BK II, Chapter Nineteen: The Man in the Shadows

The room was dim but that was only because many of the candles had long since been extinguished. Normally, in such a situation, you’d get up and light more or even make use of the crystal lamp installed in the ceiling. The occupant of the room did no such thing. In fact, he did not seem to care, after all, with his eyesight the darkened room might as well have been day. The only reason he used the candle in the first place as because they exuded a certain fragrance when lit that helped with meditation. Right now, he was more concerned with the twisting shape in front of him.

Seated on his favourite cultivation mat, Valerian watched the lump of liquid metal floating in front of him as took on a new shape. Stretching itself, it formed a long-handled battle hammer. The shaft was a metre long and capped with a large cylindrical pommel whilst the head was a simple cuboid of metal. The entire thing had no decoration whatsoever and was merely metal cast in an overly simple shape, however, that was about to change.

Choosing to focus on the head, Valerian began to modify it to his tastes. The massive block-like head compressed itself, becoming sleeker instead. It actually, got thinner close to the shaft leaving the head flared out a bit. The flat surface on the right side erupted into short, stout spikes turning the battle hammer into a cruel impression of a meat tenderizer. The left end, however, twisted itself into a sharp, curved point resembling a bird’s beak. The basic design was finished.

Valerian made a small gesture, eliciting a response from the massive orb hovering behind him. More and more metal flowed into the weapon but its size remained the same. Once the hammer refused to take in any more Valerian stopped the onrush, leaving the main orb noticeably smaller than before. Slowly, he engraved a nice pattern on his new acquisition; Vines and small birds. Once when he was done with this did he finally get up and take the weapon into his hands.

Even as a child, Valerian had always been partial to bludgeoning weapons. Nothing else let him experience and use his strength the way they did. A sword could cut just as well even without incredible amounts of strength. It stressed a lot more on manoeuvrability than bludgeons did and while both required skill to wield there was just something inherently simple and primal in simply swinging your weapon and sending your enemy and everything in your way flying. There were few things as satisfying as literally crushing or smashing your target.

Testing his latest creation, Valerian found that it weighed a little over seven hundred kilogrammes. This caused him to frown a bit. Even his old mace weighed four tonnes. Comparatively, this was made of better material and wouldn’t get damaged as easily as that one did but it was taking a bit to get used to the difference in weight. Recently, Valerian had discovered that the weight of the weapon itself did not matter much. It wasn’t the weight but rather the application of force that mattered. With his current speed, strength and technique, he could do more damage wielding an ordinarily wooden club than he used to with his mace.

He performed a few moves, stances and techniques with the mace and then let it meld back into its parent orb. This action seemed absurd. Why had he spent so much time and effort to make it if it would only be used for a couple of practise swings? Well, in addition to training and familiarising himself with his new focus, there was one new trick he’d learnt. Valerian stretched his hand towards the mercurial orb, thinking of the weapon he had just crafted. After a few seconds, the orb spat something out. An exact copy of the weapon Valerian had just been swinging around earlier; vines, weight and all.

This was a function of the orb he had discovered only recently. Following some tests, Valerian was successful in figuring a few things out. The mercurial orb could actually save a copy of the forms it took. Not only that, it could speedily reproduce these forms, saving Valerian the trouble of doing so himself. With a gesture, a few more weapons flew from the orb. The first was his usual set of flying weapons. Then came a large mace, an arcanist’s staff, a spear and two different styles of shield.

He trained his eyes and qi on each of these weapons, examining them until they satisfied some criteria that only he knew. A few minutes later, he picked the spear and set the rest to spin around him slowly. Slowly, practising the forms of the spear, he put his mind to the task of formulating a plan to defeat Vorm when dawn came. By this time, the last candle had long died, leaving him, the sole occupant of the room to train in the darkness.

Valerian was walking through the manor. Something had come up and so the great elder tutoring him was unable to make it to today’s session. Rather than sit in his room to train or worse, do so in the disaster zone that was his courtyard, Valerian had elected to head to the study. There was also the fact that Valerian had done little else these past few weeks except train. Frankly, he was sick of it. Also, he needed something to get today’s defeat out his mind. At least, those were the thoughts going through this mind until he heard loud voices arguing in the room he had just walked past.

“Wait! You want a commendation in addition to the officer’s training?” a sharply dressed gentleman with a monocle was asking in disbelief. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Can’t or won’t, Berkeley?” the magistrate pressed.

The man blustered but said nothing. The magistrate was right. He didn’t want to and the reason was simple. It wasn’t a good trade. As the representative of the Royal Military Colleges, he had been first to put his foot forward in the hopes that Valerian would pick his sponsors over the others but what they were asking for was a bit too much.

The RMCs had offered a full scholarship, regular supply of premium resources, a selection of spells and an assortment of other enticements. However, they heard nothing back. Whereas they had been slightly confident in coming out ahead, the manner in which they were subsequently blown off dashed all of their hopes. Thus, imagine his surprise when he received a missive from the magistrate, asking if they could meet and discuss Valerian’s enrollment. Happy, he had believed the man to have been won over by their offer or turned down somewhere else.

Either way, it was his win. Never would he have expected that the man had not called him to discuss the offer but change it all together. Instead of him proposing or offering favourable conditions, it was the other party making demands. How could he simply sit there and agree without question? Fortunately, a good-natured laugh broke the tension.

“I hope you realise what you’re saying major. Are you denying that Strapping’s is a military academy?” The laughing Vorm warned contradictorily.

“No, of course not!” Major Berkeley quickly exclaimed.

“Then, why are you denying it and acting like choosing Strapping’s doesn’t fall under the purview of our agreement. You asked that we pick a school under the RMC banner and we have picked Strapping’s. Is there truly, anything wrong with that?” The magistrate questioned as if wronged.

“No, there isn’t”, the old major was forced to say.

“Well I’m glad you think so!” the magistrate said, his expression taking an about turn.

“However, since we have picked Strapping’s you have to also admit that most of your previous offers have been rendered null and must be replaced. For example, tuition at Strapping’s is already free so what use is a full scholarship?” he began to point out.

“Well…” Berkeley tried to say but the magistrate simply bulldozed over him.

“Additionally, your promise of regular supply of premium cultivation resources suitable for true practitioners was well-intentioned but such a thing already comes standard in Strapping’s. I’m sure you can see now that such an offer must be replaced with something more fitting to maintain the spirit of our agreement.”

Backed into a corner, the man could only nod.

“You do see!” the magistrate exclaimed with a bright smile. “I knew you’d see it my way when I explained it better.”

Vorm merely sat back and laughed softly as if watching a show. For the major, it was clear that coming here was a mistake. This had been a setup from the start.

“So all I ask in replacement is that after Valerian completes his course of study at Strapping’s he be allowed to continue with one of your Officer Training Programmes. For that, I have picked the Steven’s Institute.”

“Steven’s… You want Steven’s”, the major repeated, his chest suddenly beginning to feel tight. Steven’s Institute was where lords were trained. It wasn’t a military school so much as it was a finishing school for lords, ladies and the rest of the elite.

“Yes, Steven’s!” The magistrate repeated looking at him as if he was speaking to a child. “Valerian gets on very well with animals. I’m certain that a place that trains dragoons will suit him greatly. Besides, once he is there, your promise of free tuition and a supply of resources can be fulfilled. You can even swap the offer of combat gear for a suitable mount. Don’t worry, I know that enrollment at Steven’s Institute is not always easy to come by so I can make do so long as you can get the agreement of an institution of similar standing and purpose”, the magistrate was saying.

The major couldn’t take it anymore. “You!” he blubbered with moustached lip quivering in rage. “Don’t go too far!” he warned.

This was too much. They weren’t even allowing him to speak. Was he really just supposed to sit there and take it? Being lectured and dictated to by some two-bit magistrate less than a quarter his age and with no cultivation to speak of. They weren’t just taking advantage of him, they weren’t even trying to hide it and all but telling him there was nothing he could do about it. Never had he been treated so in all his close to three hundred years of living.

He was an Arcane King. A major in the royal army and Lord of an unranked but still noble house. He’d taught recruits that had risen to better standing than the bearded upstart in front of him.  If it wasn’t for who his father was and the Commander at his side he’d teach the magistrate a thing or two.

“Sit down Berkeley!” the magistrate said icily.

That was it. The major had had enough. “Just who do you think you are?” he yelled, standing up.

“I said, SIT DOWN!” the magistrate commanded, his voice taking on a dangerous tone.

Despite himself, Major Berkeley actually froze for a second. There had been an edge to the magistrate’s voice. A slight warning that his experience let him catch. Glancing around, he discovered that Vorm who up until now had been chuckling in amusement in his seat had grown silent. He was even leaning forward and at the edge of his seat.

“Do you understand where you are Berkeley?” the magistrate asked in a dark tone. The major nodded, not quite understanding the situation.

“Do you know just how easy it will be for me to destroy you?” the magistrate questioned.

Suddenly aware that he was in danger, the major turned to look at Vorm, fearing that he was about to take action.

“Don’t look at him!” called the magistrate. “Look at me. I am the one that will destroy you, not him.”

Unable to help it, a look of disbelief and amusement flashed across Major Berkeley’s face at the mention of a ‘crippled’ lower court magistrate destroying him. However, the magistrate acted like he didn’t see it. He reached forward and picked up his cup of tea, sipping from it slowly.

“Here is a document I think you’ll have some interest in Berkeley, sit down and take a look”, he said, pushing a small sheaf of papers the man’s way.

Berkeley looked at it incredulously but the magistrate had long since stopped paying attention to him. Curious, he picked up the document and began perusing it. With every page, his face paled till it looked like he was about to die right there. He crumpled into the seat he had so recently vacated. Not because he wanted to sit but rather because his legs could no longer support him. He hadn’t even finished reading the document but he already knew. His life was over.

“This…” he managed to get out. “How did you get this? How did you know? Who else knows?” he started rambling.

“Calm yourself, Berkeley”, the magistrate said quietly.

He watched dispassionately as the man struggled to compose himself before speaking again. “I trust you are calm and comprehend your circumstances a bit better now.”

The major nodded sharply. “What do I have to do?” he asked. He wasn’t stupid. With the things, they had they merely had to leave a single sheet where it might be found and he and his would be done for and yet they had called him to this meeting and played this charade. Clearly, they wanted something. At least, he prayed they did.

“This is the new agreement. The one you’re going to hand your superiors”, the magistrate informed him, passing a single sheet over.

Berkeley looked at the sheet, his eyes widening in shock. “This… they’d never accept this!” he exclaimed. His initial response was going to be ‘Are you mad?’ but he couldn’t well say that now, could he?

“They will because you’ll sell it to them. After all, you’re very good at selling people, aren’t you Berkeley?” the magistrate told him, finally setting down his cup of tea. Vorm sniggered.

Major Berkeley looked at the list. There truly was no way that his supervisors would agree to this. Not with the assurances, he had given them beforehand and certainly not when they saw the magistrate’s list of demands.

“Relax Berkeley”, came the devil’s voice. “I’ve left you several outs. Look closely at the documents. So long as you emphasise the marked portions, they will surely take the deal.”

The major took a closer look, reading more carefully this time. Everything was hinged on Valerian making it into Strapping’s and getting a good evaluation. In fact, the latter half, where most of the demands would become effective actually required him to graduate with a distinction. Berkeley looked up in disbelief.

“You actually mean to send your ward to Strapping’s?” he inquired in shock.

“What does the agreement say?” the magistrate asked in return.

Berkeley shut up. He should be grateful, this would make it much easier to convince his superiors. However, if the boy really did meet the requirements and stipulations, that would be a major coup. The rewards alone… wait, as the person who discovered him, wouldn’t he be rewarded as well. The major’s eyes begun to shine.

“I’ll do my best to get their approval” he announced.

“That’s a given”, the magistrate said nonchalantly.

A few minutes passed in silence until eventually the major broke it.

“What about my uhm…indiscretions?” he inquired carefully.

“What about them?” the magistrate questioned.

“I, I just wanted to make sure. When I do this, you’ll get rid of the document, right?” Berkeley asked nervously.

“Oh, my poor Berkeley”, the magistrate said disappointedly. “I thought you understood. I own you now!” he said, his soft smile turning dark and haunting.

After Berkeley left, Vorm stood up saying. “That went well.”

“That, it did”, his uncle said with a smile. “Thank you, Vorm!”

“No thanks are necessary, uncle”, Vorm quickly stated. “Besides, I didn’t even do anything and had the pleasure of seeing you pull your ‘man in the shadows’ act.

The magistrate smiled noncommittally as he watched Vorm leave.

“Once question though”, his nephew turned to ask. “How did you get all that together in such a short period of time? There are things in that document dating back to the last century.”

Smiling mysteriously, the old man poured himself another cup of tea and said, “I have my ways.”

Vorm cursed inwardly. He just knew the old man would pull something like this. Unfortunately, his curiosity was killing him so he needed to know. He walked back to the man, intending to needle the truth out of him but whatever he was going to say was quickly forgotten as a massive spike of essence, followed by an equally massive pulse of qi went through the estate. A loud cry, sounding like a giant’s bellow could be heard echoing through the walls as well. Both men immediately paused, glancing towards each other, this phenomenon could only mean one thing.

Richard had successfully, broken through!

In a room two doors way, Valerian opened his eyes, his concentration broken. It didn’t matter, he’d learnt enough. Uncrossing his legs, he stood up slowly. Time to go congratulate his uncle.


Author’s Note

Okay, who knew ol’ Grandpa Valan was capable of that? I know I hinted at it but it was so long ago (Book One, Chapter 17). Plus, Richard has broken through.

Coming next is a special. Sigh. I like them but it appears that they are never as well received. I hope you guys read it though. Let me know if you’d like me to post here as well. I get that not many people like going all the over to the patreon page. It’s Easter, I’ll be generous.

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I hope you enjoyed today’s release. Happy Easter everyone!