BK II, Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Second Exam

It took a while before things settled down. Even then, people kept shooting glances over at Valerian or as they now him as; the dual force possessor. It was hard not to. He was still standing in the middle of the field with four different orbs of essence floating around him. Most had never even heard of a dual force possessor and now, here was one. The sheer amount of constant murmuring going on had taken on its own hum.

Their examiner had even been called away. He stood at the side of the field, talking animatedly with a few other senior officers. As for the exam, nothing was being said about it at the moment. It was remarkable how everything had come to a halt because of the actions of a single applicant. Valerian tried not to let it get to him. He stared straight ahead, at attention just like his uncle Richard taught him whilst keeping his facial expression schooled in a way that would make his grandfather proud.

It worked! All onlookers saw was a confident youth who seemed nonchalant about the situation he’d just caused. In his head, Valerian considered how this might alter the plan he and Vorm had cooked up. He supposed it had made things both harder and easier. The third phase would be easier for sure but the fourth?

He took a glance to his right where a tall bushy haired tellurian stared challengingly at him. He gave the youth an easy smile as if overlooking him completely. This caused him to scowl so hard his face scrunched up. Valerian took note. Completing the fourth phase successfully was definitely going to be much, much more difficult than originally planned. Valerian fought back the urge to sigh.

Things had been going so well too. He’d done his best to keep his cards to himself, revealing his competence but not his strengths. Now, half of that was wasted. His rivals might not know what he was capable of but now that this cat was out of the bag, they’d be wary of him for sure.

Mentally, Valerian pulled up a checklist. Phase I: Pass the first exam with outstanding qualifications without revealing his strengths. Success. Phase II: Do same for the second exam. Fail! It couldn’t be helped. He saw an opportunity necessary for the success of phase three and seized it. He supposed he could have kept his dual forces secret for a bit longer and posed as an arcanist but he needed the boost in recognition.

He’d been thinking. Rescuing James and Alenwaa the day before had not been in his original plan. Afterwards, he had taken the time to consider what that meant for him. Especially, the end where he came through the station with the others riding on his metal boards. The reaction people had to their arrival was eye-opening. In the end, he realised that his plan probably wouldn’t work.

Further scrutiny made it clear that his perceived position in the top ranks was probably not as secure as he thought. Things had polarised too quickly. Contrary to what Vorm had told him, the first exam was not taken individually like he expected. While he was sure the rankings were still calculated individually, the number of team-ups was mind boggling. After a few days, people all but gave up on passing the exam individually. It became not a battle between individuals but between teams.

The entrance exam, as Vorm explained it to Valerian, was a personal affair. As much as Strappings valued teamwork, the applicants were drawn from all over Bathar and from different walks of life. It would be unrealistic to expect them to work together. That was something that would be taught to them later. What was important, at this stage, was finding those worth teaching. And yet… The entire thing was a farce. The teams had somehow become more important than their constituent members.

Valerian blamed them. Alenwaa and all the others like him. The cultivators who made use of their family names, resources, reputations and the like to pull people around them. The ones who had started the frenzied search for talented cultivators. Think about it. Even longhouse four had a competition just to see who could get into Alenwaa’s team. Imagine then, the other houses. In fact, there were many teams that were made up of members from different houses.

Somehow, the third phase started in the middle of the first and Valerian didn’t realise it until it was nearly too late. The whole time, he figured that his performance was more than good enough, not seeing that it no longer mattered who was clearing the exam best. The key had been in the response the established teams had had when he and his little group came in the day before. They had looked at them appraisingly and guarding themselves. Some of the weaker teams had even made way and room for them.

Only then did Valerian see what was going on. His plan thus far was to prove his excellence and pass the exam with a high score, thinking that would secure his placing among his fellows but they were clearly beyond that now. No one cared about the front-runners. Everyone’s eyes were on the teams and their leaders. Which team was the best? Which was made up of more notable cultivators? Which had the best resources and line-ups? Perhaps, greatest of all the questions was this; Which cultivator was great enough that he commanded all those others?

None of these was a question to which “Valerian” came up as a possible answer. It was clear to Valerian that he had to do something. If things continued as they were, it wouldn’t matter how well he did in the assessments. His command and influence among his colleagues would be non-existent. That would an automatic failure of phases three through five. He couldn’t have that. Next chance he got, he struck.

It achieved the results he wanted. Everyone knew who he was. People were discussing him even now. Those who had been in contact with him like Alenwaa, James and John were busy fending off and answering questions from cultivators who wished to know more. Nevertheless, there was a big catch to what he had done. He was the first “big” cultivator to display something extraordinary. Valerian didn’t think for a second that he was the only one with hidden aces. However, none had shown theirs, except him.

The leaders of the top teams, especially, would be watching him closely now and each of them was someone he had to watch out for. A grin broke out on Valerian’s face. He found himself looking forward to phase four and the battles ahead. An instinct he’d kept buried for too long rose up in his chest. It would be fun crushing them into the ground.

“Sirs and madams, if you would turn attention towards me, I will explain the second exam”, came the voice of the man on the podium. He made no mention of the incident that had taken place or the fact that proceeds had been put on hold for nearly an hour because of it. That was just as well. He didn’t need to.

“The second exam is an assessment. There are going to be three things assessed; cultivation level, essence intensity and essence control”, he informed them. “Fail even one of them and you fail the exam.”

“To help with this assessment, we have rolled out some very nice equipment”, he added, a trace of his former manner coming back to him. “A few metres in front of this podium are four very special paintings.”

Eyes immediately strained themselves to see. A voice quickly and happily told them off.

“These paintings, I’m speaking of, are on the ground. Today, my friend Wilson here took the time to make them”, he said, indicating a robed gentleman to his side. “They are arrays that are going to be responsible for most of the assessment. In addition to them, we have some tean orbs.”

Groans came from some members of his audience at the announcement but he let it pass.

“The tean orbs would test your control whilst the arrays will assess your cultivation level and essence intensity. Your tasks are simple. Walk into an array and infuse your force into it. Your displays will be displayed for one of the examiners to check” he said, nodding to the examiners standing beside each array.

“As for the tean orbs, every arcanist is supposed to display mastery of at least three orbs. You will be required to show your abilities at focal gathering and attribute manipulation. Tellurians must do same. However, your tasks will be; attribute enhancement and qi dominance”, he explained.

“Who’d like to go first?” he challenged.

It was then that some realised that the tests were going to happen in front of everyone present. Everyone was going to see if they passed or failed. Unsurprisingly, no one stepped forward. Everyone was waiting for someone to go first. The examiner stared down at them from the podium with a smile. Then, his eyes flicked over to Valerian.

“What of you? You’re clearly not shy. Would you be willing to go first?”

Valerian considered it a split second before answering. “Yes, sir!”

“Excellent!” the man immediately praised. “Fortune favours the bold. Strappings is a good place for cultivators who show initiative. You’ll go far.”

Valerian forced a curse back down his throat. The man seemed to be intentionally drawing more attention to him. For the life of him, Valerian couldn’t figure out why. Taking a deep breath, he took a step forward only to bring himself to a stop in realisation.

“Where should I go, sir?” he asked.

A problem had quickly revealed itself. Should he head to the arrays on the right, in front of the tellurians, or the ones on the left, in front of the arcanists? The middle-aged man smiled, having clearly seen this coming.

“Hmmm”, he intoned in an exaggerated manner. “It shouldn’t matter where you go. The arrays and the orbs are the same. However, … you are a dual force possessor. You are not an arcanist or a tellurian. You can’t take the same tests they do.”

A puzzled look came over his face. Again, everything about his act looked genuine but somehow, it was clear that he was just playing it for the effect. This was confirmed when he hit his palm with his mouth open as if he’d just realised some shocking truth.

“Dual Force!” he exclaimed proudly. “You’re just going to have to do the tests both as an arcanist and a tellurian!”

Valerian’s jaw clenched. It was very obvious now that the man was targeting him for some reason. Still, he did nothing to show his displeasure. Saying nothing he walked forwards to one of the examiners, eyes focused on the open chest at her side.

Tean orbs were something Valerian had never used before. They were an expensive though useful training tool used by many cultivators due to their properties. Standard tean orbs took the shape of glass spheres the size of a person’s head and what they did was to take on the properties of whatever essence they were fed with. Many schools and households used them to teach cultivators how to infuse their forces into objects as well as control training.

Coming to a stop in front of the chest, Valerian looked to the examiner stationed there. She gave him permission to begin. Gesturing with his hand, Valerian sent his arcane energy surging into the chest, causing nine of its thirty spheres to fly out in response. He tugged on them with his mind, pulling them closer. Once he was certain that they were thoroughly infused with his essence, he let his hand fall to his side.

“Begin moving the orbs around”, his examiner said to him. “I’ll assess your control.”

Valerian nodded. Hands at his side and staring straight ahead, he willed them to move. After having them take a variety of shapes and move in some select patterns, he was given a signal to stop.

“Move on to focal gathering!”

He didn’t bat an eyelid. Maintaining control of the arcane energy in the orbs, he used them, like he would a focus, to reach out to the surrounding world essence. Wisps of energy soon shrouded the balls, growing until they became spheres that were half a metre thick.

“I thought you were metal and wind attributed?” the examiner asked him in confusion.

“I am, ma’am!” Valerian responded.

He knew where the questions were coming from. This entire time, the tean orbs had remained as translucent as they were when they were in the chest. Even the world essence he had drawn on was the unattributed sort.

“Well then, please display your attributes”, she told him.

Valerian smiled. The orbs split themselves. Four of them at either side of him and one right in front. The air suddenly became charged as instantly the essence shrouds changed in signature. The ones on his left turned into swirling wind essence whilst those on his right became golden metal. What caught the examiner’s eye was that the tean orbs at the centre remained translucent. He was still using unattributed arcane energy! As for the one in front of him, the shroud became two-layered with the outer layer being wind and the inner one, metal still with an unattributed orb.

Gobsmacked, she and the rest of the field stared speechlessly at him for a few seconds before she found her tongue and said to him, “Well played. You pass the arcanist test! Full marks!”

What else was she going to say? The feat of control in front of her was something she’d be hard-pressed to match. Using unattributed essence to draw on the attributed kind was nothing new. Every arcanist was capable of it. Being able to use unattributed arcane energy, when yours was naturally attributed and still use it to draw on your attribute without slipping up or mixing them was not to even make mention of doing so for two attributes at a time.

“Please switch to your qi so we may begin the tellurian test”, she directed.

Valerian nodded. Pulling the orbs back to him, he touched them one by one, dispelling their arcane energy and replacing it with his qi. this time the orbs took a distinctive change. Each one turned golden. Qi was vastly different from arcane energy. the latter was directive whereas the former was transformative. By taking on his metal attributed qi each of the tean orbs began to take on the properties of metal.

“Please stand by while I test your qi enhancement”, his examiner informed him.

Attribute enhancement was simply the intentional use of qi’s transformative properties. A metal attributed tellurian could use his qi to make his body as sturdy and strong as metal. A fire attributed one could do the same, raising his body temperature and even, for some, bursting into flames.An additional benefit of this was that it strengthen whatever it was active on such that it became resistant to other samples of the attribute used, to attributes yours was strong against and unfortunately weak to the those string against yours.

Thus, enhancing your sword with metal qi would make it stronger and sharper. It would even boost its effects against wood and water attributed substances. However, as soon as you met a fire attributed substance or cultivator that strength would become a weakness. All because metal was strong against wood and restrained water in the elemental cycle. However, it was weak against fire. This was something no one could escape from.

The examiner assessed the tean orbs carefully, checking to make sure that they had truly become metallic and the extent to which they had. After a few seconds, she nodded in satisfaction allowing Valerian to touch them again and switch their attribute to that of the wind. Once again, she examined them and found them satisfactory. So they moved on to qi dominance.

As much as qi was different from arcane energy, it was capable of similar things. It merely accomplished them in different ways. Arcanists were gifted with the ability to manipulate the natural world. This what allowed them to control the world’s essence and even the elements with their energies. Tellurians, on the other hand, were given the ability to make the natural world part of them. That was qi dominance. The ability to refine something with your qi such that it became part of your strength and subordinate to your will.

You can think of it as a kind of branding. Refining an object with your qi gave you dominance over it. It became yours to do with what you will. The downside, the process was nearly always permanent and had harsh limits. This was the reasons why some tellurians carried flying swords or bound armour. After refining them, these artefacts became akin to their limbs and organs. They were easy to use and had the ability to greatly magnify their strength. However, they couldn’t bind many things at the same time and thus had to upgrade when necessary.

Tean orbs, thanks to their adaptive properties, were very easy to bind which was why they were used for training purposes. Bind one, refine it and then make it do your bidding. It seemed simple. However, the task here was to bind three at the same time. Valerian bound all nine and displayed the ability to command them at will.

“Well done”, his examiner told him. “You pass the tellurian test. Please step into the array.”

Valerian did as commanded. The array was nice, for something written with ink. He supposed the array master who drew it couldn’t be bothered to sustain it with his own energies. Inspecting it revealed power components designed to use whatever energy he pumped into it to function. It cycled it once or twice running it past the necessary fields before finally pumping it into the assessment configuration. This was a very efficient setup and one that Valerian had never encountered before.

The rest of the array, however, was very sub-par in his eyes. What sort of array master wasted time and space like this. The entire thing was twice as big as it needed to be. Jonas would never… Right then, an idea popped into Valerian’s head. He hesitated, glancing up to the examiner for a scant second. ‘Might as well, I suppose’, he told himself.

Slowly and deliberately, Valerian sketched a glyph with his forefinger, paying no mind to alarmed gazes of the onlookers.