It was a cold October morning on the magically protected and undetectable island of Saluverus. Nineteen-year-old Affinite Jacob Henderson shoved his hands into his pockets as he made his way down the steps of the massive castle and towards the arena. Jacob wasn’t the only one heading there; thousands of other Affinites were streaming in from the other direction; from the village at the bottom of the cliffs and up the thousand steps towards the arena.
All to get a good seat for the open training that was starting in half an hour’s time.
It wasn’t every day that Affinites were allowed to come and watch the five Asters train. They were the five most powerful creatures in the world; each possessing a magic that was completely unique. They usually trained in private.
But not today.
Jacob strode along the walkway that connected the castle to the arena. Both were built up against, and half into, the cliffs along the long western side of the island. Those cliffs towered over the rest of the island, leaving the village down below in shadows for the better part of each afternoon, when the sun would disappear behind the tall rock face.
The island lay in the Norwegian Sea, between Iceland and Norway. Around this time of year the skies were a pale blue most of the time, without a cloud to be seen, but it was always cold. Jake didn’t mind it. Despite the temperature, the island always had a warm and homely feeling about it. On either side of the walkway the ground was covered in sea asters. Usually those star-like flowers only grew on the sea shores, as their name would suggest, and bloomed from mid-summer through to September, but still now the grass was covered in the little white and purple flowers. It was the magic in them. Only on this island, created especially by a woman so powerful, did these special flowers bloom all year long and on every available strip of grass.
Darren, a close friend of Jacob’s, was waiting for him at the entrance to the arena. The enormous stadium was a similar size to the Colosseum in Rome. Jacob himself trained there every other day, though he would never in a million years get an audience like this one.
Jacob and Darren followed the crowds into the arena and wound up sitting at the top of the first tier of the stands, which gave them a clear view of the arena floor below. No one was on the floor yet; there wouldn’t be for another fifteen minutes, but the stands were almost completely filled already. There hadn’t been an open training for months, and most of the Affinites in town had jumped at the opportunity to watch the legendary Asters as their trainer tested them and pushed their magical abilities to their limits.
Jacob used to dream of being an Aster; it was possible to become one without having inherited it from a parent. He dreamed about it sometimes still. But for now he would have to make do with being just an Affinite. Jacob had a unique affinity, just like every other Affinite in these stands. It was what set them all apart from the millions of humans that lived on the continents of the earth. Humans didn’t know of Affinite and Aster existence, and never would. If they ever witnessed either an Affinite or Aster in action their memories would be selectively wiped. But it was up to Asters and Affinites to protect the humans of the world from Dark Magic. Or more specifically, it was up to the five Asters. Only if a war broke out would Affinites be called into battle, though that hadn’t happened for twenty-five years.
“So, who came first, the Affinites or the Asters?”
Jacob turned his head at the familiar voice of his former primary school teacher, Mrs. Emsworth. She was walking along the row of seats one level beneath where Jacob and Darren were sitting. Behind her trailed fifteen eight-year-olds all eager and staring wide-eyed all around the arena.
“Affinites!” called one girl from the back.
Mrs. Emsworth looked up and caught Jacob’s eye and smiled, recognizing him. “That’s right. They lived among humans for centuries in peace, didn’t they? And when did that peace change?”
In the dark ages, Jacob thought to himself.
“At the beginning of the Dark Ages,” a boy right behind Mrs. Emsworth whispered.
Mrs. Emsworth sat down on the bench beneath Jacob and Darren, and gestured for the children to follow suit. “You are right, Tommy,” Mrs. Emsworth said. “So, at the beginning of the Dark Ages, about one thousand years ago, there was a celestial event that changed everything. What event was that?”
“The Blood Solstice!” a dark-skinned boy cried.
Jacob smirked at the boy’s enthusiasm and turned his attention back to the floor of the arena. Mrs. Emsworth continued to quiz her students on the history of Affinites and Asters. Every Affinite in the world knew the story she was about to tell them. It was the story of their people. Of how so much dark energy came with the Blood Solstice – when there was a blood moon on the same night as a winter solstice – that seven Affinite brothers decided to take the power for themselves and became immortal in the process. Their souls corrupted as they did so, giving in to the forces of greed, lust and anger. They called themselves the seven Higher Kings, and they took over the world with their Dark Magic. The Kings spread out across the world, taking over one continent each. Affinites drawn to the allure of their Dark Magic had their souls corrupted just like the Kings, and became Dark Disciples. They still had control over their affinity, but they served a King.
Mrs. Emsworth left no part out as she told her students the story. She explained how humans were taken as slaves and how Affinites were hunted for sport. There was no light, only darkness and destruction. Affinites had to go into hiding, living deep in the mountains and forests to remain undetected. Scattered across the world the Affinites stood no chance against the Kings’ mighty rule.
“Look at them staring,” Darren whispered in Jacob’s ear. Jacob looked down. Darren was right: every one of the students was gaping at their teacher with their eyes wide. Jacob doubted any of these children didn’t already know every little detail of their bloody history. The story was part of who they were; how they were brought up. Just like every young Affinite was trained to enhance their natural resilience to the violence and fighting they would possibly experience. The fact that these eight-year-olds were here to watch a training where the Asters would be pushed to their limits and near death, with only healing magic to save them, was precisely for that reason.
Mrs. Emsworth looked at each of the children and said in a heavy voice, “For five hundred years the Kings ruled the world. For five hundred years they destroyed everything that was good and pure. But it wasn’t enough for them. When the Blood Solstice came around again, they wanted more. But there was one young girl who wanted it all to end. Her name was Aiyana.”
Jacob hated himself for feeling a flutter at the bottom of his stomach. He was a man; he was nineteen-years-old, and yet he still felt that same flicker of excitement every time someone talked about Aiyana. She was… something else. She had lost her father to a Disciple; she wasn’t a fighter and couldn’t save him when her village on the shores of Denmark was attacked. There had been a ship waiting on the coast, ready to take any Affinite still alive to find a land that was safe. Aiyana boarded that ship and brought along her favourite flowers that grew along the Danish shore: sea asters.
The story went that Aiyana held those flowers as she prayed to the stars. She prayed for someone to hear her, to one day put an end to the Darkness and make a place of true safety so she could bring light back to the world again.
But the ship capsized in a storm. And Aiyana drowned.
But the stars answered. Legend said that the sky filled with brightness, and lightning shot out of the sky and hit Aiyana where she drifted lifelessly in the water. And from underneath her in the water the ground started to rise, and it brought her up to the surface. And she was born again, not as human, but as something greater. She possessed a magic so strong that she expanded the land that had raised her up. She made it larger, had one side be a towering cliff face, and covered the entire northern quarter with a thick forest of pine trees. She covered most of the rest of the flat, grassy land with her favourite flowers and she cast a spell to make sure no Darkness could ever see it. And she called it Saluverus.
She used her magic to bring the few thousand surviving Affinites in the world to this one island. From each corner of the world, of all religions and cultures, the Affinites came together. On Saluverus they were safe. Once settled, they had started training to form an army capable of challenging the Kings.
Aiyana’s magic was colossal: she could talk to animals and turn into them, and use their strengths. She was also super-humanly strong and fast. She could heal the wounded with the touch of her hand. She could stop herself from feeling pain if she got an injury so she could keep fighting or find shelter so she could recover, and she could heal herself if the injuries were too severe. And she could control the earth’s nature around her. She could create holes in the ground that swallowed up her enemies. She could command trees and vines and roots to move to trap her opponents.
But she knew she couldn’t win the war by herself. Her magic was too concentrated. It was incredible magic, but it would need to be spread out over the lines of her army to be the most effective. So, she went to a field of sea asters she had grown herself, and cast one great spell. She split her magic, creating six different ones: Health and Knowledge, Speed and Flight, Strength, Flora, Endurance, and Analgesia. The magic of Fauna, of animals, she kept herself. She gave each magic to an Affinite originally from a different continent. And finally, she called them the Asters, after her favourite flower that reminded her of home, to which she would never return.
It was the descendants of those original six Asters that Jacob, Darren, and the rest of Saluverus had come here to see today. The magic of the Asters had lived on through generations. The exception was Aiyana’s; the magic of Fauna had died with her.
Until eighteen years ago.
“Because, what happened eighteen years ago?” Mrs. Emsworth asked her students.
All the children shouted their answers at the same time.
“The Queen was born!”
“Aiyana came back!”
“Her magic was born again!”
Mrs. Emsworth laughed and held up her hand to try and calm the children down. “That’s right. After almost five hundred years a girl was born with Queen Aiyana’s magic of Fauna. And do we know the name of that girl?”
“Gayle Mendosa! Gayle Mendosa!” the kids all screamed.
Jacob chuckled at the sight of Mrs. Emsworth trying to shush the children, but she couldn’t stop them from shouting loudly at each other that the Queen had finally returned, that her magic was born again, and that, after eighteen years of being brought up away from Saluverus, Gayle Mendosa, Queen Aiyana’s reincarnation, was coming home.
There was another flutter in the pit of Jacob’s stomach at that thought. The Queen was coming home. The most powerful creature to ever walk on this earth had been reborn in his lifetime. From the moment he had heard this, he had trained harder than ever before. He wanted to be the best soldier on Saluverus, so that when a war would come, his only place would be by the Queen’s side.
Because war would come. For all the excitement and anticipation and celebration when Gayle Mendosa was born with Queen Aiyana’s magic, there was also dread and fear. Aiyana’s magic was only created when there was a dire need of it: to bring balance back into the world. Gayle Mendosa would not have been born with the same magic if that balance was secure. Her magical birth predicted a threat to the peaceful existence that the past five hundred years of Aster generations had created and protected.
The double doors to the arena floor opened and silence fell. Even the children in the row below Jacob stopped making a noise and turned their attention to see who had arrived.
Sky Mayne, the Aster of Speed and Flight, stepped onto the grounds, a short, black spear gleaming in his hands. Unlike regular trainings, where everyone wore whatever they found most comfortable, Sky was now wearing traditional training gear, which consisted of black trousers that were looser around the thighs and calves, but tight with an elastic band around the ankles, and a simple black, stretch top. Jacob clenched his fists by his side as he watched Sky swagger to the centre of the arena.
The crowd resumed its eager chatter. Behind Jacob, a group of girls were giggling and whispering excitedly. Sensing the attention, Sky looked up at the stand, pushing his golden blonde hair out of his face and flashing a dazzling grin. His gaze passed over Jacob, hardening slightly in recognition, before moving on. Then his lips curved into a devilish smile and his dark blue eyes sparkled as he winked at the group of girls sitting behind Jacob and Darren. The girls giggled even louder, and one of them practically shrieked at the attention Sky was giving them.
Jacob rolled his eyes at the sheer arrogance of the Aster. “God, he’s so full of himself,” he muttered.
“Is it all for show or is he genuinely like that?” Darren asked.
Jacob watched how Sky leaned nonchalantly on his spear as he let his charming smile reach more giddy girls. “He’s genuinely like that.”
And Jacob would know. He actually trained with the Aster of Speed. Jacob’s affinity was that of strategy. Every Affinite that had an affinity that could be advantageous in battle followed additional combat training. And the best Affinites were brought to Saluverus and trained with the five Asters several times a week.
And Jacob was one of the best. He had to be, for what he wanted: to fight alongside the new Queen.
During those sessions the Asters weren’t allowed to use their magic, so it was an even playing field. Jacob had trained with Sky before, and he could truthfully say that none of this showy, cocky, charming behaviour was an act. Sky was known for being the greatest Aster of his generation, and boy, he never let anyone forget it. Especially Jacob. And so Jacob had made it his personal goal to annoy and belittle Sky whenever he could, just to take him down a peg or two.
The arena doors opened again and Matu Madaki stepped inside. Originally from Nairobi, Kenya, the Aster of Strength had the physique of a professional American footballer. He was at least six and a half feet tall, with his arms, shoulders and chest packed with muscle. He had dark skin, even darker eyes and a shaven head.
Matu Madaki was the complete opposite to Sky. Where Sky was rash and daring, Matu was rational and strategic. He was the calm-in-a-storm type; always thinking, always planning. Whatever the best way out of a bad situation would be, Matu would think of it. Sky would impulsively do the first thing that came to mind without thinking about the longer-term consequences.
Matu walked over to Sky and said something no one in the stands could hear over the constant talking and laughing of the crowd. As the two Asters talked, Matu grazed his fingers over the knuckle knives he wore. It was a contraption with four holes for Matu to stick his fingers through, but on the thumb-side of the hole for his index finger, a small blade gleamed in the artificial lighting of the arena. Those things were truly deadly. Matu’s magic of Strength made him dangerous enough; he could break half the bones in your face with a single punch, but with the flick of his wrist, he could simultaneously slice your throat with that blade.
Matu always carried a sword with him as well, though Jacob had never actually seen the Aster use it. Thanks to his magic, his hands were usually deadly enough.
The Aster of Strength said something that made Sky laugh. A girly gasp came from behind Jacob together with the words, “Did you hear that? Oh, I love the way he laughs!”
Jacob gave his friend a look before turning his head to see which of the girls had said such an embarrassing thing. To his surprise, Jacob recognised the girl from his history class. Her name was Grace and she was staring down at the two Asters with desperate infatuation.
Jacob looked back at Darren who was trying to keep himself from laughing. Jacob sniggered and looked at his watch. Five more minutes before the open training was to start.
The doors opened again, and this time two Asters stepped inside. Jacob had less of an aversion to these two. On the left was San Francisco-born Nathan Radbourne, the Aster of Flora. He had brown hair and brown eyes. He was tall and muscular, but didn’t have the big shoulders, arms and chest that Matu had. Two broadswords were strapped across his back in an X. Nathan was quite a mystery. The boy seemed to have two personalities; on the training grounds he was cold, clinical and fierce, while outside of training he was extremely quiet, on the edge of unsure and insecure.
“Now he’s cute,” one of Grace’s friends breathed as Nathan walked over to the centre of the arena.
“No, I like Matu better,” another girl said.
“I hear he’s taken,” Grace said. “Sky on the other hand…”
Will sleep with you once and never call you again, Jacob thought to himself. Sky Mayne had that reputation, and it was astounding that these girls didn’t know about it. Or maybe they did and they just didn’t care. Sky was an Aster after all, a prize in itself to some girls.
Jacob grunted at the thought, though when his gaze settled on the girl walking beside Nathan Radbourne, his frustrations about Sky seemed to disappear.
Sophie Griffiths, the Aster of Health and Knowledge, was originally from London, the same as Jacob. She didn’t have a particularly pretty face, but her thunderstorm grey eyes were something to behold. She had her long blonde hair tied in a single plait down her back. Her signature miniature crossbow was tied to her left wrist, and her deadly rapier sword was in its sheath at her right side. Jacob tried not to stare as Sophie walked up to the three male Asters. Though they were all taller and much more muscular than her, she was definitely not cowed by them. On the contrary; she radiated a quiet self-confidence, and Jacob knew that she had all the Aster boys wrapped around her finger.
“Now there’s a bad-ass woman,” one of Grace’s friends breathed in awe. Finally, something the girls said that Jacob could agree with. He looked over his shoulder to the straight haired, mousy-faced girl on Grace’s right.
Grace put an arm around the girl. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, my friend, but I don’t think she’s into girls.”
From the corner of his eye, Jacob saw the girl look at Sophie for a moment longer. “How are you so sure?”
Grace snorted. “Trust me on that one. Remember Manuela? The Spanish girl from our second year? She tried. And she didn’t fail because she was unattractive, because… well, you’ve seen her.”
“She came on to Sophie? Seriously?” the girl asked.
“Tried and failed, my friend. She was convinced Sophie was like her. Trust me, she’s not. Plus, she dated Arthur Kelly for a few months last year.”
Jacob turned his attention away from the girl-talk behind him, for the doors opened one last time. Two figures stepped through. The first was Lian Fai, the last of the Asters. Originally from Tokyo, Lian had short, spiky, black hair and dark brown eyes. He was the Aster of Analgesia. In other words: he could feel no pain. He would die as soon as anyone else, but no matter how extensive the injury, it wouldn’t hurt him. He could keep fighting until his body physically couldn’t anymore. It made him deadly and unpredictable, because he could surprisingly keep coming at you while sporting an injury that would’ve stopped other opponents right in their tracks.
A hush fell over the crowd when everyone recognised the second figure walking onto the grounds. It was Jackson Kelly, the Commanding Chief, and the personal trainer of the Asters. He was also in charge of all the combat trainings for the Affinites, but he rarely ever gave those himself. The Asters were his main priority, for they were the first line of defence if any of the Kings would ever come crawling out from the Underworld, where Aiyana and her army had banished them, and make a play for the Surface of the earth.
The five Asters stood in a straight line and faced the Commanding Chief. The arena was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Jacob glanced at his watch. Nine o’clock. Bang on time.
The training was about to begin.