Blackflame

To the nameless minions who give their lives in my books to make the heroes look better.

We will always forget you.

Chapter 1

Information requested: the Path of Black Flame.

[WARNING: Significant deviations detected. Report accuracy compromised. Recommend renewed contact with Iteration 110 to restore functionality.]

Beginning report…

For over five centuries, the Blackflame family held their empire by virtue of unstoppable force. Before facing a single Blackflame sacred artist, an entire sect would surrender.

All across the Empire’s lands, rebel strongholds and rival Schools were burned in dark fire. None stood against the Blackflames because none dared; to be suspected of insurrection was to be destroyed.

The Path of the Unstained Shield excels in protection, the Path of a Thousand Hands in versatility. The Path of the Cloud Hammer is respected for mobility and force, the Path of Silver Grace for its elegance. The many Paths of the Redflower family grow food and bring rain throughout the Empire, and the Path of Jade Eyes is unmatched in healing.

The Path of Black Flame was stolen from ancient dragons. It is the art of pure destruction.

But mortal humans are not suited for the power of dragons. Slowly, the Blackflame family declined, their minds and bodies eroded by the destructive power of their sacred arts. Eventually, even the citizens at the heart of the Empire thought of the imperial family as symbols and legends.

More and more of the day-to-day workings of the Empire were left to the Blackflames’ traditional servants: the Naru clan. They became the face of the Blackflame Empire, with their loyal reputation and shining emerald wings, and the people grew to know and trust them.

Fifty years ago, when the Blackflame family had faded to ashes and myths, the Naru quietly ascended the throne.

The first Naru clan empress has since moved into private seclusion, and her son now rules the Empire.

As for the Blackflame family themselves, most died out decades ago, gradually eaten from the inside out by their own madra. The only remaining Blackflames are [DATA NOT FOUND].

If their family and their Path are revived, the consequences could be—

Connection severed.

Restoring connection…

Connection failure.

[Archived information regarding Cradle remains accessible, but analysis of current conditions and projections into the future will be disabled until contact with Iteration 110 is restored.]

Report complete.

* * *

Goldsteel tongs poised, Lindon knelt over the carcass of a twisted wolf.

The dreadbeast looked as though it had been subjected to dissection and decay already, its skin bloody red with spots of diseased black, but it had looked that way even before death. It was cobbled together from mismatched parts, a botched and diseased creation.

He might have passed out from the smell if not for the perfume-soaked cloth wrapped over the lower half of his face, and even so he tried to breathe through his mouth.

Lindon had already made his incision down the ribs of the creature, pinning flaps of skin back to get a look inside. He’d had to saw through a layer of meat and tendons, and his gloved hands were speckled with foul blood.

Now he tried not to choke on perfumed air as he took a deep breath to steady himself.

Fisher Gesha loomed over him, a disapproving presence. Gesha was possibly the oldest person he'd ever seen, like a shriveled pile of wrinkles packed into a sacred artist's robes. Her gray hair was tied into a tight bun on the top of her head, and eight legs of mechanical Forged madra stuck out of the bottom of her robes, lifting her high enough to see over his shoulder.

“Carefully, now, carefully,” she directed. “You hit the binding at the wrong angle, you’ll chip it like a teacup.”

Lindon dipped his head slightly in lieu of an apology, then slid his hand into the wound.

Back home, he’d helped his father clean meat from a hunt, but this body had started to rot even before its death, and Lindon struggled not to gag.

He could only get two fingers past the ribs, but they quickly ran into a mass of sharp, solid edges, as though someone had glued broken glass into a fist-sized bundle of shards. He hardly brushed the binding with his fingers for fear of shattering it.

He withdrew his hand most of the way, holding open the incision.

“In a Remnant, the binding would be easier to remove,” Fisher Gesha told him, still watching from the side with hands clasped behind her back. “No muscle to cut through, hm? Simple, simple, simple to remove. But dreadbeasts keep their souls in their bodies, nasty little things, so they leave no Remnants. Their techniques grow in them like this, alongside their organs.”

She was trying to cram as many lessons into him as she could before Eithan took him away, so that the Underlord couldn’t say she’d been neglecting his education. While Lindon appreciated the effort, it was something of a distraction to have to listen when he was trying to remove a delicate piece of Forged madra from a corpse.

Inserting his tongs, he got a solid grip on the binding. Madra could react unpredictably with physical objects, but goldsteel was a unique substance. His tongs looked like ordinary gold until the light caught them, and then they flashed pure white.

Goldsteel could get a firm grip on virtually any kind of madra, which was why it was often used for Soulsmith tools and defenses against hostile Remnants. He held the binding firmly in place, careful not to squeeze too hard and shatter it.

Then he slid two fingers back into the dreadbeast, next to the trapped binding. He pinched a bundle of slick muscle.

And, cycling madra to Enforce his fingers, he tore it away from the binding. It was like pulling apart warm bread.

He would never have been able to tear meat so easily only a week ago, before advancing to Iron. And the dreadbeast was dead, so it was no longer Enforcing itself with its own madra supply.

After he had ripped free every connection from the binding to the surrounding body—and tilted his tongs a few degrees in every direction, to make sure it could move freely—he gradually slid the binding out.

It was a ball of jagged spikes, the yellow of its material barely visible beneath blood and bits of tissue.

He wasn’t sure how the madra of such a binding would interact with the physical body, but he still winced at the sight. This had been inside a living creature. It must have caused agony every time the beast moved.

Then again, the binding may not have Forged itself into existence until the wolf died. And it wasn’t as though Lindon cared for the suffering of a dreadbeast anyway.

He dropped the blood-soaked binding onto a tray that Fisher Gesha had prepared for the purpose, then something caught his eye. He turned back to the wolf’s body, inserting the tongs once again.

There was a glimmer of something behind the wet space where the binding had once rested, a speck of white too bright and clean to be bone. He pushed some of the muscle away, though he found himself leaning at an awkward angle to get around the ribs.

The white object was a tiny spiral no bigger than his thumbnail, but it was warped out of shape, like a half-melted wax seashell. The white was speckled with a rainbow of other colors—and, of course, drenched in blood—but he reached the tongs in for it.

At the first touch, the binding dissolved like chalk in rain.

Fisher Gesha smacked him on the side of the head. Before his advancement to Iron, she might well have killed him.

“You don’t touch madra you know nothing about,” she warned, shaking a finger at him. “Very dangerous.”

Lindon bobbed his head to indicate he’d heard her, but he couldn’t just leave it alone. “But honored Fisher, I believe I saw one of those before.”

In fact, he suspected he had one in his pack. His white spiral binding was large and pristine, whereas the one in the dreadbeast had been small and shot through with other colors, but he thought they may be the same crystallized technique. The same technique that had gone into the Jai Ancestor’s Spear, allowing it to steal madra.

She slapped him again, on the other side of the head this time.

“You’ve seen one? I have seen a thousand. Spent my life hunting these woods, you think there are surprises here for me?” She jabbed a finger in the direction of the corpse. “When a dreadbeast eats an animal, the meat goes to its stomach. When it eats a Remnant, the madra goes there.

Lindon brightened. “If this can steal and process madra, like the Ancestor’s Spear does, doesn’t that make this a treasure? Every dreadbeast has the material for a new spear!”

He was working himself up with every word, envisioning himself standing in an arena against Jai Long with a white spear of his own. And a core bursting with stolen madra.

Gesha brushed her hands off on the front of her robes, though she hadn’t touched anything. “In my grandmother’s day, they tried such a thing. Used those bindings to make weapons and take power from the ones they killed. But it did to men the same things it did to…them. Everyone who used such weapons became monsters, hideous and deformed.” She shuddere ...

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