Alenwaa opened his eyes tentatively, staring through his eyelashes at the array that surrounded him. Unable to help himself, he poked one of the glyphs. Affected by the essence he laced his finger with, it wobbled. He immediately snatched his finger back as if stung. He stared at it intensely for a few seconds but it did not seem like he had destabilised it. Bad things happened to people who played with unstable arrays. Even worse things happened to those dumb enough to play around with them without the necessary training. Even the dullest mortal knew that.
Alenwaa had been unable to help himself though. He had to know if it was real. Never mind that he could feel with his arcane senses, he had to be certain. There was just no way. He didn’t blame James and John. As gifted as they were, they were simple country bumpkins. They didn’t understand the true significance of the glowing symbols that surrounded him.
He looked out of the corner of his eyes and caught sight of the cause of his current disbelief. Valerian Steelborn. He initially had him pegged as a gifted tellurian. He was wealthy, no doubt about it. His manner and bearing told enough about his status to anyone in the know. When he breezed through run after run on his own whilst carrying that humongous pack, Alenwaa knew that he was deliberately trying to stand out and make it into his rankings.
However, when he approached him offering to team up, he was politely and resolutely turned away. Alenwaa smiled, seeing where things were going. The boy was probably planning on waiting to see how the ranks turned out and then join the strongest team. Alenwaa didn’t blame him. His plan was the same. However, unlike Valerian he couldn’t take the test so easy, The whole thing was skewed to favour tellurians. Alenwaa imagined that the next exam would be the opposite. With his skills, he could sleep through essence tests and still pass.
At least, so he thought. Now, he wasn’t so sure. If James was right and the array he was in wasn’t created by an artefact but drawn by Valerian himself then… The boy was an arcanist and not a tellurian like he thought. An arcanist with a physique so powerful the course hadn’t fazed him and who had skills in array mastery. Was the only one who saw how unbelievable that was? Laughing mirthlessly to himself, Alenwaa realised how foolish he was being. He had originally thought of himself as the most powerful cultivator of longhouse four. It sure didn’t seem that way anymore.
Dammit! If only he hadn’t wasted his essence so recklessly like he did earlier. He had been so stupid. Was he truly that starved for attention that he lavished his gifts and resources on all those undeserving cultivators? Thinking back now, Alenwaa realised that he was.
Every evening, he would hand out medicine cheap and use his skills at benediction to aid in their recovery. In the mornings, he would wait till the got to the finish station and cast spells on them to give them an extra edge for the course ahead. All for what, so that they would praise and flatter him. So that they would gather around him and look to him for inspiration. Look at where that had gotten him. In the end, nearly all of them had abandoned him. If Valerian hadn’t rescued him he’d be disqualified now or worse.
Back home, things were different. Everybody knew what he was and kept their distance. Here, people looked at him differently. For the first time in his life, he could use the Morwoko name with impunity. The people would see him and see the clan at his back, propping him up. None would scrutinise him as if they could see what dwelled within his soul or the brand behind his back. How was he to know it was all so shallow?
Taking a deep breath, he blinked back his tears. He’d promised himself ever since that day he was taken away from his parents that he would never cry again. He’d sworn to be strong, to reach a status where it didn’t matter what he was originally. He’d break free of his chains and the control of the old priests of the M’wokobisi.
Settling down, he began to cultivate in earnest, finally feeling the full effect of the essence purification array Valerian had set up around him.
Valerian frowned, his back to Alenwaa. Something was wrong with the other youth. Valerian chose to give him his space but that was difficult to do when the array around the lad sent him feedback about its target’s condition. Eventually, he calmed down and started cultivating.
‘Good!’ Valerian said to himself.
He’d have waited for his efforts to go to waste. He thought of Pugio, John and James as well and guessed he might have to amend his plans to account for them. That was alright. The plan was meant to be mutable anyways.
On the morning of the eleventh day of the entrance exam, the applicants made their way over to the assembly field only to be greeted with a surprise. The gates were gone! The check-in stations that had begun to dominate their nightmares had been removed. This sight stunned them. Someone even started bawling, tears falling freely down his face.
It was that great a relief. Just the knowledge that there’d be no running today caused their hearts to lighten and fill with joy. Someone started to cheer. Before any could tell what was happening, nearly all of them were cheering as well. The examiners looked at them with amusement, letting them have their moment. Once the cheers began to subside, a middle-aged man appeared on the stage.
Valerian immediately trained his eyes on the new arrival. Shooting a glance to the side, he caught the eyes of Pugio. The two of them turned back to the man right afterwards knowing the danger of letting him out of their sight. This was the same examiner who caught Pugio when no one else could. Soon, more of them begun to notice the man’s appearance and the noise quickly started to die away.
The middle-aged man looked different today, slightly more professional in Valerian’s opinion. He wore a strange set of black chitinous armour pieces that did not reflect any light. Watching them silently, a small, nostalgic smile played on his face. Seeing the cheering stop, he cocked an eyebrow and begun clapping.
“Go on!” he told them, gesturing that they do same. “Nine plus one. All of you standing here have proved yourselves a full realm above any who came with you and further realm above those you left behind back home. You may cheer yourselves on.”
Slowly, uncertain clapping began to go round the field. Valerian’s pupils narrowed, he had some inkling as to what the man’s words suggested.
“However, you may not celebrate”, the man suddenly warned them. The clapping ceased immediately.
“Not just yet” he added with a smile. “You’ve only reached the halfway point. You are not at the end. This is the time to rally and push ahead because the next exam is the one that will determine whether you qualify to be a recruit of our training centre. I warn you, this exam will be nothing like the one you’ve just completed. You only get one chance. There’s no start, no finish and no build up. When you step up, you had better give your best.”
The applicants stared at the man before them, sufficiently cowed. Palms began sweating. This was it. The final test. They wondered what form it would take.
“Hmmm”, the examiner intoned. “It seems you’re done with the rally. If so then we can begin. But first I need all arcanists to move to my left. Tellurians should move to my right.”
Slowly, the applicants began to separate themselves, each moving to one side of the field or the other. All except one. A young man in steel grey armour remained where he stood. No. He waited for the middle to clear and went to stand there completely ignoring the stares everyone was showering him with.
Eventually, the examiner looked at him and asked, “What do you think you are doing?”
Unflinchingly, Valerian stared straight at him and answered. “I am waiting to be assigned a place to go, sir!”
The man chuckled humourlessly. While clearly fake, it sounded completely genuine. If you weren’t looking straight at him you wouldn’t be able to tell. Valerian was certain that even that was the man making it obvious. “And I suppose left or right isn’t for you?” he questioned darkly.
“No, sir!” Valerian told him. “They’re for arcanists and tellurians.”
The applicants standing around held their breaths, wondering why this steel armoured fellow seemed set on provoking the examiner. Pugio stared hard at Valerian’s back, suddenly realising that his friend was even more interesting than he had initially let on.
The man’s facial expression and tone of voice remained the same but something about him changed. “Really?” he asked. “What are you then?”
Fighting to keep a smile off his face, Valerian replied, “A dual force possessor, sir!”
This time the man’s expression visibly changed. The change was so obvious that pretty much everyone caught it. However, he didn’t seem to care.
“Prove it!” he demanded, staring straight at Valerian.
This time, Valerian couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face. Raising his hands and keeping his palms facing outwards, he channelled his forces together. Bright golden qi swirled in the palm of his left hand, swiftly shaping itself into a sphere that the tellurians on that side could not look away from. At the same time, arcane energy of a similar hue gathered in the other hand, the one facing the arcanists. By this point, everyone understood what a dual force possessor was.
Loud gasps came from the onlookers. Even the other examiners began to abandon their posts as they inched forward for a better look at this rare sight. To their shock and disbelief, the spheres in Valerian’s hands floated off, hanging in the air around him as different orbs began to take shape in his vacant palms. These were made of translucent wind attributed essence only this time, the positions were reversed. The arcanists watched as a head-sized ball of wind attributed qi formed in front of them whilst the tellurians were treated to the same thing only with arcane energy.
When they were formed they joined their compatriots to float around their owner. As the centre of attention for the all the people on the field. Valerian had only one thing to say.
“Where am I to be assigned, sir?”
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