Skycloud. Within the garden of the governor’s mansion.
An older man in simple but well-kept robes sat opposite a game board. His hair was fastidiously combed without a single hair misplaced. Streaks of gray swept back from his temples. His face was more youthful than the rest of him might imply, but from time to time his eyes would narrow as he looked at the board and fine wrinkled would appear at their corners. He sat calmly, staring at the situation before him with a stoic consideration, still as an ancient well.
“I’ve lost again.” A young man in brilliant white garments scowled and dropped the piece in his hand. The older man’s defeated opponent was Skycloud’s darling, a man of seeming endless talent, Frost de Winter. “I can’t capture my mentor’s thought process. Your tactics are ever changing. How can I cultivate a mind like yours?” 
Arcturus Cloude slowly placed his own piece back on the table. “The spirit of the game is to understand it as nothing more than a dozen or so vertical and horizontal lines. The colors of the pieces and the places they can occupy are limited. The forms may vary, but the result is the same, all within the rules of the game. In the end you win, or you lose. This is the fundamental nature, but that is not enough.”
“So what is the bigger truth?” Frost asked.
“The game between all the creatures of heaven and earth, of course,” Arcturus replied. “We are both the players and the pieces. As pieces we have our colors, black or white, but we can switch from one to the other. In the same vein the strong become weak, the weak become strong. The whole game can change. Through the course of it there are small challenges, and smaller clashes beneath those. Heaven and earth are the backdrop, and the backdrop may change as well. Boundaries are endless. Tokens rise and fall, wither and flourish, and it no longer matters who wins and who loses in any given moment. A thousand years of success can be undone in an instant. It’s a game that goes on and on, for eternity.”
Frost remained silent as though mulling over his mentor’s words.
The stiffness in the governor’s face relaxed, grew warmer, and a slight smile crossed his features. “It doesn’t matter if you struggle with this small contest. What matters is the bigger game.”
“How should I improve?”
“Ask yourself, what are my limits? Ask what your motives are. Never play a game that is beyond you. You must always know what you are capable of, and what you are aiming for. In pursuit of our goals we must not be burdened by gains or losses. We cannot afford to fret over stigmas, nor whether others understand. We must be prepared to accept that victory or defeat may not be achieved in our lifetime. All that is important, is that we continue to make progress toward our goal.
Arcturus stopped and raised his hand. An attendant approached with a box in his hands and presented it to Frost. The young man opened it, and resting within was a beautiful sword etched with veins of ice. It was obvious at a glance that this was a relic of rare quality. Frost stared at it in surprise. He knew what it was Arcturus was giving him.
“This sword is named Rimeshard, and as of today it belongs to you.” Arcturus signaled for Frost to take it. “A situation has come up in the Blisterpeak mountains. After two years in training here, I believe now is a fine opportunity for you to give your new weapon a try.”
“As you command!”
Gratitude was painted on the younger man’s face. With a mentor like this he was destined to succeed with indomitable spirit. Two years, now it was his chance to see what his training had wrought.
He slipped the sword into its sheath and affixed it to his waist.
The outstanding young man wasted no time in gathering a contingent of demonhunters. He left to seek victory in the Blisterpeak mountains.
At roughly the same time, the army general’s aid Mr. Ink approached Skye Polaris with a report. The general’s lion-like face broke into smile, and he laughed hard enough to shake the walls when he learned that the operation to eliminate the Dark Atom was underway. People on the other side of the mansion could hear his bellowing voice.  “Aegir is one of the few remaining lions of the Polaris familiar. With him leading the charge, it will surely revitalize the glory of our family name!”
“Perhaps we should arrange for reinforcements,” Mr. Ink offered.
“Yes, yes, yes. Select our finest troop and send them for support. Then sent word to Hell’s Valley to mobilize and join them.”
Mr. Ink was puzzled by the order. “You wish to involve the valley as well?”
Skye dismissed his question as foolish. Why shouldn’t the valley be tapped for a mission this important? Mr. Ink thought for a moment but could see nothing inappropriate in the action, so he left to exact the Grand General’s orders.
Dark clouds gathered over the Blisterpeaks. Their bellies were painted red by the light of lava flows below. The famously apocalyptic landscape was enveloped in an especially menacing air.
Coal was on his way back to the chasm where his tribe lived. He didn’t know why, but an uncomfortable sense of foreboding gripped his chest. Somehow he knew something was coming, something bad. The young mutant quickened his pace so as to reach his people as soon as possible.
Coal was still young, his world was small. While that ominous feeling followed him, he couldn’t guess what it might mean. He focused on his task, bringing the news of the city to his chief and ensuring a peaceful life for his tribe.
Maybe then the uncomfortable feeling would flee. He could put aside his concern for his people and travel the vast wastelands like he always intended.
By the time he reached the chasm, three days had passed. The tribe was nervous after hearing nothing from them for so long. Their chief especially was struggling with his disquiet. The fear visibly melted from him when he saw Coal come back alive.
“Why just you? What about the others?”
“The rest are inside the city within the mountain. I came back to gather the rest of you. We can all live in the fabled city now.”
Surprise was an understatement. Did the foreigner really find it? The city within the mountain? The chief was even more stunned to learn that the people of the city were willing to take in their tribe. Forgetting his disquiet for the time being, Coal told his people all about what he’d seen, to a chorus of gasps and cries.
A paradise like that was hiding in this terrible place, all this time? Children from the tribe all gathered around Coal and pelted him with questions.
He told them about the beautiful and mysterious land, covered in trees and plants, farm animals and clean water. And it was safe. The most wonderful things they could imagine were waiting for them there. It only took about a day to reach, so not much preparation was needed. Coal told them to gather just what they needed and then they would leave.
Joyous cries rose up from the Volcano Tribe. Their years of bitter existence had finally come to an end. Everyone gathered only what was essential and prepared to follow Coal to this new land of promise.
Suddenly there came a blast like thunder from overhead. Beams of piercing light broke through the clouds and crashed into the chasm.
Their intensity blinded the eye and deafened the ear. After several seconds, when the barrage died down, the tribesmen looked around in speechless shock. Suddenly their chasm was surrounded by scores of men in shining armor.
When the old chief saw this, his face fell in despair. These were elysian soldiers.
Who other than the chief had seen outsiders like this? They shrunk away instinctively, but they were surrounded on all sides. Where could they escape to?
Fear scraped at the back of Coal’s mind. He knew from their dress that they weren’t from the city, nor denizens of these mountains. He tried to communicate in broken English. “Wh...who… are.. you?”
Drake chuckled. “Well, a surprise that the natives can speak our language. Good – very good. Saves us the energy.”
The man beside Drake, also dressed in officer’s garb, stepped forward. Brontes’ face was hidden beneath a silver mask, and when he spoke through it his voice was chillingly cold. “Grab them all!”
A thousand swords rang against scabbards as they were drawn. Terrified, the people of the Volcano Tribe did not know what to say in the face of this sudden aggression.
The elysian soldiers moved in, giving them no chance to find their words. But the chief’s rumbling voice rose above the sound of steel boots. “Run! Run!”
Nature had provided these natives with rock-like flesh, strong enough to deflect elysian blades. Their weapons rang against the mutants’ bodies as though they were striking steel, while they fled in terror from their attackers. Fierce as charging animals they broke through the ranks, but individual strength only got them so far before they were overwhelmed.
It took a dozen soldiers to subdue one mutant. Dozens of blasts from elysian bows fired at them, strong enough to pierce their tough hides. There was no suspense as to the outcome, the Volcano Tribe was quickly dominated. Several dozen were killed.
Fear and anger roiled within Coal as he watched his people being killed or captured. A dozen soldiers hung from one of his arms like plaster, and when he flung them away they soared through the air like garbage. Not even elysian armor could protect them from the jagged volcanic rock, and they fell into crumbled piles of broken bone to die gasping.
“The one who speaks knows a thing or two!” Drake eyed Coal with surprise. He pulled out a massive sword that was stuck in the stony ground, and it started to glow. Drake’s weapon was a special one, blessed by the sanctuary itself to be several times sharper and more destructive than a normal broadsword. “It’s our turn, Brontes!”
Brontes wrenched his own large sword from its sheath. As leader of the vanguard, his strength was without question.
Both officers opened their assault with spearhead. With tremendous momentum and an explosion of energy they burst forward toward Coal. By virtue of spearhead Drake gathered his formidable strength into his arms, which ripped his sword through the air with gale-force winds. He landed a brutal hacking chop on Coal’s chest.
Even if Coal’s body really was made of tungsten steel, Drake’s attack was too overwhelming. Cracks appeared centered around where the sword struck and spread out. The pain and force of impact sent Coal reeling.
Brontes’ spearhead attack followed soon after with his sword aimed at Coal’s head. He was not quite as strong as Drake, but he was more clever. He made sure to aim his blow at an area that would do more damage. However, while Brontes’ attack could cleave a sheet of iron it left no mark on Coal.
The mutant stumbled back and forth. The successive hits had made him dizzy and unstable. So strong… outsiders were all so strong!
Timid by nature, Coal wanted to run. But through the double vision and ringing ears he saw soldiers tying the chief’s hands behind his back. Fury overtook him. He couldn’t run. He refused to run.
A deafening roar boomed through the chasm. Coal threw his boulder-like fist at Drake.
The lieutenant general called on his martial training to riposte. His true power, in addition to the blessed sword, bore the indomitable strength of a mountain. Just like Coal, who was like a living mountain himself. The mutant’s hand was badly injured as sword met flesh, but Drake was also hurled back a good six meters.
Coal didn’t let up. He charged in with a second punch. Brontes’ sword exploded into pieces and he went flying.
Drake was utterly dumbfounded. What was going on with this monster? He was just a mutant, there was no way he knew how to harness his true power. Was it just evolution and pure strength that made him this hard to deal with?
“CHIEF!” Coal’s forlorn shout bellowed over the sounds of conflict.
“Don’t worry about me! Run!” The chief shouted back. “You can’t beat them! You must escape!”
Coal was single-minded, he had to save the chief. In a wild rampage he charged toward the elder, ignoring the volley of arrows that bounced off his form. Soldiers that tried to bar his advance were knocked away or trampled, and nearly twenty were killed for their efforts. There was nothing human about this mutant! He was pure, monstrous rage!
Both Drake and Brontes wore scowling faces. After all, a mere mutant was proving more than their forces could handle.
Just then, a lower ranked officer emerged from the din. He was hard to miss, so fat as to be nearly spherical. A platoon of forty or fifty men were close on his heels. They were all corporeals, sergeants and other low-ranking officers, men of formidable ability.
Hammont Seacrest had taken the lead. “On my orders! Move in!”
The platoon charged at Coal like a sea of angry metal. They swarmed the mutant, throwing sturdy lines around his neck, his arms, his legs, pulling them tight to leave him no place to go. The material they used to tie him up were spools of elysian bowstring.
The materials used to create it were tenacious and difficult to snap. Coal found himself quickly wrapped up in meters of it, unable to move.
Seconds were all they had, but it was enough for elysian soldiers. Hammont threw his flaby arm high and shouted. “Quickly! Tie it down!”
The officers scrambled all around like ants. Coal was wrapped up tight before he could fight back. By the end there were hundreds of meters or bowstring keeping him motionless. All he could do was scream impotently at his failure.
Brontes gave the fat soldier a searching look. “This one’s got more to him than it would seem.”
“Indeed!” Drake was reminded of the surprising news Hammont shared with him just before they disembarked for these mountains. The reminder darkened his face. But, he definitely was seeing this fat magistrate in a new light. “In fact, catching the natives and using them as pathfinders was his idea. It’s better than relying on some map. If we went kicking around blindly, we’d almost certainly tip off the enemy.”
“Lieutenant General, Vanguard General. Sirs, reporting for orders!” Hammont presented himself before the two men, bursting with eagerness to please. “The mutants have been captured. We’re awaiting further instruction.”
Drake nodded but spoke to Brontes. “I leave it to you.”
Brontes strode over to Coal without a word, then, “There’s a city hidden in these mountains. Do you know where it is?”
Coal was terrified, panicked. He’d never felt so helpless, he didn’t know what to do.
The chief was nearby and heard the exchange. It was then he knew the elysians were searching for the fabled city under the mountain. If they found it, it was certain their paradise would be destroyed before the Volcano Tribe could even see it. He shouted hysterically at Coal. “They’ll never let us go! Some of our people are still there, even if they kill us our tribe will live on! But if we let these devils know where the city is, they will kill every one of us. Tell them nothing!”
He shouted in the gutteral, growling language of their tribe. Neither Drake nor Brontes understood a word.
But Drake was not a fool. He knew it just by looking at his face, and smiled at the revelation. “Seems like this rock-head does know something, Brontes.”
Behind the silver mask there was a sour look to the vanguard leader’s eyes. He snatched a sword from one of the nearby soldiers, but instead of using it on Coal he strode over to the chief. He pressed his foot on the prostrate body of the elder and put the tip of the sword against his neck. Heartless eyes fixed on Coal. “You care about this one?”
Coal shouted back, struggling against his bindings. “Don’t kill-”
He didn’t get to finish. Brontes swung the sword. It was nearly silent as it whipped through the air faster than sound. Some martial technique imbued it with staggering power.
The old chief’s neck was neatly separated, and his head rolled down the chasm. When it came to a stop, dim eyes stared at Coal. He could almost see the regret still there the moment the chief died.
1. They are playing weiqi, or go.
2. Off topic, but the strength of one’s voice is strangely telling in Chinese medicine. The power of someone’s voice is seen as an indication of Lung qi. The more a voice carries the more preponderance of qi exists. Typically this works in one’s benefit as the Lung qi helpd defend against external pathogens. Interestingly, the lungs are also considered closely tied to the emotion of fear (hence you gasp or scream when afraid, giving voice to it). It is no surprise, then, that the ones with the booming voice are often assumed – correctly – to be more resilient against being frightened.