The Blood – Torin, Complete

by disperser

The Blood – Torin

by E. J. D’Alise (Disperser)
Copyright November, 2012

Chapter I – Discovery

Torin sat apart from the other mourners.  Rodienn was in a simple open box, his face calm, but showing the mark of winters he had never seen, and now would never see. He looked as someone many winters older than the eleven Rodienn had actually lived.  Torin knew not how, but of one thing he was sure; he was responsible.

He glanced around, sensing eyes focused upon him.  An old man was watching him, his expression unreadable.  Torin held his gaze until the old man looked away, and kept looking as the old man made his way out of the building, the bright morning sun swallowing him as if attempting to consume him.  Torin looked back at his friend.  He wanted to cry.  He wanted to scream.  Most of all, he wanted to understand.

The next day, horses made their way into the center of the village.  Horses carrying men wearing expensive cloth, and sporting bright swords at their sides.  As curious people made their way to the square, the old man ambled up to the horseman at the front of the group.  They spoke, and the old man pointed at Torin.

The man on the horse dismounted, and strode toward Torin and his parents.

“He is of The Blood.”  His voice carried even as the exclamations  from the crowd tried to drown the rest of his words.  “The boy will come with us.”

They had it half right, and yet so incredibly wrong, but who could blame them?  His existence could not be imagined even by anyone knowledgeable in such matters.

One survived a forgotten raid, escaped into the woods, and eventually stumbled onto a farm.  The couple farming that remote piece of land kept to themselves and, more important, were childless.  They took her in as their own.

The other was presumed lost when the convoy he traveled with was ambushed.  But he was found, barely alive, by a trader  chancing on the remains of the caravan.

One of The Blood, and one of The Spirit, descendants of The Elders, lost to lineage records meticulously kept since The War.  Without training, without guidance, they grew as normal people do, facing the turns of fickle fate.  One of those turns had them meet, fall in love, and bring forth a child.  He was a cute boy, quite smart, and not at all the monster described by legends.  Legends handed down through many generations, and eventually codified into irrevocable laws.  Laws with one purpose: to ensure that someone like he, Torin would never be.

And yet here he was, after many futile pleas, riding off with the men of the bright swords.

Ledanei had taken him under her tutelage, and a new world had opened up to Torin.  His formal training began on the passing of his thirteenth winter.

“First of all, it’s not something we do.  It’s something we take.  We harness lifeforce from people, focus it through us, and use it to do Magic.”  Ledanei patiently explained, her voice low, yet amplified in the sealed training room.  The double doors would not open until the lesson was over, and until then, the extra thick walls ensured no words escaped to unintended ears.

“Why?”  Torin had asked other questions, absorbed the answers, but was most bothered by this one.

“It’s what we are, who we are.  It is our destiny.”  Ledanai said it almost as a chant.  It might as well have been, as it was oft repeated, drilled into every child of The Blood from the time they manifested the ability.

Ledanai paused.  Torin was a late bloomer, nearly past the time of awakening.  Any longer, and he would have grown into adulthood as one of the people, his abilities dormant forever.  She had never trained one so old, nor so inquisitive.  Her usual pupils were delighted to be considered special, privileged, and above the rest.  Those who did not would not survive long.  Some never made it out of the training room.  It had been debated Torin should never even be allowed to enter it, but rather be put down.  But Torin was an enigma.  A blank in blood lineage records spanning nearly a thousand winters.

The Blood Council wanted to know more about him, even as his existence weakened their authority.  They had directed the Ruler to take him in, and in turn the Ruler directed Ledanai to begin his training.

“Long ago,” Ledanai continued, “in a time lost to memory, two competing factions of The Elders fought for control of the world and its inhabitants.  Those of The Spirit wanted to abandon the way of Magic, and rely on their own resources and abilities.  Those of The Blood wanted to harness and use Magic to help shape the world, as The Elders had done for countless winters.”

“Why would the Spirits turn away from the benefits of Magic?”  Torin’s question was framed relative to recent evidence he’d seen for the good Magic could do.  During his short stay in the Ruler’s compound he’d seen people healed from injuries, crops yields shored up, and even weather abated, all with Magic.

“They argued the cost was too great.”  Ledanai stopped to carefully frame her next statement.  She knew of the history of the boy, and this was a critical juncture. “Magic uses up the lifeforce we harness.  In people, it is not replaceable.  It shortens their lives, and if abused, it kills them.”  She stopped, letting this sink in.

She watched his expression carefully, noting the drop in light emitted from the focusing stone.  Part of the lesson was for Torin to keep the stone lit by tapping into the lifeforce of the hundreds of people who served the Ruler’s compound.  This was a test, and she tensed; should he fail, she would have no choice but to end him.

His worst fears confirmed, Torin registered Ledanai’s channeling, and correctly guessed the reason.  He upped the Magic on the stone, returning it to it’s original shine.  As he did so he pondered what he had learned so far.

For one, he had killed Rodienn.  It may have been unintentional, and he had saved Eviera from certain death, but it did not change the outcome for his friend.

He also knew this particular Ruler stressed restraint.   Under this Ruler’s direction, Ledanai taught how to take small portions from everyone, not taxing anyone above any other.  That made channeling particularly difficult, as one had to identify individual lifeforces,  and then draw from them equally.  In time it would come naturally, but for now it required effort.  The natural tendency, as he sadly now knew, was to “grab” whatever was closest and easiest.

Not all Rulers were as considerate as this one.

Some viewed people as little more than energy sources, candles to be used and discarded.  They were heavy-handed in their rule, and forcefully promoted breeding, lest they ran out of resources to fuel their lifestyle.  Others concentrated mainly on thieves, liars, and unpleasant individuals.  Over time those had been “used” out of the general population, a selective breeding of sorts, and they were scarce.  Many were like his Ruler; they directed the Bloods under them to conserve.  But still, Magic was used to live a privileged life.  The Blood saw it as fair payment for the benefits they provided.

In larger population centers Bloods had thousands of lives to use, and their impact on individuals was minimal, even as the Magic Bloods could wield was multiples times greater than that available in these small communities.  Torin correctly deduced there must be rulers who were both abusers and lived in huge population centers.  They would be nearly untouchable.

He knew one more thing; something he did not share with any of The Blood, or anyone, for that matter.   Even as he sat there, he could sense Ledanai’s own lifeforce.   Were he of The Blood, he should not have been able to do so.  While they fought with each other for positions of power using swords and Magic, members of The Blood could not tap into the lifeforce of their kind.  Having tentatively, and furtively, drawn tiny amounts from both Ledanai and other Bloods, he knew he was not of their kind.

“What happened to The Spirits?” Torin asked.  He registered that the question eased Ledanai’s tension.

“They were defeated, and scattered.”  Ledanai resumed in her normal teaching tone.  For a moment she had felt something amiss, but could not place it.  Now relaxed, she dismissed it as stress, and continued with the oft-repeated version of ancient, and not-so-ancient history.

Chapter II – Awareness

“Those of The Spirit were forbidden to congregate, and forbidden to exchange vows with their own kind.  They could, and did, exchange vows with humans.  Their bloodlines became diluted, and all descendants are now but shadows of their ancestors.”  Ledanai paused, waiting for Torin to ask any questions he might have.  She knew with near certainty what his next question would be, as nearly all her pupils asked it.

Still, the wording, and depth of implied understanding, of Torin’s question surprised her.

“The Blood and Spirit were both Elders; could they exchange vows?  Why dilute the Spirit bloodline?” Torin was careful of the phrasing, lest he gave anything away.

“It was forbidden even before The War.  The exact edict is lost, but what did survive clearly warns of the dangers of such a union.  The child would be a monster.  To this day, bloodlines are carefully monitored to avoid such possibilities.” Even before she finished, Torin realized he, in fact, was that monster.

“I don’t feel like a monster!” A chill ran through him as his mind rebelled against the realization.  If Ledanai noticed anything, she did not let on, and continued.

“As for the dilution of the Spirit bloodline . . . they are very valuable to The Blood, so they could not be destroyed, but too powerful to leave in their pure form.  Though they do not use magic, their natural abilities are greater than those of humans.  They would have been a threat to The Blood.”   

Torin pondered briefly before asking “How can they be a threat if they don’t use Magic?”

Ledanai had a sudden urge to skirt the question, to move onto another topic.  Without knowing why, she felt uneasy sharing what everyone of The Blood already knew.  “They could shield themselves and humans from having their lifeforce used by us, those of The Blood.  Diluting their bloodline weakened that ability.  Today’s Descendants of The Spirits can shield themselves, but not others.”

Torin briefly wondered how he could test whether he possessed a similar ability without giving himself away.  Nothing came to mind.  

“What makes them valuable to The Blood?”  It was a logical question, but much more important to Torin than Ledanai could imagine.  It could be he, Torin, might be valuable to The Blood.  Valuable things were often stored away, and jealously guarded by those who owned them.  Not an attractive prospect for his future.

“Their lifeforce replenishes.  Their lifeforce is purer, more powerful, and used judiciously is a lasting source for using Magic.”  Ledanai knew what the next question would be, and this time she was not surprised.

“But you said they retain the ability to shield themselves.  How can they be of value to us?”  Torin phrased the question to purposefully use the word “us”.  He wanted no doubt in Ledanai’s mind that he considered himself part of The Blood.

In fact, Ledanai was waiting for just such a supposedly unconscious alliance of the pupil to The Blood.  Few ever rejected privilege, and except on very rare occasions, they were ended if they did.  Once a pupil learned the details of The Blood, his option to remain unaffiliated was gone.

“That knowledge is lost to them.  They don’t know.”  Ledanai raised a hand, palm up, and continued.  “Reach out . . . you should sense three sources that are stronger, clearer than the others.  Were they flames, they would be burning brighter than the others.  The descendants of The Spirits are carefully tracked, for they are as valuable as water in the desert.  Our Ruler merits three lesser Spirits.  Yet, their lifeforce is stronger than nearly all humans in the compound, combined.  Some Rulers have more descendants of The Spirit, a few Rulers have less.” Ledanai stopped to drink from her cup, giving her throat a rest.

“Often,” she continued, “ambitious Rulers wage wars to add to their Spirit stock.  Lesser Rulers band together in pacts of mutual defense, and in response stronger Rulers also form alliances.  Such are the Politics of The Blood.”

Torin considered what he had learned.  He needed some time to process it all, to understand both outright, and implied, what it meant to him.  He decided to alter the line of questioning, lest he stirred Ledanai’s suspicions.

“I notice the three of The Spirit are all women.  Are those of The Spirit all females?”

Ledanai was taken aback.  In all her winters, she had not stopped to consider the issue, but upon reflection, she could recall few men.

“Hmmm, that is a good question.  It would seem nearly all are.  I will have to consult the Library as to why.” She finally answered.

“The Library?”

“The Blood council has offices in all the regions, and there are Libraries in each of the offices.  The Library has written copies of recorded history, as well as the laws which arose from the unfolding of said history.”  A bit annoyed at accidentally mentioning the Library, Ledanai continued. “It is only for a few to visit, and usually only in pursuit of resolving conflicts, or answering questions regarding bloodlines.”

“Aren’t we all of the same bloodline?” Torin would have preferred to learn more of the Library, but opted to have his questions continue to be reactive as opposed to directed.  He had a general idea of the precarious situation he was in, and did not want to draw undue attention to himself or his interests.

“We too are less than we once were.  Natural abilities vary as do physical characteristics, and over time some of The Blood also exchanged vows with humans.  All of it is carefully documented, with some bloodlines stronger than others.”

“Are Rulers chosen based on bloodlines?”

“Mostly.  But anyone can put forth a challenge to be Ruler.” Ledanai ignored the early history of The Blood, when challenges were far more commons, and often resulted in large number of Blood and human casualties as individuals sought to gain and hold power.

Instead, she offered up the current status.  “In practicality, few Rulers are ever challenged.  Most are appointed, and are from the more powerful bloodlines.  Aside that, once someone Bows to a Ruler, a challenge would be a waste of time.”  Another sip of water, and she continued.  “On your 15th winter you will have the opportunity to Challenge or Bow.  You would be foolish to mount a Challenge, and by Bowing you give oath to the Ruler.  Once you do, twenty winters must pass before you can Challenge again. But more important, Bowing requires you to cede a part of your abilities to the Ruler.”  Ledanai paused, waiting for Torin to process the information.

After a short pause, Torin asked what every pupil always asked.  “Cede part of my abilities?  I thought no one could alter a Blood’s ability.”  Even as he asked the question, Torin’s mind was working on possible scenario, and none were playing out to a good conclusion.

“No one can take your ability, however, you may cede some or all through a Blood Ritual.  Each subsequent Bowing takes a bit more of your ability.  

“The old man in the village . . . is he what’s left after many Bowings?”  Torin almost asked, but Ledanai made a motion with her hand.

“That’s enough for today,” she said as the heavy door locks snapped open.  “We will continue this tomorrow.”

As the doors began to open, she picked up the focusing stone, now dull and ordinary-looking, and rose.  Torin did the same.  They waited in silence as the first set of doors fully opened.  They then waited for the outside guard to unlock the outer doors, and swing them open.  Torin was curious about this arrangement, but on glancing toward Ledanai, her straight-ahead gaze and demeanor dissuaded him from asking anything.

“You have sword training after your meal.”  Ledani offered no other instructions, and walked away before he had moved.

He followed, but as Ledanai turned the corner, a girl appeared at the door.  She bowed to him, thus embarrassing him, and gesturing away from the direction Ledanai had gone, asked Torin to follow her.  She walked off without waiting for an answer.  He followed.

Chapter III – Growth

The sword was dull, its edge chipped, and the leather barely holding onto the hilt.  It was a sorry sword.  He put it down. He looked at the rest of them; all of them were like the first.  He was about to ask Aendein about it, when she reached over his shoulder and grabbed a particularly bad piece of junk.

“This looks like a perfect candidate!” Aendein said.  The fit young woman barely topped Torin’s head, and was one of the Spirit.  Torin marveled at the fact she was unaware of it.  

Aendein was his trainer.  Sword, knives, lance, she would introduce him to the skill all those of The Blood were required to learn.  Herself an apprentice to the Weapons Master, she had been training since her tenth winter, or five winters ago.

“You want to choose a weapon easily molded by Magic.” She said, handing Torin the rusted remnant of what at one time must have resembled a sword.  “The poorer the condition, the more you can affect it.”

“What do you mean?” Torin asked.

“I forgot you are new to The Blood; still early in your training.”  Sounding older than her winters, Aendein switched to her teaching voice.  “Magic can affect many things, but the effort required depends on their state.” She bent down to grab a handful of dirt. “It would be easier for you to affect this clump of dirt than that rock.” Pointing at a nearby rock, she dropped the dirt, grabbed her own sword, and handed it to Torin.

Torin looked at the polished metal, the tightly wound leather, with inlaid metals forming intricate scroll-like patterns that flowed from the hilt to the crossguard.  It was lighter than it looked, and he immediately liked it.

“The metal in that sword has a lot of work into it, some done with Magic.  There is little you can do to it unless you expend a lot of Magic.  Much like a rock, it can be changed, but it requires more effort.”

She took the sword back, and Torin was left holding his poor excuse for a sword.  

“What you are holding is a foundation for you to build on.  You can shape it to whatever you want with a lot less magic than it would take to modify mine.  Those are carelessly made specifically for such purpose.” Aendein came close, and lifted the sword Torin was still holding.  Before she could continue, they both looked up, and found themselves looking into each other’s eyes.  It lasted but a moment, but Torin felt something new within him.  Had Aendein asked, he would have laid his life at her feet.

She stepped back, turned, stepped a few feet away drawing her sword as she did so.  She turned again to face him, and struck a ready pose for fighting.  “Prepare!”

Torin was still off balance, trying to figure out just what he had felt, when she charged, her sword swinging.  By pure reflex, he raised his sword to block.  Her sword struck his sword, knocking it from his hand.  She still came at him, sword swinging.  He dropped and rolled, picking up the fallen sword.  He raised it just in time to block her sword coming down toward his shoulder.  This time he held on, even as her sword slid along the blade, and stopped at the crossguard.

She stepped back.  “You need to use magic to shape and mold your sword.  It needs to become an extension of yourself, it needs strength, it needs to be made whole.”

Torin rose.  He could not tell her what he knew, how he felt.  Using magic would take life away from others.  Would take some of her life as well, albeit only temporarily.  

His reply surprised her.  “I wish to learn fighting without relying on Magic.”  Torin carefully chose his words, as surely this would be repeated. “To defeat an equal opponent, I would need to rely not on Magic, but on my own skills.”  

Aendein lowered her sword, and regarded the young man.  She too had felt something.  A bond?  She could not describe it, but it seemed to her as if he was familiar, as if she had known him for many winters, instead of a quarter arc of the sun.  She had seen him walking from one appointment to another, and had watched him eat just before the training session, before he knew who she was.  He was always serious.  She had never seen him smile.

“That is a most unusual request.”  The Weapons Master walked up between them.  He turned toward Torin.  “I think you are the first of The Blood I’ve ever heard make such a request.”

Torin “reached” out.  The man was not of The Blood, but had traces of the lineage in him.  He retained a bit of the ability, but not enough to qualify him for membership.  

“Master Bedarin,” Torin bowed to the man as he spoke, “I wish to learn the skill of weapons.  Both using them, and making them.”  He pointed at Aendein’s sword.  “I wish to learn the skill to shape and wield such a weapon.”

Bedarin carefully considered the young man.  He knew a bit of the politics surrounding his arrival.  He knew more of The Blood than he let on.  Most important, he was not particularly enamored with their superior attitude and assumed superiority.  This one was different.  “Both of you, come with me.”

He led them to the armory, and once inside, to a back room.  He pulled back a rag that by the fact of its placement served as a curtain separating the room from the rest of the armory.  He went to a wall covered with hanging swords.  

He looked at them, searching for something.  Reaching up, he carefully removed a sword hanging behind a few others.  It was an exact duplicate of Aendein’s sword, save for the end cap.  The end cap of the sword was a stone held secure by parts of the hilt folding over it.  

“I will teach you how to forge your own weapons, but until then, you can use this sword.  Aendein will teach you how to properly care for it, as well as how to use it.”  Aendein bowed at the words, and Torin could swear he saw a hint of a smile cross her lips, disappearing by the time she stood upright.  Bedarin continued.  “When you are Aendein’s equal, I’ll take over your training.”  He paused.  Looked at them both in turn, then focused on Torin.

“You will draw attention, some of it perhaps unwanted.  I would suggest not speaking of it much.”  Bedarin half-bowed to the young man, turned, and left the room.  The rag settled into place, leaving Torin alone with Aendein.

“Shall we begin?”  Aendein pointed to the rag, then followed in Bedarin’s footsteps.  

Torin took a moment to absorb what had just happened, and especially Master Bedarin’s caution.  What did he know of Torin’s situation?  Why the warning?

He tentatively handled the sword, then looked at the stone in the hilt.  There were some markings on the stone.  He moved to the window, trying to make them out in the poor lighting.  It was a bird; a raptor.  He wondered about the symbolism; a raptor in a cage.  Thoughts swirling, he too exited the room to begin his training with Aendein.

In short order, the concentration required for his sword training emptied his mind of all the worries and questions he had.  In the next few months, his weapons training became a welcome respite from his daily routines.

Ledanai’s sessions continued, and covered various aspects of using Magic in daily life.  He was well aware each thing he learned shortened human lives.  Some things he learned seemed frivolous, such as keeping fit despite bad eating and drinking habits, and lack of exercise.  Ways to keep one’s hair thick, keep beards from growing, and even shape one’s nails.  Others were more important, such as healing a wound, increasing one’s size, hardening the skin to make it resistant to blades and spears.  Even maintaining a constant low-level shield to deflect arrows.  The Blood did not use bows and arrows, but humans did.  

That was perhaps the first hint Torin had that not all humans were appreciative of all The Blood offered.  Of course, humans could do little against The Blood, but still, there were rumors of strange events at the edges of The Blood’s empire.

Torin also gathered bits of information regarding The Library.  He learned each Library contained copies of the same history, lineage, and administrative documents as found in the Central Library.  The copies were crafted by Magic, and he learned few had read all but the bare minimum required to run the compound, and establish lineage.  He learned who minded it when not in use, as well as ways to visit it without being seen.  That was not often, as his free time was infrequent and limited.  

Some of what he found was in languages he could not read.  Mostly, he found documents about the mundane operation of the compound.  He also learned updates were delivered as each winter passed.  The updates detailed events from the previous winter, and thus he learned of the political landscape beyond the compound he lived in.  Then he found the chest of scrolls.  It was slow reading, as they were in yet another language he was not familiar with, and had to use the translation guide he found at the bottom of the chest.  

Ledanai had either been lied to, or she and others of The Blood were ignorant of their own history.  It was not a difference of opinion that split the Elders.  It was not a high ideals issue.  It was the love of a powerful Spirit family for a human.  A human child they had adopted.  

The Blood Council did not approve, and drained the child of life.  The Spirits had closer ties with the humans than The Blood did.  Spirits and humans collaborated on many projects aimed at improving the life of humans.   The killing of that one child triggered a retaliation that escalated into a war, The Spirits allying with the humans against The Blood.  But not all those of The Spirit sided with their own.  Some offered themselves up as sources of magic in return for promised rewards.  

The Blood had no qualms about draining human lives for the conflict, whereas The Spirit limited their use of Magic.  The outcome was in doubt until the treachery of some of the Spirits allowed The Blood to prevail.   Of course, they reneged on their promise to the traitorous Spirits.  They, along with the rest of the surviving Spirits, were scattered among the human tribes.  The age of The Blood, the end of The Elders, was triggered by the death of a human child.  But still, no mention of one such as he.

For nearly two winters Torin continued his Blood training, continued his clandestine sword training, now with Bedarin, and continued his research to understand not just who he was, but what he was.  And all the while he counted the passing of the sun, and cycles of the moon, to when he would have to decide if he should Challenge or Bow to the Ruler.  Both options had the risk of exposure.

Chapter IV – Maturity

During those two winters, sword-making occupied more of Torin’s time than he had initially thought it would.  He practiced various techniques, learned about the working of iron, steel, and eventually Blood Metal, a combination of steel, minute traces of impurities, and Magic.  By varying the impurities, one could bind Magic to the sword, achieving desired characteristics.  The advantage was the swords were truly exquisite in design and properties.  The disadvantage was the swords were limited in what could be achieved with them after they were finished.  The more magic poured into them, the harder it was to do anything else with them.  The Blood favored less restricted weapons; weapons they could mold and shape during fighting.  Weapons malleable to the workings of magic.

Torin had an idea for his sword, but Master Bedarin warned him the process to obtain what he wanted would require luck; as much luck as skill and Magic.  Torin persisted.  Working with Bedarin when learning something new, and on his own when experimenting, each attempt got closer to his objective.  He achieved it just after sunset, less than a moon cycle before his Challenge to the Ruler.  

For his decision, after weighing all the possibilities, was to Challenge the Ruler.

He looked at the sword.  He hated using as much magic as he had, but his plan hinged on this weapon working, and his plan would eventually save lives.  The slightly translucent blade looked fragile, almost glass-like, but it was nearly impervious to damage.   A corner of the anvil sat on the ground, the face he had sliced through just now cooling from fire-red to its normal dull gray.  The sword likewise was losing the fine sun-yellow color from its cutting edge.  At the instant of impact, the whole cutting edge had flashed to an intense yellow.  The anvil had offered little resistance as the sword sliced through it as one might slice through thin reeds.

It was a protective reaction.  The Magic worked into the sword was not there to do anything but protect the sword from damage.  It would require a lot of Magic just to dent the sword. The magic was focused, through the aligned impurities, on both edges and on the fuller.  To that end, it was superficially similar to the typical sword; lots of Magic woven into it for strength and toughness.  But in the typical sword, those were static qualities.  

His previous sword, and Aendein’s, had been constructed to resist what came at it, and both swords were incredibly tough, flexible, and able to withstand tremendous impacts.  This sword was  light, thin, and not very flexible.  That’s because it did not need to absorb impacts.  

On contact, the Magic within the sword reacted proportionally to the applied force, focusing magic to the edge; an edge thinner than a hair.  Close examination would find the reactive edge looking as if hovering a small distance from the rest of the sword.  This was an illusion caused by the fact the translucent material was so thin near the edge, as to be nearly invisible.  The edge itself, when not active, looked like a fine strand of gold.

When Torin first proposed the idea, Bedarin had been skeptical.  Torin did not tell him of where he got the idea, nor what the process actually entailed.  And he did not elaborate on the extent of the properties he envisioned, nor of the magic required to make it work.  

The scrolls in the Library had much to teach to the patient researcher, and Torin had read them all, each many times over.  He knew of how much had been lost in the ancient conflict between The Spirit and The Blood.  

The sword he made could not have been made by either The Blood or The Spirit.  It required input from both.  It required the balance of the two powers to be infused, and to work against each other, in balance, within the weapon.

Neither Blood nor Spirit could wield this weapon, for it would react to their individual ability.  Before the war of The Elders, similar weapons, mostly knives, were made for, and gifted to, loyal humans.  They were handed out as rewards for services rendered.  Torin was neither Blood or Spirit; he was both.   His initial tests confirmed what he had guessed; the balance of the two powers within him would allow him to both construct and wield the sword.

The last feature Torin had added to the sword was a stone embedded in the hilt, much like that on the sword Bedarin had given him, two winters prior.  He had thought to transfer the stone from the original, but he had too much respect for that sword.  No . . . his stone too would be unique.  A plain quartz, with a stylized representation of a swallow.

He unsheathed the sword Bedarin had given him, and hung it back on the wall of swords.  He picked up his sword.  The new wrap felt comfortable in his hand, and he swung the sword experimentally.

“You have succeeded?”  Master Bedarin walked into the armory, unbuckling his sword belt.

Torin hesitated, his sword poised in mid-air.  He did not want the full abilities known, yet he owed Bedarin much.

“Yes,” he replied, “I believe I have.”

“Well, let’s test it out.”  Master Bedarin unsheathed his own sword, and turned to place the sword belt onto the anvil.  He stopped and stared at the piece laying on the ground.  

“I’ve heard of stories, passed on from . . . “ Turning, he looked at Torin, who was now holding his sword at the ready and shifting his feet to a battle stance.  “. . . you aim to Challenge the Ruler.”  Bedarin sheathed his sword as he spoke.

The older man stood a couple of lance lengths from Torin, who now stood relaxed.  

“Yes.” Torin replied, then continued.  “Master Bedarin, I must ask you what you intend to do.  Or say.”  Torin could not afford a warning to reach the Ruler’s ears, but he was not prepared to harm Bedarin.  The man had always been fair, and Torin was indebted to him.  Not to mention Aendein’s attachment to Bedarin.  She would not take kindly to Torin harming the man.

“Torin, I am an old man.  I serve at the pleasure of the Ruler, and obey the orders.  I have no choice.”  Bedarin walked to the wall, and hung his sword-belt.  “But no man is born with the desire to serve.  It is thrust upon men and women, and enforced by Magic.”  Bedarin walked back to Torin, stopping a at arm’s length.  “May I hold the sword?” He asked, extending his hand.

“Master Bedarin, it may cause you some discomfort, possibly hurt you to hold this sword.” Torin’s words triggered a surprise in Bedarin’s face, but not as much as his next words.  “You have a trace of The Blood in you, and while faint, the sword may react to it.”

Bedarin’s slowly lowered his hand.  “But you are also of . . . “  His words trailed off as realization hit him.  the shock transmuted into fear, his eyes going wide, and darting to his sword on the bench..

“No . . . it can’t be.  It is forbidden!”  Bedarin backed away slightly, tripped on the quenching bucket, and fell back, landing with his back to the anvil stand.  

“Master Bedarin, I wish neither you nor anyone any harm.  I just want to be allowed to live my life.”  As he spoke, Torin offered his free arm to help the Bedarin up.  They stood like that, poised, for a number of heartbeats.

“Master Bedarin! Torin!” Aendein’s words had them both looking at her. Unsure what was going on, she had her sword half drawn, and was looking to each in turn, trying to understand what was happening.

A few more heartbeats, and Bedarin spoke, his voice steady and business-like.  “Aendein.  Good.  I need help cleaning up the work area.  I tripped on the quenching bucket, and Torin was helping me up.”  Grasping Torin’s arm, Bedarin  rose to his feet, and dusted off.

“Come to think of it, would you please run to the kitchen and see if they have a late snack for me?  I missed the evening meal, and I need something to carry me until the morning.”  He turned his back and picked up the bucket.  

Aendein looked on, a confused look in her face, hesitated a few moment before replying.  “Uh, sure.  I’ll be right back.”  She took a long look before exiting the armory.  

His voice just a murmur, Bedarin addressed Torin.  “Beware, Torin.  I don’t care what your plans are for the Ruler or the Blood.  But I will not stand by to see . . . the Ruler is a lot of things, but he has a measure of care for the people living under him.  What kind of ruler will you be?”

Torin was taken aback.  Bedarin did not understand anything but the desire of The Blood to rule.  He did not know Torin just wanted to assert his independence, to claim his right to live as a free man.  He stood watching the older man, even as the scope of his decision hit him.  The Challenge, if he won, would win him this compound, and all that lived in the surrounding area.  He would be the new Ruler.  

“I don’t want to be Ruler.”  Torin spat it out, an edge of anger in his voice.  The sword he was holding glowed in reaction to his anger.  Torin realized he was drawing Magic without even thinking about it, and willed himself to stop, sheathing it as he did so.

“Master Bedarin,” his voice was back under control as he continued.  “I just want . . . “

The armory doors burst open.  Ledanai, the Ruler, his top advisor, and five of the elite guards came into the room.  

“What . . .” Bedarin never finished.  A hand-wave from the Ruler, and Bedarin flew backwards as if pulled by a rope.  He hit the wall before slumping, stunned, to the floor.

The Ruler and his advisor stood in front of Torin as the others fanned out to each side, forming a semicircle.  All of them were in battle mode.  Torin looked at them.  They looked huge to him.  He had trained with both Aendein and Badarein, but this was different.  Magic made everything different.  Still, he shifted his stance, and readied his sword.  “Empty your mind of fear, of courage; there is only you, and your sword; your opponent, and their sword.”  

The words had been drilled into him.  Countless training sessions.  Bedarin had made him repeat the mantra at the beginning and end of each session.  It worked.  His focus shifted from worrying about the number of opponents, and onto the technical aspects of sword-fighting.  He did not remember drawing it, but his sword stood at the ready in his hand,a very faint glow on each edge.

“I hear you’ve been visiting the Library.”  The Ruler’s words registered, but Torin did not answer.  Ledanai to his left, and one of the guards to his right, were both tensing.   They would move first.   The others likely waiting for the outcome before moving.  The Ruler continued.  “I don’t like people going behind my back, be they of The Blood, or not.”

Chapter V – Burden

The Ruler’s words were barely spoken when Ledanai and the guard attacked.  The guard coming low, swinging his now red-hot sword at Torin’s waist.  Ledanai’s swing was a downward arc that would intersect with Torin’s head.  His own sword arched in a sweeping motion from the low position, upward, and back down to his other side, twisting and stepping forward as he did so.  His back now to the ruler, he looked at the two attackers. His sword had intersected both swords before they could finish their arc, and had sliced through them as if they were twigs . . . but the swinging arc had also separated the guard’s head from his body.  His sword had stopped just past Ledanai.  She looked at Torin, then she tried to look down at herself, but the eyes closed as her body split in two at the waist.

The room was quiet for a few heartbeats.  Torin repositioned, barely registering the noise of the two bodies hitting the ground.  He did register a drop of blood running down his forearm.  The severed tip of Ledanai’s sword had continued on its trajectory, and superficially cut Torin’s forearm before embedding into the floor.  

The other four guards grew almost a third more in size, and their swords grew longer and brighter, but they did not move.  “He’s mine!”  yelled the Ruler.  

Torin watched as the Ruler grew nearly twice his height and girth, his sword now a lance-length, and glowing blood-red.   He attacked, but Torin registered the tell-tale movement indicating the attack.  The Ruler may have been large, but the penalty of size was speed.  Torin easily avoided the lunge, and sliced through the Ruler’s wrist as it slid past, just a few hand-widths away.  Still clutching the sword, the separated hand dropped to the ground.  The motion brought Torin in range of one of the guards, and he continued his swing, diagonally slicing through the guard, his shield, and sword brought up to block Torin’s sword.  

The detached observer in his mind registered the lack of blood.  His sword burned through the flesh and bones, searing vessels shut as it passed.  

The Ruler let out a furious roar, and grew even more, nearly touching the ceiling.  His good hand grabbed a sword from the wall.  Torin noticed it was his own sword.  The moment the Ruler touched it, it grew fiery red, and literally crackled.  He must be channeling a lot of Magic . . . Aendein!!

Torin had not called upon any magic.  He now reached out . . . everyone’s lifeforces were being taxed, but more so those of the three Spirits.  One, the closest, most of all.  She was right outside the armory.  Even as he sensed Aendein’s lifeforce, he felt her slip away.  In an instant, she was no more.  He knew because he recognized the moment from when he had inadvertently drained Rodienn’s lifeforce.

“NOOO!!”  Instinct saved him from one of the guards.  The sword passed within a couple of finger widths from his chest even as he dropped and sliced the guard in two at the thighs.  Torin raged within.  “Aendein!  AENDEIN!!”  

He turned to face the Ruler and the guards.   They were staring at him, and it took a few moments to notice he was no longer looking up at them.  They were normal-sized, and their weapons, save for his old sword the Ruler still held, were decrepit iron swords.  They were now looking up at him.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he watched dispassionately as they retreated.  All the humans and the two remaining Spirits were now shielded, robbing the Bloods of their fuel for Magic.  But more than that, Torin began draining all of The Bloods of their lifeforces.  He looked at his hand.  It was no longer holding the sword, nor did it still resemble a hand.

Instead, three smooth, black, shimmering talons were in its place, and even as he looked on, talons grew from his wrist.  The talons curved to a blade-like point, and looked designed for one purpose . . . to shred flesh.  He looked at his other hand, and it was likewise . . . “I am a monster!” he thought.  And then he saw no more.

He became aware of cool cloth on his forehead.  He jumped up.  An old woman was tending to him.  Her impassive face was lined with wrinkles.  It was not a soft face, and her eyes held no emotion.

Torin looked about . . . his clothes were on a nearby chair.  His sword rested against the same chair.  He was under a blanket, naked.

“Thank you.”  The woman’s voice sounded younger than she looked.  He realized who she was.  

“Delaein . . . “ She was one of the Spirits.  Not thirty winters old, she now looked twice that.  A cold chill made him shiver as his memory returned.  “Aendein . . . “

The old woman closed her eyes, a tear rolling down her cheek.  She shook her head slightly.

“She is gone, along with many others.  We would have perished as well had you not shielded us.  Both my sister and I live.  We felt you shielding us, and only then realized our lives were being taken from us.”  

Her eyes stared at the wall as she continued.  “All these years; how could we not know!!”

“Delaein; you and your sister will recover.  You are not like other humans.  They will carry the result of being drained, but you two, you will recover.”  Torin felt the need to reassure the woman, unable to voice to the guilt he carried.  He had not saved them; he was the cause of it all.

“How . . . what . . .” Delaen’s face finally showed some emotion.  Doubt, fear, hope . . . it was difficult to tell.

“I’ll explain later.” Torin, unashamed, rose from the bed, and went to his clothes.  “What of the Bloods?” he asked as he dressed.

“You killed them all.”  Her face had regained the impassive look, but there was a tremor in her voice.

“Did I drain them?” He asked.  He did not want to be responsible for so many deaths.  Some of the Bloods had just started their training; they were still kids.

“Delaein,” he said, “answer me!”

Delaein stared at him for a few heartbeats . . . “You don’t remember.”  She did not ask.  She said it.

She rose, and went to the window.  She opened it, and pointed at something outside.  Torin went to the window as he tied his sword belt around his waist.  As he approached, the smell of something burning reached his nostrils.  What he saw, horrified him.

A pile of body parts.  Some were whole, arms and legs, but many were mangled pieces barely recognizable as belonging to a human form.  He nearly threw up as he staggered back from the window.  Sitting on the bed,he remembered his taloned hands.  

“Did I do that?”  He knew the answer even as Delaein nodded.  He noticed she already looked younger than she did. Her eyes still looked older.  He doubted they would regain yesterday’s sparkle. “Tell me.  Tell me what I did!”

Delaein hesitated before speaking.  “It might be best not knowing the details.”

“No.  I am responsible.  I need to know.”  Torin’s voice was barely audible.

He listened as Delaein recounted the rampage through the compound.  His appearance that of black liquid, his head devoid of any features, he moved with incredible speed, hunting down those of the Blood.  Some had tried outrunning him on horses, only to have both themselves and the horses cut to shreds by his talons.  Some used humans as shields, but he had forcibly separated them.  Many had hid, but he tracked them all down.  Some he tore limb from limb.  Some he skewered, some he sliced into pieces.  None escaped.  Some of the compound staff were also attacked and killed.

“Bedarin!  Where is Bedarin?”  Torin had a cold feeling at the pit of his stomach.  He already knew the answer.

“Gone.  He was with the first ones.”

Dalaein could not know.  She would assume Bedarin attempted to fight Torin, but he knew the truth.  Bedarin had traces of The Blood in him.  Likely, so did the staff he killed.  Whatever mindless monster he had turned into, he had located and killed all who bore any hint of The Blood in them.

He could not be sure if it had been the result of the rage he had felt at Aendein’s death, or because he lost all control, and that was just what the monster within him did.  That realization scared him most of all;  the thought that he might not be able to control his actions.

The legends were true, then; he was a monster.  Or rather, he had a monster within him, and Torin did not know which side of him was in control.

He sheathed his sword, and in doing so, sliced through the scabbard.  He would need to craft something that could hold the sword without touching the edges.  But for now, he needed to think.

A knock at the door had him turn, sword in hand.  Dalaein rose, and went to the door.  Two men, clearly nervous, pushed a third through the door.  The man stumbled, unable to regain his balance with his hands tied behind his back, and fell to the floor.  It was the Ruler’s advisor.  

“We caught this one trying to leave.  Disguised as an old woman, he was.”  The speaker tried to sound tough, but he could not keep the fear from his voice.  He kept looking at Torin, perhaps expecting him to transform before his very eyes.  

Dalaein, now looking more like her winters, thanked them, and assured them they could leave.  They did not argue.

Torin turned his attention to Carnad.  “You told the Ruler I was visiting the Library.”  He took a step toward the man laying on the ground.  Dalaein stepped between them.  “He was doing his job.”  Her words were soft, but her voice was steady.  “And we need information,” she continued.

Turning to the man, she knelt beside him, untied his hands, and helped him up.  He favored one leg, as if injured.  Apparently his captors had been none too gentle.

“What happens now?”  Carnad turned to Dalaein.  Torin did not think he even heard, let alone understood Delaein’s question.

Dalaein shook his arm, getting his full attention.  “What happens now?” She repeated.

“What do you mean?”  The man was struggling to regain some composure, obviously trying to both suppress his fear, and to think of a way he might survive this.

“All of the Bloods that were here are . . . gone.  What happens now?  What will The Blood do?”  Torin winced at Dalain’s words, but was eager to hear the response.

Carnad closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them, and looked directly at Torin.

“Are you going to kill me?”  He pulled himself up.  Torin absent-mindedly though it was a little late for dignity.

He walked up to the man.  Dalaein did not move from the man’s side.  She obviously did not want more bloodshed.  Truthfully, neither did Torin.  But he needed answers.  Stopping an arm’s length away, he forcefully planted his sword into solid stone floor.  Both Dalaein’s and Carnad took an involuntary step back.  Their eyes were riveted to the glowing sword.  Glowing even though Torin no longer held it.

“Your fate is not any concern of mine, but the fate of this place is.”  Torin rubbed his forehead, sighed, and resumed.  “I would rather not slice you to pieces, but I’m not opposed to it in general principle.  Answer the lady.”

Carnad swallowed.  “The Blood requires a report every moon-cycle.  Ours is due in a quarter of a cycle.  Even if we tell them nothing of the  . . . events, the Ruler usually puts a signature and seal on the report.  They will know it’s not from him.  They will investigate.  Most likely, the garrison at Sediment Bay.”  He paused, hesitated, and then asked “ . . . are you going to kill them as well?”

Torin snapped his attention back at Carnad, and the man visibly shrank.  “Torin . . . “ Dalaein plea was evident in her voice.

Willing himself to relax, Torin exhaled.  Too many deaths.  The Blood took, and took, but most had no malice in mind.  To them, it’s how things were, how they were raised.  Their place in the puzzle of life.  No different, in essence, than merchants who exacted a price for their goods.  People exchanged part of their lives to obtain what they needed, or just wanted.  

No; there was a difference.  A difference between willingly exchanging part of one’s life for a goal, and having it taken from you to satisfy someone else’s goals.

Someday he will have to do something about it.  But not now, and not here.

“Carnad, you will tell them. You will tell them everything you know.” Torin, despite trying to remain in control, was visibly shaking.  Both Carnad and Dalaein backed away from him, but he ignored the movement.  Staring straight at Carnad, he continued. “You will tell them what has happened.   These people will decide if they want The Blood back in here.  But mark my word; The Blood should think long and hard about who they decide to put back in here.  Any retribution toward these people, any abuse of Magic,” Torin grabbed the sword, and advanced toward the man who, his back to the wall, had nowhere to retreat,”and I will return.  And Carnad, do impress upon them that the next time, I will not stop.”  With those words, Torin traced the outline of Carnad’s left side on the wall, the sword leaving a sharp, dark charcoal line where it passed through the wood.

Torin turned his back on the man, and said, “Go.  Tell them those exact words.”

Carnad practically ran out of the room, limp or no limp.  The door slammed shut behind him.

Torin looked down as he spoke. “Dalaein, there is much I need to tell you about the Spirits, your ancestors, and The Blood, but the . . .”  He stopped as he saw her.  She looked much younger than her thirty winters.  He doubted she even realized it herself.  He continued.  “Ah, . . . the truth of it is they cannot ignore the fact you now know the Blood drains lifeforces, how they use it to fuel their magic.  They will kill you both; you and your sister.”

A thought suddenly occurred to Torin . . . “Did you tell anyone about The Blood draining lifeforces from humans?”

Dalaein shook her head.  “No.  We barely understand it ourselves.  I did not know we were different.  That is, before you told me.”

“Good.”, Torin kept looking at her, realizing the drain on the Spirits must be at a higher level than most humans.   Dalaein now looked not much older than Aendein, who was barely . . . had been, barely 17 winters.  A pang of guilt, remorse, and longing hit him all at once.  Aendein . . . He could not believe she was no more.  He could not bear the thought he had failed her.  So concerned had he been for his own fate, that he failed to consider the consequences, now obvious, of challenging the Ruler.

He briefly pondered the validity of the threat in the message he sent to The Blood.  How many humans and Spirits could he shield at one time?  How fast and how many of The Blood could he drain?  He knew for sure of three to four hundred humans, and about ninety Bloods.  What were the limits of his power?  How could he test those limits?  Did his power vary with his . . . transformation?  More important, was he willing to risk more lives to find out?

“No, I am not.”  He did not realize he had spoken out loud until Dalaein replied.  “You are not?”  Her question brought him back to the present.

“Sorry,” Torin replied,” just thinking out loud.  Do you have a place you can go?”  

“Every place I know of has those of The Blood living there.  From what you told me, they would know who we are, and that we are blocking them from taking our lifeforce.  For us to blend in,” continued Dalaein, “we would have to let them . . . feed on us.  I, for one, do not intend to.”

Another knock on the door.  This one softer, hesitant.  “Your sister.” Torin said before Dalaein made it to the door.

“Come in.” Dalaein motion the young girl to enter.  Torin would have guessed her to be twelve winters, or so, but he no longer trusted his frame of reference with regards to guessing ages of people of the Spirits.

Both sisters gasped upon looking at each other.  What followed was a confused conversation, and a quick trip to the small mirror in the hall.  Some hushed conversation, concerned questions, more conversation, all of it outside of Torin hearing range.

They came back into the room, and closed the door.  

“Torin, this is my sister, Serra, short for Serraein.”  The young girl bowed at the introduction.  Dalaein continued.  “We wish to travel with you.”

“What?!  No!”  Torin’s reaction was automatic, but he quickly added to it.  “Haven’t you see what I am?  What I am capable of?  I don’t even know if I can control it!”

“The people here know we are different.  It’s quite evident, now.  Torin, we have no training in survival.  Have no Magic ability, have no skills with weapons.  What would you have us do?”  Serra’s question was a valid one.  Torin mentally raised her age a number of winters.  Her question carried maturity beyond what her looks indicated.

“Parents?  Relatives?  Do you have anyone you can trust?”  His argument was weak, and Torin knew it even before Serra answered.

“Yes, there is someone, but why would we want to put them in danger?”  

Dalaein took a step forward, resting her hand on his arm.  He registered his arm bore no trace of the cut from Ledanai’s sword.  Not even a scar.  “Please, just until you can teach us to fight, teach us to survive, then we’ll part ways.”  In the end, he agreed.

They had planned on leaving right away, but once outside Torin saw first hand some of the damage he had wrecked.  Not just to structures, but humans were hurt as well.  Not intentionally, but he had hurt a few that got in his way.   

After conferring with Delaein and Serra, he began to heal those injured.  At their insistence, he drew mostly from the sister, as they laid, resting, behind closed door.  The fact they willingly offered themselves for the task made it no less distasteful.  But it was necessary.

And he wondered about the fact that he had not killed indiscriminately.  Had there been a part of him in control?  A part he now did not remember?  Or was there some other binding controlling his other self?

Four days later, Torin and the two sisters left.  A number of townspeople had already left, and none planned on staying, despite the recounting of Torin’s warning to The Blood.  Before The Blood returned, all the people would be gone.  Ghosts and dark memories would be the only things they would find.  

They left just after sunrise, the sun warming their backs.  Only a few people were there to see them off.  On horseback, with two extra horses loaded with provisions, clothes, and weapons, and with a vague idea to travel sunsetward, they set off. 

Torin had used the four days to mend what he could.  At their insistence, he drew from their lifeforces to also forge for each of the sisters a short and a long sword.  Visually similar to  the sword given to him by Badarin, they were lighter and stronger.

The end caps stones in Delaein’s and Serra’s swords had symbols of their own choosing; dragonflies for the short swords, signifying awareness of self, of purpose, and of maturity, while the stones on the longer swords bore the outline of a hummingbird, signifying tireless energy.  Delaein and Serra each wore a double scabbard, holding both swords, just as he carried his two swords.

Torin reflected on the journey ahead of them.  The edge of The Blood’s empire did not mean the edge of the world.  What lay beyond might offer new opportunities, and he was curious about the rumors from the border of the empire.   Exciting stuff, and possibilities untold, especially to them without other options.  But, even as he looked at the horizon, he knew someday he will have to do something about The Blood.  

The thought of all those lives slowly being drained weighed on his mind.  Thinking of them, all he could see was Aendein’s smiling face.  As he had done countless times since her passing, he struggled to remain calm, to suppress the dark stirring within.  He felt the ripple in his forearm subside.  He was still in control.  For now.

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