The Ducians returned to their usual peaceful life after Maria left. Maybe the only change they felt was Amon becoming a qualified miner. But for Amon, the town he saw every day, the familiar streets, houses and the smoky air, became less and less appealing to him. He felt that it all lacked something. There was an indescribable empty space in his heart. It was like something had been taken from him.
Amon always recounted the scene from the last day. He could not understand why she had done what she did but he felt it was reasonable. In her room, their glowing eyes were burning each other. He had put his hand on her chest and tried to kiss her lips, then a strange force pushed him away.
It was not the first time he came across that kind of power. It resembled the wave emitted when he opened the ore containing the Gods’ Tear with his hammer. Maria left the next day with Lord Drick. In Amon’s eyes, it was like she wanted to get rid of some temptations from him — at least, Amon preferred to think of it that way, although he knew that it was impossible.
As he laid in bed alone in the quiet night, he gazed at the low ceiling, the blurry shadows and the dim light on the wall. Flashes here and there reminded him of her. He even wondered, what would have happened if she had not pushed him away, and Lord Gabriel had not come in?
He was just fourteen and had no experience to rely on for what would happen in that case. But when he thought about it, his body would tingle with excitement, though that feeling brought him shame. Amon was stronger and more mature than his peers. He did not think he wanted something to happen with her, but he loved that feeling. He was frustrated and confused.
At last, Amon came to a conclusion: what had happened at that moment was not up to him at all. He sighed and went out to have a bath in the cold spring.
Somehow, for the very first time, he wished that the water in the cold spring could be colder and penetrate his every pore so that he could find calmness and true peace. Fortunately, he didn’t lose his presence of mind and forget Crazy’Ole’s warning, so he exited the spring when a warm current started to circulate in his body. He did a few body exercises for a little while, and then he sat down to quietly adjust his breath. He closed his eyes and listened to his blood throbbing in his veins. He tried to experience and remember the feeling of opening all the pores until he felt that he could visualize his body in his mind and fully control it.
If his past experience holds true, a relaxing, comfortable current would circulate and fill his body, filling him with calm. It would be a satisfaction that would urge him to moan, and a calm that would clear his mind. But tonight, it was different. There was a strange need that was quickly filling his body. The warm current rapidly started to burn hotter and rampage in his body. The cold spring before his eyes began to exude a palpitating scent — her smell.
Amon did not get the usual peace he wished for. After sunrise, Amon decided to have a chat with Crazy’Ole. He was not the kind of person who loved to tell secrets to others but holding such a secret to himself was painful. He was just 14 and he trusted Crazy’Ole.
Amon did not tell him what happened that night. He just told him about his feelings when he went bathing in the cold spring. He looked down at his toes after he finished the story as if he had committed a crime.
Crazy’Ole was not surprised when he heard the story from Amon. He laughed and passed him a goblet of wine.
Amon shrank back, “I don’t drink wine.” Having a drunkard for a father, Amon had seen enough about the ugly behaviours one could have after drinking, and the disgust of wine had become his instinct.
Crazy’Ole smiled, “Not everybody gets drunk, my boy. You’ve grown up and should taste more new things in this world, such as wine.”
Crazy’Ole’s words were like a charm. Amon took a sip before long. He noted a strange, pungent flavour. It was uncomfortably strong but seemed to be what he needed. He took a slug and let the pungent liquid down through his throat.
Crazy’Ole filled the goblet with his jar and asked with an enigmatic smile, “You are frustrated. If you want an answer, then tell me all about it. Is it about the girl Maria? Don’t lie to me, boy. I told you that you’ve grown up.”
Amon was surprised and flushed. He asked, “What do you know? How?…” He tried to cover it up with another swig of wine.
Crazy’Ole filled his goblet again and shrugged, “That is my thing. And it is up to you to tell me or not. Don’t forget it was you who came to me looking for an answer.”
It was the first time Amon drank wine and Crazy’Ole’s wine was strong. He got tipsy and confided all his troubles. He looked at the goblet and asked, “Was what I did shameful?”
Crazy’Ole laughed loudly as his matted beard trembled. “What’s shameful in that? Seems you love her and that’s human nature!… Looking at you now, you seem to have the devil’s temptation.”
“No! Maria is not a devil!” Amon turned up his head and expressed his disapproval.
Crazy’Ole stopped smiling and shook his head, “You misunderstand. Maria is not the devil. The devil is in your heart.”
“What? What devil?” Amon was shocked. As far as he knew, devils were the symbol of sin in the legends. They were detested and killed by the gods.
“You misunderstand again. The devil I’m talking about is not that kind. It is the impulse in your heart. This devil hides in your mind and soul. If you get lost in this impulse, the devil will occupy your heart and you will lose your soul. It is called indulgement. It is one of the tests mages face in learning and practising magic,” Crazy’Ole explained patiently.
“But I’m not a mage.” Amon doubted, “Why do I have the devil’s temptation?”
Crazy’Ole shook his head so hard that his hair ruffled like a flag, “No no no. Every person can have the devil’s temptation. A mage has to pass this test if he wants to reach the peak of advanced magic. As for you, the test is still far away. What you are going to face is ‘desire’s awakening’. What happened between you and Maria has more or less something to do with it.”
Amon’s doubts increased. He thought of one thing and asked, “Several days ago, Lord Gabriel has asked me if I’ve learned body arts. And you mention magic today. Can you tell me what they are about? Why would Lord Gabriel ask me about it? Why do you say that I’m facing a test? I haven’t learned anything yet!”
Crazy’Ole humphed and filled himself a goblet of wine, “Of course you’ve learned something; the technique of Duc. People in Duc just don’t understand it. And I taught you in a different way. Listen carefully if you want to hear the answer — and don’t interrupt me. ”
Amon listened silently and Crazy’Ole explained magic and body arts to him in detail. Slaves weren’t allowed to learn body arts, and only the nobles were allowed to learn magic. Amon learned this for the first time. He did not know that what Crazy’Ole told him was information that was strictly censored in many countries.
Magic and body arts were two different paths to get extraordinary powers. Body arts awakened the power inside the human body, stimulating the potential in one’s blood and flesh. Legends said that men were created by gods, hence, there was divinity in human nature. This divine power in the bloodline, once awakened, could make one’s muscles and bones stronger, enhancing their strength and courage. It also fortified the mind and increased intelligence. When the power was fully activated and became mighty enough, it could influence the environment outside the body.
Another legend was that body arts were just a way people discovered to make themselves stronger. Later on, they applied them in wars and fights, creating lots of skills that came to be called martial arts. The ones who practised both body arts and martial arts were called warriors. The progress of body arts was divided into nine levels. The first three levels were called the primary stage, the next three and the last three were called the advanced stage and the supreme stage respectively. As such, practitioners in these stages were called ‘primary warriors’, ‘advanced warrior’s and ‘great’ or ‘supreme warriors’.
It was extremely hard to become a supreme warrior, which meant you were among the top masters of body and martial arts in this continent.
Magic, on the other hand, awakened one’s ability to feel specific forces in the external world. The mages learned to communicate, control, transform and utilize these forces, which ordinary people were not capable of. Only the gods had these abilities by nature, so magic was regarded as a gift from the gods. Similarly, the progress of magic practice was divided into nine levels as well. The mages from the seventh level to the ninth level were called the ‘great’ or ‘supreme’ mages. They were the supreme beings in the continent. They were akin to gods in commoners’ eyes.
Both the learning of magic and body arts demanded that one awaken a certain power, but the power that required awakening was different for each path. It was much harder to awaken magic power than it was to awaken the body arts. Very few people could do it by themselves. On the contrary, it was generally believed that anyone with a healthy and strong body, a determined mind and firm belief could finally awaken the power inside his body and started to learn body arts.
The power one awakened the first time determined the path they were going to explore. Thus, there were far fewer mages than warriors on this continent. On the other hand, the number of people that were allowed to learn magic was much smaller as well.
In some rare cases, one could awaken two powers at the same time. Another rare phenomenon was the slow awakening of the alternate path when one acquired mastery. Most people who learned magic and body arts at the same time were warriors. However, magic was much harder to learn than body arts, so very few mages learned body arts at the same time. The complexity and profoundness of the magic were already worth a lifetime of exploration.
Oracles, drawing both from their lore and actual practice, reminded the people that it was impossible to learn both at the same pace. The practitioner had to emphasize one and learn the other as an auxiliary skill. For example, warriors like Gabriel could not improve their level of magic to the extent of their body arts. They could just learn magic at a lower level and use it to assist in fights.
Both paths, each with nine levels, were divided into three stages. The difference between different levels in the same stage lay in the mastery and proficiency of the skills. But the difference between stages was fundamental; the user’s understanding of the power. The first stage was also called awakening the power; the second, controlling; and the last, transforming.
The path of magic was harder than that of body arts, not only because fewer people could awaken the magic power, but because there were more tests awaiting mages.
To obtain the magic power, the gift of the gods, one would need to pass the first test: the ‘desire’s awakening’.
In order to attain the pinnacle of the first stage, one would need to pass the second test: ‘faith’s confirmation’.
In order to attain the pinnacle of the second stage, one would need to pass the third test: ‘the devil’s temptation’.
To become a supreme mage, there was a final test: ’faith’s melding’, which required one to merge the real world to the world in his belief and transform divine power into his own power, attaining a status that was beyond the commoners’ imagination.
Body arts, on the other hand, seemed to have no tests. All practitioners needed was adequate practice, perseverance and assiduity, and sometimes a little luck. It did not mean that ascending to a new level was easy for the body art practitioners. It was just a bit less difficult than the mages.
All these were for the primary and advanced stages. When one attained the seventh level, it would become much more difficult to take the next step forward, no matter the mages or the warriors. The key to higher levels was kept as a secret among the high priests in the major shrines. The people who attained the highest level, the ninth level, no matter mage or warrior, were extremely rare on this continent. They had the power to fight the real gods on the earth and were called demigods.
Amon could not help but ask, “Demigods? How can men have the power to fight the gods?”
Crazy’Ole was giving his eloquent speech with one hand holding the goblet and the other hand drawing in the air. He was not happy that Amon had cut his speech short, “Why can’t they? Some who pretend to be gods may, in fact, be just demigods… It’s said that they are descendants of gods and humans so they can have such power — but I say that’s just a blatant lie! ”
“A lie? How do you know?” Amon could not understand.
Crazy’Ole finished his wine and looked out into the distance, “Because I know one of them. He’s my student, a ninth-level supreme sorcerer.”