Chapter Twenty-seven: On the Fourth Day…
The fourth day of the trials was noticeably more subdued than the third. That is not to say that people were not excited but rather a recognition of the moody cloud that hung over the proceedings. Those only now catching up were acutely aware of it. As for the challengers, many bore grim faces, others looked angry.
“Look there’s Celeste! I heard she wasn’t going to come but the fact that her girlfriend was injured must have changed her mind.”
“Shit!” his companion cursed “Think she can cut it?”
I don’t know”, his friend admitted. “She and Marigold are about par and that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. I mean, Marigold nearly lost her arm yesterday trying to block the Steelborn.”
“Oh yeah!” the other exclaimed, his face paling a little when he recalled the scene. He had never seen so much blood or injured people in one place before. The challengers yesterday were some of Marrbissi’s brightest and youngest talents, all of them better than himself and yet, they were torn to shreds by a single person. He could still see him in his mind’s eye, gazing down imperiously on the world and the destruction he caused as if finding it unworthy.
“It is a good thing he would not be coming today then!” he said, meaning every word.
“Really?” his friend asked. “Where did you hear that?”
“Some guys were talking about it in the Cafeteria this morning. They said that Lady Bloodworth was furious when she found out what he had done. Apparently, she did not even sanction his so-called tests!”
“You mean it?” his friend asked with a look of relief. “The Steelborn has been disqualified?”
Before he could answer, other people seated around them, either eavesdropping or simply drawn to them but that last outburst answered for him.
“The Steelborn has been disqualified?” One asked in shock, followed quickly by, “Thank the heavens!”
“Really? Is it true?”
“Who said that?”
“What are you mumbling about?”
“Some guy over there says The Lady Bloodworth has disqualified the Steelborn!”
“That’s not what I heard!” a loud voice yelled. “I heard that she just punished him. He’s just not allowed to do the tests anymore or go up the stage without permission.”
“SHhhhhHHH!” someone shushed. “He is coming!”
No one needed to ask who. The fear he induced was enough. The entire section went silent as they watched Lady Bloodworth’s prospective apprentices march in and take their seats. All around the arena people pointed discreetly or found some other way to point out the infamous Steelborn to any still unaware of who he was.
“Well, looks like someone made an impression”, Sweetroot said snidely with a pointed look at Valerian. He could not help but feel some animosity towards the younger cultivator. Sweetrot, more so than any of the others, had become a footnote in the trials. His fights went by with few even noticing and the others, Valerian especially, completely hogged the spotlight. This was supposed to be his moment with him finally revealing the hidden depths of his power. Sadly, no one seemed concerned with the fact that the Wood division’s notorious slacker was actually a very talented and powerful cultivator in his own right.
Instead, all they were concerned about was Heidi’s predicted clash with Soldo and the hot, exotic foreigners. Then, there was Valerian. At first, Sweetrot was glad that there was at least one other guy around but now… He would rather have Valerian sent away and yet, even he could not help but feel a little frit around the other boy. Sweetrot had a strong stomach, you had to be when you got disembowelled as often as he did, but the easy manner with which the Steelborn tore those challengers apart was upsetting even for him.
“Hey!”, Wynna asked in a concerned tone. “Did Great-aunt Lilian really punish you?”
Valerian scowled but ultimately said nothing. The fact that this was taken as a yes had nothing to do with him. The day before had been an eye opener for him. True, he had not expected the [Myriad Darts Array] to be so powerful but even more surprising was the crowd’s reaction. At first, they were horrified but like all mobs, they quickly became angry. His ploy had backfired so badly that he and the others were evacuated out of fear that they would be attacked. Through it all, he tried to maintain his nonchalant attitude but even he was disturbed. In one fell stroke, he went from the star of the show to the villain.
True, he had cast himself in the role of the opposition leader but he had never intended to become a full-blown villain. Gone was the admiration and grudging respect, all he saw when he looked at the crowd was horror, fear and hate. There was more hate directed at him than he had ever believed possible. Even now, as the spectators communicated in hushed tones, pointing at him and spewing scathing but fearful attacks, he could still feel them. Hateful eyes looking out from deep in the stands, cautious and hidden but there all the same.
He placed his hands together in front of him, pressing the fingers together in a manner more indicative of his mental state than any he tended to show. Valerian was so worried that he had neglected to sleep the night before. He was not concerned about the crowd. If the trials had taught him anything it was that the students of Marrbissi, whilst elite in their own right, were nothing more than pen-raised farm animals. Right now, he cared even less what they thought than when he began. His worry stemmed not from the sheep but their groomers. Toothless they may be but they were still highly connected members of the upper-crust.
So yesterday, he sat in the manor and waited for some trial challenger’s teacher or family members to storm the place and demand his head. He waited and waited till his buttocks grew sore. No one came, not a single angry noble, concerned member of staff, not even Lady Bloodworth herself. For a short while, it seemed that he had gotten away with it. Lady Bloodworth was obviously more frightening than he had thought if no one would dare march against him. Ironically, nothing scared Valerian more. He pictured himself walking back into this arena, untouched after the events he was no doubt guilty of. Then, he imagined how the crowd would take it.
Quickly, he came up with a plan. Gathering as many coins as he could spare, he sent Avery to the kitchens. There, his manservant bribed as many servants of the manor as their coinage would allow. He asked them to do one thing, speak to the other servants and spread a simple story. It didn’t need to be good. Gossip rarely was. All he needed was some hearsay that listeners could fill in for themselves. It just needed to be about him being punished for the trial incident by Lady Bloodworth, the one figure who had both the authority to do so and was frightening enough to deter others.
Yes! Valerian was the one responsible for the spread of the rumours flying around. He did not expect it to quell the animosity towards him. Far from it, those with personal stakes would never be satisfied with something like this. Nevertheless, it would be a great help. Why? There was such a thing as token punishment. Perhaps, it came from being the grandson of a magistrate but Valerian knew that just the appearance or mention of having paid or being held responsible for his attack would be more than enough to satisfy the majority of those who would otherwise call for his head.
The one thing he acknowledged but left unsaid was that now, more than ever, he needed to become Lady Bloodworth’s apprentice. He shuddered to think of what would happen to him if he lost her protection. To prevent his mind from running wild, he pressed his fingers together and waited tensely for the matches to start.
David was one of the few people in the arena who could boast of watching every single match in the trials. There were a few times where he had to pinch himself just to confirm if what he was seeing was real. Sweetrot acting as if limbs were disposable was one of them. The hot sword girl defeating Schmidt with a single wave of her hand was one. The Steelborn shredding all the challengers like a cheese grater was the latest though it had just lost that position to what was happening before his eyes. Luckily there was someone nearby there to confirm his vision without a need for self-mutilation.
“Look, Elder Ahwon and his students are here!”
“You don’t think…?” another asked in disbelief.
“Maybe?” David said tentatively and hopefully. Elder Ahwon was a combat instructor. His chief disciple was also a third-year bigshot. If it was one of the disciples he had personally trained then perhaps there was a chance of…
“Why are they all taking seats in the stands?” Miss Obvious asked.
Ahwontara expected the stares and gazes so he ignored them completely. Leading both of his junior disciples into the stands, he took a seat and settled in, waiting for the fighting to start. His disciples, on the other hand, were not so composed. He could tell from the flushed skin on Belford’s
face and neck and his refusal to look anyone in the eye that the boy was embarrassed to be sitting in the stands. He supposed he understood. There was a great fight to be had against a foe that had gravely injured many of his fellows. Others were looking to him for guidance or expecting him to leap to the school’s defence and here he was sitting in the stands.
As if on cue, the youth turned, a plaintive plea on his face. ‘Let me fight!’ it said. The senior instructor said nothing, choosing to stare the boy down. He noted how Belford clenched his fists and bowed his head. His disciple was angry and unwilling. Despite appearances, Ahwontara appreciated that. Anger was good when channelled properly. Unfortunately, all Belford’s current attitude showed was a need for emotional temperance. He would leave him to stew in the disappointed gazes of his peers. It would be good training for the boy.
A discreet pulse of essence caught his attention, making him look away from his angry disciple. Harper, an instructor from the lightning division flew through the air towards him. The jovial man quickly took a seat beside him.
“A couple of teachers were watching in the lightning lounge. When I saw you in the arena I knew I had to come”, Harper said. “You know, many think you brought your students to fight against them”.
Ahwontara snorted. “Tell me why I would walk a road which only ends in defeat.”
“Right”, Harper said, drawing the syllables out. Then, he caught a glance of his friend’s disciples. “Please tell me you didn’t tell them that.”
The combat instructor huffed, telling his friend all he needed to know.
“So you think the whole thing is a farce too?” he asked curiously. “The fellows in the lounge are split on whether the competition itself is a farce or if the so-called prospects are unbeatable. I mean, is the great-elder really going to base her decision on who survives a gauntlet?”
Ahwontara smiled, “If you knew anything about the Marshal, you wouldn’t be surprised by her choice of test.”
A light bulb went off in Harper’s head. “Honestly, forgot that you served in the army at some point.”
“Yes”, Ahwontara said with pride. “I had the honour of serving under Marshal Bloodworth in the last Bathar-Wherry War. In fact, it was with her recommendation that I became an instructor in this school.”
“Really?” Harper said with surprise. “Then maybe you can clear things up for me. Why these trials, what’s the point? If the apprentices she’s chosen are so good, why the need to prove it? If she is as great and infallible as they say then who would even bother contesting her decision?”
Ahwontra looked at his friend. The overly logical machinist tended to think of things in the same way he looked at his devices. Everything needed to have a clear purpose and fit into a whole. It was an admirable trait but one that also prevented him from recognising things that had no visible effect, like motive or desire.
“Look there”, he began. “What do you see?”
Harper rolled his eyes but in the end, played along. There was usually a point to these things. “I see the prospective apprentices, all five of them.”
Ahwontara nodded adding, “Those are five of the most talented youths of the generation being forced to fight similarly talented youths on the whims of an old lady. Why is that?”
Harper opened his mouth to answer but Ahwontara cut him off.
“Ignore the who’s and why’s and look at the what’s. Put aside the events that conspired to put them there and look instead at what they are undergoing and the effects it will have first on them and on others.”
Now, the machinist looked to be in thought. His friend smiled and gave him a few clues.
“They are cultivators on the cusp of the second tier, fighting other cultivators on the same path, matching and overcoming them one after the other…”
“You’re shitting me!” Harper exclaimed. “You’re telling me this whole thing is just one elaborate training session?”
Ahwontara frowned at the outburst. Luckily, they knew better than to chat around students without precautions. If not, they would be drawing many eyes right now.
The man sat back and considered the puzzle for a moment. “Corroboration”, he finally concluded. “Iron sharpens iron. That is why only cultivators with similar cultivation levels and attributes can sign up. Similar cultivators `travelling different but ultimately parallel paths. She is throwing these cultivators against them so they can learn from their paths to corroborate their own. It sounds smart in theory but just how much can they learn from their opponents in five days. Also, is she not worried that they will go astray? Just what happens when one of them has a deviation because of this?”
The combat instructor waved the concern away with a gesture, “I’m sure she has considered it. Besides, she chose them exactly for this reason. If they learn nothing or prove incapable then they’ll probably be replaced before the trials are over.”
Harper stared at his friend for a moment, suddenly wondering just how far the man’s callousness extended.
“I’m guessing that’s why you aren’t letting your students compete. At best they win and go study under a great master and at worse, they will be used to fuel the growth of others.”
Ahwontara said nothing.
“Why?” his friend demanded. “Why does she get so much leeway? If you knew this from the start, surely others knew too. Why is no one stopping this? That lady is turning other students into reference points in a dao compendium for students she may or may not train. So far, dozens have been injured and that’s not counting the many who no doubt develop mental demons when this is over and no one seems to care.
“This whole trial nonsense is a sham. Apparently, everyone knows this and no one is bothered. Why does a sham attract so much attention? It’s not just in the lounge. Everyone is paying attention to these trails. The sheer number of lord tier spies in this arena alone boggles the mind and yet no one can give me a good reason as to why?”