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BK II, Chapter Forty: The First Commission

After Major’s Atakoma’s class was done, the cadets left for their barracks with heads laden with thoughts and questions. Forging their own paths? What did that even mean? Many of them had merely gone according to the instructions of their methods and teachers to get to where they were today. Now they were to break away? For those who had been cautioned all their lives about the dangers of training and experimenting without supervision, it sounded like madness. However…

The Major had known what he was about. That much was certain.  Still, he was also someone stuck in the King tier until he sorted out whatever it was he was doing.

A few others were more concerned about what they had learnt regarding cultivation methods and their systems. That was new. Most hadn’t even known that there existed systems. Some chatter was given to theories and conjectures on the glyph based system was using. Magnus, the apprentice array master from Gigne’s team was happy to tell everyone the rumours and legends surrounding gulbarghre.

Valerian ignored all of it. He probably knew far more than most the cadets here combined. At one point, his family had considered it after all. There were many gulbarghre methods still around, most of them in the possession of old plains clans and tribes. Some of them were inspiring to behold. His grandmother had even told him of an ancient order of hunters who practised one of them as their sole cultivation method.

To those in the know. That smacked of an unhealthy fascination with tradition. there was a reason that most gulbarghre was nearly abandoned wholesale when Imperial cultivation systems came on the scene. They all suffered from a severe and crippling weakness.

Gulbarghre could do many great and wonderful things for your essence and allow you to accomplish feats many would be hard-pressed to match. The combat prowess of the hunter order was outstanding. However, as a cultivation system, gulbarghre was greatly shackled. It had very few, if any, inherent mysteries. This was something many cultivators wouldn’t understand but their problem was akin to fishes trying to understand thirst.

Practically every cultivation method had an inherent mystery of some kind. A core principle it revolved around or had its practitioners follow. For example, the [Steel Monolith’s Art] Valerian had failed to cultivate in his youth focused on bringing out the attributes of the daemonic legacy that dwelled in all Steelborns. It followed principles of overwhelming strength and unbreakable defence. Any who cultivated it, therefore, found themselves cultivating the core mysteries of strength, stalwart defence, etc.

Gulbarghre could theoretically make your essence similar to that of a steel monolithic. It could even allow you to materialise avatars to fight or create weapons or whathaveyou but what it could not do was help you in cultivating a core principle. It was a system that only affected the body and the essence. The cultivation base itself and the user’s psyche were left untouched. Anyone who wished to cultivate or follow any mysteries would have to do so himself without the aid or guidance of any methods.

How many cultivators could do that, get up and set themselves on a path with nothing to guide them and no railings to keep them in bounds? It was like walking a tightrope in bad weather whilst blindfolded with your arms tied behind your back. The real kicker? There was no safety net below you and no guarantee of a safe perch at the end of your rope. Valerian wondered how it was that the ancient cultivators succeeded in producing so many legends using such a system.

Understandably, the entire system was unable to match up to the imperial systems and fell out of disuse. However, there were many clans and the like who had techniques too powerful or important to let go. Thus, many of the surviving methods were modified to be compatible with the new system. The methods of other systems would help guide the cultivators through the tiers. Alongside this, they’d practise gulbarghre for the benefits it provided, namely its effects on the physique and essence.

Eventually, this would give rise to a sub-discipline and spawn many inferior methods all of them with a shared general purpose; affecting, strengthening, training and modifying essence. One such category of methods was qi tempering.

Valerian sighed. Today, he could look down on qi tempering, even call it an inferior cultivation path springing from a flawed cultivation system. Was it truly so long ago that he’d been resigned to it as his final and only option for tellurian advancement? Getting his hands on genuine gulbarghre, to talk little of good ones, was deemed nigh impossible and those few who were willing to trade asked prices too great for his family to bear.

“Steelborn!” an imperious voice called out behind him.

Valerian and his squad paused. Turning around, he saw Reynard and a few of his squadmates coming towards them.

“I’m glad I caught you”, the older boy was saying.

“Greetings!” Valerian said politely. A few members of his squad followed suit.

Reynard and his group returned them. “Mind if we talk for a bit?” he requested, gesturing to the side of the walkway.

Wondering what this was about, Valerian nodded and went with him. Sparing a glance at his squad, he gave them the go-ahead to leave without him. Alenwaa and John, however, remained at his side. Across from them, the situation was mirrored with Georg and Hailing flanking their leader.

“What is it you wish to discuss?” Valerian asked, going straight to the point. The wayside wasn’t a good place to converse in his opinion. Already, their meeting was drawing stares.

“Word of your prodigious talent has reached my ears. Tell me, is it true that you’re the youngest full-fledged array master of this age?” Reynard asked calmly.

“In this kingdom? Yes”, Valerian informed him. “Why do you ask?”

“I suppose it makes sense then”, Reynard said first, almost as if thinking to himself. “I have heard tale of your craft. I’m told that you have artificed remarkable cultivation chambers in your barracks. May I ascertain their truth?”

“Enchanted not artificed, but yes I have”, Valerian made sure to mention, setting the record straight. He’d imbued arcane properties into an object, not crafted a completely magical one. For most people, there was little difference but Valerian was cautious. The relationship between the two guilds whilst cordial was filled with an intense rivalry. It wouldn’t do for someone to think he was advertising under their banner.

“If you’re talking about visiting in person then I’m afraid not”, Valerian said, stopping him. “Our barracks is currently off-limits to anyone not staff or in our squad. However, I can give you my word that the rooms do exist and I did indeed create them or at least, give them their current function and capability.

“That is joyous news”, the bejewelled boy said with a polite smile. Georg, on the other hand, looked a bit surprised and contemplative. Unfortunately, Valerian had no time to deduce what this meant as Reynard had just made a startling request.

“Tell me, Steelborn, would it be possible to commission a few for myself and my squad?”

“Excuse me?” Valerian asked, a bit stunned at the request. He wasn’t the only one. His two squadmates were flabbergasted and judging by Hailing’s expression, he hadn’t been expecting it either. Only Georg was able to maintain his customary cold and aloof visage.

“I wish to purchase your services. I would like a few of those chambers for myself and my subordinates”, Reynard repeated.

Valerian stared at the other for a moment. Unsure of what to think at this moment. He’d known that news of what he’d done to the barracks would slip out eventually. In fact, he’d counted on it hoping it would bring him some much-needed recognition amongst his fellow cadets. That’s why he hadn’t prohibited or asked his colleagues not to reveal it. He’d thought himself prepared for the outcomes. Perhaps, some would argue that his squad had an unfair advantage. They might get jealous, angry or any number of things. The one thing he’d never figured on was someone coming right up to him and offer a commission to create others for his use.

Calming himself, Valerian made to treat this professionally. “Why?” he asked.

“Well, for starters, I miss mine”, Reynard said, a look of genuine homesickness on his face. Valerian felt his facial muscles twitch at the answer.

“Secondly, it would appear our great and illustrious training centre does not let fresh recruits use the cultivation tower. I was almost resigned to when I heard of your talents. Would you be willing to take the commission or not?”

“I’ll take the commission”, Valerian answered, surprising everyone. “I trust you’re familiar with the observances for hiring array masters?”

“I am!” Reynard said with a wide grin. “Thanks for considering it!”

“Let’s set a date so one of my men can bring you over to start your work. He will have the deposit with him when he arrives.

“Wait! How can we be sure he’ll keep his word or that he won’t sabotage us with this opportunity?” Georg pointed out, glaring coldly at Valerian and his two friends.

To their astonishment, it was Reynard himself who answered. “Simple! Valerian is a recognised, array master of the first circle. The youngest our nation has had this age. I trust that he isn’t foolish enough to violate a contract and destroy his reputation”, the lad said with an uncharacteristically predatory smile. The rings on his finger’s flashed momentarily, distracting them for a split second. When next they looked, he again looked every bit as foppish as before.

Even Valerian wasn’t sure what he’d just seen. His next glance at his new and first customer as an array master was filled with hidden wariness. The older boy was right, though. Valerian would be a fool to jeopardise his promising career for something as silly as getting ahead at school.

“Perhaps, we should retire to the canteen to discuss terms and what exactly I’ll be doing for you”, Valerian offered. Reynard graciously accepted it. Together, the two groups left the wayside, walking and talking to each other.

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