BK II, Chapter Twenty-three: Longhouse Four

Strappings or what he had seen of it so far was not what Valerian expected. Their journey had brought them to a cluster of large hills and to a valley mouth obstructed by a massive gate. The scenery was beautiful but they were barely given any time to take in their surroundings before they were literally marched off by their current chaperone. Valerian found that he was glad for this.

They had been on the road for an entire moon. The journey was long, far too long for Valerian’s liking. He had been forced to spend the time in a carriage that held twenty others. While it was not cramped, the lack of personal space bothered him. The decreasing hygiene and air quality, however, had bothered him even more. He understood that not everyone had the luxury of self-cleaning armour but he had still expected some amount of personal grooming on the part of his fellows. It was a mistake.

Honestly, it seemed like the youth four heads down had never even bothered to rinse his mouth since they met. Some of the others were worse. Valerian tried not to think about it. He had chosen to spend his time aboard meditating, deepening his affinity to the wind. The fact that it kept the others away and surrounded him in clean air made him glad he was an arcanist.

Cleanliness aside, the others were actually quite impressive. All of them were consolidated first tiers and none were older than twenty-five. For a few days, Valerian had been stunned by the sight of so many ‘prodigies’. He couldn’t help but wonder exactly how the Zebre would have turned out if they had participated.

Surprising, many of them had, participated in the Zebre that is, only not in DaleGuard. Their pool of cultivators had been drawn from all over the county. It made you wonder just how things would have turned out if they had. Valerian spied an especially muscle bound youth staring at him out the corner of his eye. ‘That one is going to be trouble’, he surmised. Sighing, he threw his head back and focused on where they were going.

“This way!” the soldier guiding them directed, leading them up to a longhouse styled building.

Walking them in, he added, “You’ve been assigned beds seventeen through to thirty-seven. Choose amongst yourselves who gets which and make yourselves comfortable in the meantime. I suggest you prepare yourselves for the tests to come. It wouldn’t do to come all this way only to be sent back.”

“You are not yet a part of us so the rules are a bit lax for you but do not take them lightly. There’s a list on the noticeboards there and there”, he said pointing them out. “The basics are as follows; No unauthorised wanderings. Remember that this is a military installation. Anyone caught outside the visitor’s facilities wouldn’t just lose their chance to enrol here but also find themselves gaoled and awaiting trial.

“No fighting, littering or troublemaking. We expect all recruits to be disciplined. No noise making or wandering after nine in the evening. There’s a list of prohibited materials. Memorise it! If you happen to possess any of them, you have a day to dispose of or destroy them. Once that time elapses anyone caught with them will be sent away and prevented from taking the test. Attendance to meal times and assemblies is compulsory and roll will be taken. Everything else you can read on the noticeboard. Is that clear?” he announced.

They nodded mutely, some mumbling their assent, all of them a bit taken aback by the regulations they were being asked to follow. Their guide was not pleased.

“What’s this? Do you not know how to respond to superiors?” he barked at them.

“Yes, sir!” “No sir!” came the confused responses.

The soldier glared at them for a few more moments before letting it go. “Hmph! I’ll ignore this, this once.”

With that, he turned and walked away, leaving them standing at the entrance to their new abode.

Valerian sighed and walked in, sparing a glance at a noticeboard as he did so, memorising its contents. He had a feeling things were going to get very complicated from this moment on. Once he moved, the others did as well. Some rushed over to the noticeboards, others to the bunk beds. Valerian took his time, keeping his attention on his new surroundings and most of all, its inhabitants. His mind wandered to a conversation he had with his uncle Vorm.

“Remember Valerian, none of the people at Strapping’s can be called normal. I’m not saying be suspicious of everyone but you must bear in mind that all the recruits are dangerous and your competitors to boot. You must keep your guard up until you can be sure of their intentions and at times even then”, Vorm was saying in a serious tone.

The longhouse was a long, narrow building that consisted of a single room that stretched from the front entrance to the back. The walls were bare with their monotony only broken up by the large open windows interspersed every five metres. Valerian counted fifteen bunks on each side of the room and twelve inhabitants excluding their own group of twenty. Going by their guide’s words that meant that they were four more recruits only they were not present.

Picking a bunk numbered twenty-one/twenty-two, Valerian picked up the box beside it and placed it on the bed, opening it to find bedding and toiletries.

Quickly laying the bottom bed, he lay down to rest. Closing his eyes and steadying his breathing, he seemed lost to the world. He wasn’t. Stretching forth his senses, he began to pay closer attention to the others.

“Greetings!”, someone said. “I am Alenwaa, of the Morwoko, the ruling house of Fairwold County. I would make a more formal introduction but it appears outside titles are useless here”, he added with a laugh. “Somehow, I’ve lucked into being in charge of our little longhouse. If you new guys would gather round I might be able to clarify some of the questions you have.”

Intrigued, they began moving towards the speaker. A few kept their distance but drew closer just the same.

“Please”, Alenwaa called. “Come closer. I doubt I’ll repeat this twice and trust me, you’ll want to hear what I have to say.”

The shuffling increased. More were being drawn over.

“Someone wake him up”, Alenwaa commanded, to Valerian’s surprise.

“The kid? Forget him, he doesn’t talk much or with anyone”, came a voice of one of the people from Valerian’s batch.

Alenwaa hesitated for a moment but nodded in the end.

“Many of you have come to Strapping’s in the hopes of becoming elite officers in the future. Most of you would be considered geniuses in your respective homes. I’d like to warn you that that will not be the case in Strapping’s. In fact, you may have entered its gates but I bet many of you are unaware that before one can become an actual Strapping’s recruit he or she has to take an entrance exam. The information I wish to share is particularly this; the particulars of the entrance exam.”

“How do you know what will be in the exam”, someone asked.

“I’m not going to lie. This is something I know only because of my clan. We have had many of our own graduate from Strapping’s and so we know what to expect”, Alenwaa revealed with pride. “I’d like to share this with you.”

“Why?” came the distrustful voice of a stocky youth.

“Thank you”, Alenwaa said, turning to face him. “I hoping someone would ask that. Naturally, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t hope to gain something in return. Don’t worry, it’s nothing much and it will become apparent when I explain.”

“First off, there are three exams. One general exam for everyone, one for tellurians and one for arcanists. The general exam comes first. It is physical.”

“Wait?”, interrupted another youth. “They put arcanists and tellurians together for physical exams?” he asked in disbelief.

It was general knowledge that tellurians had far better physical attributes than arcanists. There was no competition. Why would the officials here pit arcanists and tellurians against each other in a contest that tellurians were sure to win?

“I’m afraid so”, Alenwaa informed him. “Don’t worry though. They only do so to eliminate those below their minimum threshold. The rationale is something like this; ‘When the army marches they do not move as arcanists and tellurians but as soldiers. Everyone is expected to keep pace and file. Thus, Strapping’s will not take anyone who cannot do same.’ Because of this, the physical exam tests speed, strength and endurance. Failing to reach the standards at even one will have you removed from the longhouse and put on a coach back home!”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” came a protest.

“No! It’s the truth. Each stage of the Strapping’s entrance exam is eliminative. Strapping’s is a school for the best, the elite. You knew this before coming here. They take nothing but the best. Here, they have no use for those who cannot meet their standards”, Alenwaa told them to their despair.

Seeing he had them right where he wanted them, he smiled. “Now comes the bit that might help you pass the exam. Many don’t know this but you are allowed to use enhancements to pass.”

Just as expected, everyone was all ears.

“What do you mean?” asked a confused voice.

“Exactly that!”, Alenwaa said, smile still on his face. “You are allowed to enhance yourselves. Arcanists can use physical enhancement spells and tellurians can use qi flows, movement techniques and whathaveyou. Strapping’s considers such things part of a cultivator’s strength and so no one will stop you. However, artefacts and devices are not allowed so flying swords, golems, flight charms, etc cannot be used. So long as it is an application of essence or a legacy, the examiners will let it slide.”

“As for the other exams, they test quantity of essence, control and potency. Of course, the methods used differ between forces and that is probably the only reason why tellurians and arcanists are separated at that stage”, Alenwaa informed his audience. “My suggestion; prepare yourselves for the exams and give them your all. Learn whatever spells or techniques might help you pass. You only get one try at this. Like the guide said, ‘It wouldn’t do to come all this way only to be sent back.'”

“You still haven’t said what you have to gain from this”, someone pointed out.

“Thanks for reminding me!” Alenwaa said amicably. “It’s simple. There’s something I left out. Strapping’s is very group centred. It places a lot of emphasis on teamwork. The ability to work well with others is greatly treasured by the officials who run this place. As such, there is leeway for collaboration between applicants. I would grant you that same opportunity. I’m not saying work for me or that I’ll carry you through the exam. Mine is an offer of mutual support so long as you prove worthy of it.

“Our aim will be to secure our entry into this institution. For this, I don’t need many people only a few good fellows who are willing and able to contribute to this goal. Three people in fact. I am an arcanist myself and I’d like two tellurians and another arcanist in my group. No, that’s wrong. I’m looking for the two most powerful tellurians and the second most powerful arcanist of longhouse four to join me”

Alenwaa became silent for a time, allowing his words to sink in.

“You don’t have to decide right away. I’ll wait but know this. The exam is in four days. I hope you make your choice by then”, he added.

“I won’t say much more but know this, whatever team I’m in will surely pass. Also, if you’re thinking you have some special ability or skill or that your recommendation or background will let you pass then forget about it. Maybe you are the greatest healer in Bathar or the strongest fighter. That won’t help you here. Once you fail a test, you’re out”, he announced.

“Strapping’s would rather have a cultivator meet their standards and then be taught combat and healing skills than a genius at one of them who cannot meet their standards. As for backgrounds, this place was created to be neutral in the face of them. If they weren’t I wouldn’t even have to take this stupid test and if I can’t, you surely can’t as well. Or do any of you think you’re better than an heir to the main family of the Morwoko?” he asked with a challenging glare.

The gathered youths quickly shook their heads. None of them was stupid to rise to that bait. Forget them, not even their backers would dare confront the Morwoko directly.

His piece said,  Alenwaa turned around and went back to his bed, acting as if unconcerned as to what happened next. However, inside, he was excited at his prospects. This was just phase one of his plan. He’d make it into Strapping’s no matter what.

In his bed, Valerian followed, the Morwoko youth to his bed. The boy a bright flare of energy to his arcane energy. He had to admit, he was impressed with this Alenwaa. He wasn’t just powerful and confident, he also seemed great at connecting to an audience which Valerian most certainly was not. He didn’t have to read their minds to know the others were likely going over his proposal. Even Valerian, himself, had considered it. he wondered how many exactly would beg the youth to be part of his team and how exactly the boy would choose.

Eyes closed, he frowned. Vorm had not told him that applicants could team up for the exam. Still, he could hazard a guess as to why. In the end, the results were calculated individually, something Alenwaa had ‘forgotten’ to mention. As he stood now, Valerian was confident in passing the entrance exam. Vorm had assured him of his chances. However, his goal here wasn’t to pass. It was to be as close to the top in the final rankings as possible. Only then could he make full use of the plan he and Vorm had concocted and only then could he gain the greatest benefits that came from a Strapping’s education.

Valerian raised his hands and placed them behind his head. Things seemed to be getting interesting. For the first time since he signed up for the Zebre, Valerian found himself getting excited, a certain thrill beginning to build within him. He looked forward to the battles to come.

Author’s Note

Morwoko means long/tall grass. Alenwaa means “He has returned”

Honestly, this name is a bit strange. My people do not really believe in reincarnation per se. Additionally, the idea that there is some great endless cycle of rebirth is very foreign and strange to us traditionally. However, we do in inheritance/hereditary. Ever had a relative remind you strongly of another? Like, say a cousin who makes you think of your grandpa every time you spend time with him. Well, my people hold that the younger has inherited those familiar traits in all such cases.

We also tend to name our progeny after beloved and revered family members and friends either because the children remind us of them, we wish that they grow up to be like them or simply to honour the one who has passed. Thus a name like Alenwaa, where no one, in particular, is referenced and the idea behind the name speaks of a direct …(let me use) reincarnation is rare. Not unheard of, but rare. There’s one instance I know of that sticks with me, spirit children. I’ll cut it short here.

You can search for it yourself though. Just check “spirit children, West Africa”. Just…be mindful of what you read. The concept is troubling, fascinating, ugly and saddening all at the same time. Just know that those considered spirit children aren’t always treated right. Different communities treat them differently and their lives… ah well. Let’s just say some are worshipped, others pampered, others abused, and others killed all on the supposition that they might be spirit children. It’s all very complicated and truth be told, I’m taking a risk even writing about it.

I’ll be willing to discuss and clarify things to those interested. Let’s talk on the Discord channel.