Prologue

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Greetings,

I take this pen in hand today as you have taken your life in your own hands. It is my greatest honor to congratulate you in your acceptance of the application sent two years past. Tens of thousands applied, but only you and select others will have the chance to participate in the event of a lifetime. My trusted conseleigh have been examining you and have recommended individuals of the highest tier, excelling in strength of self, mind, and body.

If you accept this offer, the trials you face will be extremely difficult, designed to push you past your maximum potential. The winner will be titled as my apprentice and will have the honor of training under my staff and I until my two hundredth year as Guardian of the Core arrives. Further details will be explained upon your arrival. Good luck.

Sincerely,

Guardian Edwyrd Eska

***

The pen flitted across each letter in rhythmic repetition as Guardian Eska signed the last of eight invitations. Cards of thicker stock had previously been laid on his desk by two of his conseleigh. Eska waved his gloved hand over all eight sets. The cards hovered, defying wind and gravity both. The letters slid into the crimson envelopes and then fell to an onyx desk, thick with emerald vines.

Eska removed his ring, given to him during a coronation long past. Golden wax coated the obsidian band, hiding Eska's sigil—a dragon, with wings outstretched, spewing fire. He pushed the ring down and sealed the first envelope. Footsteps echoed in the hallways across the midsize cavity of moss-green aventurine floors and jade pillars, stopping before the stairs that led to where Eska sat. Though they echoed, Eska wouldn't have needed the sound to sense the man's presence. He continued sealing the rest of the envelopes. "Is the ship ready, Luvan?"

"Lady Tundra is readying it now. The air here is short. How long will it be?"

For Eska, the air in the room was fine. But the others were sure to be having difficulties. "We will have leave soon enough."

"Thank you, my Guardian."

While his conseleigh's footsteps retreated, he waved his hand over the finished envelopes. Eska stood from his chiseled and polished seat of shakti—a rock of celadon color corded in black. As his hand passed over each envelope, they rose and floated above him, following him through another hallway that led deeper into cavernous floating isle—to a place he had not been for one hundred and fifty years. Only he and his conseleigh knew of this place, but only he knew of the woman waiting for him at path's end. 

Lighted moss clung to the pale-blue walls, serving as torches. A dominance carried with Eska, the sort no other man or woman in the universe wielded. His eyes were narrowed like the pathway. His glove was stitched of the same darknether material as his jerkin, black like the shadow that lingered behind his silken cape of gold and crimson.

At the corridor's end, the narrow path opened to a large cove with blue walls that spun like the wind in five separate places—one portal for each planet. A woman waited in the center of the room, and Guardian Eska took his spot next to her. Her lips, lush and blue like the hair that bounded past her shoulders, gave false testimony to her age. Even through her transparent gown her skin shone like a moon during the grave of night. 

This wasn't his first time in the cove, but it was his first time using the portals on the wall. The halo of letters that had been floating above him separated to three spots on the wall, ignoring two. Here, the air was even thinner. From a strand of gossamer around Eska's neck a grey orb moved towards the woman, her power attracted it, desiring to return to its creator.

Eska nodded at her. "All of the letters will be delivered, yes?"

"As sure as the wind blows," she said.

"Then let the trials commence."

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