Hello everyone, Happy New Year!
I hope you’re enjoying the holidays. Things have been a bit dull on my end. Dull but rewarding. Sorry I couldn’t make the christmas release. I was neither around or hooked in(webbed in?). Some charity works here and there, some sleep (more than I’ve had in a long time. I had my first dream in three months four days ago).
We’re in a new year now! A new year means new things for HoGW. I’ve cooked up some surprises over the last few days, taken time off to push some things around and move my writing forward and beyond a mere hobby. You’ll be seeing some of it soon, you know how I feel about spoilers. Patrons can reach out to me on the patron-only channel for more information.
No more talking, here’s your chapter!
Chapter Fifty-four: The Lady Bloodworth
The return to the real world was a journey to a world of cheers. Valerian had never heard applause that loud before, not even when he contested the Zebre. Then again, he had never been cheered by an audience made solely out of cultivators before. It was an incredible feeling. He stood up, eyes scanning the crowd. It wasn’t just the spectators, even his squadmates and the members of the other squads looked at him with admiration and a measure of envy. Clearcrest on the other hand…
She stood upright, pale-faced and defeated but somehow, unashamed. From time to time, someone would look over and each time, their eyes were cold and filled with contempt. Many among her own squad had distanced themselves with a few even holding back Fallenwood who screamed and raved, yelling obscenities at her and promising to make her pay.
Clearcrest kept a straight face through it all. In her mind, she made a large bet on success. Sure, she had failed, no gamble was without risk, but had she won, these same people looking down on her would be praising her for her decisiveness, foresight and quick thinking.
A hand slipped into her own, holding it tight. Lucas, her betrothed, shifted the long barreled musket that lay across his shoulders and shot her a reassuring smile. She tried to reply in kind and failed miserably, her mask nearly slipping in the process. He said nothing. All he did was squeeze her hand tighter and stand with her, helping her weather the gazes of the crowd.
The Chief Instructor stood and called Squad Two forward. The other judges stood with him. Together, they clapped as Squad two approached.
“Well done Squad Two!” the Chief Instructor yelled. His crystalline armour made tinkling sounds when he clapped. “We might even have to change your designation now in light of your recent success. You may return to your barracks to rest. Tomorrow, we will have the awards ceremony.”
Valerian and his squad bowed and obeyed his instructions. With a final glance at the crowd, Valerian led his group away. They’d only just reached their barracks when an unfamiliar figure blocked their paths. He was dressed in light clothes with an army officer’s coat draped over his shoulders. Despite standing right in front of them, the man had no presence. They could sense nothing about him, not even his level of cultivation. It only took a moment before they realised that their surroundings were completely cut off. Everything beyond a few metres from them was blurry. Squad Two was immediately on alert.
“Elite Steelborn?” The strange man inquired.
“Yes, sir!” Valerian responded sharply. He did not recognise the man but he could tell from the aura of authority the man carried that he was a superior officer. The fact that the coat he wore had the Strapping’s insignia helped as well.
“You will come with me”, the man stated. Without even waiting for a response, he walked up to Valerian and grabbed him by the forearm.
“The rest of you will continue on to your barracks. There you will hand this note to your instructor”, the strange man added, handing a sheet of parchment, rolled tight and secured with a ribbon to Alenwaa. “Besides him, you are not to tell anyone of what has just transpired.”
The entire squad nodded dumbly. They shot worried looks at Valerian, wondering just what was afoot and seeking answers. Regrettably, Valerian was just as lost as they were. He knew neither the man nor what was going on. It was only his belief that the man was an officer at the school that was preventing him from resisting. In fact, Valerian doubted he could.
Message delivered and received, the man faded into thin air, as if he was never there, taking Valerian with him. The world returned to normal. Wide eyed, the remaining members of Squad two watched them fade away. Glancing around furtively, they soon determined that they were truly alone.
“Let’s hurry to the barracks”, Alenwaa told his colleagues. “The Captain will know what to do.”
Having sufficiently cowed the cadets, General Grayson made a clean getaway, taking his target with him. Some part of him was rankled at the fact that a distinguished figure like himself had been turned into a mere errand boy. These last few days, he’d been forced to wait hand and foot on Lady Bloodworth and by the heavens, the woman was demanding. He was a general and yet here he was, fetching and escorting a cadet not even a score years old.
Sean appeared in front of the entrance of his master’s home. There he sighed and squashed his indignation. He could not let any trace of it show or who knew what the old lady would do. There was one comfort though. While his current tasks were demeaning, no one would ever know. Glancing towards Valerian, he amended the thought. No one that mattered at least and if this kid knew what was good for him, he’d forget this ever happened.
Valerian was taken to a large manor. One so large and decorated it made the one he grew up in look like a hovel. From there, he was led to a small room dominated by a gigantic, plush settee. Sitting in it was a petite old lady. The mysterious officer leading him bowed towards her and after considering it, Valerian did as well. He’d experienced the man’s power. Ignoring the strange effect he’d had on the world earlier, just the speed with which he brought him here was comparable to his great-grandfather’s. Anyone who such a person would bow to of their own volition was definitely someone he had to show the utmost respect to.
“Elite Steelborn, this is Field Marshal Lilian Bloodworth retd. The Queen of Flames!” the strange officer introduced. His eyes filtered out the clash between the settee and the rest of the room. He was the very person who had been forced to lug that piece of furniture here in the first place.
Valerian stared at the old lady, awed by her titles and the respect being shown her. She didn’t even seem to register it. Slowly, she sipped from the cup in her hands, ignoring the man who introduced her. Instead of getting insulted, he went off to the side saying nothing.
“Cadet Steelborn!” she finally spoke. “Do you have any idea why I had you brought here?”
“No ma’am” he readily admitted.
“That’s good!” she responded. She meant it too. It was always better to have an empty slate than a used one, especially if it was covered with messy scribbles that weren’t in line with what you had in mind. Pulling out a small wooden slip and placing it in front of her, Lady Bloodworth leaned forward in her seat.
“You’re a sharp one Steelborn and I’m not talking smarts”, she began. “Sharper than you let on. I nearly missed it myself. Must be my age. You did, however, let it slip in your last battle.”
“I’m not sure I follow, ma’am”, Valerian said in perplexion.
The retired marshal did not answer immediately. Instead, she grabbed the wooden slip she took out earlier.
“Array master of the First Circle, the youngest to attain that rank in the current age. Array master of three attributes, youngest to attain that in our kingdom’s history. Second place winner of your regional Zebre and in your first competition too. Dual attributed dual force user. Possessor of a mutated, merged legacy. Currently, the highest ranked first-year cadet in Strapping’s Centre. Leader of the best squad in Platoon Nine and also the youngest squad leader”, she listed.
“That is an impressive list of achievements for someone your age, cadet”, she commented.
“Then, there’s the miscellaneous information”, she continued. “Things like how you were believed to be a cripple as a child. Numerous reports of strange, mysterious injuries and bouts of sicknesses that plagued your childhood. There’s mention of how despite it being known that you had no hope as a tellurian you somehow did the unthinkable and showed up later with a sturdy and remarkable tellurian foundation. There’s also this report your instructor filed and his comments.
“Distant but willing to listen. Capable of leading by example. Smart and gifted. Without peer in terms of essence control, probably as a result of his training as an array master. Cadet Steelborn has excellent analytic abilities which allow him to adapt quickly to any situation he is put in. He is also able to use this skill to lead and place his squadmates in ways and positions that contribute positively to their results. Unfortunately, his tendency to rely on himself before others and keep his distance prevents him from truly bonding with the squad. It has also begun to hold his squad back since he has created an atmosphere where he has to move before they can do same”, she read out.
Valerian’s face began to turn as she went on. He could tell that this was something he was not supposed to be privy to and tried to say something but she completely ignored him and continued. Whatever words Valerian wanted to say next died in his throat when the mysterious officer caught his eye and shook his head, his expression a mixture of pity and schadenfreude.
“Possible improvements…” the lady read. “Cadet Steelborn needs to recognise the worth of his squadmates and rely on them more. As leader, he needs to get accustomed to the delegation of duties. He also needs to improve on his interpersonal skills as he is currently hampered in his ability to effectively communicate to his squad.”
Pausing to look at him, Lady Bloodworth asked, “Interesting reading, isn’t it?”
Valerian wasn’t sure whether to nod or shake his head.
“It continues for a bit, talking about possible focuses for your path, specialisation and your personal improvement and even makes notes on your cultivation, but you and I know that is not necessary, don’t we? You’ve already got your specialisation chosen and planned out, haven’t you”
Wondering how she knew, Valerian nodded.
“I thought so!” she said with a pleased smile.
“So…” she said, beginning anew. “Do you now know why you were brought here?”
“No, ma’am”, Valerian answered.
“No guesses?” she asked. “What are your ‘excellent analytic abilities’ telling you?”
Valerian thought long and hard before answering. “It has something to do with my skills, that much is certain. It’s an assessment or something to do with my training…?” he ventured.
“That is pretty close”, the old lady said appraising him. There was a strange light in her eyes now. She looked excited. Valerian wasn’t sure what that meant for him.
“It should be obvious by now. Strapping’s isn’t challenging enough for you boy!” she exclaimed. “I’m here to offer you an alternative.”
Valerian’s brain stopped working for a second as he processed what she said.
“Excuse me, ma’am”, he started. “Could you please explain a bit more?”
The old lady levelled a burning gaze at him, boring into his eyes. “I’m sure you’ve noticed it by now”, she told him. “Your rate of improvement is slowing.”
“When you first came to Strapping’s your skills and cultivation grew at a rate that astonished you in a good way but that rate of growth is slowing.”
Valerian nodded. It was true. The first few months at Strapping’s had been incredible. However, that was changing. It wasn’t just his growth, the wonder was fading. Everything was becoming mundane. The Battle Tower was no longer as stimulating. Battles on the fighting dais were disappointing. Besides the other elite, there was no challenge and the elite had all sequestered themselves, rarely showing their faces. The pills he was given for cultivation were losing their effectiveness and his array skills had barely improved despite all the efforts he made at self-study.
“There is a reason for that”, Lady Bloodworth was telling him. “Forget the trite your instructor wrote. What would you say are the key areas you need to improve in? List only three.”
Valerian chose carefully before speaking. “My phantasm, my cultivation and my array skills.”
These were the things that troubled Valerian the most. His phantasm had already been revealed to be a major weakness and even a danger to himself if it was not handled properly. Something needed to be done about that. His cultivation was also stuck at a bottleneck. The standard techniques for essence attunement were not very effective for him and Valerian didn’t know why. He was halfway done but if he didn’t complete his attunement then he would never break into the lord tier. Without doing that, his cultivation would never improve. He was already at the very peak of the first tier as is. There no going further. Not without a breakthrough.
Additionally, his array skills were a vital part of his arsenal. He relied on arrays a lot and this would normally have come second but Valerian feared that he could not become a second circle master without first becoming a lord hence why cultivation came before it. There were other issues, like his continuous lack of powerful attack spells and ways to improve his battle intent but they all ranked much lower on the totem pole when compared to the three he had mentioned.
“Good!” the old lady acknowledged, impressed with his choices. “Now, of those three, how many do you think your instructor can help with?”
The question startled Valerian. He hadn’t noticed it before. Captain Walters couldn’t help with even one of those. The man was just as lost as he was regarding what to do with his phantasm. Cultivation was where you’d think he could help but the man’s attributes were darkness and fire. How would that help with wind and metal attunement? Array crafting? Even Captain Deerguard, his array using friend, was only on par with Valerian.
“Do you see it now?” the old lady said with a smile as she watched Valerian nod. She looked like the cat who got the cream.
A Special Message:
I wish all of you the best in 2018. An abundance of merriment, an outpouring of grace, the joy of family, the fullness of health, the peace of the spirit, the kindness of strangers, the satisfaction of sustenance… all these and more I wish for you this new year. May this new year be a new chapter in your lives and the lives of those you love.
Happy New Year, everyone!
See you on Thursday!