Chapter Thirty-seven: Standard Tiers
The morning sun shone down on them, illuminating the world in golden splendour. Yet, the path ahead was obscured by shadows. The manor’s backyard was open and sparse, but the two massive cliffs that led into the back mountain beyond it cast a daunting sight. It was the perfect metaphor for how Valerian felt. They were standing in Lady Bloodworth’s personal training yard, waiting for their first lesson. A quick glance at his side confirmed that none of the others had backed out. Why would they? They had come too far to go back.
It did, however, mean that Lady Bloodworth had five new legacy apprentices!
The formal ceremony would come later. Lady Bloodworth promised that it would be something with pomp and circumstance. In the meantime, she would be straightening them out so they would not embarrass her when the day came. Valerian despaired at the thought of more training. She was basically telling them that what they had done and gone through was still not enough.
He hoped that their training involved her passing on actual techniques instead of having them run combat drills. He did not have to hold this thought for long. The old lady descended from the sky as if summoned by his thoughts.
“I trust you all enjoyed your night’s sleep. Maybe you even managed a call home to tell them of your new accomplishment?” she asked teasingly.
Floating down from her perch in the sky, she looked at each of them in turn before making known the days plans. “Today, we will not engage in physical training. Instead, I will take the time to explain certain principles that you will no doubt find essential to your cultivation.”
Taking a look at the still weak and reed-thin Sweetrot, she had Heidi make them seats from the hard-packed earth before continuing. “You are all first-tier cultivators of the highest calibre. It is high time you understood your place in the grand scheme of things as well as how to ascend in the ranks. I say this because you cannot truly be considered my apprentice until you have attained the lord tier. The things I have to teach you are not for weaklings.”
They all gave a start at this news, but she waved them off before they could raise any questions. “For the time being, I will speak to you about cultivation concepts as well as provide advice on your paths and training. You have overcome my trials and even improved in some small fashion. I will help you consolidate those theirs and breakthrough through to the next tier.
“But that begs the question, doesn’t it?” she asked with a light in her eyes. “How does one ascend to the Lord tier and why?”
“Each of you has been cultivating for a few years now. You have been through the stages, gathered your essence and formed your cores. When you did so, you were given the exclusive titles Consolidated First Tiers signifying that you had completed your training. You had gained everything the first tier had to offer. Nevertheless, you continued with your cultivation. You lot were all born with innate affinities, and so you did not have to choose or train them up, but you worked on your attunement. You made your essence more and more like the element you possess an affinity for.
“Who can tell me why?” the old lady asked.
Valerian was not sure how such a thing was possible, but Heidi’s hand shot up faster than his. He could only watch as she was chosen to answer the question and not him.
“We undergo attunement because it forms the ground for our ascension!” the earthen mage exclaimed.
“Explain!” their teacher commanded.
“The ascension is a test”, Heidi explained. “To become a lord, you need to prove your attainment in your chosen element. You do this through attunement. If your insights are sufficient, you are baptised by the heavens and allowed to become a lord of your chosen element. If your attunement is lacking, your ascension fails and you remain a first-tier often with severe consequences.”
“That is correct”, Lady Bloodworth affirmed. “There is a bit more to it though.”
“We call people with the talent to cultivate gifted or blessed!” she revealed. “They are considered blessed by the heavens and thus given a chance to gain power of their own. How they do so is through cultivation. However, there is a hidden test. We call first tiers, disciples and practitioners for a reason. You are children playing with Verre’s essence. Your lives are to be devoted to learning and developing your powers. It is only when you have trained to the limit that you are qualified to take the test and become a true cultivator. Only then will you have real power.”
“Yes, that’s right!” she verified. “Only lords are considered true cultivators. They are the ones who had proved themselves worthy of the gift and been granted power for it. We call this power; aspects.”
“You know all about aspects, don’t you?” the old lady teased.
Unwittingly, they all turned to look at Sweetrot. The dark-skinned tellurian shifted uncomfortably under the attention.
“Aspects are the condensed truths of the world” Lady Bloodworth was saying. “They are the principles that underpin everything you see. Ordinarily, they are the sole province of higher tiered cultivators. To control an aspect is to have power over Verre itself.”
All eyes turned to Sweetrot again. He tried to act nonchalant by resting his head in his hand, but that only caused him to pull out swathes of stringy hair from his balding head. They all looked away after that. Wynna even suppressing the urge to vomit.
Their teacher mercifully gave them a reason to focus on her again. “The power of an aspect is what makes it impossible for a first-tier cultivator to beat a lord… usually. It would not be wrong to call you children. You play around with the mystic arts like it is mud, slinging your pretend spells and makeshift titles all so seriously like they amount to something. It is cute, really”, she told them.
“As with children, the adults smile and praise you for your simple accomplishments. We help you train in the hopes that one day you will be just as good if not better than us, but I digress. I was talking about the ascension.”
“The usual form of ascension involves withdrawing every ounce of essence into your core. Remember that your cores were formed before your attunement. They are seeds to be nurtured by your attainments in cultivation. These attainments; your insight into the workings of the elements, your reserves of essence, your manipulation of self and world are the keys to your ascension.
“You prove this attainment by refining your core with your attuned essence. The better your attunement, the better the quality of the refined core. Pass the benchmark, and your core will resonate with Verre itself leading to a baptism of pure elemental essence that will further improve your core as well as refine your spirits and bodies into those worthy of Lord Tier cultivators”, she informed them.
“The first ascension is a nifty thing. Your connection with your element evolves to a whole new level. You gain spiritual senses and a seemingly invincible body that will only improve your future prospects. Using your new spiritual senses and heightened affinity, you will then attempt to glean insight into the principles that govern your element so you can form your first aspect. At least, that is the case for ordinary cultivators. I do not plan to train ordinary cultivators. That is why you will all be condensing a preterm aspect before your ascension!” she announced.
“WHAT?” Sweetrot yelled.
His preterm aspect was his one distinguishing feature on the team. It did not just set him apart from the others. It was the result of all his hard work and sacrifice. He tried to voice an argument, but a glare from Lady Bloodworth put an instant stop to that.
“There are three recognised grades of ascension”, she said without taking her eyes off Sweetrot. “This because there are three different types of baptism, depending on the level of attunement attained. The third is a mere passing grade. It is the result of the baptism upgrading only the cultivator’s core. Those who achieve this grade are the weakest kinds of lords. The ones that often struggle for decades to condense a single aspect. A second-grade ascension results in a baptism that gifts you with an elemental vessel and last, the first-grade ascension, refers to those who gain both elemental bodies and elemental insight. However, there is a secret grade. In fact, it would not be wrong to call it a secret reward for exceeding expectations.
“Ordinarily, only lords possess aspects. They are the ones who have the perception and affinity necessary to condense one. However, should a first-tier succeed in this endeavour he or she would gain upon ascension, an elemental body that is not the least bit inferior to a low-rank bloodline. It would be akin to being born anew with a divine body of your element because that aspect would no longer be a simple mark of mastery but a part of your body, essence and soul.
“That was the case for me”, she revealed to their stunned silence. “So it was for all my other students, your seniors. So it will be for you.”
Deliberately looking at Sweetrot, she added, “So it is already.”
Stretching out her hand, she brought a small flame into being above it. It was a small black thing with barely any energy signature and yet just looking at it was enough to fill a man with dread. “My preterm aspect was the devouring aspect of fire”, she said. “It consumes everything it touches to fuel its growth; light, essence, materials, people. All are but sustenance to the devouring flame. With my ascension, my very essence was branded with this aspect. I can consume anything to heal or increase my powers, and even my spiritual energy bears this mark, assimilating everything it encounters.”
Another fire rose on the right of the first. It was followed by different flame on the left. Soon five different flames were floating above Lady Bloodworth’s outstretched palm. “As I condensed my other aspects, I discovered that they too were marked by the devouring aspect.”
The second flame, a bright blue orb pulsed and grew into a towering blaze so hot Valerian had an immediate flashback to his first arcane lesson with his uncle, Jonas.
“This aspect of heat came with a devouring core. This means when employed, it is capable of sustaining itself with whatever it consumes. Everything it burns goes towards cranking up the heat. It just grows hotter with each obstacle it overcomes. My purifying aspect is different. Anything it deems unworthy is devoured. Only that which is pure is left unscathed. Anything devoured is then refined, distilled into rarified essence”, she explained to their awestruck faces.
“You might wonder why or how this is important”, she guessed. “This is why.”
All the flames displayed began to merge together to become one purple flame. Instantly, Wynna shifted, her animus taking over as she recoiled from Lady Bloodworth with a shriek of terror. The petite girl grabbed Hue by the arm, dragging her along as she escaped. She was not the only one. Valerian had fallen off his seat, his head ringing with the screams of his phantasm. It was telling him to run.
The other two apprentices were confused but only for a moment. Unsure what was going on, Heidi’s staff appeared in her hands. As for Sweetrot, he was attempting to book it as well. He did not need to see what was coming next. Anything Wynna was scared off was something he did not want to be near. Wynna made it the farthest. Two metres, maybe less. That was how far she got before the old lady reacted, and all she did was sigh.
Suddenly, everything froze. The world itself lost colour. Before any of them could blink, Lady Bloodworth had them back in their seats only frozen and helpless with a simple twitch of her hand.
“I’m not sure I should applaud your instincts or reprimand your actions”, she said with a sigh. “So for the rest of this lesson, you will sit tight and let me go about my lecture.”
Valerian stared at the old lady with nothing but fear in his frozen eyeballs. Was this what they meant when they called Lady Bloodworth the most powerful cultivator in Bathar? It was insane. Forget breaking free, he could not even sense his restraints. It was like the world itself was pinning him in place.
“Every lord’s task is to condense enough aspects to ascend to the King tier”, she said, continuing as she promised. “We employ them in various ways, the most common of which are spells. Remember what I said about children playing pretend?”
“There are twelve or seven acknowledged spell levels depending on the system you use. We’ll use the imperial twelve level system. Care to guess which level you use?” she asked their statuesque bodies.
Nodding as if receiving an answer, she continued. “The first or primary level deals with shapes. It comprises all actions taken to shape the essence of the world or the cultivator into a particular design or for a specific purpose. It is the province of first and second-tier cultivators.”
“Things get interesting when you get to the second level, which deals with elemental properties. It is where aspects come into play. Heat. Refinement. Restoration. Explosiveness. Imagine each aspect channelled as a spell. Now, imagine something better. What could be more potent than an aspect? Two aspects! That’s it, third level spells deal with the use of one or more aspects in tandem. For most lords, these are the most powerful spells they will ever encounter, but the greatest among them are those that disregard boundaries and instead fuse the aspects into one.
Seeing the light of comprehension dawn in their eyes, she turned once more to the purple flame floating beside her.
“I call this flame World’s End”, she revealed. “When I was maybe twice as old as you are now, I came up with this parlour trick by fusing all of my aspects with the devouring flame as a medium. It is a flame that never dies. It simply devours everything in its path, growing hotter and larger until there is nothing left to burn. Left unattended it will never be extinguished. In fact, you could go over to the Wherry-Bathar border and find a whole valley full of the stuff. It’s been burning for over a century.”
She floated the flame closer to them so that it hovered a couple of metres away. Understandably, they all recoiled from it, discovering in their fear that they were free again. No one ran this time, they knew it was futile. They just sat there and watched. A flame that could end them all floating only two metres away as a tiny fist-sized orb. It was surreal.
“The name was very ambitious. It is not nearly as powerful as it sounds. A similarly powerful construct could impede or even destroy it outright. Nevertheless, I consider it one of my greatest creations. This flame was the basis of my title, Flame Queen”, Lady Bloodworth said softly. “Even today, it is the basis for many of my powerful skills, proof that the benefits of a sturdy foundation are carried through life. Never forget that the basis for this flame is a simple preterm aspect. More importantly, know that it is a watermark. A standard of what I expect from you.”
Valerian looked up in shock. She wanted them to create something of this calibre. Valerian did not believe himself capable of it. The purple orb floated in front of him, bobbing slightly as if in agreement.