Pain, be welcome in my home. You shall not live here long, yet while you stay with me, I receive you like an honored guest. You will know peace in this house, but only until the completion of my task, and at that point you must go. Yet until that moment arrives, I greet you like an old friend.

Sweat streaking down his face, the young novitiate recited the words in his head and struggled against the distraction of the pain lancing outward from the spot where his knees knelt on unyielding stone. The throbbing ache seemed to encompass his entire world, gathering intensity and radiating upward, but he struggled to shut it out of his awareness. Complaint achieved nothing; worse, it would prevent him from accomplishing his task. Kneeling for hours on the unforgiving surface had produced pain nearly so intolerable that it could keep him from recognizing his test, much less passing it. If the sensation stood in his way and he could not end it, he must therefore alter his perception of it. Only by embracing the pain could he surmount it.

Already I would have failed, the novitiate lamented, if the masters could but read my thoughts. The Ivgorod monks held a legendary control over their bodies, and in moments of stress their minds surpassed the physical realm to a higher state of being. They would tell him he must clear his mind, not so that he might achieve his goal but so that he might hear the gods when they spoke. They communicated to all who listened, using the wind, the rain, the rivers, wildlife, and in Ytar's case, even fire as their voice.

Yet now, the only thing that spoke in this vast, dark chamber was the pulse in Mikulov's ears, beating in sympathetic accord with the pain in his knees. Still, those paired sensations and the beads of sweat on his brow were all signs that his body and mind were in less than perfect harmony. Mikulov forced calm on himself once more.

Pain, be welcome...

Grimacing, he feared he would never overcome it. How could one welcome that which was all but unendurable? He'd been a fool to think he could, just as he'd been a fool the moment he'd walked into this chamber when he saw that it had no way out...

In the Floating Sky Monastery, the home of the fabled monks of Ivgorod, located on the western main continent of Sanctuary, in the mountains on the edge of the Gorgorra forest, children grew up knowing loneliness without end. Whatever their reason for being there, they all knew well the intense hunger for family. The yearning bonded them, teaching them to cherish the ways they were alike. A single desire unified them—the expectation of one day becoming monks of the order. Those who showed insufficient aptitude for study endured a rude awakening when they were instructed to leave the monastery, but they were given one final chance: prevail over a physical challenge, thus earning the right to return by demonstrating a previously unseen talent for training, or be forsaken by the monastery forever.

Gachev, an older boy, had tormented Mikulov for years, until his mulishness and indifference to the monastery's discipline at last provoked the monks to test him. The weather had been brutally cold the day he was ordered to confront his challenge, and Gachev's provisions were few. The abject look of fear on the youth's face told Mikulov not to expect his return. And no one inside the order had heard from Gachev since. At first, Gachev's being turned out had brought Mikulov joy, until he realized that he, too, questioned authority and that he, too, would likely face a similar challenge.

While the monastery's great portal had remained open and Gachev's form had dwindled in the barren distance, Mikulov had looked into the face of wizened old Master Vedenin. The monk's ancient robes, long, white beard, and smooth head made him nearly indistinguishable from his brethren. What set Vedenin apart, in an order known for its tranquility, was his harshness. His vehemence lurked in Mikulov's memory. You are foolish, Vedenin would rasp. Vedenin managed to keep his voice toneless but still inflect single words with vitriol, his timbre with contempt. You have speed, agility, and a sharp mind, yet you are proud and impulsive and weak. You focus ever on slights and frustrations and make yourself deaf to the gods. Your actions will bring shame on you and on the monastery. Mikulov heard the words again that day as Vedenin cast his disdainful gaze toward Gachev's departure. The monk clearly looked forward to delivering him someday to the same fate. By instinct or prescience, Mikulov understood that when his time came, Vedenin would dispatch him on his test.

That moment, Mikulov vowed not to fail. As young as he was, he would devote the rest of his days in the monastery to readying himself for the ordeal he knew he must eventually face.

The monks taught that every person was a living, breathing weapon, but relying on a single resource at all times was folly. A monk's true power, they taught, came from self-discipline and the spirit. The order therefore required its acolytes to master arms from three realms: weapons of the mind; weapons of physical combat; and the most potent, weapons of spirit, calming their souls and tapping into the power the gods shared with their proven servants. When monks achieved this, they could wield more mundane weapons as an extension of their balanced spirit. Mikulov swore he would do likewise.

From the time they could walk, the children of the order were brought up in the company of physical weaponry. Mikulov particularly favored the punch dagger, the short blade wielded in one hand, gripped so its lethal tip protruded directly out from the fist, passing between his fingers. His rapport with the weapon came swiftly—even in an instant—though he at first balked at its imposition on him by Vedenin, of course. Originally Mikulov had wanted to use a bow.

"The bow is excellent for long-range use yet utterly ineffective up close," the old monk said with contempt.

Mikulov disagreed; the bow would keep his enemies at bay, denying them any opportunity to close the distance.

Vedenin countered that better choices for long-range combat rendered the bow a weakling's preference.

When Mikulov scoffed, the old man seized the chance to humiliate him before all the boys and girls present. Instructing him to take a bow and two arrows, Vedenin marched ten paces off and stood with his arms crossed, hands hidden within his robe's voluminous sleeves. "What would you use to attack me from this distance?" he asked.

Mikulov held up the bow.

"Do so."

Mikulov, in front of his fellow novitiates, heard the slight shift in Vedenin's voice from bandied words to a true test. He moved to nock the first arrow but kept his eyes on Vedenin. A brief gesture within one sleeve, and the arrow's shaft snapped in Mikulov's hand.

Vedenin closed the gap between them to five paces. "And what would you use to attack me from this distance?"

Mikulov fumbled with his remaining arrow.

"Bows take time to prepare," Vedenin declared. "The spirit is instantaneous." His next gesture was so deft and subtle that Mikulov did not see it. Both the arrow and the bow exploded in Mikulov's hands. His ears burned with the other pupils' laughter.

The old man now stood an arm's length away. With smug condescension he asked, "And from this distance?"

Mikulov glared at him angrily. "My bare hands."

The movement of Vedenin's hand came more swiftly than his years should have allowed. The infinitesimally fine point and razor edges of a punch dagger passed so close to Mikulov's eyes he felt the blade slice the air.

"Try it," Vedenin murmured, softly, his words reaching Mikulov alone.

Humiliated though Mikulov had been by that lesson, he was acute enough to grasp its wisdom. His uncanny grace and balance soon made him formidable with this close-combat weapon, the sound of his exertions heard often on the practice field. In time, he found himself the dagger's master.

Mastery of the mind and of the spirit, however, eluded him.

True prowess came from more than incantations over arcane scrolls. No, the ancient order believed that the force of the gods was in all things, be they living or inert, and that power must therefore flow over everything in creation. Thus, practitioners within the Floating Sky Monastery spent their lives learning to sense that force wherever it lay and manipulate it to whatever purposes served the Patriarchs, the voice of the gods in Ivgorod.

One day, when his punch dagger was a blur to those who watched it hammer the wooden post he used as a stand-in enemy, so unalloyed was Mikulov's concentration that he reflexively reached out with his mind, into the kinetic resonance of the gods' power. Though the action came about by chance, and though it harnessed only a fraction of the available force, his weapon struck the post with more than physical strength. A blue light crackled out of Mikulov's blade, and a shockwave knocked several onlookers off their feet. Ripples carried outward into the monastery's walls. Two stunned orphans ran, calling their wizened masters, though they needn't have bothered. Monks of the Floating Sky spent every day in rapt contemplation of their surroundings, waiting for signs from the gods. Such clear evidence of the divine could scarcely escape their notice.

Mikulov, already proficient with physical weapons, had sufficiently mastered both his mind and spirit to do something extraordinary. His test, he knew, would likely be upon him soon. When the stern, unyielding face of Vedenin arrived and stared down into his own on the practice field, Mikulov grasped that the likelihood had just become a certainty.

In the days that followed, Mikulov pushed himself to master this newly discovered ability so he could summon the power at will.

The force came more rapidly and reliably when he concentrated entirely on the intended effect. His initial contact had been clumsy and awkward and so maddeningly brief—had it been a physical thing, he would have fumbled it through his fingers and dropped it—but it nevertheless taught him that he could draw forth that power and direct it, even magnify it.

He devised his own drill and put himself through it relentlessly.

Fasten your mind firmly on the need to release the power through the blade itself. Concentrate on that requirement. Focus your determination; let your yearning to release that energy flow outward from your mind to every fiber of your body and your spirit.

After achieving a few further, if limited, successes, he learned that the key was not concentration alone.

You must concentrate yet never hurry, move without haste but with fixed determination.

He sought always to remember that because the power of the gods was a gift, rushing their largesse was vain and disrespectful.

Brothers in Arms


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