“Stop!” yelled someone. “What do you think you are doing?”
Valerian ignored the voice. Having caught their attention, Valerian’s finger sped up, etching five more glyphs into the air in the next second. With a flick of his fingers, they flew into the array at his feet, melding into a glyph configuration there before fading away softly. The lady examining him wisely began to step backwards, not wanting to get caught in whatever was going to happen.
“You… Do you have any idea what you have done?” came a dark and angry voice.
“Yes”, Valerian said smugly before belatedly adding, “sir.”
“Wilson!” the lead examiner shouted hurriedly. “Hurry and fix whatever he has done.” The robed arcanist was already leaping down from the podium.
By then, the effects of Valerian’s actions had already revealed themselves. Several large symbols rose from the array to hover in front of him. Valerian didn’t bother reading them. He knew what they said. They were the highest possible results one could get from being assessed by the array. They weren’t the only things suspended in front of everyone though. Wilson and the as yet unnamed senior examiner, as well as all the others, were nearly frozen where they were.
Valerian wasn’t the type to pursue such hobbies but he had to admit that he rather enjoyed the gobsmacked looks everyone was giving him now. Especially, the look on the face of the senior examiner who had thus far been provoking him. It was very satisfying.
“How did you…” he tried to ask.
“You triggered the display and fed it values directly”, Wilson stated, no longer in a hurry. “From the look of the glyphs you used, I’m guessing Blemry?” he asked.
“Yes, sir!” Valerian answered with a nod.
With a thoughtful expression, Wilson spoke up again. “It’s supposed to be very precise. I hope you did proper analysis and decryption before employing them.”
“Of course, sir!” Valerian replied.
“And your qualifications?”
Valerian raised his right hand, an array master’s plaque appearing in it for a second or two. Wilson’s eyes nearly popped open when he saw it. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Circle Master….?”
“Valerian Steelborn, sir!” he supplied.
“Wilson, you can’t mean…” the stunned examiner on the podium was saying. The rest of the examiners were just as stunned. The applicants, however, were roaring. What exactly was happening? Who was this fellow causing upset after upset?
“Master Valerian, I am Wilson Deerguard” Wilson introduced himself, flashing his own plaque. “I must say I’m surprised to see a circle master among our applicants and one so young at that.”
“What can I say, the reputation of your training centre is known far and wide. I thought it wise to come learn from the best”, Valerian said calmly.
“I can understand that”, Wilson told him. “I must, however, ask that next time, you ask for permission before attempting to modify or affect any array on the grounds. Also, I’m afraid that despite your status, should you become a student, you would be referred to by that status and that status only. There might be more stipulations but I am not sure we have ever had one of your status as an applicant and will have to inquire first before relaying them to you.”
“I understand completely, sir”, Valerian said to him.
Wilson was satisfied with this. “Now that you have passed your exam, would you mind coming with me? I’m quite curious as to your employment of Blemry glyphs. You are the first master I’ve met who uses that glyph tongue.”
“Not at all, sir” Valerian assured him. “The power recycling configurations in your array were an eye-opener. I had hoped to ask you about them.”
“Wait!” Valerian’s examiner called out. “The test…?”
“He put in a force and produced satisfactory results. What else does he need to do?” Wilson barked at her.
Unsure what to do, she glanced at the examiner on the podium. He waved his hand, dismissing the issue. Left with no choice, she declared that Valerian had passed the test. Wilson immediately threw an arm over Valerian’s shoulder and led him to one of the stone benches on the side of the field, bursting with questions on Blemry glyphs.
Valerian smiled, looking back at the senior examiner as he tried to quell the protests the other applicants were making. Nothing could be done. All the test had required was that he produced satisfactory results from the array. He had done that. In fact, he suspected that the man might even respect him a little more, given how he had reacted to Pugio’s “cheating”. Hopefully, that would enough to keep the man off his back.
Valerian’s actions didn’t just create confusion, it also created dissension. He had completely bypassed the test in front of everyone. The protests were thus, understandable. Arguments about cheating aside, none could deny that his performance was outstanding and that was the argument that the examiner made.
“If you can do that as well, then by all means try”, he told them. “Be careful not to blow yourselves up though”, he warned with a smile. “Besides, I doubt any of you could do as well. That was a dual force possessor, you know!” he said in his mockingly, impressed voice.
It was a taunt and most of them knew it. Didn’t matter though. They couldn’t let it go unanswered much for the same reasons that caused Valerian to do what he did. Especially, the top team leaders. They couldn’t afford to lose standing in front of the applicants now. They’d worked too hard for their current places as is. Valerian watched from the sidelines as several of the more prominent ones pushed their way to the front of the line.
People hastily made way for the bushy haired tellurian from before, allowing him to walk up to the chest of tean orbs. On the arcanist side, a figure in resplendent robes wearing far too many rings had already begun, levitating all thirty orbs into the air and having them swim through the air in the form of a dragon, complete with sound effects. Behind them, several others waited for the chance to display their own skills, eager to prove themselves to the examiners and their fellow applicants.
Valerian looked back to the podium, staring straight at the small smile on the examiner’s face. He’d first thought the man was having some fun at his expense. But now… He wondered whether this wasn’t his plan from the beginning. Before this, Valerian was the only major cultivator to reveal any truly shocking skills. Even those from the big clans and the recognised top team leaders hadn’t. Everyone was keeping their cards hidden. Somehow all it had taken was Valerian revealing a few of his and some words from the senior examiner and now…
On the field, five gigantic orbs of fire revolved in a circle like comets chasing each other’s tails. On the tellurian side, the tean orbs had turned crystalline and appeared to be growing slowly. A girl standing on an array yelled, pulsing her qi. The array read it and gave her top marks for intensity. Another was being kicked off, having failed the cultivation requirement for some reason.
Everyone had gone mad! They were all desperate to prove how special they were. It wasn’t just the team leaders. They were just vying for dominance. The members were watching each other warily trying to see who was out doing who whilst trying to prove their worth. Valerian could only keep his eyes open and note down what he could.
“You were saying that you were apprenticed to your uncle?” Wilson was saying.
Later that evening
A group of cultivators sat around a table in a small room.
“I hear we have a good batch this time” the man at the head spoke.
“Yes, sir!” another spoke. His chitinous armour made no sound when he rested his arms on the table. “Several candidates have displayed high levels of skill and power and their completion and efficiency rate has been high throughout. We had three hundred and forty applicants this year and fifty-three passed. That’s both a high turnout and pass rate.”
“Fifty-three?” his superior repeated. “That’s a good number. It’s enough for four teams. Last year, we didn’t even manage three.”
“I can assure you, sir. This year’s batch is far superior to last year’s”, he told the man.
“Very well, I’ll take your word for it”, the man said indifferently. “Any individuals of note?”
“Yes, sir! The Lion General’s son, General Price’s daughter and Count Reynard’s son stand out sharply amongst our new recruits”, came the answer. “There are also a female from the Mountain Cap clan, a Morwoko youth, a Cold Bringer, as well as someone who somehow managed to get a recommendation from retired Colonel Bartram.
“It would appear that about forty of those who passed have some connection to the nobility” he added. They are split among secondary and tertiary heirs and those who have parents or guardians in the military. The Earl of Southwold’s nephew was even here, though, he packed up and left after a few days. There are also two priests, four machinists and even a fully qualified array master.”
“A fully fledged array master?” his superior asked in surprise.
“Yes, sir” he confirmed. “An array master who just so happened to possess dual forces.”
That immediately caught the attention of everyone in the room. A few were already in the know from helping monitor the applicants but as for their head and the prospective trainers. This was the first they were hearing of it.
“Are you certain, Walters?” he asked him.
The man only rested his chin on the back of the chitin gauntlet and nodded. “Wilson spoke at length with him whilst I oversaw the second exam. He might know more.”
Eyes turned to Wilson, one of their few array masters. He had known to expect it.
“What can you tell us?”
“Well, sir, the boy was very gifted and has a strong background in orthodox training. His control and base knowledge were very alarming. I’m ashamed to say he surpasses me in the latter area. Also, he is not just an array master of the first circle. He is circle master of three attributes”, Wilson said bitterly.
“I checked with a few colleagues and the boy is recognised as the youngest circle master our kingdom has had in two ages and the youngest ever to attain mastery of three attributes. He majors in elemental effects and enchantments, though I warrant he’ll soon add attack formations to that list.” This revelation received some drawn breaths but Wilson wasn’t done speaking. “For some reason, he turned down a scholarship to the RIAA to come here.”
Their superior previously bored eyes were now fully alert. “What’s his name? Where is he from?”
Walters was quick to answer. “His name, sir, is Valerian Steelborn. The codex says they are a recent noble family out in the north-east corner of the kingdom, some place called…”
“Cragsveil” the head completed.
“You heard of it, sir?”
“Yes. One of them, Reinhardt, was a year ahead of me when I was a recruit here”, he revealed. “If I’m right then you can expect a few more surprises from this Steelborn.”
“Sir?” Walters ventured, leaning forward. Even more surprises.
“The Steelborns have a transformative daemonic legacy”, he informed the room. “Turns them big and metallic, boosts speed and strength in addition to making them very difficult to put down. They are descended from a steel monolith. Class four daemon. Classification: Giant-kin, elemental. Metal attribute. Encampment type. Horde creators.”
Walter and the trainers took note.
“Keep an eye on him. When we’re done here, I’ll speak with the head and find out anything we need to know about dual force possessors”, he added. “He should be able to fill in whatever gaps we have and help in drawing training plans to include him.”
Laughing, he said to them, “For a while, I was beginning to think the Gigne might simply run roughshod over the others but now, I know he at least has some competition.”
“You think so, sir?” one of the trainers asked. “Even if he is a dual force possessor I fail to see how he would match up. The Gigne have been Lord Strapping people since the very beginning. Two out of three of them come to our centre. They nearly always rank first”
“We’ll just have to see”, their superior said with a smile,
“Wait, sir!” Walters called out. “There’s something else.”
“What is it?” the man asked impatiently.
“Thorn caught someone cheating during the second exam”, he said, gesturing to the scryer in charge of monitoring the applicants. “I followed up on it and came across a lad who used the skills of the Shadowed Daggers.”
“This…” the man began in astonishment. “Are you absolutely certain?”
“Yes, sir!” Walters said with a nod.
“Forgive me, sir” came one of the trainers. “Aren’t the shadowed daggers the fifth protector’s people? Why would one of them take our entrance exam? I thought Lord Strapping and The Shadow King were in the same camp?”
“Best not to speculate”, their superior warned. “This can’t wait. I’ll bring this to the head. He’ll decide where to go from here. You stay and focus on the assessments”, he told them.
Standing up slowly, he left the room. This batch was sure to be very interesting. Unfortunately, his experience also told him that they were going to be a hell of a lot of trouble.