Chapter Forty-one: Elder Theoren
Valerian sat with a communication talisman in his hand. He had a lot to think about. Unlike the others, he had two aspects to condense, one for each force and two affinities he could use; metal and wind.
“To inherit my legacy you will require a metal aspect”, Lady Bloodworth had informed him. However, she said nothing about with force to use.
Her last bit of advice was a warning that if he condensed two aspects of the same element, he would forever downgrade his connection to the other. The elemental refinement he would undergo would see to that. Conversely, condensing the same aspect for both forces would only be a waste. Aspects were laws. Having two of the same law from the same element was a useless redundancy.
All of this left Valerian confused. At first, he thought he had it figured out. Simply condense one aspect of wind and one of metal, but he ran into the original issue. What force should he use and for which?
Not knowing what else to do, he called his family. His grandfather’s advice was to condense an arcane metal aspect. Lady Bloodworth was an arcanist. It stood to reason that the things she had to teach were more suited to arcanists. If she wanted metal. He should make sure he was in the best position possible to absorb her teachings. The old man was not sure what aspects would be the most useful, but he promised to do research into it. He did, however, suggest that he get a tellurian wind aspect that could help with his speed.
Valerian’s uncle, Richard, was the opposite. He asserted that all of Valerian’s cultivation problems thus far had stemmed from his tellurian side. All of them were also connected to the metal element. According to him, Valerian would be better off with a metal tellurian aspect. Wind would benefit more from control. Valerian’s control of his arcane energy was second to none. Thus, a wind aspect would be best. As for the aspects themselves, Richard’s first aspect was one of strength and his second was toughness. Any one of them would be a good start.
His other uncle, Vorm, was currently deployed so Valerian could not reach him. However, Richard informed him that Vorm’s first aspect after the first tier was refinement. This worked doubly well for both his affinities. With it, he could refine materials with his flames as well as improve his arcane energy. Valerian suddenly felt he had figured out the secret to his uncle’s weapon reforging skill. Jonas, who could also not be contacted, chose explosions for his first aspect. It gave him much a needed boost to his combat power. It was also the reason for his ‘Burst Blaze’ title.
Elder Allard agreed with Uncle Richard’s choices but not his reasoning. He looked at it from the perspective of his phantasm. If Valerian wanted to employ it to the fullest and even subdue it in the future, he needed tellurian cultivation well-founded in metal laws. Ignoring that, Valerian was cultivating according to his inherited memories. Whatever aspect he chose had better be in line with the concepts expressed therein, or he would stopper his own progress.
Valerian’s grandmother, a woman he often relied on for advice, decided to complicate matters. She told him that it did not matter what element he used for which force. Aspects were the concepts employed by human cultivators, with his phantasm and peng bloodline, he had the opportunity to try something new. He could delve into his bloodline to awaken the concepts it held and use them instead. Instead of running around looking for a concept, why not awaken one buried within him?
Except, the shortcut she was proposing was not really one. Valerian had no idea how to do what she was talking about. He could not ask her daemons for help either. The feelings and images they used to communicate did not translate well over essence transmissions. Well, Gulsalma could talk, but the numinous leopard could not teach a ball to bounce up. So, Valerian nodded along and promised his grandmother to look into it. Mentally, however, he filed the idea away under things he would do after he became a lord. He was not about a learn a new form of cultivation just before his ascension.
No one had admitted it yet, but there was definitely a race towards the lord tier. Valerian had noticed the looks going around the training yard. Each legacy disciple was attempting to outdo the other. The first to condense an aspect and ascend to the lord tier would cement his or her place in their own internal hierarchy. Valerian was determined to ensure it was him.
“Focus, Alexander! Concentrate on what you’re doing”, a harsh voice remarked.
The aforementioned youth twitched at his teacher’s reprimand. It had an effect completely opposite its intent. Alexander’s array twisted and deformed as the compressed essence that formed it bucked against his slackened will. Panicking, the young man tried to reassert his control over the crumbling construct. It was too late. A soft rumble started up but before it could progress further the entire array winked out of existence.
Shamefaced, Alexander the could only say, “I am sorry, sir. I do not know what happened.”
“Focus! That’s your problem, boy”, his teacher admonished. “You start well, but you cannot retain the focus required. When you begin a new section, make sure to stabilise the one you’ve finished. Lock it in place with your will before you continue or else that would keep happening. Your glyphs will distort, and your array will crumble. Never force more essence into a crumbling array. Wipe it out and start over. If not, you risk activating a failed product, and the effects of that… should not need reminding.”
Alexander gulped, his thoughts filled with images from their second self-study session. A colleague was sucked into a failed storage array. Unable to help it, he glanced over at her unoccupied spot. It only served to reinforce the warning. All he could see was the memory of her being drawn into her array, her legs kicking from their end as she suffocated on the other. Thankfully, they pulled her out in time, but she was still undergoing counselling from the experience. Left unsaid was what would have happened if no other disciples had been around to stabilise the array and grab her feet. He gulped again. What would have happened to him if the teacher did not interfere?
The other students were blind to this. They were all focused on their own work. Each had an array before them, and they worked to complete it. They had no time to look elsewhere. Their teacher, Elder Theoren watched them with hawklike eyes as he waved his visitors in. Setting up a private zone to isolate his students, he asked the burning question.
“What do you want, Lilian?”
“Not even a hello, Eomund?” she said with a sad expression. “Used to be that you were a charming gentleman. You’ve changed!”
“Are you sure you have enough longevity to waste on small talk?” he snapped back.
Lady Bloodworth put a hand to her chest in mock anger, “For shame, Eomund! For shame! Is this how you treat a dying woman?”
“It is how I treat stubborn old farts”, the man remarked.
“Is this because I did not come for your last centenary?” Lady Bloodworth asked softly.
“You promised me the night of my life, Lilian. I did not even have a party, I was so eagerly waiting. My first erection in half a century was left wilting in disappointment. Next thing I hear, you’d returned to closed-door cultivation.”
“It couldn’t be helped.” Lady Bloodworth stepped closer to him, placing a small hand on his arm, “How about I make it up to you later? I’ve still got a decade or two in me. How about we choose a month and finally get it over with?”
“Don’t tease me, woman!” Elder Theoren warned. “I will not waste another erection.”
The two completely ignored Valerian, and for his part, the Steelborn youth did his best to pretend he was not there. As far as he was concerned, he heard nothing and saw nothing. Had he known this what would happen when the old lady asked him to accompany her to see a friend, he would have made an excuse. Any excuse!
Eventually, the disgruntled lover turned to Valerian. “Who is the brat?”
“You should have come for the board meeting, Eomund!” the old woman clutching his arm said. “This is Valerian, my first legacy disciple.”
The man’s eyes changed. Scrutinising Valerian, he asked. “And you brought him to me why?”
“Valerian is a gifted array master”, Lady Bloodworth revealed. “I was hoping you could take some time now and then to teach him a few things.”
“How gifted?” the man asked, his interest piqued.
Lady Bloodworth handed him a small talisman. Elder Theoren perused its contents a few minutes before taking down his barrier and yelling to his students.
“Class is over for today! Please dismantle your arrays and file out.”
They looked up in surprise, but no student ever complained. Who complained about an early break. Quickly, they left before he changed his mind.
“Circle master of three attributes at the age of fifteen?” he asked Valerian when the room emptied.
He received a nod in reply.
“How old are you now, boy?”
“Sixteen, sir”, Valerian answered. “I’ll be seventeen in a few months.”
“Seventeen?” the old man mused to himself. “That’s two years wasted. I really want to find your teacher and spank him for his stupidity.”
Valerian felt his hackles rise. His uncle, Jonas, taught him everything he knew about arrays at significant cost to himself. Hearing him be insulted for it did not sit right with him.
“To think there was someone like you in this small kingdom. How did I not hear of it?”
“You seclude yourself in your tower all year round, Eomund”, Lady Bloodworth scolded. “If you cared about the outside world more, you’d know these things.”
The old man ignored her. Grabbing Valerian’s arm, he checked his essence and nodded in satisfaction. “In a month, I’ll have you ascend. We’ve missed out on the second circle record, but If we work fast, you can attain the third circle in seven years, and we can watch the imperial guild crying in front of us. Having that fossil Quirinus protrate himself before me will do wonders for my ulcer.”
“I think you’re forgetting something”, a small voice reminded him.
“Ah, yes!”, he acknowledged.
Elder Theoren turned to look at Lady Bloodworth without even an ounce of embarrassment on his face, he asked, “What do you want for him, Lilian?”
“I’m not trading him to you, Eomund!” she stated simply.
The man looked at her for a moment before realising she was serious.
“Then why bring him here then?”
“I told you!” she exclaimed. “I need you to help him with his arrays. I’ll handle the rest of his education.”
“You want to train him?” Eomund asked increduluosly. “You’ll just waste his talent. Go find yourself one of the punchy types and leave this one to me. I’ll even help.”
“Honestly, Eomund”, lady Bloodworth said in exasperation. “I sometimes wonder if you’re deaf. The boy is my legacy disciple. L.E.G.A.C.Y!”
The man turned back to Valerian before looking at her again, “No!” he said in surprise. “He’s got two affinities. The wind makes him no good to you! Just get a single attributed replacement, and you can finally pass on your…”
Lady Bloodworth made a slashing gesture with her hand, and the world went quiet. It took a few seconds of watching them argue without sound for Valerian to realised he had been put in a separate barrier. His brow furrowed. Why did they not do this earlier?
“I’m going to start forbidding you access to my tower, Lilian”, Eomund said with a frown. “It is like every time we meet, I’m only met with disappointment.”
“That is because you’re a stubborn old coot with selective hearing!”
“You’re really not going to give up the boy?” he asked again.
“Absolutely not!” the old woman asserted. “I searched for him, myself. You’re lucky I’m even letting you help with the training. Go find your own genius!”
“I’ll do that then,” the old man said as he turned away.
“Wait, Eomund. There’s another reason I came to find you”, she added.
He smiled a lecherous smile and wagged his grey eyebrows.
“No, not that!” she admonished. “Get your mind out of the gutter.”
“The boy claims he’s an O’be.”
“Cursed or Blessed?” he asked curiously.
“Then what are you worried about”, he asked not seeing the issue. “Any problems will be for his grandchildren to solve, not you.”
“I was wondering if there were any tests or arrays I can use to confirm it”, she inquired.
Eomund laughed. “You’ve come to the wrong place then. Only an O’be will know about that, and they will never share. Why? Has the boy given you reason to doubt him?”
“Something like that”, she confessed. “I just know he is hiding something. I tried not to pry, but I do not want something I ignored coming back to haunt the other students or me.”
She told him all she knew about the Steelborns and their O’be connection, hoping to hear his opinions.
“Well, to be honest, I am genuinely surprised to hear of O’be in Bathar”, he began. “It is implausible but not impossible. Someplace out of the way that also happens to be next to a large source of daemons. I can see why they would go to Cragsveil.”
“That’s another thing. I need everything you have on the O’be”, Lilian pleaded.
“What makes you think I have anything?” Eomund questioned.
“Didn’t you once tell me that your clan was part of the Imperial expedition that tried to wipe them out in the last age?” she reminded him.
“Yes, my clan”, the old man replied, putting emphasis on the last word. “The key words being; ‘Clan’ and ‘Last age’. None of it has got anything to do with me. Besides, that’s old news. The Theorens have had nothing to do with the O’be in millenia, and I don’t want anyone thinking otherwise. Remember, I’m all alone here! I don’t want your boy’s relatives thinking of me as a threat.”
She immediately saw what he was getting at. “You think there are more O’be watching.”
Eomund nodded. “The first thing you need to know about the O’be is that they keep tabs on each other, the blessed especially. Without them, their line is liable to end. Your boy is only seventeen and look how far he has come. Once he truly gets going, they’ll come for him. Trust me. With his talent and dual forces, it’s only a matter of time.”
“All the more reason I need your help with him”, she declared.
Theoren tried to remain unmoved, Lilian Bloodworth had gotten more out him than the leeches in the imperial capital. However, all that common sense faded when he saw genuine worry in her eyes. It made him want to beat his chest and fight off her demons. Despite himself, he relented, allowing himself to be drawn back into the life of the woman he would never have.