BK II, Chapter Thirty-two: Nine plus One

Strapping’s orientation was interesting. Besides being shown around the centre, learning which places they had access to and which places they shouldn’t even think of visiting, there was a lot of studying of rules and regulations. Strappings was run like a military installation and they were actually lucky that they had someone to educate them on some of the customs and social etiquette for the centre. A lot of such things were normal background or unconscious knowledge. Things people didn’t know they knew or did not know.

For example, Valerian found a lot of the things he was learning to be familiar but that was only because he grew up in DaleGuard and several of his family members were in the military. For someone like Alenwaa or even Laura, there was a lot to learn and keep straight. Military protocol was something you only followed sometimes. It ran your life.

In addition to this, they had to be immunised or vaccinated for a lot of things. It was strange going to the Med centre and being made to drink multiple phials of elixirs and who knew what else. Valerian understood that the army required its men to possess at least some resistant to disease given how conditions in army camps and battlefields often got. Even so, the trust was hard to come by. Still, it could be worse. They could be doing physicals and scans. Letting them feed you medicines whose origins you had no idea of was generally a bad idea. Giving other cultivators access to your medical information was something that’d haunt you for the rest of your long, long life as a cultivator.

Imagine a healer running glowing hands over your torso. He or she could tell exactly how many times you’d broken your sternum and what you’d had for breakfast. It went deeper than that. Imagine him or her hovering over your qi or arcane centre. The healer would be able to learn things about your force, its characteristics, the state of your core, the kind of method you used and even the sort of skills your force would be suitable for. A healer could even examine your arcane vessels or meridians and estimate the amount of essence you could hold.

Now imagine that becoming a matter of record. A record anyone with clearance could access. A record to be disseminated to all centres and installations you’d work at for the rest of your life. A record that would only grow with each encounter. There was a reason healers were required to swear binding oaths and why most people only went to their clan or family healers. Valerian had only ever been under the care of Healer Brian, a man whose loyalty could not be questioned. Say what you would about the Steelborn clan but they were an insular tight-knit bunch who remained true to their own.

No cultivator would let that happen. There was a reason most healers were useless at combat or anything other than providing health care. Many of them, particularly the ones certified to provide public service, were burdened by so many oaths they’d probably lose their cultivation if they attempted surgery without permission. The minimum required oaths for a healer were secrecy and the inability to use what they learnt about you, against you. It prevented them from killing or harming their patients as well revealing secrets about them even forcibly to others.

It didn’t mean much though. There were many orders and schools of healers all of them with different priorities, philosophies and unfortunately different oaths. For example, Raphael was a trained surgeon. He could cut into his patients as part of his treatments. Petilia could not. Her healing was completely external. This made it so few cultivators were willing to bank their chances on oaths a healer may or may not have taken.

Valerian never would. If there were people who had things to hide, he was definitely one of them. The wings he hid in his shoulder blades and the secrets in his blood were too precious to take that kind of chance. Which was why he was nervous when Captain Walters suggested that the healers in the squad get familiar with their colleagues’ needs and requirements. Thankfully, he understood that they weren’t comfortable enough with them to allow that.

After a few days, they were done with pretty much all of the necessary thing and were finally allowed to explore the centre and make use of its premises. There was one place Valerian knew would be spending a lot of time. Strapping’s had a library-cum-skill house. The first things many of the new cadets did was go to the supply depot and claim their starting materials. Standard issue armour and weapons. Starting resources, the first time came with a fifty percent bonus. items for their rooms and barracks and training materials.

Valerian only went by once and that was when squad leaders were required to give reports on the state of their barracks and mention any things that were missing or needed repairs. As soon as they were cleared, rather than go queue at the supply depot, he took his squad to Archives 1. Captain Walter’s approved of his decision.

“That’s a good plan”, he admitted. “Archives 1 doesn’t have much and what it does have, you wouldn’t have access to as freshers. However, there’ll probably be stuff better than what you have now. You are allowed to borrow some good stuff on your first visit as an incentive, exploit that. Especially those of you relying on poor methods, try and upgrade them. you only get this chance once.

“Ask the librarians to recommend something and spend some time between the shelves”, he advised. “You’re bound to find something.”

No one had to explain the value of good techniques to them. They were all enthusiastic about going. John, in particular, was determined to find a ranged technique to make up for his abysmal long-range capabilities. He was told it wasn’t necessary. With Valerian and the wind-lightning-ice trio, they had enough long range potential but he felt it would be good for his personal growth. Valerian had his eyes on something else.

One day, whilst training with Elder Allard


“I..”, Valerian began. There was one thing that had been bothering him. “Great Elder Richard informed me that my metal manipulation skill had reached its first bottleneck. I’ve been trying hard since then to push past it but nothing seems to be working. I was wondering if you could help me with it.”

Elder Allard considered it for a moment and nodded. “I’m not very good with such techniques but if it is only helping you at that level then I suppose I can help. Show me how far you’ve gotten.”

Valerian immediately got to it, summoning his weapons and setting all nine of them to orbit him languidly. Together they went through several formations; the knives slicing through the air with the quarrels piercing through it. They weaved through each other in a complex pattern, making it difficult for anyone to lock onto a single weapon or tell which would be fired off first. After going through his usual routine a few times and even casting [Heart Seeking Bolts] with them twice, Valerian finally came to a stop.

“Very good”, Elder Allard praised. “I see you’re using a five-four method, however, it is not one I’m familiar with. What’s its name?”

“Excuse me?” Valerian asked in return.

“Your method Valerian! What is its name?” Allard questioned.

“What method?”

“The one you employ to move your weapons”, the great elder clarified.

“You need a method for that?” Valerian asked in confusion.

“Oh dear, you mean to tell me you aren’t employing any method or formation?” Allard asked in surprise.

“I didn’t know you had to have one”, Valerian admitted.

“That both complicates matters and makes them easier.

“I don’t understand”, his student said to him.

Allard looked pensive for a moment, unsure how to explain this to the boy. “The number nine is the greatest number. It is also the most extreme number”, he began.

“Forget ten and all others that come after. Nine is the greatest single number. See, nine is the edge of a lower realm. You pass it to go to the next. Ten, written 10 is a new beginning. A higher realm, hence the use of the first counting number, one and zero to show that one is a realm above the base. It is also why when nine is reached and exceeded the counter resets and becomes zero again or two above base as in 20.

“I’m sure your grandfather can explain it better”, the great elder confessed. “He probably knows the philosophy and numerology behind it. I’m merely telling you what I’ve come to understand. The hardline is; once nine is reached, so too has the limit of the realm. You can go no further, at least, not ordinarily.

“Moving from one realm to another requires not a transition but a breaking of a limit. A transcendence so to speak. As you cultivate and gain experience you’ll see more examples of this. It is always comparatively easy to make progress within a realm than to break through to a new one and the higher the realm the greater the difficulty”, he tried to explain.

“Take, for instance, your first tier. Moving from the bone transformation stage through the others is practically child’s play. Anyone can do it given enough time. Becoming a Lord, however, is where those above the cut pull away. They say only three in every dozen folk can become cultivators. Of these, only one in six will become Lords and of those, only one in ten will ever become Kings”, Allard revealed.

“You know what makes the difference between them? Methods, resources and aptitude. You’ve long since proved your aptitude Valerian but you lack resources. Or rather, we, Steelborns are lacking. Our methods are better than many you’ll come across but even our vaunted [Great Monolithic Art] is only good for the first four tiers. After which it provides no benefits.”*

*Valerian who had previously been listening intently was now staring at him in shock. But the man did not elaborate on the stunning fact he’d just delivered. He bulldozed on with his point.

“I’m telling you this now Valerian. It’s the real reason we send all our best out instead or training them ourselves like some of the great clans do. We can neither afford it or help them. So seize every chance you get. Be it resources, methods, techniques or what have you. You’re an ambitious lad and I admit, I’m really looking forward to how far you’ll get. You were able to reach the peak of the first realm or metal manipulation without a formation or external guidance. Only the Heaven’s know how far you’d get with good ones. When you get to Strapping’s make the most of it. Not just for the clan but for yourself. 

‘When you get to Strapping’s make the most of it’, Valerian repeated to himself. He couldn’t help but think back to those words when he saw the building in front of him.

Archives 1 was incredible. It stood three storeys tall and covered at least a thousand and a half metres. It had the same functional stone architecture as the rest of the training centre only with high window arches to let in light.

There were two main doors, both guarded. The first led into the archives proper where materials, military journals, records of battles, books on strategy, cultivation, history and the like were kept. the second door led to the skill store. through it was a separate and smaller wing where methods, techniques, skills and spells were kept under strict watch. Visitors to the archives were allowed to come and go with no hassle and the entire archive had only five staff to manage it.

The skill store, however, was different and truth be told the real attraction here. Despite being called a store, it did not sell techniques. There was no such place in strappings. All were required to sign in and out when entering or exiting. It was also free to browse so long as they had the required clearance. Ordinary freshers, for instance, could only browse the first floor. Elite could go up to the second. Ordinary second years could do same for the second floor and their elite could also go a floor further.

That didn’t mean that all the best techniques were on the highest floors. Each floor had a special room where some of its best and most recommended techniques were prominently featured. You required permission to check them out and they were often given out as rewards for outstanding performance.

To prevent theft and misuse, there were guards looming around menacingly and tags on each book, scroll or talisman that prevented them from being taken out of the building without the authorisation of the librarian. In most cases, it wasn’t even the books that were taken out but special copies designed to self-destruct after a certain period had elapsed. Same was true for some of the rare collections in the archive rooms.

The main point problem with the skill store was that you couldn’t visit as often as you wanted. Well, you could. You just couldn’t open or borrow any of its materials. The first visit was freely given. The rest had to be earned. Some of the skills could only be accessed with commendations from someone with the rank of Major or above. That was why it was important to make good use of your first visit. From what Captain Walters had explained, earning the right was difficult.

Keeping this in mind, the first thing Valerian did when he signed in was head straight to the second floor and look for the metal element section. After a few hours or browsing, he had what he needed; [The Agnarr Formation]. It’ll do for now. The Captain had told them on the day of the second test that making into Strapping’s was proof that they were a full realm above those who didn’t. He had to pull everything about him into the next realm as well. Only, he wouldn’t be satisfied with just nine plus one.


Author’s Note

Nine plus one! Yep! Numerology. Pretty much every culture I know of has at least one numerology (officially and unofficially). If you don’t know what numerology is, think of it as number philosophy + religion. That’s how I think of it anyway. Apparently, numbers are the keys to the universe. Ever heard of Pythagoras (yeah, triangle guy)? He had a number cult. Unlike most concepts I normally use, the numerology discussed here isn’t from my culture. My people count most things in tens and thousands and we’re one of those ten and one (11), two tens (20) people…mostly.

Don’t worry! Verre’s is thought out, I think. I’ll keep going over it properly to ensure there are few loopholes and unresolved issues. I say few instead of none because it is philosophy. There’s no philosophy that can claim to stand true, indubitable and uncontested. Not even science! I’ve come up with a few competing theories too, Two so far… not as well thought out yet which is why this is the first to debut. It’s an exercise in world building as well as a means of deepening and enriching HoGW and the world of Verre.

See if you can spot the elements I use for inspiration.