Valerian Steelborn was no ordinary child. As a matter of fact he would be insulted to be considered one. He had met many ‘ordinary children’ at Fangs’ Grammar school though and the adjectives he would use when describing them would not be flattering at all. Messy, immature, petty, prone to running around and fidgeting, unable to understand the teacher’s lessons even after several repetitions, hated simple correction, resorted to name calling…
Well he was not one of them. Let’s leave it at that. He knew it, they knew it. He was better. He was smart, from a good home and much more physically fit than most of them. He understood everything on the first try, was far ahead of his years in terms of knowledge and looked like the perfect prince of comportment and neatness, and stroked his chin when lost in thought. Even at the age of eight he couldn’t be described as anything less than incredibly handsome.
This together with his supposedly ‘arrogant face’, ‘know it all’ attitude and ‘lazy’, nonchalant visage made more than few of his peers envious. Many of whom would call themselves his rivals and enemies. That was one of the reasons he wanted to quit grammar school. There was nothing there for him to learn. The people there were annoying. He was tired of Mrs Fang trying to get him to “display his talents more” and his colleagues staring daggers and whispering to each other at his back not to mention the ones that kept trying to fight him.
Nevertheless his thoughts shouldn’t be mistaken for whining. Why? Valerian was largely apathetic. Strong emotions were foreign to him. That was the problem. He had learned to care for a few things; his grandparents and thanks to them, books and learning. However when confronted with other things he found it hard to get worked up over them.
What did it matter that most of his classmates didn’t like him? Why should he bother to do better when barely trying was more than enough? Why fight them when he could ignore them till they went away? What did that have to do with him? Why should he be concerned about so, so and so?
To be honest the whole thing was a serious waste of time and he was glad that it was finally over. Perhaps now his own pace of learning would not be restrained simply because some daft kid in the back could not keep up. So when he woke up early that morning he was filled with much more zest than usual. It caused him to rush to the study right after breakfast and wait for his lessons.
Sadly he was going to wait for a long time for at this time his grandparents were busy waiting for a particular array master to arrive. They needed him in order to assess Valerian’s potential for cultivation and to determine the path he should take. This preliminary check was necessary for every one and was normally done en mass by children and their families at temples, sects and schools.
The whole thing was very important, which was why they were having a private test performed by a member of the clan. This person was the younger brother of Richard, their guard captain. Ordinarily you’d think that someone a magistrate issued a summons for would rush over immediately, but this was not the case. The person coming was an array master. It was a noble profession, an elite position that only gifted cultivators could claim.
It was not uncommon for some array masters to feel disdain towards people with ‘mortal professions’, particularly the low levelled ones, even if those people were their uncles. Luckily Jonas, Richard’s brother was not the type. He arrived promptly and paid his respects to master and mistress of the manor.
“Good morning Uncle, Auntie!”
Valan immediately got up to receive him. “Jonas! Welcome! It’s been a year”.
“I’m sorry Uncle. I know I should visit more, but I have been so busy lately” Jonas immediately tried to explain.
The magistrate laughed off his attempt and replied instead with. “I know. Congratulations on passing the exam. To successfully advance to second circle array master at your age is most impressive. You make us proud. How can we bring ourselves to bother you when your secluded study and closed door cultivation brings so much results?”
Jonas gave a bashful smile. “Well hopefully now that I have passed the examination I can take things slow for a while”.
“Yes. You should!” the magistrate’s wife affirmed.
As it happens, Richard and Jonas were part of the family. Their father was the magistrate’s cousin. The two were close growing up and thus when he and his wife died Valan had not hesitated to adopt his orphaned children. The couple raised them alongside their own son. Richard became a respected warrior and Jonas had even managed to become an array master.
The two had never forgotten the love and care shown them. That was why Richard remained at the manor as a guard captain when with his tier he could easily find better paying work anywhere. The guard captain of a minor magistrate might have some influence but it paled compared to what a tellurian at the peak of the second tier could really achieve. Jonas on the other hand was an array master his talent was rarer and not only required more work but he couldn’t be around as much.
He was now an important figure in the city and the clan. A lot was required of him and yet the moment he heard the old couple needed his help, he dropped everything and ran over. It helped that there was a temporary lull in his duties but this act alone showed how much he cared for and respected them. Plus, the fact that it concerned Valerian the son of his surrogate brother meant he couldn’t refuse or postpone.
He was eager to perform the ceremony. He wanted to see what results the son of the greatest genius of his generation would have. Funnily, no one could find the boy. It took a while before a servant checked the study and then brought him over.
Valerian walked into the hall a bit annoyed. It turned out that he wasn’t going to be studying after all. His grandfather had actually forgotten about him simply because some guest from the main clan was visiting. Now he was being dragged over to meet him. His attitude changed a little though when he saw who he was to meet.
Standing before his grandparents chatting and laughing bashfully was a man decked in resplendent red robes with a staff in his hands. The material shrouded his body in an intentionally mysterious air and the staff was capped with a large red crystal. ‘Obviously a cultivator’, Valerian noted mentally. He proceeded with greater care making sure to take him in fully. This allowed him to notice the style of the robes and the rather obvious badge placed over the right breast of the figure.
The material of the badge itself was relatively nondescript. It was dark and hard. The lines carved on it however possessed a dull whitish-blue glow. They came together to form two circles filled in with strange symbols, a smaller one in a larger one. Valerian’s breath caught. He had a dim idea of what that meant. The guest was an array master! His eyes shot up to better scan his face and beneath the rather thick beard he made out a somewhat familiar face.
Array master Jonas Steelborn. The man counted among the most distinguished of all his clan members – the ones he had met at least. To be an array master was something many dreamed of. Even the children at school would sit and discuss them when they got the chance. Many hoped to become one when they grew up. Regrettably it was easier said than done, and even they knew it.
Array master, alchemist, artificer, healer, these were just some of the top cultivating professions. They required not only smarts, resources and long study but most importantly cultivating talent. That alone disqualified eighty percent of all who hoped to study them. Simply becoming a cultivator was beyond the hopes of most let alone becoming one with the talent and skills necessary to become one of these. Cultivators were the elite and those of these professions were the elite of the elite.
It was remarkable that Valerian recognised him in the first place. He had only ever met him twice before this. The last time was when he was four. Seeing Jonas also allowed Valerian to put together some of the clues he had noticed but not focused on. He started to suspect the reason why his grandfather was so happy the day before and why he had been allowed to quit the grammar school. Hope begun to stir in his heart. Was he about to have his prospects at cultivation tested?
‘Finally!’ he yelled mentally. In fact, he had to restrain himself from doing something totally uncharacteristic like breaking into song or dancing a jig. He had waited for so long.
This was much better than simply being allowed to quit grammar school. Why? Because he was going to get the chance to cultivate and much earlier than expected too. He had brought the topic up before only to be shot down. His grandfather had originally said that he would begin when he was ten. That his time was better spent improving knowledge and tempering his mind. Valerian disagreed if course but he was not the one in charge of these decisions.
In truth, Valerian knew a lot more about cultivation than his family thought. Even if the topic was not discussed at home and the books in the study sealed away it was still possible for him to learn about it. The reason for this was simple. Grammar School! Yes, it was good for something. If it was before then his family would right in their deductions since he never met anyone who did not live in the manor but once he started going to school it was different.
He might have little knowledge on the subject but that did not mean that others did as well. Just like his grandparents wanted, Fang’s Grammar School exposed him to people outside the manor. He may not have interacted much with his peers but he did observe them. Many of them had parents, siblings and people close to them who were cultivators or at least cultivation aficionados. This led to discussions on cultivators and cultivation itself.
Topics like which attribute was the best? Who was the coolest or most powerful cultivator in DaleGuard or the world? Who would win in a fight between the Viscount and the gladiator champion? Which technique was more awesome? Which profession was greatest. These were discussed often and worn to the ground. Sure they were discussions of children but they were still useful for someone like Valerian who knew little. Thanks to them he now knew more.
Like the fact that cultivation required a lot of time and dedication, meaning that most either studied at home, under masters or in special schools. Fangs’ was none of these so those who started cultivation nearly always left. Or the fact that testing cultivation prospects required the use of special arrays. And who had come to his house right after he had been pulled from school – an array master. It also explained why his grandfather, workaholic though he was had taken the day off.
Valerian clenched his fists hoping to all the gods that his deductions were right. But before he could get off a short prayer his presence was acknowledged and he was forced to spend the next few minutes exchanging platitudes. He made his way over to stand behind his grandmother and waited for the adults to speak. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Now Valerian I know I said you weren’t going to cultivate until you were ten but due to certain reasons I have relented and will allow you to do so”, his grandfather begun.
“Thank you grandfather!” he exclaimed. His excitement was getting hard to suppress.
“Yes, yes!” his grandfather said. His grandmother merely beamed at him and as for Uncle Jonas he watched everything with a small quirk to his lips.
“Your uncle Jonas is here to run some tests. The results will determine if you can cultivate and your cultivation path. They will also be sent to the clan if you pass, to register you as one of the cultivators of the younger generation. That way you will be acknowledged by the clan and qualify to receive some resources and manuals”.
“I understand grandfather. Thank you!” Valerian said trying to appear calm but the widening smile on his face betrayed him.
“Don’t thank me. You haven’t passed the assessment yet” the old man pointed out. Of course he did not add that there was absolutely no chance of him failing. Not when he had already started cultivating. Rather he turned to his nephew and gave him the go ahead.
Jonas stepped forward with a smile. Holding his staff out he called Valerian forward. The young boy left his grandmother’s side and stood in front of his seldom seen uncle. Quickly space was made and he was left in the middle, a little over a meter of open space on all sides. Out of the corner of his eyes Valerian saw two of the guards perk up and focus on him as well as Uncle Richard leaning against a wall, Avery at his side. When they turned up he did not know. What he did know was that this was the first step on a path to greatness and oh how right he was.