There are some mild spoilers in this section, but the major spoilers have been removed, and one character's name has been changed to protect the innocent. Just remember that in the final, published version of this chapter, there will be no character named Spoilerman.
Transcriber's disclaimer: I had to guess the spelling of a character's name (Keilan), so it might be spelled differently in the actual book.
The Akura cloudship was so sleek that it looked smaller than it really was, though it had carried Lindon along with hundreds of Akura tournament visitors and their servants. Now, it hovered at the end of the dock as people boarded it again: many of the Akura family, though Lindon had seen members of the Frozen Blade School and others he didn't recognise.
Mercy's brother, Pride, was directing most of the traffic. The short Underlord shouted orders constantly, while lifting luggage or leaping around to attend to a task himself. Lindon had tried to get his attention several times, but it seemed Pride was deliberately ignoring him.
Then Mercy ran out onto the dock, waving. “Goodbye, everybody! Sorry I'm late."
She came to a halt by Lindon, grinding her staff on the stone of the dock. Immediately, Pride landed in a crouch next to Lindon. He straightened and addressed his sister, "Mercy, thank you for coming to see us off." He sounded painfully stiff, not like someone speaking to family.
Mercy threw her arms around him. "Try to be safe, okay? Don't poke any Dreadgods?"
"I'm not a fool." He pushed her away and glared at Lindon. "Is there something I can help you with, Lindon?"
[At least he's calling you by your name,] Dross pointed out.
Lindon looked over the ship. "Apologies, I only wondered exactly where everyone was going. I heard something about a Dreadgod?"
"The Wandering Titan has made his way to the edge of Akura territory. We go to protect the people and to drive away the vultures."
Lindon had read about the Titan. "You mean, Abyssal Palace?"
"Of course Abyssal Palace!" Pride sounded like he was speaking to an idiot. "But there are always scavengers around a Dreadgod, not just the cults."
Naru Saeya passed them, a huge trunk floating on wind madra behind her. She bowed to the Akura, who both commended her on her performance in the tournament. As soon as she could manage, she escaped the conversation and pulled Lindon over to the side.
"When you make it back to the Empire," she said, "present yourself to the Emperor. You have done us proud."
"Gratitude. If you don't mind me asking, why aren't you coming home?"
She rubbed her thumb and fingers together. "The Akura family is paying a dragon's ransom for Lords and Ladies who can fight over the Titan. If you can slip away from Eithan, you should join me. And so should he, if he ever gets the chance."
Lindon thanked her as she waved him off and joined the rest of the passengers. She was half a head taller than most everyone else, and the peacock feathers over her ear made her stand out even further. Most of the eliminated Uncrowned competitors seemed to be aboard, so Lindon had a new question when he rejoined Mercy and Pride.
"Why do they need Underlords?"
Pride made a dismissive sound, "We need Lords more than anything—controlling the populace, defending our claim, herding refugees, clearing the land of natural treasures before the Dreadgod razes it. Honestly, you can't afford to be this badly informed."
Lindon's usual annoyance with Pride swelled to anger, but he kept a façade of polite behaviour. He pressed both fists together: "My apologies that I was not born into a Monarch family."
"It doesn't matter if you were born into one or not, if you want to join ou—"
Mercy pushed both of her madra-gloved hands over Pride's mouth. "Ha!" she shouted, "Haha! Good one."
It sounded nothing like laughter, and she shoved Pride so that he stumbled back one step. He looked genuinely confused.
"Well, we don't wanna keep you from your work anymore," Mercy continued, "Stay safe. Tell uncle Fury I'll see him soon, and I'll join you as soon as I can, okay?"
Pride straightened his outer robe. "See me after you win." Then he strode away again, already barking orders.
[Maybe he'll be eaten by a Dreadgod,] Dross mused.
Lindon didn't want to spend any more time than necessary around the man, but he didn't wish Pride any harm, just some humility. Mercy put her hand on Lindon's shoulder and spun him around so they were walking through the wind, and back toward their jeweled tower.
"So, did you know Spoilerman could fight like that?" she asked, and Lindon got the distinct impression she was trying to take the subject away from Pride.
"You've seen as much of his ability as I have. He might still be holding back."
She looked doubtful, but shrugged. "Could be. I don't see him performing much better without advancing to Overlord, but if he has anything else in his pocket, he'll be a tough one to crack. I'll need practice."
"Apologies if this seems rude, but I've never seen everything you can do either."
Any opponents Lindon had seen Mercy face had either grossly outclassed her, or hadn't pushed her to her limit. He still didn't know what her Book of Eternal Night was capable of.
"You will soon," she said cheerfully. "I wish I could invite you to watch me train, but a lot of it happens inside my book so it's pretty boring to watch. But if they match me up against Sophara, you'll get to see every card I have to play."
"What about Yerin?" he asked. He had been curious about this ever since Northstrider had announced that Yerin and Mercy were going to face each other in the fourth round. That had ended up being a lie, but he had still wanted to ask Mercy how she rated her match-up against Yerin. Though he was interested in the genius Underlady of the Akura clan's opinion, it would have been insensitive to ask earlier.
Mercy’s face fell and she dragged Suu along the ground for a second. “Yeah… I'm hoping I don’t meet Yerin until the finals. It’s hard to enjoy the competition when my mother’s life is on the line, you know?”
She hadn't fought her fourth round yet, but Lindon noticed she had no doubts about winning. He also noticed that she hadn't answered his question.
“Six fights left,” Mercy said. “Six days. After that, the Uncrowned will be taken away for a month of Sage training.”
Lindon gave a heavy sigh. He'd heard about that already. Mercy was waiting for him to respond, but when he didn't, she pressed on. “So, you have the rest of the week with Yerin, what are you going to do?”
They had reached the door of the tower, but Mercy turned to watch the cloudship which was still loading.
“I’m not sure,” Lindon said, watching the people bustle around the deck. “We need to spar a few rounds, there are a few ideas I have to work out before our match, and I know she has to be more comfortable with her Final Sword—”
Mercy's staff cracked against the top of his skull. He flinched back, and the violet gemstones eyes of the dragon-headed staff hissed at him.
“What are you going to do with Yerin?”
Lindon took a slow step away from the staff. “Of course, I’m going to train with her everyday. She doesn't have a minute to waste, and Dross and I can help.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
[She is trying to say,] Dross began, but Lindon cut him off by speaking. “I know what you're trying to say, but I’m telling you the truth. That is what I’m going to do with Yerin for the rest of the week.”
He wanted to work out his feelings for Yerin and he wanted to do so with her. Her month of training with a Sage felt like a punishment looming over him. It wasn't so long ago that he had been dragged off to the Akura family for training, and he hadn't enjoyed being separated from her then.
Now, he didn't even have a new goal to occupy his time. But her leaving was the right thing, he knew. They needed every advantage they could get to win the tournament.
Mercy’s purple eyes slowly opened. “I hear you. Now, pretend that there was not so much at stake. What would you do if everything was calm and you had plenty of time?”
He examined his own mind. It was embarrassing having all this pulled out of him in public, but Mercy was a friend, and she was only trying to help.
“I would want to try doing something together, with her, just for fun.”
It felt like a shameful admission, but it was clearly the right answer because Mercy shone. It looked like she was about to start hopping up and down. “There it is, so you do do things for fun. I would have lost that bet.”
“I don’t usually," he said defensively. “I don’t wast—”
“I know, I know, shut up. Listen, you had the right instinct. This week, invite her out to do something—just the two of you.” She leaned uncomfortably close, looking up at him to make sure she had his full attention. “Not training. Nothing that could conceivably lead to advancement in the Sacred Arts. Do you understand?”
Lindon’s face was hot. This whole conversation was an exercise in agony, but he could easily imagine hearing the same thing from his sister, or his mother. His father would tell him that anything other than working was a waste of time—but even he had ended up married.
"I will invite her, but her time is so short as it is..."
“Lindon, I promise you, I promise you, that a few hours off will not do Yerin any harm at all.”
Therian Nills was an ordinary man. He had started as a farmer and the son of farmers and he still boggled at the twist of fate that had brought him all the way to the Uncrowned King tournament. He had been born on the Rosegold continent, but far enough away from everything that the great houses were nothing but distant rumors to him. Then, the Weeping Dragon had brought down the sky.
Therian had lost everything before the Stormcallers found him. They follow the Dreadgod around, capturing its unique madra in themselves and using its divine techniques to steal the madra of others. They sheltered him, taught him, and trained him.
He had a knack for it, it turned out, although you wouldn't know it from looking at him. Even his Underlord transformation hadn’t changed him much. He still looked like the son of a farmer: tall and gangly with sunbaked skin, and hair the color of mud.
The combat training had built an entirely new set of muscles on him, but his appearance still couldn't be compared to these beautiful carved statues of the men and women he was competing against. Most of his competitors looked like they had been sculpted by the heavens themselves.
But over the course of the tournament, his confidence had grown. Thanks to the power of the Weeping Dragon, he had been made as good as they were. He could keep up with any of them. Or, at least, most of them.
He sat in his waiting room, unable to control his nerves, bouncing one leg and squeezing his fingers together as he stared at the stone door, as though he could keep it from opening with the force of his gaze.
“I’m just glad it won’t be the Dawnwing,” Therian said for what might have been the fifteenth time.
His sect brother and team member, Keilan Archer, darkened. “I don’t know how someone like him is allowed to fight Underlords.”
Therian had been too young and too newly inducted into the Stormcallers to be sent to fight against the Dawnwing sect, but Keilan had been there. He was older than Therian by almost ten years, and he looked like he belonged in the tournament.
He was thick with muscle, his goldsigns crackling around thick biceps. The scripted rings of blue-gold lightning looked like they were about to burst off. His hair was blonde so pale that it was almost white, and he had a scar across one eye socket. He had seen battle. He belonged in places like this.
So do you, Therian reminded himself.
Keilan smacked him on the back of the head.
"Focus. Sharpen yourself, you carry the power of the Weeping Dragon with you; the power of the Sage of Calling Storms. If you go no further, you are still top sixteen of all Underlords in our generation."
The encouragement worked. He breathed deeper, his madra cycling more easily, his leg going still.
“And you will go further," Keilan continued, "you were meant to fight Ziel, but they're changing the match-ups, so we know it won’t be him. Whoever else is out there, our battle plan remains the same: you will leave them in the sand and you and I will meet again as Uncrowned.”
Keilan Archer thought Therian could fight alongside him. Therian held that golden thought as the door slid open.
He called his weapons, a pair of long spears that crawled with smooth yellow light, and focused his madra. The rings around his own arms crackled as the noise from the crowd reached him.
The arena was covered in irregular stone—uneven footing, with fist-sized rocks lying here and there. Lightning swam like snakes overhead, but didn't dive to the ground.
Across the stadium, he faced a man who appeared to be in his early twenties, with dark and messy hair falling around a pair of short, green horns that glowed faintly even in the light. He wore the expression of a man who had walked a thousand miles, and might collapse at any second. Only dust and apathy in his eyes. A gray cloak fluttered on his shoulders and he dragged a massive two-handed warhammer behind him as though he could barely support its weight.
Therian and his opponent saw each other at the same time.
The enemy's eyes slowly went from utterly dead to alight with rage. The warhammer gradually rose, inch by inch, lifted in one hand until it was propped against his shoulder.
Keilan clapped Therian on the back. "Top sixteen."
“Ziel of the Dawnwing sect chosen of Northstrider. You face Therian Nills of the Stormcallers, chosen of Reigan Shen.”
Therian had heard the heavenly messenger's command. He knew he couldn't give up, but he wondered: if he stood there and let Ziel kill him, would his death be painless?
One more look at the burning fury in Ziel’s face and Therian shuddered.
Therian hefted his spears and prepared to fight for a quick death.