Author’s Note: This is the last HoGW chapter today. I’ll upload a couple of DC/RH chapters; the conclusion to book one soon. That way tomorrow, we can resume our once regular schedule with book two.
Chapter Thirty-six: Before you sign…
All five prospective disciples were gathered inside Lady Bloodworth’s hall. The lady herself was nowhere to be found. That left the butler to watch the troublesome youths. It was assignment he feared would become routine all too soon. Outwardly he was prim and proper, but in his heart of hearts, he shook his head and sighed ruefully. His mistress loved to stir up trouble, but these new apprentices of hers were probably her betters in matters of discord. Not to mention the fact that there were five of them. FIVE! He could barely suppress his shudder. Feelings of apprehension squirmed in his gut as he watched over his charges.
‘A simple tournament…’ he ruminated. ‘One small formality to induct them as legacy apprentices and they…t-they…’
He could not even finish the thought. How could something so straight forward go so wrong? Now, his mistress had been called away to an emergency council meeting, there were protests outside their manor and enemies looking for an excuse to break down their doors. This lot had not even become apprentices yet. Only Delrein knew what they would come up with next!
“…and then Soldo chickened out”, Hue was saying, recounting the events to Valerian and Wynna who missed them.
“Soldo chickened out?” Valerian asked. The crystal arcanist had not looked like the type.
“It was no surprise”, Hue stated. “Out of his team of five, only Bhita escaped unharmed, and that is only because she was rescued. She could have ended up like the Sweetrot’s opponent.”
“One addled, another dead and a third crippled. Soldo lost his nerve even before the arena was closed”, she added. “That said, given how things ended, he could very well claim that wasn’t the case. That poor girl, the way she cried…”
“Amerrak’s fiancée, Edith”, Heidi explained. “Her family just accepted their engagement a few months ago. I cannot imagine how she must feel.”
“Did you really have to kill him, Sweetrot?” Valerian asked.
“Shove it, Steelborn! Don’t act like you’re any better!” retorted a raspy voice.
The other youth was nestled in the settee, curled up and looking like an old man recently rescued from disease and famine. A new robe was wrapped around him, but the beautiful garment only served to make him look like a mummy in a tomb. It hung loosely on his frame, revealing his sunken skin and exposed ribs. Sweetrot had not so much aged as had the life sucked out him. His hair was falling out, and his skin looked like old leather.
“Are you going to be alright?” Valerian found himself asking, a worried look on his face.
“Of course!” Sweetrot said, brushing off his concern. “Don’t let this fool you. Give me two months, and I’ll be kicking your arse.”
“Really?” Valerian asked in disbelief.
“Of course!” the other youth said confidently. “That’s how long it took last time.”
“Wait…! This has happened before?” Valerian asked in disbelief. He could not imagine anyone burning their blood essence to say little about doing so multiple times.
“You better hope Edith’s brothers give you that long. Or her father for that matter”, Heidi told Sweetrot.
“Oh? What’s he going to do?” Sweetrot blustered.
“I don’t know”, Heidi mused. “Considering that their family are one of the largest manufacturers of firearms, explosives and constructs for the army… any number of things. None of which will be good for you.”
Sweetrot had only one response to that. “Fuck!”
Heidi gave him a sadistic grin that revealed just how much she delighted in his plight. She then teased him, saying, “I doubt you will even see it coming!”
“Hey!” he protested. From the corner of his right eye, he saw Wynna, back to her meek persona, whispering in Hue’s ear.
“And what are you two twittering about?” he demanded.
“Oh, nothing!” Hue said with a rare conspiratorial smile.
“No, it wasn’t! If it were nothing, you’d share it!” Sweetrot pointed out.
“It’s just that with how weak you are, Wynna and I were just making a guess about how much longer you have to live”, the swordswoman admitted. “Plus, Amerrak’s already dead. When you die, would that mean we have to do the trials all over again?”
“Why you!” the dark tellurian sputtered. “Don’t go deciding my death!”
“Sure! Sure! But when that happens. What will we do?”
“I think Lady Bloodworth will simply choose another wood cultivator. Why go through the trouble with all five. We didn’t fail our trial”, Heidi said, adding wood to the fire.
“You might be right!” Hue assented.
“Also, we aren’t the ones dying!” the arcanist added.
“Even better!” the swordswoman replied.
“Hey!” Sweetrot yelled, trying to get their attention. “Don’t go talking like I’m done for!”
“Better still, we don’t have bounties on our heads.”
“True! True!” Hue conceded while Wynna laughed.
“Har ha! Very funny!” Sweetrot stated, finally catching on to their game. “Let me tell you right now that nothing you say will get to me.”
Valerian watched Sweetrot’s teasing with a small smile on his face. Heidi was regaling everyone with estimates of Edith’s family’s wealth and the number of assassins they were probably hiring while Sweetrot tried to act nonchalant. Some part of him wondered how the conversation shifted from cold-blooded murder and enemies at their door to this. Even stranger, it seemed completely normal. Perhaps it said something about the people in the room, that they could so easily dismiss death and danger.
The atmosphere reminded Valerian of his own team. His former squad; Pugio, John, James, Petilia, Yvonne, Drusilla, Berengar and even Captain Walters were the same. Every trial they overcame was reason for celebration. They would come back to base tired, sweaty and bloody but happy. Berengar and Pugio would joke around to lighten the mood. Captain Walters would remind them that progress was a reason to rejoice and that pain and sacrifice were temporary. The memories and nostalgia caused an unfamiliar ache in his chest. He wondered how they were doing. Were they coping? Were Tamara and Alenwaa leading them well in his absence? Would Reynard watch out for them and protect them from Clearcrest and Gigne?
The others continued to rib Sweetrot, but Valerian had checked out. He reminisced of other times with other people and prayed for their wellbeing. Indulging in the feeling of concern for people not of his blood was a first for him, but it felt too natural to be denied. He came back to the present with a start. Would it be the same with these four?
“Quiet!” Lady Bloodworth said as she walked into the room.
Everything went still at that moment, including Valerian short period of introspection.
“You five had given me a brief glimpse of what the future would like if I made the mistake of letting you run amok”, she added. “I feel I must thank you for the warning.”
They waited for their scoldings or punishment, but it did not come. Instead, the old lady walked over to take her seat.
“Your problems are myriad, and I fear that must first tackle them individually before I can help you as a whole. That is why I must now ask who among you wishes to be my disciple?”
They stared at her, unsure of what she meant.
Taking the lead, Heidi was first to ask, “Only one of us? But you said…”
“The question is to all of you and for each of you”, Lady Bloodworth revealed. “I am asking you individually. If you feel you cannot become my apprentice, this is your chance to speak up.”
“I will be your apprentice!”
“ME!” Sweetrot yelled as if scared, she would not hear. Who was he kidding? The only thing waiting for him if he stepped out of the manor without Lady Bloodworth’s protection was a shallow grave.
“I want it.”
“I want you to think about your answer. Think hard!” the old lady emphasized. “Understand that once you make this choice, there is no going back. You will belong to me, utterly and entirely. There will be no room for disobedience. No place for laziness. Your training will not be easy, not in the slightest. I will break you. I will crush you and put you into a mould of my desire.”
“There are only three possible endings for those who sign under me. Death is a solid possibility. The chance of you being crippled is up there as well. The last is the fate for those who survive. To you, I promise might unquestioned. You will have more power than you will know what to do with. Again, this is only if you become my apprentice.”
Oh, yes! Power is the one thing I can promise my apprentices. Do you want to burn the sea? Have you ever crushed a mountain under your foot or heard the earth quake from having an entire army kneel in surrender before you?” she asked, a strange light in her eyes.
“I have! If you choose to follow, you will as well. All that and more, in fact. However, you must swear loyalty to me.”
“Independence, I like. Disobedience, not so much. Lying even more so. As for traitors…”
“You betray your fellow apprentices or me, and I will kill you. You leak or sell our secrets to others, and I will kill you. Kill or endanger one of your fellow apprentices, and I will kill you. If I find you stealing from me, I will kill you. If I ever discover that you’re working with our enemies, I will kill you. Commit treason, and I will kill you.
“Like I said, death is a genuine possibility, and it is not just my enemies you need to be afraid of”, The old lady warned. “Should you take your oaths, you will be to me as my own kin, inheriting all I have to offer; my powers, techniques, ways and will. Once I pass my legacies onto you, whatever lives you decide to live will be lived under my rules!”
Valerian turned to look at the others and was confronted with looks of apprehension that probably matched his own. It was starting to sound like they were about to sign their lives away.