ever been out during the day before? For most goblins, it was a rare thing to travel in the dangerous day, when wild animals and bandits posed a much greater threat than normal.

It was the riders from before, but now there were more of them. Men and goblins in black armor. Dun thought he spotted a few montane as well, but he could not be sure. Surely the General did not have montane in his army! What a surprise that would be.

"Why have you deceived us, masked avenger?" the leader of the riders, the same one from before, called out. "We came in peace and now you come out armed with your students at your back?" He spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear him.

There was his master, as well, standing before the riders. His sword was at his side and he was in full armor. Unlike his students, this armor was real armor, hardened steel etched with the imagery of Galvetrus and the master's kin. It was so glorious that it seemed to exude darkness, making it the only thing Dun could look at without straining.

"I gave you my answer already," the master said. "But you come back with an army. How else should I react but to protect my hermitage?"

His master had not drawn his sword yet. Yet his hand lingered near it and Dun knew that, in an instant, he could cut down scores of the riders before they could react. But there were so many! Even the master could not kill them all. That was why, Dun realized, he had raised the alarm. To gather his own troops.

"Your answer was unacceptable to the General," the leader of the riders said. "He believed you must not be convinced of the seriousness of our mission. So he sent this army as proof of his power. Look at how the followers of Galvetrus rally behind him! You would be a worthy addition to his army!"

So it was true. These men, servants of the General, had asked the master to join his army. And the master had refused! But why had he refused? The task of an asag muda was to do Galvetrus's will. Galvetrus gave the asag muda their strength to do his biding. It was the way of things, wasn't it?

"I have no wish to fight your war," the master said. "Nor train others in the ways of the muda to do it! Galvetrus's will may be that you conquer, but the asag muda have never been common foot soldiers. We exist to protect the ways of our people. Yes, one of the ways of our people is their reverence of Galvetrus! But it is not the only way, nor should we protect it at the cost of all other things."

What was the master saying? He would reject the will of Galvetrus? That was not what Dun had been taught as a boy... The asag muda gave themselves to Galvetrus's service, so they could protect all goblins from harm. Yet wouldn't cementing Galvetrus's will over the world prevent all harm?

"You'd be more than common foot soldiers," the rider's leader said. "You would be special. You would be the pinnacle of the General's forces. His elites, brought in to crush those enemies who are more tenacious than others. You know Optierus has many fell monsters at his disposal. There are those who scorch Galvetrus's faithful with simply a touch. I have fought them and seen dozens of men killed... The masked avengers would be more than enough to handle them!"

The master shook his head again. Was he afraid? Dun had heard legends of the most terrible warriors of Optierus and the things they could do. They could burn a man just by looking at him. Their fires could flay a man to his bones. They could reduce all creation to ashes. Then they could bring those who had perished in their fires back from the dead, raising them in service to Optierus's twisted ways. Dun had always thought them legends, but here this rider was claiming them to be real! How could the master refuse to stand against that?

"I have made my choice," the master said. "I have no wish for this war. I wish merely to teach my students and allow them to do their duties, protecting our people from corruption. Surely there are other asag muda who would leap to serve your General and do his bidding."

One of the master's hands went to his sword, resting easily on the pommel. He would draw, soon. But what of his students. Dun looked around. Bei was quivering. Zhin could barely see. Traut was clutching his sword so tight his knuckles had turned blue. And Moke! Moke looked ready to vomit all over the ground in nervousness. They would be slaughtered!

"There are no others," the rider said gravely.

The master laughed. It was then that Dun realized the truth of the situation. The master did not need his students to live. He merely needed them to die and buy him more time to kill. If the master could kill five riders before each student fell - and that was no difficult thing, if the stories of the master were to be believed - then he would kill them all before the last student fell.

"So they have turned your General down as well," the master said. "Leave, now. I will not come with you."

So the master would fight rather than do Galvetrus's will? Dun would never turn down an opportunity to serve Galvetrus! It was unthinkable.

"You will come with us," the rider's leader said. "By force if necessary."

The ring of steel. Though he had begun his draw first, the rider's leader fell from his komostier before he even had the chance to get his sword halfway from the scabbard. The master was still several steps away and his sword remained clean of blood, yet the rider had been cut down!

That was the power of a muda! To cut without touching! Dun could only watch in amazement as another rider went tumbling from his saddle. The master swiped his sword easily through the air, nowhere near his targets, yet they went down in a spray of blood.

But it would not be enough, Dun knew. The riders would close in and surround his master, and then he would call for his students to engage, and the riders would cut them down...

Yan let out a shout and Dun saw him charge in to protect the master. The other students, moved by Yan's ferocity, began to run forward as well, and then...

"Stay back!" their master shouted. "I will handle this!"

Dun wanted to laugh. How could their master stand alone against all of the riders? He cut a third down, but they all had their weapons drawn and were closing in on him now. One raised his weapon and broke away from the others, charging forward to cut the master down, but his komostier fell dead to the ground, sending the rider toppling to the master's feet.

Finally, the master's blade tasted real blood, as he ended the attacker's life in one swift thrust. But the man's sacrifice had given the rest of the riders the chance to close the distance.

Then the master took his mask off.

A great pressure filled the air. Dun was almost forced to his knees by the sheer strength of it. His heart raced and his mouth went dry. He looked around and his fellow students were even worse off. Moke had fallen to the ground and was clutching his hands over his head, rocking back and forth like a mewling child. Bei was actually crying! And Traut and Zhin were both frozen in terror. Only Dun and Yan were standing firm, though Dun could tell Yan was not at all interested in engaging.

But the riders had it worse. Their komostiers were panicked and had reared up, flinging their riders onto the ground or simply galloping off with their terrified riders clinging for dear life. Many of the riders who had managed to land without injuring themselves had already turned to run for their lives.

And here, Dun realized, was the power of an asag muda. The mask was not merely symbolic, it was there to suppress the asag muda's power. Take it off and all that power was unleashed in one terrifying wave. It could turn the most hardened foes into whimpering children, fleeing from shadows and imagined terrors. Even the asag muda's allies were not immune to the effects.

How horrifying.

Dun looked at his master, tried to see his face. But there was nothing there. He had no face, though Dun was sure he had seen amber eyes before. But now, without his mask, Dun just saw a mass of roiling darkness. It was Galvetrus's blessing, the power he gave to the asag muda. Without it, the master would have been dead by now. With it, he was handily winning the battle. Only a few of the riders had managed to stand, and they were not firm. Dun could see the fear on them as they weakly tried to defend themselves, only to be cut down.

The master had received so much from Galvetrus and yet he scorned him. How could that be allowed to stand?

Dun drew his sword and, though his arm quivered, he marched toward his master. As he neared, his master whirled and raised his sword, but stopped moments before cutting Dun down. "Dun!" his master shouted. "I told you to stay back! I can handle this!" His voice was a distorted echo.

"I know, master," Dun said softly.

Was his master surprised when Dun ran him through? He must have been. There was no way a muda of his master's skill would have been unable to avoid Dun's amateur thrust otherwise. He didn't say anything, though. The black tendrils that made his face slowly flaked away until there was his master's amber eyes, staring at him.

They were not angry, or confused, or hateful. They were simply surprised, the way a person would be to see something strange. A fish flopping in the middle of the forest. A rainbow in the dead of night. A snowflake in summer. That was the emotion his master's eyes held as the life faded from them.

Once he fell to the ground, Dun was disappointed to see his master's face. His true face. It was simply the face of an old goblin, with crooked teeth and wrinkles and a patchy beard. Dun had seen hundreds of old goblins just like him.

There were no sounds. With the source of their terror gone, the riders had immediately calmed. Dun grabbed his sword and pulled it from his master's body and walked over to one of the riders, a goblin who seemed to be better outfitted than the others. At the very least, this man had been one of the few to stand true against his unmasked master. Dun recognized him as one of the original three riders, the one who had stared at him before leaving.

Dun held out his sword to the man and bowed his head. "Please, allow me to join you!" Dun said to them. "I've killed that traitorous muda! If he would not serve Galvetrus by joining the General, then I will!"

The rider smiled and took Dun's sword. Almost immediately, he tossed it aside. His hand darted out and he grabbed Dun by the hair. Dun let out a cry of pain as he was forced to his knees.

The goblin shouted at one of the other riders. "Come here and bring your axe!"

"What are you doing?" Dun cried as he struggled against the man's grip. The goblin put a knee in his back, wrenching him backwards, then angrily thrust him forward.

"Justice," the goblin said. "You killed the asag muda. The General told us to bring him back."

"But he was a traitor!" Dun objected. As the man with the axe drew nearer, his eyes went wide, hysterical. "He turned his back on Galvetrus! I killed him! I'm a hero!"

The goblin forced Dun's face down into the dirt. "Yeah, well. We don't need heroes. We needed an asag muda."

Dun screamed, but it did no good.


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