“You have to concentrate, Ishtar.”
I was hot and tired. We had been at this for hours. My concentration lapses were getting longer, his displeasure masked only by his supreme calm.
“Your Shikai state is unfocused. Your sword is an extension of your arm. Your Shikai is an extension of your aether. Shikai binds your sword to your will and to your aether, a triumvirate of power.” My father’s words cut deeply because I wanted so badly to please him.
My two brothers were much older than I was and had already mastered my father’s training. Moliki trained me from the time I could walk and Deniki took turns when Moliki was on missions for my father.
They were both excellent teachers and had inherited all of father’s patience. They were also masters of weapons but there was something in them that did not let them achieve the Bankai state. Under the Bankai, they would be in perfect union with the aether, connecting with the spirit of the Earth itself. Their weapons would move like lightning, their blows creating thunder. No one in our family had been able to achieve the Bankai state since our mother moved into our Ancestor’s Palace.
Despite their failure to achieve this holiest of states, they had almost no equals among my father’s students, able to defeat even the two or three who could summon the Bankai and extend their aether energies into amazing feats of magic. What Moliki and Deniki lacked in Bankai, they made up for with sheer mastery of their weapons, sword and spear, mace and rod. They were engines of destruction who taught me everything they could about fighting, footwork, combat magic, and Shumpo.
Their secret was Shumpo, called the flash-step by foreign warriors who hired my family as spies, mercenary, or aethermancers. They could use Shumpo even without a Bankai.
In that way, they were unique. It seemed to run in the family as I learned to use the flash-step by the time I was seven. I thought I was so special when I discovered I could use this power. I had never seen either of my brother use it, so I thought I had discovered something new. I did not tell anyone for weeks and practiced it until I could call it and use it at will.
While my brothers were practicing I would sneak past them and snatch their weapons away or hide their tools when they were working. First they were there and then they weren’t. Imagine my surprise when I stopped running only to see them standing before me with their hands out. We would flash-step everywhere and I learned it had limitations, but for them, they were able to do things with it I still can’t.
“Now, concentrate.” My father appeared to be an ageless man, of solid sinew and a steely will. His morning regimen which he had not missed in all of the time I had known him, all eighteen years, was a two hour session, filled with grace, speed and power. Some mornings with weapons, others without. Sometimes alone, others with my brothers and now lately with me.
I reveled in his attentions, at first, but the more time I spent with him, I began to realize there was something he was looking for in me, that I could not see. He was relentless. We trained every morning, sometimes until the sun was high in the sky of Qing, and sweat ran down our bodies in rivers. More mine than his. His black skin, like coal would shine and glisten but would only being to sweat when the sun was at the peak. I was sweating by mid-morning and he gave me no release.
“Channel the aether. Summon it up from the ground. It is everywhere but you have to be able to concentrate it around you. Draw it from everywhere you dance. As you dance, you should be weaving the circle and attracting it to where you battle. Do you see it?”
“Yes, father. I see you have created the circle while you danced and now aether moves from outside of us, toward it.” I had dropped into the second sight to better see how his dance created the power-sink which moved the energy of chi or aether into a controlled pattern that could be harnessed by our swords or our bodies for a variety of effects.
“From here as the circle has been drawn and the sword begins the Shikai dance you will be able to enhance your body’s efficiency, speed, accuracy. This is why we cannot simply jump to Shikai with a terrible price in our personal energy stores. It is always best to use the early battle time to draw the energy of Shikai from your opponents and the world around you. Now attack me.” His voice brooked no disobedience and I immediately complied.
He moved his hand in a flashing motion and deflected my blade with his open hand. His hand was surrounded by aether and my blade rebounded with an audible clang as if it had struck an armor.
Since he had not told me to stop, I continued my assault, my mind focused on both his attack and my need to build to my Shikai state. I noticed he moved in a way to prevent me from creating a greater circle which would draw aether faster, so I contented myself with created a minor circle inside just a few steps and use the air as my medium for my aether matrix.
My sword flashed with one hand and my left drew my matrix in the air around me. I could feel him trying to unmake my matrix but as the defender, he had a harder time, since aether moved toward the aggressive mind first and I used that to my advantage.
“Good, good. You are not allowing me to define your field of battle. I can feel your matrix building. But you are taking too long. Your enemy may not give you as much time.” He switched from defense to offense and his open palm strike was lightning quick as he stepped into my attack. His blow tried to push me from my feet, but I could sense his change at the last second and while I slid backward, I did not lose my footing.
But he did not let me rest. His follow redirected my energy that was resisting him, by coming alongside with his Shumpo, and using his free hand, he gripped me for a throw and hurled me in my resisting direction.Tricked into this state, I could do nothing to prevent it, so I relented and allowed him to complete his attack, as he hurled me away, I flipped over mid throw and struck at his face, disrupting his balance and weakening his throw. He, of course, deflected but this let me hit the wall of our training area, foot first.
“Shikai.” My whisper contracted the aether bound into my matrix into me and I exploded from the wall, leaving cracks and ruptures from where my feet pushed away from it. I flew at my father like an arrow, sword first. I could see him standing there, weaving the aether around him with a speed I did not know was possible.
But I could see my sword being able to reach him. I knew that I would.
I could see my blade slipping past his defenses and spearing him in the chest. This was apparent to me as I streaked toward him, but I knew if I did anything less than my best, he would be angry.
I could feel the moment stretching out, slowing down, crystallizing into certainty.
My sword touched his chest and he did not appear to move. I drove my blade forward and suddenly he was gone. This was not Shumpo. Shumpo has a signature energy that lingers even as the target leaves the area, an afterimage of chi. He disappeared.
I dived through where he stood, flipping and landing in a crouch ready for his reappearance. He does not. My eye flicks to the tip of my sword.
There was blood. Only a drop.
But I guess today, that was enough. Practice was over.
One Drop, 2011; Aethermancer, 2016; © Thaddeus Howze
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon.