Chapter 1: A Fleeting Dream
Harsh winter winds blew freezing powder against the Nightblade Temple of the Serpent. In the temple's courtyard, Trainees shivered. The young men and women stood shoulder to shoulder in thick snow up to their knees. They were bundled in fur cloaks and hoods, and their lightweight leather armor stuck uncomfortably to their bodies with nervous sweat and sleet. Cold cut the trainees to the bone, and the enormous and twisting stone walls of the Temple of the Serpent did little to keep the weather out from the training grounds.
As the Trainees huffed bitter air and watched their jagged breaths turn to mist in front of them, their leader, Master Titanoboa, trudged shirtless through the tall snow. Both of his muscular arms were covered with tattoos of large blacks snakes that spanned from the tops of his shoulders down to the bottom of his hands, where the snakes' mouths opened wide bearing a set of fangs by each of Titanoboa's palms. His braided brown beard fell to his chest, and he carried a bundle of tall, unlit torches in his arms.
“Master Titanoboa is a Serpent Rank 10," one of the Trainees mumbled to another. “There's none stronger than he is."
With a chilled finger, the Trainee motioned to the tally marks beneath the belly of each snake on Titanobao's tattoos. There were five etched in ink on each arm. The Trainees watched in awe and respect as Titanoboa slammed a fist to his chest.
“It's a cold and cruel life for a Serpent Nightblade," Titanoboa said with a booming voice that overpowered the whistling winds. He planted a torch fifteen feet in front of each Trainee, then stood with his large arms crossed in front of his chest, his skin not even so much as red or raw from the weather. “I don't expect many of you to survive our full training, and less of you to survive the world beyond our walls. As a Nightblade, it will be your responsibility to slay the creatures that bring harm onto others."
Titanoboa raised a swift finger towards the temple's walls and said, “Outside of this temple there is more evil than you can imagine, and it takes the form of monsters with long claws, and sickening fangs, and wings that flap like a bat. There are monsters that tear people limb from limb, and bigger ones that swallow a man whole in a single gulp."
Several of the trainees shuddered at the thought of being eaten alive.
“So if you're to even begin to think about surviving as a Nightblade and holding the honor of being one of the fine men and women who combat these evils, then you must first learn the magic of our people. Trainees! Remove your cloaks and show me your Serpent markings!"
With frigid hands, the Trainees pulled off their warm fleeces and furs and with chattering teeth, quaking and quivering in their chafing leather armor. Each Trainee tugged the sleeve of their arm upwards, revealing a tattoo of a small snake on their forearm with a single tally mark beneath the snake's stomach.
The Trainees were determined to advance in rank and grow stronger. They huddled closer to one another, trying to share as much heat as possible. All but one Trainee joined the group. It was Ronan, whose raggedy black hair stuck to his eyes with snow. He had just turned nineteen and undergone the magical ritual to receive his Serpent tattoo, but unlike the Rank 1 and Rank 2 Trainees in his company, Ronan held no rank. He clumsily wrestled to remove a heavy wool blanket he was wrapped up in. The blanket had absorbed more wet and cold than it had protected him from, and shrugging it off felt like he'd taken a great weight off his bony shoulders.
“Look at him," a Trainee laughed, nodding his head at the struggling Ronan. “How has he made it this far?"
“He'll be the first to die from the training," chuckled a second Trainee. She watched Ronan scrape his chapped and b****y fingers to his sleeve and wriggle it up to reveal his tattoo.
But Ronan gritted his teeth and tried his hardest to stop his knees from shaking. He was thinner than the rest of the Trainees, and looked like more of a scrapper than a fighter. He'd missed out on many meals in the dining hall to complete chores for Titanoboa, who believed that an empty stomach would motivate Ronan to work harder. While hunger did drive Ronan to strive for excellence, there was rarely anything left for Ronan to eat beyond scraps. He lived in a state of perpetual hunger and weariness.
“Feel the magic of your marking," Titanoboa declared, paying Ronan no mind. Had it not been for the Serpent Sorceress Yvette, Titanoboa would've told Ronan to pack his gear and work as the temple's clothing washer, or soup cook. In truth, Titanoboa thought that Ronan would mess even that up.
And yet, Yvette would wrap her elegant hands around her purple crystal ball and assure Titanoboa that Ronan was worth keeping in the training regiment, and that Ronan would one day become a powerful Nightblade.
Titanoboa laughed away such a ridiculous thought and belted out, “Now, Trainees, draw your blades!"
In many swift silver arcs that glittered in the snowfall, each Trainee removed their sword from the sheath at their hips. Everybody, except Ronan, whose blistered and bleeding hand dropped his sword to the snow.
While he fished it out, digging his entire arm into the freezing powder, Titanoboa, disappointed, said, “Trainee Ronan. Perhaps it's better if you leave your sword on the ground. This exercise is only for those capable of magic."
The Trainees snickered and taunted Ronan.
One said, “He's an absolute joke! Can you imagine him fighting monsters? I think he'd be defeated by a fruit fly."
But Ronan felt the snowy floor for the handle of his sword, then gripped it tight in his numb hand. He was used to the unkind words of his peers, and although he had once been bothered by their mockery, he now only wished to show them that he too was capable of becoming a Nightblade. He had grown up in the temple surrounded by stories of heroic Nightblades saving people from monsters, and all he had to his name was the dream of becoming somebody who could make the world a better place.
He would soon die before giving that up.
“Master Titanoboa," Ronan said, his voice cracking and his lips stiff. “I wish to continue with the training."
Ronan yanked his sword out from the snow, and the cuts on his hands stung like he'd been bitten by a nest of angry crabs.
Titanoboa studied Ronan for a second, then put his hands behind his back and marched from side to side, addressing the Trainees.
“Very well, Ronan. If you wish to push yourself to an early grave, I won't stop you," Titanoboa said.