Despair. Numbness. That’s all they felt. Today was the end of the eighth day. Everywhere people were helping each other stumble towards the longhouses. Others just lay on the ground, chests heaving and soaked in sweat but unable to move. They’d just run the endurance course. Actually, they had never stopped.
Contrary to their beliefs the test didn’t end after the fifth day. No! Only the cut off was abolished. Anyone who made it to the end passed but the numbers that were able to do so dwindled with each day.
Valerian watched as a robed figure came through the finish gate with a number of stretchers hovering behind her. On them were just a few of the applicants who had collapsed during the run, unable to continue. He was not the only one doing so. Many of the applicants looked at their fallen comrades with pity. At the same time, they couldn’t help but feel a measure of joy that their positions were not reversed.
“You said that the tests would end on the fifth day. Made us believe that we were in the clear and all we had to do was give a good showing!” a young man yelled at Alenwaa, stumbling weakly towards him.
His anger was understandable. He was one of the applicants who had been disqualified today for not finishing the course. The poor guy had only come to a few minutes ago. No one had had to tell him that he had failed. He spent some time crying pitifully to himself like so many others had before him. Following that, he did something the others didn’t and began to rage out on their house captain.
Alenwaa did his best to look composed but not even he could maintain his cool after the day they had had. He sat cross-legged on his bed, face red, hair plastered to his forehead with sweat trying to replenish his reserves with a wood attribute essence stone he held in his hands. He had very nearly been eliminated himself today. In fact, he had actually arrived at the finish station carried over the shoulder of one of his teammates.
Drawing in a short breath and wincing at the stitch in his side, Alenwaa said, “I am loath to admit it but I was wrong. I underestimated the test and the people running it. I did not foresee that they would resort to such a method to cut down the numbers.”
“Wrong!” The young man shouted weakly. “Wrong?”
“You lied to us. You made us buy all those medicines from you. I used up all my gold and essence stones and all you say is you were wrong?”
Alenwaa’s eyes narrowed. “Are you perhaps trying to insinuate that I am responsible for you failing?”
“You..”, the other mumbled as if struck by the backhanded question. “It’s YOUR FAULT!” he roared pushing himself forward in a stumbling charge.
Alenwaa’s two teammates stood up to confront him. One even had his hand on his sword but surprisingly, he stopped them.
“Leave him be”, Alenwaa commanded, all trace of weakness gone from his face.
A panel of white light imposed itself between the two parties. The enraged cultivator could only bang weakly on it for a few seconds before slumping to the floor in exhaustion.
Watching him closely, Alenwaa got out of his bunk. Striding forward calmly, he walked right up to the panel separating him from his would-be attacker and ignoring the other completely, he looked out at the rest of the room. It was a pitiful lot that looked back at their house captain.
The members of longhouse four, once numbering sixty were now reduced to fourteen. Even Alenwaa had been forced to cut the other arcanist out of his team. Just today, their number was more than halved due to a loss of seventeen members. They loitered, despondent but with nowhere else to go since the departing carriages wouldn’t leave till morning.
“I now wonder why I sought to help you”, he told them. “Somewhere along the line, I allowed myself to feel some sense of responsibility and camaraderie towards you. You made me your house captain and I felt obliged to help. We were all members of the same house and so I thought it only right to help my fellows. I made myself ignore the envy and discontent that shone from some of you. I regret that now.”
“I helped you at no cost. I provided information that my clan had accumulated on the tests to prepare you. I sold you the medicines, stones and elixirs you needed at a price far lower than you would get at any of the other longhouses and now…” he trailed off, now angry himself.
“I regret it” he announced. “I regret it fully. I might not have expected some great gratitude but I definitely did not think that me helping would be twisted to become me purposefully dragging you down. Don’t worry. I will take my help away. From this point on, I will not sell you any medicines. No one may come to me for essence stones or help. If we meet on the course and you need help do not look to me.
“Why all of us? HE was the one who came at you!” someone protested, pointing accusingly at Alenwaa’s attacker.
“Because that is my decision just as it was my decision to help you ungrateful cretins!” Alenwaa fired back.
“Did you think I was stupid, Tavis?” he asked the protester. “Do you honestly think I missed you trying to get the others to put you in charge when you first came here, that I am unaware of you complaining to anyone who would listen about how greedy and unfair I am?”
“That goes to all of you!” he yelled, turning back to the rest of the room. “I will not be the fool who feeds wolves till he runs out of food only for them to turn on him and eat him as well. You’re on your own! Let’s see if you can pass the tests without my help.”
Having tossed out his challenge, Alenwaa turned back and sat on his bed. He closed his eyes and appeared to ignore them all. The air he projected was strong and resolute. Only, Valerian and James, one of his teammates looked at him with worry. Despite his outward appearance, Alenwaa was anything but fine. His arcane energy was roiling chaotically and he had actually swayed a little on his feet as he walked back to his bed.
It wasn’t just them, everyone in the room was worried. Most, however, were merely worried about their chances of passing the next day’s test. A few had already begun arguing among themselves. Some had made way over to Alenwaa and his team intent on pleading their case. None succeeded. Alenwaa seemed dead set on his position. By evening, the next day, there were only five people in longhouse four. The rest all failed and were disqualified.
The tenth day.
A grey armoured figure jogged down the beaten trail that wound through the hills. He appeared alone, with the clapping of his feet on the ground the only man-made sound in the area. As he rounded a bend, a dark flash came from a clump of rocks to his side but he ignored it.
Over the last few days, Pugio the shadow and his new friend, Valerian, had gotten to know each other quite well. They’d even turned the course into their own little game. The objective, for Valerian, was to catch Pugio who, on his part, had to remain hidden. Pugio had the most wins, however. Ever since the first day, when he made the mistake of running out of stamina from using too many skills in an attempt to keep ahead of his pursuer, he’d learnt to bide his time.
Concealment skills weren’t the type to be used in quick succession but rather maintained over a long period of time. As much as he hated to admit it, Valerian was naturally faster than him and his reserves were simply stupendous. The trick was to dart ahead and conceal himself. He had noticed that so long as he used his skills out of Valerian’s sight the other would never catch on. With that knowledge, he had won each successive game since the first. Even when Valerian did suss him out, he was never able to catch him.
However, today, something was different. Valerian wasn’t even trying to find him. He had revealed himself several times but the other had never given chase. He seemed absentminded and moved at only a third his usual speed. Something was definitely up. All of a sudden, Valerian turned around and started running backwards.
Stupefied, Pugio watched him go. What in the abyss was going on? Pulling himself out of the crevice he had hidden, he chased after Valerian eager to find out. The irony of his actions wasn’t lost on him. Somehow, the tables had turned. Instead of the pursued, he was now the pursuer.
Valerian slowly increased his speed as he made back towards his target. Having become familiar with his signature, he could sense Pugio keeping pace behind him. Good. That meant he could focus on the task at hand. Worried, he cast his mind to the beacon he had set. Its bearer was still headed backwards and expending energy at a disturbing rate. Valerian increased his pace once more, hurrying to check on the muscle-bound cultivator he had left it on.
Truth be told, Valerian was unsure why he was even on this course of action. He and John, the cultivator he was chasing, barely spoke to each other. They were the only cultivators from DriftCloud County remaining but that wasn’t the reason he was going back for him. Was it pity? Thinking it through, Valerian supposed he felt a little responsible that things had come to this.
John was one of the cultivators who had come to him expecting him to form a team of his own. Valerian had refused, intent on going solo. Eventually, his admirers had dispersed, joining other teams. All except John. The idiot continued to hang around Valerian. Always of to the side and following his lead but trying not to intrude. He went as far as to refuse offers from Alenwaa and the others. In doing so, he became the only person in longhouse four apart from Valerian to brave the tests on his own.
Valerian wasn’t stupid. He knew the other was trying to prove himself to him. Even so, he said and did nothing to acknowledge or encourage him. John was a nice guy who seemed more than capable enough and Valerian actually liked his perseverance and attitude but it didn’t mean he was going to bring a Hammerfist on board with his plan. That would be the source of more trouble than the partnership was worth. That notwithstanding, yesterday, Valerian had watched as a haggard and pitiful version of the cultivator he had come to know stumbled through the finish station.
John had barely made it. It turned out that Alenwaa’s embargo had affected him as well. Unable to get his hands on recovery medicines, he suffered just that much more trying to pass the course. Valerian couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. If it wasn’t for him, John would have definitely gotten into one of the better teams. The fact that he had made it this far on his own spoke to his potential. However, he had chosen instead to stake his hopes on Valerian accepting him. Now, it did not look he could go any further. Come the next day, he’d probably be eliminated.
At the time, Valerian was torn. He could lend a hand and effectively do exactly what he had been trying to avoid or he could turn a blind eye to the other youth’s need. In the end, he chose the latter. However, when they set for the assembly field in the morning, Valerian found himself secretly marking him with a short series of glyphs so he could monitor his situation and progress.
A few minutes ago, the tracker which had already been informing him of John’s flagging condition and alerted him to the fact that the other had actually sped up for some reason. That wasn’t all. John had left the trail. The two facts worried Valerian. It almost made it seem like he was being chased. Thankfully, he wasn’t far away. Valerian had kept himself within the tracker’s range at all times. Coming up on him, Valerian watched as John darted between trees and further off the course trail. He wasn’t being chased.
“John!” he called out. “What are you doing?”
The tall, muscle-bound cultivator was startled. He leapt away from the voice and landed in a ready stance. Realising that it was Valerian, thankfully, calmed him down.
“Mr Steelborn!” He cried. “What are you doing here?” he asked, panting between each word.
“I should be asking you that, Hammerfist”, Valerian said, turning things around. “You’ve gone off the trails, why?”
John hesitated but spoke anyway. “It’s James. He sent me a distress message. Something is wrong with Mr Morwoko.”
“What happened?” Valerian asked.
“I don’t know sir but it is serious”, John said worriedly. “James talked like he was dying.”
Valerian considered this piece of news. James never struck him as the type to exaggerate. “You know where they are?” he asked.
“Yes, sir! I have the signal here”, he revealed, holding out a small communications talisman. “They took the gate next to ours so they are not too far away”, he made sure to add, hoping to convince him to help.
“Hmmm” was response he got. Making his decision, Valerian waved his hand, extracting a large metal board from his spatial ring.
“Get on!” He told John.
“But sir, you can’t use artefacts. You’ll be disqualified!” he warned. He never imagined that Valerian would go that far just from hearing of Alenwaa’s situation. The two had never seemed close.
“Don’t worry. It is not an artefact”, Valerian assured him.
John stared at him with some disbelief but got on anyway. Once he was on, Valerian did same, kneeling on it and slowly infusing it with his arcane energy. When it had enough, he stood up and beckoned it to move. With a loud sound of displacing air and a squawk from John, the metal board shot up till it was above the canopy held there only by Valerian’s arcane energy and skill at metal manipulation. Reminding John to secure himself, Valerian sent them surging forward towards Alenwaa’s location.
It was bad. Worse than Valerian expected. Alenwaa hadn’t been attacked or injured in an accident. Those were easier to deal with. He was suffering a backlash of some kind. Valerian sent glyph after glyph into the air around him, doing his best to stabilise his situation. He was not a healer. This was the best he could do. From what he could tell, The youth’s arcane energy had rebelled in some fashion. Valerian wasn’t surprised.
From what he knew, Alenwaa’s team relied on him enhancing their capabilities with his benedictions whilst one carried their packs and the other supported him. It was effective but it also placed a huge burden on him since he basically used his arcane energy to support their efforts. Sure, he had the medicines and essence stones to recover afterwards but that was only a short-term solution.
The tests had made it such that no one actually had time to cultivate. They all spent their time either on the course, resting or preparing to run the course again. His scans confirmed that the majority of the energy in Alenwaa’s body was unbound. The poor guy probably never realised how bad his situation was. He had probably noticed the decrease in control over his own energies but he spent so much time trying to replenish his reserves at the end of each day that he never actually had time to make that energy his. Eventually, it had rebelled against his control.
Valerian turned to James, who was standing at their side and clutching the handle of his sword nervously.
“I’ve done what I can. I have dispelled most of the rebelling energy and set up an array to help his body regenerate its own reserves. However, some damage has probably already been done. We will have a healer look at him when we get back. The rest will be up to him”, he said to him.
James breathed a sigh of relief. John smiled and patted him on the back before pulling him into a conversation. Valerian couldn’t help but give a small smile. James appeared to be very similar in personality to John. Capable, quiet and loyal. No wonder they had become friends. They had arrived to meet James guarding a pitiful Alenwaa. Alone. Their ‘teammate’ had abandoned them at some point. He chose to try and reach the finish station on his own instead of helping their house captain.
Giving a sigh of his own, he pulled a couple more boards from his ring and made them rise into the air. Placing Alenwaa on one of them, Valerian prepped to leave.The rasp of James’ sword being drawn from its sheath, though, had him spinning around and knives appearing in the air around him.
“Hello”, a smiling but embarrassed Pugio waved. Somehow managing to avoid getting his head sliced off by a startled James after sneaking up on them. “Mind if I hitch a ride back with you guys?”