Wintersteel (Cradle #8) - Will Wight

Beginning report…

Timaias Adama had been a guest of the Heaven’s Glory School for almost three months.

They were a collection of backwards savages who had forgotten nearly everything about the sacred arts. It was astonishing, really, how ignorant they were.

But they let him inside the labyrinth.

He marched over scripted tiled floors, past endless rows of polished wooden cabinets. This had once been a storage hall for the belongings of lesser researchers and staff, but every one of the cabinets was empty.

Not because the people of Sacred Valley had looted the place; one step into this place would strike a Jade dead sure as the sun rose in the east. The sacred instruments that had filled this hall had been destroyed by time and by this valley’s “curse.”

The curse that had drawn him here in the first place.

He breathed heavily as he walked. Not only was his madra down to a bare silver trickle inside him, but even his soulfire-infused flesh had been drained of power. His pool of soulfire had run entirely dry, and his willpower was so weak that he could exert almost none of his authority as a Sage.

He hadn’t been out of breath in years.

His chest heaved and sweat rolled down his face, but he savored the novel sensation. It was a reminder of what his life had been like when he was pushing for Sage. What Yerin felt like now.

He longed for that feeling again, sometimes. The thrill of running from wolves and knowing that if he flagged for a second, they’d tear him to pieces.

For decades, wolves had run from him.

His spirit was so exhausted that he didn’t sense danger until the hostile techniques were almost on him.

He turned to fight, his wintersteel blade already bare and ringing like a bell.

Two skeletal spirits of gray-white hunger madra pulled themselves up out of the floor. They gaped at him with unnaturally wide jaws and eye sockets lit by dull fire.

They weren’t true spirits, but techniques launched by this prison’s lone inhabitant.

Sword aura slashed at the two ghouls, weak as a kitten’s claws. The madra forming their bodies shook like he’d waved a stick through fog, but they didn’t dissolve.

The Sword Sage’s eye twitched.

Ruler techniques weren’t ideal against spiritual opponents, but suitability mattered very little in the face of overwhelming power. He should have been able to disperse these two with the twitch of his big toe.

He was glad Yerin wasn’t around to see this. She’d lose all faith in him as a master.

The hunger techniques had clawed their way completely to the surface now. They were gaunt, transparent figures of gray-white madra with spindly feet and bony arms that dangled down all the way to the tiles. Their jaws hung down to their ribs, and they gave off such an impression of inexhaustible, ravaging need that it made Adama hungry.

He’d faced a lot of that while exploring this labyrinth.

The techniques moved quickly…by the standards of Sacred Valley. A Heaven’s Glory elder who somehow made it into the labyrinth would have been struck down before he sensed danger.

Adama slashed his sword and returned it to its sheath in one smooth motion. A Rippling Sword technique flashed out, the silver crescent slicing through both skeletons.

The madra tore the spiritual entities in half where the aura had failed, and they collapsed into rising motes of essence in an instant. His Rippling Sword was pathetically weak after his time in the labyrinth, perhaps weaker even than Yerin’s.

He extended his spiritual perception, though doing so in here was like pushing through thick mud.

More techniques were on the way.

He picked up his step, jogging down the hall. How long had it been since he felt the physical toll of simply running?

Sages should vacation here. It might remind them what it was like to be mortal.

By the time he reached the doorway, a dozen of the ghoulish techniques rushed down the hallway after him. For no reason in particular, he turned to give them a wave. “Half a shade too slow,” he told them.

He didn’t know if Subject One was watching, but if it was, it deserved a little taunting for putting him through this.

With an effort of will, he opened the door.

Or he tried to.

The huge stone panel, carved with the images of the four Dreadgods, failed to move. He hadn’t focused enough, his thoughts not coming together, so he couldn’t invoke his authority.

Sweat ran faster down his face, and he pushed on the door with both hands, sharpening his mind to a point.