Chapter Forty-four: A Touch of Law
Time ceased to matter to Valerian. There was just him and his cores. His mind was subdued, subconscious processes tirelessly refining his cores while he clocked out. All of his essence had been pulled back into his cores. His life functions were suspended since his highly refined vessel lacked the essence to power it. As a result, his body was effectively in hibernation, fully committed to his ascension. This was the reason some died or were horribly mutilated during the process.
Cultivators were a resilient bunch, nevertheless, if the refinement went on without end, they would eventually suffer terrible side effects. Their arcane vessels would deteriorate. Meridians and muscles would atrophy. Tellurian physiques would decline, and with the mind out of commission for so long, there was always the chance of mental decline. It could even damage the cores themselves, wearing them thin or cracking them.
For Valerian, the process was akin to a long nap. He simply drew in his essence, begun the refinement and then slipped off sometime after that. Next thing he knew, there was an audible rumble, and he was waking up. The sound came from his cores. They were vibrating, creating a peculiar resonance with each other. Each core’s vibration only served to amplify the other. Soon, the world began to respond. Thick clouds of essence formed above the manor, stretching out for nearly three kilometres. Closed up in his room, Valerian looked up, sensing the buildup through the wards. There was something else in the cloud, a presence that examined him from head to toe. Satisfied, it withdrew and allowed the baptism to begin.
The clouds swirled in the sky, undergoing a refinement of their own till a pure light shone from their nexus. A golden sigil appeared in it, the same sigil branded on Valerian’s cores. When the cloud light shone through this symbol, it turned golden as well before blasting downward, striking down like a pillar of golden fire. Its target? Valerian. The rarified essence went straight through the wards, ignoring them like they did not even exist in its search for Valerian. It poured into him, a waterfall of energy that headed straight for his apertures. His cores went mad.
There was too much energy. Valerian’s body shuddered like he was undergoing a seizure as more essence than he had ever handled rushed through his meridians and saturated every cell he had. The aspects were not idle either, they shone angrily in the light of his baptism, sending out a shine of their own. The heavenly essence obeyed this light, taking directions from it as it elevated his body. A glowing sigil was carved into the floor around Valerian, a perfect mirror to the one in the sky, the same one on his cores. This sigil of authority remade him, better still, it crowned him. All his essence, his blood, his cores, and even his muscles radiated it.
Regrettably, Valerian was not around to see it. He did not even feel it. As the pillar of light came down, he went up, his spirit summoned by the presence in the clouds. Valerian could, however, feel himself ascending, bodiless into the essence clouds, where he received a spiritual baptism. He did not see any clouds when he rose, only the elements. The building blocks of nature were laid out in front of him. Metal and wind stood out the clearest. His spirit bathed in them, touching the principles for the first time.
For the first time, he saw wind as more than air. He saw metal are more than mineral. In the ocean of elements, he looked out and had his mind imprinted with concepts. Some made no sense at first. For example, he saw speed in the wind, recognising it instantly. Surprisingly, he saw extensions of it leading into fire. When Valerian soaked in the metallic light, he could comprehend the truth of strength, both as a force and as toughness. Diving deeper, he saw connections of his element to music, royalty, wealth and purity. Unfortunately, he was not there to stay. Valerian could only imagine what more there was to see, to feel and comprehend.
There was a golden light, beckoning him onwards, one that cut through the sea of metal. It acted as a road for Valerian’s spirit, leading him away from the elements and into a world of darkness. There, he received the enlightenment he came for. Golden light poured in from every imaginable direction. It pressed into him, trying to force him onto his metaphysical knees. However, some instinct told Valerian not to yield to it. If he did so, his entire journey would be for naught.
Disregarding the force around him, Valerian followed his instinct. As if insulted by his actions, the compulsions grew stronger. It was not just physical force, it went beyond that. There was a voice whispering to him, to give in. A voice that came from within Valerian himself. It was an insidious thing like a tapeworm for his willpower. While he struggled to resist, it sapped his will and pushed him to capitulate.
Conversely, all of this only served to make Valerian fight harder. Now, he was the one being insulted. He was the king here. His will was his own, and he bowed before no one. Like a locked door opening to someone with a key, the oppressive force yielded to Valerian instead, becoming part of his strength. He had made the right choice and in so doing, illuminated his future path. Which king knelt before another? Valerian was to make others yield to him and not the other way around. The greater the things he commanded, the more his power would grow. A king’s power came from the size of his domain, the wealth of his coffers and the numbers of his subjects. Valerian had already been crowned. All he had to do now was grow his power.
Waking up in his own body, Valerian slowly blinked away the light of his baptism and found himself looking into the eyes of his phantasm. The clouds above were dispersing, but they no longer registered to him. He was completely overcome by the intoxicating feeling of his power expanding. His mind spread to encompass the entire room, allowing him to feel every inch of it like the back of his hand. Around him, his mercurial orb pulsed, radiating an intense power of its own. Valerian held out his hand and watched as one of the titan bone pillars leapt into it. Extending his newfound aspect, he compressed the pillar, looking on as it shrunk into a dense orb no bigger than a fist.
No words could describe what Valerian felt watching the metal obey his command. Giving his phantasm a side glance, he waved his hand. Immediately, all the titan bone in the room flowed together, fusing and shaping itself into a lifelike likeness of the monolithic ghost. The spectre looked at this new statue before turning to Valerian. An unspoken communication passed between them before the phantasm nodded and sunk into the sculpture. Not a second later, the metallic figure moved. It was nothing much, just a twitch of the arm amid the sound screeching metal but it was a start.
Lady Bloodworth watched the ascension with a small smile. Valerian’s ascension had taken five days. Five days! She loved being right. Waving her hand, she temporarily brought down the wards around her estate, allowing the buffeting pulses of essence to spread over the entire academy. Her apprentice was undergoing an ascension as perfect as could be, it would go to waste if she did not rub it in everyone’s faces. She closed her eyes, seeing instead with her spiritual senses. One. Five. Fourteen. Thirty-seven. Eighty-six. One hundred and twenty. The number of people tuning in kept rising. Soon, the whole of Marrbissi was watching. Some even flew into the sky to gain a better glimpse of the tribulation clouds.
Bloodworth treated herself to a smile of satisfaction. Opening her eyes, she trained them back down on the manor at the other four signatures. They too had reached the cusp. Hopefully, the watchers could find themselves some comfortable seats. There was going to be a lot to watch.
Hue went next. Her clouds were not as half as large, but her sigil had a more significant effect on the surroundings. Valerian’s baptism was haughty and sought only him, her’s threatened to cause an actual storm. Rainclouds surrounded the essence clouds and cast a large shadow over the estate. It began to rain heavily, and all the water that struck the ground became rivulets and streams that rushed towards her. Lady Bloodworth was forced to intervene before her manor was flooded. The swordswoman was successful in condensing her river aspect of water.
Sweetrot, surprisingly was third to ascend. His tribulation clouds were larger than Hue’s but paled before Valerian’s. However, the aura of his baptism did not have as significant or as dramatic an effect. The plants in the vicinity became healthier. A few grew fruit, but that was it.
For the most part, Lady Bloodworth could simply sit back and watch as her apprentices ascended and barely lift a finger, that is until it was Wynna’s turn. By this point, it was obvious the order they were ascending in, so she had some time to prepare. The old lady was conscientious. She did not want to interfere in their ascensions, but at the same time, she did not wish for everything to go up in flames like Wynna’s aspect of burning was wont to do. Working fast, she allowed for a controlled burn. Her superior essence saturated the area, funnelling the heavenly aether into a minimal area.
Like she hoped, the baptism was unable to spread into places protected by her essence and was for forced to make do with the space available to it. This allowed the old woman to watch the flames burning in midair, forming flaming rings around a central pillar of fire. All too soon, it ended, and there was only one left.
“Lilian”, Eomund sent her way by essence transmission. “It’s time!”
“Then do it!” she commanded.
The old man sighed and stepped forward. Heidi was only just beginning to wake. Cradling her head softly, he opened her mouth and shoved a large pill into it. She coughed, instantly trying to spit it back out.
“Shhh!” The man said softly. “Remember the plan! Take the pill! We don’t have much time.”
The young lady was out of it. “Plan?” she asked groggily.
“Yes, the plan”, Eomund repeated. “Take the pill, sweetheart.”
He did not take no for an answer. Forcing it back into Heidi’s mouth, he covered it and held her nose shut while massaging her throat. When she swallowed it, he quickly stepped back. The clouds had already formed, any second now and the baptism would start. Reaching out, he levitated the crux before her and waited for the signal.
‘Only Lilian could have come up with something as foolhardy as this’, he mused. Hopefully, it worked, and he had not just killed or crippled a bright young girl.
Lady Bloodworth watched from her perch in the sky. Heidi was a good student. She was the second-best student in the earth division as well as the best construct mage, the lower years had to offer. The girl had the drive and the skill; however, she lacked that extra edge that all the others seemed to possess. Wynna had the animus, Hue, a sword soul, Valerian his crazy bloodlines and even Sweetrot had a bizarre inheritance. All these genetic quirks served to boost their possessors further than others their tier, including their unfortunate teammate. Regrettable, Bloodworth could not rewrite her genetics, but she could give her a comparable edge of her own.
She had to thank Valerian for the idea. Cultivators of her tier often branched into esoteric arts; alchemy, arrays, painting, artificing, Besides battle, Lady Bloodworth happened to be an expert on cruxes and rituals. When she was younger, she collected them, using her animus to find and gather all sorts of unique flames. Eventually, she branched out and began collecting cruxes of other elements, like the earthen one she gave Augustus’s student as a present. Today, she was considered an authority on the subject.
As soon as she saw Valerian’s embryonic cruxes, she got to thinking. Bloodworth had seen others create cruxes, even done so a few times but creating one inside a living cultivator, a fully customisable one, in a first-tier no less? It was unthinkable even for her… at first. However, the more she thought about it, the more she saw its merits. Unfortunately, she was unable to create a similar technique. She was not even sure how it possible. A cultivation method, crux creator, ability manual, and who knew what else rolled into one? That was a tall order. Thankfully, that did not mean she could not replicate some of it.
Ascending with a preterm aspect granted a low-grade divine body. Combine that with a similar crux, and two imperial grade cultivation methods and the effects would only stack up. The only difficulty came from the crux. Finding a suitable one on a short schedule was more difficult than she figured. Additionally, first tiers simply could not handle a proper crux; not without some other factor, like the animus, doing the heavy lifting. That was where the ritual came in.
Hiedi had great potential as a construct mage. Her golems and wards were top tier for her age. An earth shaping aspect was a given. The low-grade crux chosen was tectonic earth, excellent for building. She then had Hiedi practice the [Ourean Divine Script] to further improve her command of the earth elemental forces. Following this, she had a special pill made. Its only purpose was to prevent her from being poisoned or destroyed by what came next. Eomund shoving the crux into the ritual circle at her feet.
The circle had already been primed but left dormant. For six consecutive days, the girl had bled over the central dais and marked it as her own. All those days, she had drawn on earth attributed essence stones embedded in the circle and tempered herself with the resources sacrificed on the dais. Today, the seventh day, she was going to sacrifice a crux. An earth crux containing the principles that went into the shaping of the mountains and valleys used as a sacrifice during an earth shaping aspect preterm powered lord ascension? Lady Bloodworth was genuinely eager for the results.
Eomund watched arcane script move about the girl’s body before finalising themselves as the baptism tapered off. It manifested as brown tattoos on her skin, fragmentary earth laws branded into her very flesh. The array master in him was impressed. Scanning her body, he could tell that Bloodworth’s initial hypothesis was correct. The ritual had indeed boosted the power of the baptism. What should be a minor elemental body was now mid-tier at the very least.
Her absorption of earth essence had increased many folds, and the floor she lay on was already being warped by her new powers. Her physical body was even strengthened in the process. Sadly, a few parts of the girl had calcified, but they were nothing could not be cut out and regrown. Thus far, everything looked good, but only time would tell.
Hiedi’s whimpers were fading off too, but that was probably because she had no more energy left to cry. Earlier she had screamed like she was getting torn apart by wild animals. In a sense, she was. The essence of the crux was drawn into her flesh in the middle of her baptism. While heavenly essence from the tribulation clouds worked to remould her body to suit her new aspect, the principles contained in the tectonic earth were running amok in her body. Without the pill, Eomund believed the girl would be twisted into a mushy pool by the elemental forces at play. It reinforced her body, preventing her from being ground to pulp or mutating into a hideous rock giant.
Now, she was merely a young girl with stone dense flesh and the power of a tectonic earth crux. It was too bad about the hair, but it was hard to grow any when your scalp was literally made of marble. Such was the price of power. Before, Eomund could go to her; however, an explosion of essence nearby caught him off guard. Someone else was ascending, but who? All of the apprentices should already be lords. Tentatively expanding his spiritual senses, Eomund registered a familiar metallic signature, but it was confusing. The signature he knew was human. This one was daemonic.
Up above, Lady Bloodworth looked down at Valerian’s room and sighed in frustration. She really should have seen this coming. Daemonic essence flowed out of Valerian’s room, running down the halls like veins of ore. The damned thing was refining her manor. This was why she hated encampment type daemons. They had a tendency to turn any place they occupied into their own territories. Slashing her hand downward with a bit more force than intended, she cut the refinement short, nearly forcefully dispersing the phantasm as a result.
She watched, stunned as Valerian reached out a hand to stop the spectre from turning back into smoke. The metal figure he built collapsed into chunks of titan one and left the spirit possessing it behind. Most of it had already been integrated into her floor and walls. Without the spectre, it had no more substance. Still, the old lady realised that she may have been too heavy-handed. Mercifully, Valerian was there. With his help, the phantasm stabilised, his essence flowing into it and its own flowing into him.
Bloodworth watched the strange feedback loop and puzzled at the laws that allowed one body to possess what amounted to two souls. Some part of her wanted to tell Valerian that this was the perfect moment to absorb his other and strengthen himself.
The longer he waited, the more powerful the spectre would become. They shared a body and a core. His ascension was just as much the phantasm’s own as it was his. Their powers were one. In time, the spectre would evolve into a stronger form, feeding off the excess power of his lord-tier core and spirit much like their shared attunement. In fact, the process had already begun. Given a few days, it would be equivalent to a daemon lord, and he would lose his chance to subdue it while it was weak.
Nevertheless, the old lady looked on, her calculating eyes taking this new development into account. Instead of a metal aspect, Valerian had used a precept as his preterm. It was a decision that could not be undone; however, the fact that he had command over the metal element, as well as a metal focused phantasm, changed things. Maybe her plan could be salvaged after all. More than that, taking the boy into account, she was looking at three possible heirs to her final legacy. With luck, they would succeed where she failed.
Author’s Note: Some edits were necessary. I initially cut out the final scene and apparently, that made raised major confusion with the earlier events. I was forced to either restore the deleted scene or rework the entire chapter.
Sadly, Ctrl+Z failed me and I was forced to type it from memory. Sigh The things I do for you guys.